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L'Auberge Provençale
Route 403
White Post, Virginia
(540) 837-1375
www.laubergeprovencale.com

Nestled in the gently rolling hills just a short distance from Front Royal and the northern entrance to Skyline Drive, L'Auberge Provençale is a little bit of Provence in the heart of the Virginia hunt country. And chef Alain Borel, a native of Avignon, France, and his wife, Celeste, succeed in providing their guests with the ultimate in gracious hospitality and Epicurean romanticism.

The main manor house, Mt. Airy (circa 1753), boasts three intimate dining rooms decorated with works of art, French copper cookware, and Provençale fabrics & artifacts, including a charming portrait of Chef Alain as a young man (see photograph). There is also a lovely parlor where one may enjoy pre or postprandial libations and eleven cozy guestrooms for those whose gastronomic odysseys have taken them far from home . . . And this is one dining divertissement that is surely worth a journey.

The prix fixe menu ($82.00 per person) is a sumptuous five-course affair, which also includes l'entracte, a palate-cleansing intermezzo. As you would expect, an award-winning selection of French and American château wines provides the perfect complement to your extraordinary dining experience.

If I have one quibble here, it is the fact that, given the delightful culinary complexities and diversities of the chef's bill of fare, it makes infinitely more sense to match up various courses with wines by the glass rather than avail oneself of a single bottle. One might begin, for example, with a 2000 René Muré ($12.00), a light and lively Riesling from the Alsatian region of France, and then move on to a 2001 J. Pabiot Pouilly Fumé ($16.00) or, perhaps, a 2002 Pouilly Fuissé from Louis Jadot ($16.00). If one is indulging in meatier matters, the 2000 Dry Creek Cabernet ($14.00), 2000 Château Lalande ($16.00), or 2000 Château Font Villac ($18.00) should fill the bill nicely. Were Mr. Borel to offer a tasting menu including appropriate wine pairings with each course, I am certain that it would prove extremely popular.

The amuse-bouche—pepper-encrusted tuna and julienne fennel salad kissed by saffron aïoli—simply bewitches the palate. The richness of the tuna, the gentle bite of the pepper, the cool crunchiness of the fennel, the soothing sensuality of the saffron . . .an utterly seamless and enchanting gestalt.

Les entrées (which in France refer to first courses rather than main courses) offer intriguing possibilities: duck confit and foie gras tart with elderberry reduction and orchard peaches; smoked local rabbit served with saffron pasta, mixed wild mushrooms, and Dijon cream sauce; house-cured salmon with porcini mushrooms and whole grain aïoli; fresh crab croquette with citrus salad, vanilla oil, chili oil, and cilantro.

I was certain my wife would jump at the seared sea scallops with creamy salsify and bacon vinaigrette; instead, however, she zeroed in on one of the daily specials, another of her perennial favorites, Prince Edward Island mussels. The bivalves, plump and succulent, came swimming in an enticing tomato/fennel broth that was completely devoid of sediment and perfectly complemented by thick, crusty slices of garlic/olive bread.

Normally, I would have availed myself of the aforementioned rabbit or duck confit and foie gras tart. But, on this particular evening, I was feeling more avuncular than avant-garde and opted instead for the gentle but pronounced simplicity of ratatouille en crôute, finely diced garden vegetables in the loving embrace of rosemary focaccia and the subtle nuances of Alfredo sauce and rosemary oil.

When it came to les deuxieme suite, my wife selected yet another vegetable vignette, a totally beguiling upside down herb Provençale garden vegetable bruschetta crowned with a biscuit tiara and consummated with roasted red pepper coulis. I, on the other hand, threw in my lot with the soup du jour, duck consommé. Three rich, medium rare slices of duck breast and a dollop of wild rice salad formed an epicenter in a snowy white bowl, which was subsequently inundated with a crystal clear yet remarkably flavorful broth.

L'entracte, the intermezzo, was a highly unusual basil and lime sorbet embellished with tiny sugar basil leaves. The result was an intensely satisfying assault that thoroughly prepared the palate for les poisons et viandes.

But, once again, we found ourselves on the horns of a dilemma . . .So many enticing possibilities: saffron-marinated veal chop with creamy garlic, potato, and fresh herb gratin; grilled spiced lobster with asparagus and pea risotto; seared pheasant breast with creamy spinach; grilled swordfish with Mediterranean-style orzo and Brussels sprouts with green peppercorn vinaigrette.

Here my wife and I went our separate ways: she opting for the halibut, I for the filet mignon. Halibut is one fish that we both prefer cooked through, pristinely white rather than translucent at the center . . . and Mr. Borel's illustrious representative was right on the money. Beautifully pan seared, it was marvelously moist, set on a seabed of sautéed herb garden tomato slices, adorned with "champignon" potatoes (potatoes in the shape of button mushrooms) and consummated with a tomato demi-glace.

When dining out, I rarely order beef . . . but the chef's version immediately peaked my interest . . . Instead of grilling, two filets were poached in a cabernet sauvignon wine sauce. Trumpet mushrooms provided a luxuriant pillow with feathery light butternut squash gnocchi embellishing the periphery. The sauce could have been a touch more assertive, in my opinion, but the beef itself was exquisite.

Prior to dessert, patrons are treated to a mini cheese course. On this occasion, it consisted of crumbled Gorgonzola and diced pears crowned with a brioche crisp. A superb combination of flavors and textures.

Sweet endings were, like all that had gone before, simply superlative: a benchmark warm apple tart topped with a base of apple sorbet and crown of Tahitian vanilla ice cream; cornet of orange spoom (think old-fashioned Creamsicle) in the company of poppy seed angel food cake chaperoned by macerated berries. Other denouements included: pear tarte Tatin with lavender ice cream; dark chocolate mousse pyramid filled with coconut cream; and an utterly outrageous "Soda Fountain Sampler,"chocolate malted shake, fudge brownie, and banana split with a trio of ice creams.

Should you decide to spend the night—and I would heartily urge you to do so—the following morning you will be treated to a complimentary, incomparably delicious breakfast feast. Sip fresh juices, enjoy coffee/decaf/tea, and nibble your way through a basket of flaky croissants and slices of lemon pound cake while awaiting your main course. We indulged in a mushroom-leek flan, lobster sausage, and golden brown wedge of rösti potato. A sinfully sumptuous start to the day!

L'Auberge Provençale is one of those rare restaurants/hostelries that truly delivers on its promises and more than lives up to its lofty press notices. This is destination dining and lodging at its romantic best.

The Artful Diner
November 2004

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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