Editors' pick

L'Auberge Provencale

$$$$ ($35 and up)

Editorial Review

French Pleasures
The food and atmosphere at L'Auberge Provencale make it worth the drive

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, Jan. 1, 2006

People who think I'm consumed with food are only partly right. While it's true that what passes my lips in a restaurant gets my full attention, I'm also focused on what happens before and after I'm eating. Is the voice on the other end of the reservation line welcoming or abrupt? Does the check land on the table after I request it or along with my dessert?

During the meal itself, I'm also keeping track of the smart or silly comments from the waiter, how the room embraces me in a hug -- or leaves me cold -- and everything in between: the way the menu reads, the look of the china, the cleanliness of the restroom and the conversation taking place at the table next to mine (you'd be surprised how many affairs are staged in public dining rooms). All of which is to say that I love food, but food isn't the only detail I take in, or the only reason I admire some restaurants.

In typical traffic, the drive from Washington to White Post takes nearly two hours. By the time I arrive at L'Auberge Provencale, where I had thrilled to the cooking of chef Jeff Wood and now want to taste the work of one of his successors, James Morris, I'm already not relishing a return trip. The night is cold and wet, and I long to be home and free of a suit. Yet my mood changes as I make my way from the car to the restaurant's porch, which is strung with welcoming white lights. And when I open the heavy door to the entrance, I am charmed to see a young man in formal gray stoking a fire in the lounge. Bowls of nuts and dried fruit beckon on a table. By the time I am led to a seat in a dining room, invitingly decorated in shades of yellow and orange, I am in full relaxation mode. Without sampling a morsel of food, I am smitten with the place.

L'Auberge Provencale has a long history of rewarding its visitors with memorable meals. Wood worked at the esteemed Jean Georges in New York, and an interim chef, Andreas Ortner, went from the Inn at Little Washington to L'Auberge Provencale to the three-star Foti's in Culpeper. Morris came to White Post from Bayona in New Orleans, where he served as sous-chef under the top toque, Susan Spicer. But don't drive to his new roost with visions of Southern food dancing in your head. "New Orleans food belongs in New Orleans," says the 30-year-old chef, who started at L'Auberge last spring. References to his previous place of employment are limited to the occasional appearance of spoonbread here, a dark roux there.

Otherwise, in keeping with the vision of owners Alain and Celeste Borel, "I stick to French preparations," Morris says. In a first course of foie gras, slices of duck liver are placed on a square of white cornbread and embellished on either side with a subtle cashew foam and jewel-like cubes of gelee perfumed with rose geraniums. It's a well-thought-out dish; the smooth liver plays off the crisp base, while the floral note cuts through everything like a fresh breeze. There's no mistaking another appetizer as anything but Provencale in spirit, though its presentation suggests a generous American mind-set: A warm and garlicky eggplant custard shares a plate with a shot glass layered with chopped kalamata olives, pureed herbs and lavender-scented goat cheese. But the (vegetarian) show doesn't stop there. The presentation includes a couple of ravioli filled with smoked eggplant and separated by a tiny scoop of gelato that whispers of orange. Depending on the order in which the items are eaten, hot follows cold, and smoke follows sweet. Similar whimsy is displayed in a recent special of seared tuna, its edges neatly bordered by a sauce of pureed cilantro, the fish treated to a salad of diced mango and white piping (whipped cream blended with yuzu, it turns out).

Like his predecessors, Morris takes advantage of local ingredients, some of which he finds within feet of the kitchen. From the inn's orchard come Asian pears; from its garden come lettuce, squash and herbs.

Plump Virginia oysters team up with bites of smoked bacon, a light wine sauce and what appears to be pasta in one of my favorite introductions. The savory surprise: The ribbons of "pasta" turn out to be thinly shaved salsify. I'm just as happy with the chef's slightly more straightforward plates, which have included entrees of ruddy venison chops served with Brussels sprouts and a gratin of potatoes and squash; and Tasmanian sea trout. The gently cooked fish is arranged with delicate pumpkin gnocchi and a tiny bundle of white asparagus, then finished with a butter sauce ignited with fresh ginger. There's pheasant, too, moist and coated with crushed hazelnuts. Gilding the lily: a fine crepinette (skinless sausage) fashioned with ground pheasant, foie gras and earthy black truffle.

Diners are never long without food in front of them. The five-course, $87 dinners commence with a treat from the kitchen (the best of which has been a lamb rillette); end after dessert with a little tray of confections (picture bite-size carrot cake and chocolate chip cookies); and are punctuated with a refresher. One night's martini glass of chopped winter fruit mixed with spiced apple cider was one of those intermezzos that sum up the season in a mere taste.

Most of what you encounter here is enticing; though, like a clothing designer who feels compelled to over-accessorize his creations, the chef tends to dress each dish to the hilt. In one particularly crowded appetizer, crisp fritters of shredded rabbit perch on a risotto dressed up with tiny red tomatoes, soft fennel, saline olives and a frizzle of herbs. It's a lot for the palate to take in, and the many elements are overshadowed by one another. Couscous-paved sole, bedded on skinny green beans and leeks, and moistened with lemon-thyme buerre blanc could easily lose the jumbo lump crab that, good as it is, also weighs down the idea.

The servers are all unfailingly gracious, though sometimes far less formal than you might expect of a place where the typical tab exceeds $100 a person. (When one of them informed my guest and me that the inn would close for the month of January, she added that she was planning a Caribbean vacation -- and couldn't wait to "dance naked on the beach." Thanks for sharing, ma'am.) Still, in ways grand and subtle, everyone works toward making dinner a night to remember. When the wine I request is out of stock, a server returns with something similar -- and less expensive. The flowers on every table look as if they were just plucked from a garden. For a few delicious hours, L'Auberge Provencale lets us pretend we're in the south of France.