For almost two decades I've cooked or participated in the preparation of a Thanksgiving dinner for our family. Countless times have I awakened at six in the morning and found myself in the kitchen minutes later. Years of practice and patience have amply demonstrated that ZZ Top and the Eagles on our CD player and, much later-say after noon-a glass or two of shiraz helps greasing stuffing as well as the path to preparing dinner. Over time I've learned to accept this as a small price to pay for sharing one of the more time consuming meals that one can prepare with one's family. Simply, at the end with a yard high pile of dishes and pans, it was always worth it. Justification for part of the course was a search for the world's best candied yams (Emeril's from his "Real, Rustic" cookbook), corn souffle, Southern green beans (eight + hours to cook down-just fresh string beans, fatback and onion), stuffing where I would toast my own bread crumbs and turkey. Fresh, free range, Heritage, Whole Foods, Balducci's, Wagshal's, Wegman's-over time I have tried them all. Pies from scratch, pies from Mom's in Herndon, pies from a stand on the side of the road off I 66 near Winchester: always an opportunity to share the best that I could find with my family.
Always my family tolerating my obsession and searching for the best Thanksgiving dinner that I could find to share with them. And their willingness to eat what I found and, in part, prepared myself.
This year, with our son, step daughter and children laying on a beach in South Florida and an uncle downeast in Maine, we decided to eat out. At the holiday icon, at L'Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls.
It is not easy to get into L'Auberge Chez Francois on Thanksgiving. They accept reservations exactly one month to the day of the reservation. And, much more often than not, they are completely booked up within a hour or two of this.
I got through. On my first try. At 10:00.05 literally five seconds after they began to answer their phone. Well, OK, I'm exaggerating. I got through at 9:54.30 when I tried because I wanted to confirm that I had the right number and expected to hear a recording. Instead I had an operator asking when if I would like to make a reservation. For Thanksgiving.
Indeed, I was truly lucky. Fortunate, in fact.
There were three seatings: we chose the second at 3:30. At 3:20 we found ourselves rolling east on Springdale Road trailing a pack of cars all-we later found out-bound for L'Auberge. There was a line, a long line, backed up on this rural two lane Fairfax county road waiting to turn into their gravel parking lot. The lot itself found cars spilling back into the woods behind the low slung "Alsatian" farmhouse, beyond the gravel lot and into the woods, literally "outback."
Presenting ourselves we were led back to our table in the front dining room. (Siberia at L'auberge is the newer (circa 1990) rear dining room). My wife and I are both sixty years old. Seated, looking around the room, it occurred to me that it has been quite a while since I would have been considered "jailbait" for the girls around me. But here, scanning the end of the first seating at L'Auberge, I was most definitely one of the much younger males in the room. Of the fifty plus seats immediately near us I doubt that more than two or three men were younger than I. For the many older women I would have been considered much younger and perhaps much less experienced.
Jailbait. At sixty.
I should be honest here and note that halfway through our dinner when most if not all of the second seating had arrived, I noted that the age range dropped considerably: families, couples in their 40's, couples in their '50's. Groups of eight and ten including young children. A group of twenty or so that arrived on a small bus and, in a distant dining room, could occasionally be heard cheering and applauding-much like what I would have expected on Thanksgiving, say, in Lynchburg several years ago when Falwell was still with us (well, some of us). A few in the room I had watched on television: CNBC, MSNBC, even Fox News was represented. Like distant family they looked vaguely familiar. Similar to one third of the cars in the parking lot with DC license plates L'Auberge was well represented for the upper swath of that which is Washington, D. C.
We ordered. Not a single dish included turkey, not a single dish included mashed potatoes or even cranberry sauce. No yams and no beans either. Certainly not stuffing. Rather, bouillibase and a crab souffle along with several varieties of seafood smothered in Champagne sauce as well as an "Alsatian" version of Coquille St. Jacques which curiously included olives.
L'Auberge on Thanksgiving isn't about what the food tastes like. It was good. No, it was not real good, certainly not as good as it has been on other non-Holiday evenings when we've visited over the past thirty or so years since they moved from 20th street downtown in the late '70's. Even the Grand Marnier Souffle and the Baked Alaska ($7.00 and $7.50 suppliments on top of $66 and $68 prix fixe courses) were disappointing. The souffle was served with a small pitcher of alleged Grand Marnier laced cream to pour into a spooned out hollow in the top of the souffle. The cream was almost watery-one per cent milk would have been richer and no, there was absolutely no flavor at all. Someone apparently drank the cognac before mixing it with the milk...
L'Auberge Chez Francois is about a relatively cozy, warm, familial group of stuccoed walls and wood beamed, sconce lit rooms with Alsatian "theming" that beckons families, singles and couples who for whatever reason no longer choose to have Thanksgiving dinner at home. It is inviting. It felt exactly like what my wife and I wanted to find away from home on a holiday. If our long last aunt or uncle had a country house in the Strasbourg countryside and were decent cooks AND we found ourselves in France or western Germany for the holidays this IS what we would have hoped to find. Assuming we didn't also expect either of them to be a seriously good cook. Merely competent would be fine.
And this is what L'Auberge Chez Francois, for us, was all about today: a truly warm, inviting outpost that offered to share it's friendship and apparent cozy familiarity with us, strange travellers trying to find a bit of comfort on a holiday away from home. For them everyone in the dining rooms was family, as they had been for years. Many, as family, had returned again and again. L'Auberge was a home for Thanksgiving and, perhaps, countless other holidays where warmth, familiarity and reception are important. For the family that owns L'Auberge quite literally those in their dining rooms over years had become THEIR family.
I cannot help but add that if Carol and I were, indeed, in Strasbourg and had wandered into an out of the way inn such as this we would have been overjoyed!!! It would not have been about the food; rather it was about the inviting welcome and the room. Hospitality, friendship, even well, family really were offered by L'Auberge. They could not have been friendlier, nor more inviting. My guess is that countless numbers in both of their dining rooms have been coming for years, perhaps decades just as the staff and owners had been serving and sharing with them for as long.
For ourselves however we look forward to waking up at six o'clock on Christmas morning and beginning our cooking. For the Alsatian Pinot Noir that I drank this afternoon (and the Shiraz that I taste as I type this...) I look forward to cooking on Christmas Day with ZZ Top and the Eagles. In my own kitchen. Perhaps Alabama as I stir and bake into the afternoon. Even, Frank after dinner and into the evening.
Holidays are special. L'Auberge Chez Francois did as much as anyone could to make us feel at home, with a new found family if you will. But our real family is in our own kitchen.
Nothing takes the place of a holiday at home.
Not even the warm welcoming, L'Auberge Chez Francois.