The principal of one of the longest-running restaurants in the region considers himself lucky. Jacques Haeringer says that last year was the best one financially for L’Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls and that until March, 2020 was poised to be even more successful. Now, he consoles himself with the knowledge that the dining destination his father created 44 years ago is safe from outside interests. “We own the land and the building,” says Haeringer of the Alsatian-inspired property, which includes Jacques’ Brasserie, a casual retreat below the four formal dining rooms upstairs. That’s news to toast, preferably with the restaurant’s signature aperitif, fizzy wine made pink with Chambord and Framboise.
Need an escape? The brasserie, introduced nine years ago, awaits the pleasure of your company. Take your pick of the cozy dining room, now just a dozen seats, or the outdoor patio, where some tables are arranged beneath a tented roof and others dot the lawn. Wherever you settle feels like going back in time, a sense aided and abetted by servers in red vests and a menu that embraces such antiques as lobster thermidor. The kitchen does right by the classic, featured as a Friday special. Its recipient tastes sweet poached lobster, cognac and cream more than the cheeses used to finish the dish. The entree is rich but not gloppy. The same description applies to oysters with béarnaise; the oysters don’t surrender their flavor to a sauce.
“We try to do the French classics well,” says Haeringer. Escargots are from Burgundy, and they taste as much of garlic butter as earthy snail. An ocean of seafood — scallops, mussels, shrimp, salmon, rockfish — packs a bowl of saffron-scented bouillabaisse, a hearty Wednesday attraction. The brasserie’s crisp-edged crepe wraps itself around sauteed mushrooms, nicely paired with tangy tomato concasse. The menu is broad enough to include Caesar salad, veal scaloppine and a burger served with delectable skinny french fries that a discerning friend says “pass my test: they don’t need ketchup.”
Pleasing as the fruit tarts and cheesecake are, the best course of action in the heat of summer is a tower of soft meringue, streaked with caramel and displayed on a pool of vanilla custard sauce garnished with boozy raisins and sour cherries. The clouds of whipped egg whites are so light, they last but a moment on your tongue.
Francois Haeringer, Jacques’ father, was a presence in the kitchen upstairs until a day before he died, a decade ago, at 91. Does the son, 70, have any plan to say adieu to the business? “I think retirement is overrated,” says Jacques. “I might have to make my own dinner!”
332 Springvale Rd., Great Falls, Va. 703-759-3800. laubergechezfrancois.com. Open for takeout and lunch 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. for nonstop service Sunday; dinner 4:30 to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday. Entrees $25 to $34.
Cedric Maupillier concedes he wasn’t getting a lot of traffic at Convivial, his contemporary French-American outpost in Shaw, even before the pandemic bounced customers from his dining room. “I was looking at rebranding,” focusing more on classic fare, even changing the restaurant’s name, says the chef. Then coronavirus started dominating headlines, and he was forced to rein in anything more ambitious than survival. As he put it, “Imagination and creativity face a wall.”
Really, chef? Because your name, more than almost any other, comes up in practically every conversation I’ve had with food fans about great takeout. Your cooking not only travels well, it demonstrates how lucky the city is to have you at the stove.
As a test, I ordered Convivial’s omelet. One, because I love eggs for dinner, and two, I wanted to see how the simple pleasure made it from a professional kitchen to one without a staff. Beautifully, it turns out. Shortly after I ordered the tender, chive-flecked omelet, the chef added some bling: ribbons of delicate Parisian ham and a base of Provençal vegetable coulis that sounded so good, I felt compelled to return to the scene of the sublime. Ooh la la. Convivial’s rustic pork pâté is going to my next picnic. It’s a crowd-pleaser fashioned from pork butt, fatback, chicken liver and warm spices. Baguette, meet spread.
Not every dish speaks French. One of the hottest days of summer was tamed with every spoonful of gazpacho, a rich emulsion of tomatoes, bread and olive oil with a flicker of chile heat. Another meatless marvel is the chef’s igloo of roasted cauliflower rising from a magenta emulsion of beets and tahini. Minced apricots and barberries lend sweet-tart notes to the centerpiece, which is sprinkled with za’atar. (The vegan dish was inspired in part by the chef’s four years as a child in Saudi Arabia, where his parents worked as civilians for the French Army.)
Maupillier, who spent six years cooking for the legendary Michel Richard, believes in braises and makes a compelling case with his Moroccan chicken, served beneath a protective and delicious cover of chicken jus flavored with cinnamon, coriander and cumin. Layer on citrus peel and green olives, and suddenly you’re hungry for “Casablanca.” The entree, accompanied by a carton of couscous and slivered almonds, was sufficient to become lunch for two thereafter. “I don’t want to be stingy,” says the chef. “People appreciate leftovers the next day.” He’s onto something: generous portions of serious cooking. Do yourself some good and order takeout from a restaurant that deserves to be busier than it is.
801 O St. NW. 202-525-2870. www.convivialdc.com. Open for takeout and in-house dining 4:30 to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Delivery via Caviar, Uber Eats and Skip the Line. Dinner entrees $17 to $38 (paella for two).
The chalkboard menu at La Piquette reads almost as long as it always has. “It’s not easy,” says executive chef Francis Layrle, but people appreciate the robust selection. “It feels like before,” says the onetime chef of the French Embassy.
So many tables have been cleared from the dining room, it could pass for a dance floor. These days, the hot spots are outside, where the restaurant’s neighbors have given Layrle permission to extend his seating outside their businesses. Which means 32 diners can slice into their beef tartare and duck confit alfresco. Layrle encourages customers to eat early, when there are, he says, “fewer people, more space,” hence “more safety.”
A recent meal found me filling up on déjà vu. Everything I ate — crisp sweetbreads with velvety mushrooms, sweet sea scallops ringed in a sauce of fennel and orange — demonstrated how the Gascon native could survive seven ambassadors and why anytime is a good time to reserve at La Piquette. Layrle shops as well as he cooks. The beef for his steak frites is prime, and his Dover sole comes from two little boats that fish the waters in northern Denmark.
With the check comes an alcohol wipe. Have you noticed? It’s the new after-dinner mint.
3714 Macomb St. NW. 202-686-2015. lapiquettedc.com. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday; dinner 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday and Monday, 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and brunch 11 to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Delivery via DoorDash. Entrees $18 to $48.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of the review of La Piquette referred to Layrle as the owner. He is the executive chef. The owners are Cyrille Brenac and Bruno Fortin.
For stories, features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit WP Magazine.
Follow the Magazine on Twitter.
Like us on Facebook.
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.