332 Springvale Road
Great Falls, VA 22066
PRICE $$$$ (Over $31)
HOURS Open for lunch, Tuesday through Friday and Sunday, dinner, Tuesday through Sunday.
NVM AWARDS Best Restaurant 2006
Best Restaurant 2010
Best Restaurant 2007
Best Restaurant 2008
Best Restaurant 2009
Best Restaurant 2011
Best Restaurant 2012
NEARBY METRO None
By Warren Rojas
A new day has dawned at L’Auberge Chez Francois, the charmingly rustic Alsatian cottage tucked into the crook of a twisty road that roller coasters past the million dollar estates that populate Great Falls.
Bienvenue, à la Brasserie Jacques.
Where once were found men obliged to prostrate themselves beneath the baking summer sun in neck-pinching ties and stuffy suit coats, now sit upturned grins and smiling eyes loosely wrapped in lightweight slacks and short sleeves. Gone is the need for days, if not weeks of advance notice, finally leveling the playing field for those who prefer the pop-in to over scheduling.
And what of the hours-long eating extravaganzas—the signature, prix-fixe dinners—previously orchestrated by epicurean maestro and ever-doting host, the late Francois Haeringer?
They’re still available.
You just have to ask.
“We are here to say yes,” executive chef Jacques Haeringer maintains, asserting that the nascent brasserie is merely an extension of Francois’ lifelong commitment to exemplary customer service.
“We are not changing the basic concept. We’re just giving people options they didn’t have before,” Haeringer says of his new subterranean sanctuary.
The tightly knit brasserie is fashioned to mimic a traditional Alsatian wine bar (“win stub”), boasting no more than a dozen candle-lit, tile-lined tables and a peek-a-boo wine cellar showcasing some choice producers plucked from the restaurant’s fiercely patriotic wine program. The walls are adorned with decorative china, space-bending mirrors and random glimpses into Francois’ nonagenarian highlight reel (he and his pals appear to be having a good old time in the framed group shot hung at the far left of the brasserie).
While I suspect the bucolic garden patio will remain the venue of choice throughout the summer, it would not surprise me one bit to learn of lines snaking out the back door or hear of patrons readily accepting longer wait times to avail themselves of the brasserie’s carefully cultivated charms. The recently refurbished space—it opened to the public at the tail end of April—is infinitely better suited to accommodating the “less formal, more spur-of the-moment occasions” Haeringer envisioned during the test run last winter (brasserie concept debuted in November 2010) than its previous home at the rear of L’Auberge proper.
Up there, the stripped down menu and jettisoned little extras—gone were the amuse bouches and gratis tuiles that opened and closed the traditional multi-course experience—made all the more noticeable the protracted pauses between courses that certainly seemed less generous than L’Auberge’s typical entrée. Still, if anyone other than me noticed those early discrepancies, they must have locked it away in their mental vaults, as all I witnessed were near-infectious sing-alongs (landmark celebrations are the rule, not the exception here) and romantic interludes (Her: “This is SO nice. Did you ask for the fireplace?”; Him: “No. I just told them we were coming for dinner and that this was something special.”).
Downstairs, it’s an entirely different ballgame.
A chance meeting by neighbors quickly escalates from excited across-the-way waves to a wholesale migration across the already pretty compact space resulting in a combined table, broad smiles and a cacophony of clinking glasses. Solo retirees in jungle print shirts contentedly sip fine wine and sup gourmet fare all by their lonesome—until Haeringer, during one of his many spot checks (he must pop down to the brasserie at least once per hour) notices the kindly gent and promises to join him shortly for a complimentary digestif.
Haeringer seems so smitten with his namesake retreat that he’s elected to keep the lighter fare specifically for brasserie patrons. As of this winter, he had still been flirting with the idea of making the brasserie menu available to all restaurant patrons, including those planted in the garden.
The brasserie features a smattering of gourmet standards cribbed from the L’Auberge carte (onion soup, mushroom crepes, salmon in lobster sauce) but has also introduced a number of crowd-pleasing favorites to the culinary conversation.
Chief among them: tartes flambées—“It’s an Alsatian pizza,” Haeringer notes—toothsome flatbreads smeared with cottage cheese, craime fraiche and assorted anchors (bacon, smoked salmon, wild mushroom medleys).
“I’ve had these in Alsace. And made them … but not as good as these,” one well-traveled gourmand spits out after nodding/smiling/making yummy sounds at the server when he asks what she thinks of the hot little number.
The tartes are one of terrifically well-structured snacks. The base cracker—not “cracker thin”; this was a bona fide cracker—is layered with the house-doctored, extra chunky-style cheese spread (cottage cheese enhanced with sour cream, garlic and chives), which is, in turn, decorated with caramelized onions, snipped chives and bronzed bacon. The savory-sweet story relayed by the bacon-onion pairing is much more engaging than its smoked fish counterpart, whose wood-infused trout leaps to the top of the flavor scale but receives little support from the accompanying salmon (muted fish disappears beneath the waves of cultured dairy).
A bounty of freshly baked mussels suffers no such identity crisis, each magnificent bivalve slathered in a mouthwatering mash of aromatics and butter. The simple but intoxicating preparation nearly compelled me to polish off the dozen plus specimens, as I found myself slurping down one after another, my mouth anxiously awaiting the next blast of garlicky-basil butter nestled between the sumptuous sea creature and its shell.
Asparagus nestled atop country ham and crowned with a single, quivering quail egg failed to accurately communicate the implied deliciousness of all its component parts. The salty ham did its best to tie everything together, as did the button of warm gruyere, but things didn’t quite stick. Literally. The greatest disappointment was the ease with which the quail egg so easily disintegrated and the limited coverage provided by its miniscule yolk.
The asparagus would eventually redeem itself in a wonderfully refreshing mixture of poached Maine lobster, Tahitian vanilla vinaigrette and fresh fruits (oranges, strawberries, grapefruit). The generous hunks of luxuriant lobster meat found their sweet mate in the vanilla-spiked dressing, which is, in turn, juxtaposed by briny black olives and slices of face-puckering grapefruit.
Smoke and time work in concert to help a slew of pork products fully realize their pleasurable potential via the carnivore’s feast that is the traditional choucroutes spread. Thick-cut pork belly and peppered pork loin pay the greatest gustatory dividends, particularly when combined with forkfuls of the tangy house sauerkraut or plunged into the depths of the fiery mustard sauce served alongside the meal.
According to Haeringer, both the hanger steak béarnaise and pinot noir-braised short ribs (one of his personal favorites, actually) are top performers on the brasserie carte.
His treatment of onglet is truly admirable, revealing a fan of cooked-to-order beef that was perfectly meaty, and juicy enough to sate the average steak connoisseur. Drizzle said beef with the rich, creamy béarnaise constructed by the kitchen, and you’ve now elevated the meal from straight meat carnival to a multi-sensory indulgence worthy of sharing with tablemates in jealousy-inducing bites.
Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the glut of terrific short ribs in our area—the specialty cut can currently be enjoyed in everything from Texas-style barbecue to fusion tacos—because I found the brasserie’s version terribly disappointing. The absence of a protective layer of fat, no doubt, contributed to the flavor-dampening dryness—mind you, the meat was moist enough to shred with the mere tug of the fork—that ushered forth nothing but bland to my lips.
Meanwhile, Haeringer suggests that the tartes have already gained a cult following in the surrounding area. “Some of the neighbors have called and asked if they could get those to go … which we have accommodated,” he shares.
Could this mark a spin-off career for Haeringer? You never know.
“First we’ll do take-out. Then delivery. Finally, Jacques-in-the-boxes, coast-to-coast,” Haeringer jokes with some guests demanding to know what’s next on his professional bucket list.(November 2009)
By Warren Rojas
Food: 8.7 Ambiance: 8.6 Service: 8.9
The more things change (new weekday lunch), the more they stay comfortably the same at L’Auberge Chez Francois, an idyllic retreat where gentlemen still rise when a lady excuses herself from the table and customer satisfaction remains paramount.
Seasoned staff dotes on guests like family, while the kitchen spins out a slew of gourmet extras (fresh-baked breads, gruyere-filled quiches, root vegetable puree, exotic intermezzos, almond tuiles, Valrhona chocolates) that are too delicious to resist.
The mains, meanwhile, dazzle in their own right.
Poached veal tongue, the herb-spiked bath only adding to the succulence of the flavor-soaked offal, flanked by homemade remoulade (a lemon-caper blitz) is quite captivating.
Gorgeous hunks of sweet lobster meat and woody mushrooms bathed in lobster cream sauce turn an everyday omelet into a celebration of sea and spores.
The time-honored baked Alaska gets a Neapolitan makeover via a rainbow coalition of rich milk chocolate, diced strawberry-speckled strawberry sorbet and French vanilla ice cream baked beneath swirling peaks of flash-roasted meringue (singed crust, chilly interior that entertains the brain even as the spoonfuls confound the senses).(November 2008)
By Warren Rojas
Food: 8.4 Ambiance: 8.2 Service: 8.8
Just as Chez Francois founder Francois Haeringer formally passed the torch to son Jacques, so, too, have regulars begun their own transfer of power.
At least, that’s the way it seems from the parade of well-behaved petit messieurs et mademoiselles we’ve noticed enjoying the prix-fixe feasts at this timeless Great Falls retreat.
The continuity in the kitchen remains one of the restaurant’s greatest assets, reassuring old friends—including conservative firebrand Newt Gingrich, who flouted the notoriously stringent dress code (short sleeves, no jacket) whilst enjoying a summer’s eve and the company of wife No. 3 in the gazebo—and newcomers alike that everything they’ve heard/remember about the food remains valid.
And for the most part, it does.
Gorgonzola-encrusted tenderloin partnered with sweet tomato and onion straws synchronizes for a savory power play. A trio of herb-rubbed lamb chops (fragrant crust, succulent center) basks in the glow of a tannic wine reduction and sea salt-flecked green beans. Baked phyllo parts to reveal creamy lobster, cod and crab caught within its flaky grasp (rich, but worth it).(December 2007)
By Warren Rojas
Food: 8.6 Ambiance: 8.1 Service: 8.8
No need to wait for a special occasion to plan a trip out to the always welcoming Chez Francois. Every visit here is an opportunity in and of itself to celebrate a shared passion for food, life and fellowship.
The quaint white cottage with bright red shutters, so familiar to devout gourmands and festive partygoers alike, continues to cement its place as a dining institution in an otherwise volatile restaurant landscape (see intro) by adhering to a fairly simple business plan: Spoil patrons rotten with authentically Alsatian food, hard-to-find wines and impeccable service.
Founder Francois Haeringer has passed the mantle on to his son, Jacques, who keeps the family’s 30-year legacy of hospitality very much alive. The Haeringers are aided, of course, by an army of seasoned service professionals with smiles almost as bright as the shiny gold buttons on their striking red vests.
A typical four-course dining adventure—it’s really six, if you count the seasonal amuse and intermezzo sorbet sent out gratis from the kitchen—can be custom tailored to include as much seafood, fowl or game as you like. One seafood medley summons a porcelain clamshell filled with nuggets of shrimp, crab and lobster in a terrific herb-cream sauce. The Papa Ernest plate unites sumptuous specimens of lamb (better), veal (best) and filet mignon (good), then seals the deal with a buttery half-lobster tail.(August 2006)
By Warren Rojas
F 8.6 A 8.4 S 8.8
Between the twinkling Christmas lights and the steady stream of patrons carrying bright floral bouquets and beautifully wrapped packages, it's a wonder L'Auberge Chez Francois has not challenged Disneyland for the title of "happiest place on earth."
Inside the rustic château awaits an overly gracious staff ready to preside over the nightly parade of anniversary couples and celebratory groups. Why all the fuss? Because devoted patrons know the food will be great, the service comforting and the complimentary cookies and chocolates that close out every meal fabulous.
Most evenings feature a pick-your-own five-course adventure, with a handful of dinner specials thrown in for good measure. A seasonal amusé (fresh quiche is an eggy-herby masterpiece) provides a warm welcome from the kitchen. A collection of smoked fish challenges the palette, while a puff pastry filled with a delectable stew of chicken, veal and mixed vegetables warms from within. A veal, country ham and crab plate gets finished with a silky Madeira cream. Meanwhile, the aptly named Alsatian feast delivers plenty of savory duck, mouthwatering foie gras, homemade sausage and fresh sauerkraut.(February 2006)
By Warren Rojas
There's no leap of faith required to see why L'Auberge Chez Francois continues to be hailed as the gold standard for fine dining in Great Falls. In fact, one need only take a few steps into the quaint Alsatian-style cottage before the flood of alluring scents and warm smiles convert you to a devout Francophile.
The rustic interior is marked by bright copper pots and stout wooden cross beams. Vibrant murals of Alsatian countryside add a homey feel to the four main dining rooms. And a jocular proverb above the entrance to the kitchen-Un repas sans vin est un journée sans soleil, which loosely translates to, "a meal without wine is like a day without sun"-alerts visitors this is a place one comes not just to dine, but to celebrate life.
From start to finish, dedicated staff work in concert to ensure every facet of your meal exceeds the highest expectations. The grandstanding begins with a basket of straight-from-the-oven country breads, which bears goodies like toasted baguette chips dripping with butter and finely chopped garlic bits as well as an herb-infused cheese spread that's absolutely irresistible.
The menu is fairly easy to navigate (even for the uninitiated) and follows the flow of a traditional five-course meal: appetizer or soup, mixed greens with homemade vinaigrette, a palette-cleansing sorbet, an entrée, and a dessert. The seafood bouillabaisse sings as an appetizer-baguette slices come half-submerged in a saffron broth loaded with plump scallops and shrimp-and doubles as an equally stunning entrée. A slow-cooked cassoulet-featuring handmade veal, rabbit and chicken sausages nestled on a bed of lentils-unites game and garden perfectly. One notable fish dish injects twin rainbow trout filets with rich crab meat, porous mushrooms and smoked almonds, all accompanied by puréed broccoli. Another wild game masterpiece ties together antelope and bison medallions with a petit half lobster tail-a winning combination few others would ever imagine. An Alsatian plum tart is often sweet, but sometimes too figgy. The key lime tart, on the other hand, remains consistently sharp thanks to a scoop of equally bright lime sorbet.
Of course, frequent guests know no one is ever shown the door without a sample of the signature cookies and chocolates.