L’Auberge Chez François

Classically, unapologetically, French.

If you truly love classical French cuisine, the kind defined in 1903 by Georges Auguste Escoffier in Le Guide Culinaire, then you know that it’s hard to find, pushed aside these many years by dietary trends, the proliferation of health clubs and surgeon general warnings. In an age where we blithely pay $18 for two bites of tuna that share a platter with a squiggle of an unnamed sauce, not many establishments have the nerve to serve medallions of beef and veal, grilled lamb and lobster on one plate or to elevate rich sauces to the heights they deserve. Celebrating haute cuisine, L’Auberge Chez François in Great Falls is that rare exception, where butter is brazenly mentioned in a major percentage of entrée descriptions; where cream sauces nap anything from veal to crab; where princely truffles and saffron are used with a liberal hand.

Ironically, owner and chef Jacques E. Haeringer scoffs at the notion that his menu is decadent à l’Escoffier. “You’re making an assumption that all the food is very rich,” he says. Point taken. His menu includes options like le gâteau de legumes grilles et son coulis de tomates (grilled organic spring vegetables with herb tomato coulis) or les filets de truite du Shenandoah sautés, crabe du Maryland et amandes grilles (filets of fresh rainbow trout, sautéed crabmeat and toasted almonds). In fact, he notes, the oh-so-healthy farm-to-table movement is nothing new at L’Auberge Chez François: “Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?” he asks. In addition to using local, organic product, L’Auberge has its own garden behind the restaurant. “Last summer, I didn’t buy a single tomato in two-and-a-half months,” the chef says.

But fresh veggies do not a classic French menu make. Excusez-moi, but most of its entries include something damned by cardiologists or personal trainers. Even the choucroute (sauerkraut, which is, for the most part, fatless), comes with sausages and a palm-sized portion of deliciously fatty foie gras. “We’re very unapologetic about doing stuff that is classic,” says Chef Haeringer. “It wouldn’t be on the menu if it didn’t move.”

And move they do because, whether you know it or not, there is a huge cabal of serious if clandestine devotees of the classic French menu. A routine Saturday night at L’Auberge sees as many as 300 customers served in this rambling restaurant of interconnected dining rooms. A Tuesday night might see only 50 but, even weeknights, it’s very much a coat-and-tie crowd.

And just who might be among them? Pols and Beltway denizens, of course, and celebrities, like Mick Jagger. (“He came out with Miss Hall one night,” says the chef.) World travelers and the business set, too. “We’re near Reston; we’re near McLean. We’re near Dulles, and everybody comes from around the world to do business here, so there are lots of international folks. .… And every president since Truman, except Obama,” he says. He hopes to host the Obamas in the near future but, he adds, “not all the presidents were presidents when they visited.”

Chef Haeringer (who, one might argue, was fated to be a chef) has been doing this a long time. His father—the François—opened the restaurant in the District of Columbia in 1954 but had to move when the entire block was sold in 1976. “Dad always wanted to do a country inn,” says Chef Haeringer, 63. “When they tore down the block, he started looking around and found this.” Only “this” didn’t look like the charming remake of an Alsatian chalet that it does now. The site used to be a rustic retail cluster: an antiques store, a hardware store and a gun shop.

Chef Haeringer started working summers at age 11, beginning as busboy. He was then salad maker, working his way up through the kitchen until he left to get a degree in English from VCU; he rejoined his father in the kitchen after his 1972 graduation. Chef François was a formidable presence until his death three years ago. “He was in the kitchen every day until the day before he died, tasting sauces, doing what we do,” says Chef Haeringer, excusing himself to say “Bon soir, Maman” to his mother, 95, who comes in every evening for veal scaloppini, a longstanding ritual that began when she ran the office at the restaurant for 25 years.

While the menu remains rooted in the classics, Chef Haeringer is very much a modern chef. He knows, for instance, that L’Auberge Chez François is in America’s top 100 restaurants on OpenTable.com, and he regularly scans Yelp.com for customers’ comments. More importantly, he knows that part of being a modern chef means being smart in business.

As a balance to the deliciously indulgent L’Auberge menu, he has carved out a little weinstube on the main restaurant’s lower level, where diners can enjoy simpler brasserie creations that are easier on the constitution as well as the wallet; more, shall we say, accessible dishes, like boeuf Bourguignon, moules frites (mussels with French fries), even Alsatian-style white pizzas, as well as dishes made from handwritten recipes his father brought with him when he first came to America from France in 1947. In fact, Jacques’ Brasserie is an homage to his father, both in menu and in décor, with hand-painted, ceramic-topped tables made for the original L’Auberge Chez François and walls covered with red paisley fabric bought by his father on a trip to France.

Also keeping current with modern business practices, he writes a monthly newsletter that goes out to more than 15,000 subscribers. He has published two cookbooks (The Chez François Cookbook in 1991 and Two for Tonight in 2001) and had a cooking show (also called Two for Tonight) for three seasons on PBS beginning in 2000. And this month, he makes his 10th appearance as a guest chef on NBC’s Today show.

But as the old saw goes, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”—the more things change, the more they remain the same. At L’Auberge, rest assured … classical French cuisine is alive and well. And it’s in no danger of disappearing.

“You do a few new things, but you keep customers by giving them what they want,” says Chef Haeringer. “The fact that we’ve been here all these years attests to the fact that we get it right most of the time.” Besides, he adds, “I don’t know how to do anything else.”

Would he want to? He thinks for a few seconds before answering.

“We all have those days.”

LaubergeChezFrancois.com

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