Culinary Hero, Francois Haeringer died on June 3, 2010.
Monsieur Francois presided over one of the Washington areas favorite restaurants. Monsieur Francois, his wife and sons, worked tirelessly to create one of the most romantic and delicious dining experiences anywhere.
He opened Chez Francois the year before I was born in the District of Columbia and migrated out to Great Falls, Virginia in 1976 to open his French country inn or en francais, "auberge".
This writer never had the pleasure of dining in the D.C. Chez Francois but my in-laws report it was marvelous. The Great Falls establishment continued that tradition and I have eaten there too many times to count. L'Auberge as it always is foreshortened (With apologies to the fine L'Auberge Provencale) was the destination of so many important birthdays, anniversaries and celebrations.
The food was always excellent, the service good to superb and the environs lovely. The prix-fixe meals included appetizer, salad, dessert, and dazzling main courses. The trip from our various Maryland homes often would be long and traffic-filled but once you were seated (never a wait) and the garlic bread and rustic bread served, all was right with the world.
Favorites included softshell crabs, rack of lamb, salmon souffle de L'Auberge and chateaubriand. Dessert souffles (don't forget to order with your main course or it's too late) were wonderful but given the quantity of food, seemed sometimes excessive.
As years went by Monsieur Francois made some forays away from some of his traditional presentations but there always remained a core of classics, many of which were fare at the original Chez Francois.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention the gardens. On less-humid summer days sitting in the garden for a meal is a sublime pleasure and even if the temperature isn't right one had to tour the beautiful gardens in summer for magnificent flowers and in winter for the Christmas decorations.
Allan and I were there for lunch recently for his birthday and the food was great, the price absurdly low, and to our great pleasure, we saw the daily meeting with Monsieur Francois in charge as always. I suppose that if I had known of his imminent demise I would have thanked Francois one last time.
My last reminiscence is uniquely personal and goes a long way toward explaining L'Auberge extraordinary success.
I had been at dinner with members of my wife's family and the experience was as always magical. Perhaps it was an excess of alcohol or mischievous prodding by a brother-in-law or two but I inscribed in the comments book at the front entrance the infamous words "Dreadful as always" and even more inexplicably wrote down my name. We laughed and were on our way through the roller coaster hills of Great Falls.
A week or so later I was vacuuming and the phone rang. I picked it up and there was a French accent on the phone. "Monsieur Clark? Monsieur Robert Clark?" I thought is this one of my buddies? The accent seemed too authentic. I answered cautiously "yes". "This is Monsieur Francois Haeringer and you recently dined at my restaurant." I gulped. "You left a comment 'dreadful as always' ". "Did you have a bad experience?" Oh boy I was doomed, no more mushroom duxelles or chateaubriand. Think fast. "Oh that must have been my no-good trouble-making bete noire brother in-law" I lied. "My meal was fantastique" (better drop in a few French words just to show my sincerity). I went on to explain that I dined at L'Auberge every Christmas and had been there innumerable times without even the slightest dissatisfaction.
The voice on the other end expressed great relief. "Tell your brother-in-law to be mischievous at other restaurants please. We look forward to your next visit and if your brother-in law is with you point him out to me. Merci au revoir". I had escaped L'Auberge exile.