- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 9, 2001

Washington in the '60s. There wasn't much choice in the way of restaurants, but one was always a favorite. It occupied the ground floor of a small building wedged between taller ones on Connecticut Avenue, in the space somewhere between where the Oval Room and Equinox now hold forth. It had a delightful outdoor patio on the wide sidewalk, and it served a memorable chef's salad.

A little Alsatian jewel, owned and run by the Haeringer family, Chez Francois was justly famous for its plum (quetsch) tart.

Chez Francois moved with the times (and urban renewal) to a more bucolic setting in Great Falls, where it became L'Auberge Chez Francois, an upscale country restaurant in a pretty garden. The format and menu changed, but it's still a family operation. Monsieur Francois, now aged 84, still greets his guests each evening, and he and his sons run the restaurant: Jacques in the kitchen, Robert at the front of the house and Paul in the business office and dining room.

The chef's salad is long gone, but the quetsch tart remains on the dessert menu. It doesn't taste quite the same, but that may be just nostalgia.

L'Auberge recently reopened after a kitchen fire closed down the restaurant. It's a lovely restaurant, filled with antiques, charming wallpaper, cheerful tablecloths, memorabilia and all the accouterments one would expect of an Alsatian country restaurant. And the food is very good, although there's too much of it.

L'Auberge does not have an a la carte menu, only prix fixe meals (the price determined by the main course), which include a choice of soup or starter from a long list of interesting options, salad, the entree, dessert and coffee. It's a lot of food, and the format could be a problem for the small appetite, particularly as portions are generous.

As befits a country restaurant, the kitchen prepares many classic French dishes, often with some contemporary touches. The Alsatian favorites are there: a traditional choucroute with duck, goose confit, sausages, pheasant and even foie gras, as well as an appetizer choucroute of smoked fish, shrimp and scallops, both of course with sauerkraut; an assortment of pates, sausages and "crudites" (a mix of raw vegetables); and a combination of calf's brains, veal tongue and head cheese.

The meal begins with a plate of sliced garlic bread, warm and crisp, and a small wedge of the chef's complimentary Alsatian onion tart. Delicious. The choice of starters is wonderfully varied, from a traditional mushroom-filled crepe to marinated tuna tartare, from cold poached salmon or a plate of diverse country hams to puff pastry filled with Roquefort cheese, apples and calvados.

A combination of smoked and marinated salmon slices accompanied by a dollop of sour cream is an excellent, light starter. The smoked fish is delicate; the marinated version more robust and somewhat salty.

An appetizer of warm asparagus with smoked country ham in a light creamy cheese sauce with a smattering of capers is a delicious start to one of Monsieur Francois' meals. Equally well done was a daily special of room-temperature ravioli filled with crabmeat mousse in a vinaigrette sauce.

At a recent dinner, the soup of the day was a fine gazpacho, not too heavy on the garlic, with a good tomato base. French onion soup is a staple. Salads may be requested at the start of the meal or after the main course a nice French touch.

Between the starter and the main course, diners are served a small portion of sorbet ours was grapefruit. Refreshing, a bit sweet, it's a pleasant but unnecessary formal gesture.

Entrees similarly run the gamut from the usual rainbow trout and grilled tuna to roasted quail and rabbit, frogs legs, filet of pork and rack of lamb, as well as lobster, salmon, shrimp, duck and beef. There's something for everyone.

Grilled beef tenderloin with an excellent bearnaise sauce is a simple, perfectly prepared main course, tender yet flavorful. Grilled onions and wild mushrooms are pleasant accompaniments.

Veal sweetbreads, not found frequently on menus these days, are cooked at L'Auberge in a rich, brown truffle sauce. It's a classic brasserie dish, well done. Unfortunately, the puff pastry shell was not crisp and the slice of foie gras on top had dried out with overcooking.

Grilled tuna loin with anchovy butter is outstanding. The fish comes to the table still moist and pink, wonderfully fresh, seasoned just enough to enhance the fish. The anchovy butter adds the right touch of tart saltiness to the somewhat mild fish. Less is indeed more in this case.

The opposite is true of veal scallopini in a cream sauce with crab meat, ham, asparagus tips and mushrooms. The crab is de trop. The veal, which is of good quality, merges well with the remaining ingredients, but the crab merely complicates.

L'Auberge has an extensive wine list. You can order a Chateau Lafitte for more than $500, but there's a very pleasant light cabernet-merlot from Virginia's Williamsburg Winery for $24. And there's a lot in between. Desserts are not given short shrift, so try to leave some room. Souffles (at an additional cost of $6.95) can be ordered at the beginning of the meal in chocolate, raspberry, Grand Marnier or hazelnut flavors.

Cheesecake is deliciously creamy and the quetsch tart, served with whipped cream and a scoop of cinnamon ice cream, is a reminder of those lunches on Connecticut Avenue when we were all, Washington's restaurant scene and Monsieur Francois included, considerably younger.

RESTAURANT: L'Auberge Chez Francois, 332 Springvale Road, Great Falls, Va., 703/759-3800

HOURS: Dinner Tuesday-Saturday 5:30-9:30 p.m., Sunday 1:30-8 p.m. Closed Monday

PRICES: Complete meals including appetizer, salad, main course, dessert and coffee $45 to $52

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Ample parking available

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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