A good idea chez Jacques
L’Auberge Chez Francois adds L’Everyday
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, June 5, 2011
L'Auberge Chez Francois lists more than 30 dishes on its fixed-price, Alsatian-inspired dinner menu, which spans six courses and costs $62 to $74 per person. "We have to give people choices," Francois Haeringer used to tell his son and fellow chef, Jacques, who became the top toque at the dining destination after the death last summer of his father at 91.
People go to the restaurant, which opened in Washington in 1954 and relocated to Great Falls in 1976, for a sense of Old World tradition: courtly service, a rare taste of Chateaubriand, plum tart for dessert. For generations, they've done so mostly to celebrate an anniversary, a birthday or a reunion of family or friends. Which is why, in April, L'Auberge Chez Francois expanded its choices to include an a la carte menu and a casual environment in which to enjoy it: Jacques' Brasserie, carved from a former storage room beneath the formal restaurant.
Haeringer likes to think of the 30-seat addition, which has its own entrance, as a chance for patrons, especially locals, to "celebrate more."
There's plenty to laud in the $10 lobster bisque, flavored with the cracked bodies of the lobsters served upstairs as well as splashes of sherry and cognac. There's also lots to toast in a $24 main course of winy sauerkraut arranged with a veritable butcher shop of smoked pork and snappy sausages, though not with the foie gras that dresses up the more elaborate choucroute a stairwell away. As in the restaurant, a meal downstairs begins with garlic toast and a spread of cottage cheese, garlic and chives. ("We still have a certain level to maintain," Haeringer explains.) Unlike in the restaurant, however, you don't need to commit to several hours or feel obliged to wear a jacket.
Jacques' Brasserie comes with a dedicated staff and memories from the original restaurant downtown. Notice the sturdy, tile-topped tables your draft beer is resting on? "Dad never threw anything away," says Haeringer, who discovered the furniture in storage. The new room befits the relaxed concept. Old china dresses a wall. The seats are classic wicker bistro chairs. A single mirror gives the intimate space the illusion of more size. Like a real estate agent eager to make a sale, its creator pops in from time to time to show the place to guests from upstairs and to check in with those who are already seated. "If you don't keel over" from the food in front of you, he playfully says to my posse one Saturday night, "we'll keep it on the menu."
To ease into dinner, there's a fan of tiny, tender mussels dappled with green herb sauce, and a busy Caesar salad incorporating endive, olives and a quail egg. An entree of trout showered with slivered almonds is decorated with a garden of accessories - pared carrots, zucchini, potatoes and a wisp of puff pastry - that reflect a classical French sensibility of the sort you rarely see outside of a 1960s-era Time-Life "Foods of the World" cookbook. The trout is a much more interesting dish than the (overcooked) salmon napped with a faint white lobster sauce. Moist chicken breast with herbed spaetzle and Riesling sauce is a simple pleasure.
While some of the dishes in the brasserie reflect what's offered in the restaurant, others are new-old ideas for the kitchen. Consider the tart flambee, Alsace's version of pizza. The pale and crackery crust, spread with cottage cheese and sour cream, can be further dressed three ways: with smoked fish, sauteed mushrooms or chopped bacon and sweet onions (the purist's choice). A chance for two or more of you to share, the tarts make nice conversation springboards. Hanger steak (or onglet, as the French know the cut) is served with a tarragon-rich bearnaise but not, surprisingly, with frites. Those can be ordered separately, as a cone of tasty, brittle french fries wrapped in faux newspaper. Looking for a lighter choucroute? The brasserie can replace the meat with seafood - smoked trout, salmon, maybe rockfish - which it circles with beurre blanc.
Desserts let you revel in decades past. Glassy streaks of caramelized sugar on soft meringue with a side scoop of pistachio ice cream is very appealing, as is the snow-white cheesecake, fluffier than the usual wedge, thanks to the inclusion of sour cream in the blend. The recipe for the latter comes from the wife of the man who painted the murals upstairs, and it has been served at L'Auberge Chez Francois since it moved to the suburbs. In comparison, the baked Alaska is more Mamie than Jackie: dull, in other words.
The red-vested servers show customers just as much attention as in the restaurant, and if you're a thirsty sort, you might end up feeling even more as if you've dined at L'Auberge Chez Francois when the bill comes: Cocktails and wine can easily push "Let's grab a bite to eat" into "Happy anniversary" territory.
There are plans to extend the brasserie outdoors and offer more seasonal dishes. Change tends to come slowly to this address, but Jacques' Brasserie couldn't get here fast enough.