Once upon a time, there was this guy named Escoffier. He updated French cooking methods. He brought order and discipline to professional kitchens. He made it respectable to be a chef. Georges Auguste Escoffier changed the culinary world and, ultimately, the way we eat today, particularly when we dine out. (A la carte? Escoffier’s idea.) That was more than a century ago.
Just as Escoffier brought about the advent of modern French cuisine precisely by bidding adieu to outdated cooking traditions, most of the culinary world has moved on — not forgetting the king of chefs, but rather adapting his 5,000 recipes and applying his techniques to contemporary sensibilities.
Unless you’re at Petite Auberge.
The French restaurant located in the Toco Hill shopping center has been around since 1974. In the center of the main dining area, four interconnected round vinyl booths, the best seats in the house, still feel as though guys clad in bell-bottoms and meter collars once sat there, draping their arms over their dates on a fancy night on the town.
But, now, to get to one of those see-and-be-seen seats, diners pass through an entryway with its counter of jewelry for sale, then the olive oil and vinegar bar where they can sample dozens of infused oils and vinegars and even purchase a bottle to take home. French restaurant cum jewelry store cum olive oil boutique?
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The Petite Auberge website claims to champion Escoffier, but the champignons coming out of the kitchen are treated very differently from how the master chef did it.
Take, for example, beef Wellington. That fillet of beef normally is coated with duxelles (a mix of finely chopped sautéed mushrooms and shallots), then wrapped in pastry puff and baked. Here, the mushrooms were sliced and set atop the meat instead of being minced and cooked down to a luxurious paste. The meat was pleasurably tender, but there was no oohing and aahing over layers of decadence upon cutting into this dish.
Then, there was the raw mushroom salad: boring button mushrooms — some sliced, some chopped — tossed in a creamy avocado dressing and topped with a fan of three avocado slices and a bland, cold tomato wedge that equated to “gourmet” back in the day.
At one time, vichyssoise would have been considered gourmet. But this version didn’t taste in the least of a thick soup of puréed leeks, onions, potatoes, cream and chicken stock. It tasted like chilled, sweetened, runny milk. An appetizer of escargots Provencale fared much better, the snails snuggled in a rich sherry cream sauce and blanketed by flaky puff pastry.
Chateaubriand for two sounded promising. It looked promising, too, when a server brought the sizzling, thick tenderloin cut to the table for inspection, formally announcing, “Chateaubriand for two.” A cart was rolled tableside, whereupon a separate server finished it to a specified medium rare over hot flames.
Anticipation turned to disappointment, though, when the server sawed into that beautiful steak and plopped the slices into a haphazard pile on each plate instead of attempting any appealing visual arrangement.
Rounding out the entrée was a side of cooked carrots and broccoli. No attempt had been made to cut the vegetables with any precision. No attempt had been made to season them. The same veggie duo landed on the plate with the aforementioned beef Wellington. On a return visit, I couldn’t escape them when they came not only with an unimpressive, tough rack of lamb, but also roast chicken wanting for a crispy, golden skin.
Petite Auberge curiously has three German entrees on the menu: Bavarian pork roast; a platter of bratwurst, knackwurst and that roast pork; and wiener schnitzel. All are attended with red cabbage and kraut. The schnitzel was a generous veal cutlet, nicely breaded and finished to a golden brown.
When it comes to dessert, Petite Auberge delivers. Cherries jubilee, with its tableside flaming, was a jubilation. Baked Alaska was tasty, too. But the bread pudding was a revelation, the warm raisin bread dripping in a decadent whiskey butter sauce with a side of whipped cream.
Petite Auberge also delivers on hospitality. The staff is gracious and warm. When I turned up for Round 2, the same server waited upon my table, recognized me from a previous visit and greeted me amicably. The crowd here is decidedly older. It has its regulars and the staff know them by name. “Here you go, Millie,” said a server as she handed one woman her drink.
Drinks, by the way, are inexpensive at Petite Auberge. A generous pour of the house red runs just shy of $7. I wish there were more interesting vino offerings: ones not available at the grocery store, less domestic choices and more French finds, this being a French restaurant.
I sought to eat at Petite Auberge because I hoped for an old school gustatory celebration of classic Escoffier. I got old school. There was no celebration.