A year ago, Georges Chaubron, owner and chef of L'Auberge, took his headwaiter, Scott Curran, to France. They started off in Mr. Chaubron's native Lyons, and then moved on to Rhone wine country. Though Mr. Curran's original motive for working at L'Auberge was to earn money for art school, France and wine changed all that. "Now," he says, "no matter what, I'm here at L'Auberge."
In all sorts of ways, Mr. Chaubron has proved himself a masterfuteacher and cicerone, with authority derived the hard way -- from a thorough knowledge of cooking and restaurant management. His French rolls almost taste like French rolls, his meat and vegetable marketing is solid, his exquisite desserts are made from scratch, and his butter is butter, though there's much less of it than there would have been 15 years ago.
When he makes a carrot soup, he makes it by reliable methods, with tasty carrots and suitable potatoes, and with a little cream -- just a touch. When he wants his headwaiter to learn wine, he takes him home to Lyons and returns him to Baltimore an aficionado. Among his more complicated accomplishments has been assembling a restaurant that functions well even in his absence. It's unusual when perceptive diners remark, "You can't tell when Chaubron isn't there." They say that, though such occasions are probably rare.
Cautious modesty is one of the restaurant's virtues. No one would go to L'Auberge in order to be seen eating in its small and unpretentious rooms. Yet they are physically pleasing. The walls are part glistening old wood, part wallpaper. A few brass cooking pots hang from the ceiling crossbeams, and a handsome 19th century cupboard stands in the corner.
The classic menu includes snails, mussels, onion soup, a pate, two terrines, frogs' legs, trout with almonds, and sweetbreads in mushrooms with port. For our meal, we ordered, as first courses, the day's carrot soup ($3.50), a warm pate en croute special ($5) and a terrine of rabbit and hazelnuts ($4.95). Before they arrived, we shared a basket of hot rolls well worth eating.
The soup was exactly what a first-rate French carrot soup always is -- subtle with the taste of the vegetable, smooth in consistency, and delicately creamy. The warm pate was sausagelike in its texture and in spicing, and tucked into the center of a buttery, crisp, delicious globe of puff pastry. Then, what a terrine! Studded with whole, blanched filberts, it had confident, clean tastes, and a texture, neither very coarse nor very fine, that suited it to L'Auberge's level of formality -- as opposed to, say, a picnic's, on the one hand, or a champagne dinner's, on the other. (Still, I would do away with the lettuce on the plates. L'Auberge's guests are up to naked pate with cornichons and olives.)
Our entrees were tuna grilled with pecan and orange sauce ($16), tournedos Rossini ($19) and a filleted duck breast special ($19). All but one of the specials cost $19. We had to ask to find that out.
The tuna illustrated one method chefs use to create healthier dishes. Using less animal fat, they turn to fruits and sweetness for flavors more than in the past, with -- in expert hands -- satisfying results: The large, thin tuna fillet, while plain, took on character from scattered pecans turned in a medium light orange syrup. And what could have been a visually bland plate was brought to life with lemon slices ornamented with diamonds of red pepper.
Tournedos Rossini was a likable, tender chunk of beef, topped by a slender cutting of foie gras, and a fat artichoke heart that cradled a mushroom cap. To the side were four puffs of duchesse potato that absorbed the truffle-dotted sauce agreeably.
Two of us gave the duck breast fillets the meal's blue ribbon. The demi-glace of duck broth and lime was superb soaked into scattered wild mushrooms. We shared an excellent dish of plain broccoli, cauliflower and delicately sweet carrots.
All this, and first-rate desserts, too, and in great variety! For fruit, we chose a chocolate-covered poached pear ($5) -- with a cache of ice cream where the core had been -- set in an intense raspberry coulis topped with spoons of whipped cream. For something rustic, we chose a good-natured cherry tartlet ($5) made with a thickish crust filled almost to bursting with cherries in custard. Finally, for refinement, we turned to a vacherin ($5) of baked meringue frozen with a raspberry ice in raspberry puree. It was ravishing.
Would I change anything? I would end the protracted specials recitation. Some people like it, we were told. Not the people I know. As Mr. Chaubron knows so beautifully, one chooses between right and wrong ways of doing things. Reliably, his ways are the right ones, except in this one case.
Next: Orchard Market Gourmet Cafe
L'Auberge, 505 S. Broadway, 732-1151
Hours: Lunch Tuesdays to Fridays 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner Mondays to Thursdays 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays until 11 p.m.
Accepts: Master Card, Visa and Diners Club
Features: Provincial French cooking