L'AUBERGE PROVENCALE, White Post, Virginia. 703-837-1375.
Open: Wednesday through Monday, 6 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday dinner 4 to 9 p.m. Closed January 1st to mid-February. Reservations suggested. AE, DC, MC, V.
Prices: Appetizers $4 to $9, main dishes $20 to $24. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $40 to $50 a person. Rooms at the inn $75 single, $85 double.
IN THE FALL our cars head in another direction, turning from the beach to the forests. We are looking not to tan our bodies but for the spectacle of changing colors on the trees. Skyline Drive is eclipsing Rehoboth.
So fall is the time to discover L'Auberge Provencale on the way to Front Royal. This graceful stone house set at the edge of a country road, has actually been there for over two centuries. But it has been a restaurant only four years, and in the last year and a half a small inn as well, with four guest rooms in an adjacent cottage. ("Well behaved children over 10 are welcome," reads the brochure, which adds, "No pets pelase-you may use ours.") The young French owner-chef, Alain Borel, has brought four generations of innkeeping background with him from Avignon, and also has a way with a garden. Beyond the cottage are rows of tomatoes, squash, beans including the hair-thin haricot vert, baby corn, salad greens, grapes and herbs. The fields yield raspberries which the Borels make into wonderful chunky, tart jams. The herbs go into their vinegars. Whatever they can grow or make from scratch, they do.
Driving from the city, you might need a few minutes to acclimate to the quiet -- a short interlude on the porch swing to listen to the bobwhites. Inside are three dining rooms furnished with ladderback chairs, tables set with flowered tablecloths and lace-edged napkins in napkin holders. The flowers on the tables are clearly from their gardens. And the taped music, playing softly, is clearly purposefully chosen.
The environment and service combine the luxury of country -- the thoughtfulness made possible by a slow pace -- with city sophistication. Starting with the wine list, it is extensive in its champagnes, wide- ranging in California and French entries and includes a good sampling of Virginia wines. Some of the wines are good values and others are not, but in any case a wide choice of prices is available. The stock, however, was not as full as the wine list suggested, so we had to rethink our order after our first couple of choices were sold out.
I can't advise you what to order this week; as at any good restaurant, the menu changes seasonally, in this case at least once a month. I can suggest, however, that you concentrate on appetizers and certainly try any pastry the chef has concocted. Like many restaurants, L'Auberge Provencale prepares more varied and interesting first-courses than main courses.
This summer there were wild mushrooms made into a meltingly soft custard and surrounded by more fleshy, flavorsome mushrooms, all of it napped with a tart, fragrant white butter sauce. The sweetbreads with capers and port were the most interesting dish of all. Diced sweetbreads were sauteed to crispness, and served with an extraordinary sauce. It balanced with sweetness of port with the sharp tartness of capers, and filled it out with lots of shallots and strong seasonings. It had the kind of intensity and sweet-sourness that you sometimes find in Sicilian or Moroccan dishes -- quite exotic and wonderful.
Alain Borel has a light hand with sauces and the heavy had with seasonings that one associates with Provence. All of his sauces were a light wash, with no starchiness. All of his seasonings were definite. He created a crab soup with saffron rice and mint, for instance, that played on your tongue with the mint sharpeness and pepperiness, the crunch of vegetables and the delicate flavor and texture of crab. Tomato soup with basil might have achieved the same heights had the tomatoes been richly flavored, but as it was, it fell flat, and the broth didn't stand up to the seasonings. Borel also serves more elaborate appetizers such as terrine of foie gras, avocado and artichoke hearts; and smoked salmon with beluga caviar (both remarkable values at $6 and $9 respectively).
Any night one might find 10 to 12 main courses, half of them fish such as lobster in truffle butter with golden caviar, swordfish with tomato butter and lovage, grouper baked in parchment. And the meat dishes range from duck breast with lime sauce and peppered pineapple to squab with sage and raspberry sauce to filet mignon with fresh morels. The cooking is good, no question of that, but I found the roast lamb medallions with fresh rosemary could have been crustier and more flavorful, despite their heavy dose of garlic, and the red snapper with beurre blanc could have been more distinctive. The accompaniments show thought-saffron rice with the fish, and herbed whipped potatoes (unfortunately salty) with the meat, then sauteed garden-fresh zucchini with pearl onions for both. But the Monastery rye bread that accompanies dinner, though creditable bread, is too strong to accompany food of such fine delicacy. And the salad is just plain dull, a surprise in full view of such a garden.
The dessert list is long, and includes an intriguing selection of creamy cold things such as Frangelico parfait and chocolate charlotte, as well as homemade sherbets. But truly memorable was a cherry- almond tart, the crust so short it was almost a brown betty, crunchy with almonds and a perfect base for the fresh cherries, which were not too sweet. I'd drive the distance just for that tart-filling out my meal, of course, with the sweetbreads.
But I would also want to stay overnight-not just because the rooms are attractively Victorian, with high four-poster or iron beds, embroidered towels and eyelet pillowcases, or lush with plants and dimly lit with hurricane lamps. But I'd stay for the breakfast alone. The breakfast of one's dreams, served either on the porch or inside, beginning with freshly squeezed orange juice and with peaches and wild raspberries in champagne. It goes on to some fantasy such as eggs perfectly poached in veal stock with shallots and sprigs of tarragon and served on ripe tomato slices, accompanied by marvelous cottage fries. The coffee is served with a pot of hot milk for cafe au lait. Again I complain about the rye bread; it overwhelms that excellent raspberry jam. I'd rather have a croissant or brioche. But as long as the breakfast includes something from the garden, something home-preserved from the larder and something from Borel's saucepan, I couldn't complain about much.