There are few restaurants anywhere, I remarked to a widely traveled, savvy friend, as agreeable in every way as Chez Francois in Vermilion, Ohio.
“As good as the Maisonette?” she asked, referring to Cincinnati's famous restaurant.
For a moment I reflected, comparing memories of the big three - food, service, and setting - in two outstanding restaurants. “Yes,” I concluded. “It's a match.”
Older Toledoans may recall L'Auberge du Port, the predecessor of Chez Francois roughly 30 years ago, which through some complicated business dealing established a short-lived and far less memorable outpost in Toledo. Wrap up that memory and put it on a back shelf. For nearly 15 years, Chez Francois has been a place to celebrate life's great events, and in between a restaurant to be quite aware of while you wait for the next great event.
What brings this to mind just now is the publication of Wine Spectator's yearly dining guide that lists 2,753 restaurants worldwide adjudged fine for both a gourmet kitchen and an at least respectable wine cellar. Forty-seven Ohio restaurants, including the Maisonette and Chez Francois, make the cut; both deserve it.
Except for a lack of salt air, downtown Vermilion could pass for a New England seaport. Appropriately enough, the 1840 building that houses Chez Francois is halfway down the bank to the water and is called the Sail Loft.
Light and sound in the dining room are both gentle, and with the measured attention of a mature serving staff create a relaxed, leisurely celebration of life shared with family and friends around a dinner table. There are two menus: one that changes weekly during the vacation season, and one that lists what the kitchen is always prepared to do. Both menus demand single-minded attention as line by line each entry, precisely explained, seems more attractive than the one just above. In addition, the server will recite a daily special or two, appetizer and entree, that do not appear on either menu.
Dedicated though it is to French cuisine, the kitchen is not disdainful of its midwestern roots. Heading the appetizers is cream of Erie County corn soup - “my favorite,” the server declared - and there could be no quarrel with her taste. The soup is thick, oozy, and delicious. It tastes of sweet corn, sports a casual scattering of mushroom shoots, and has a red pepper coulis drizzled across the surface.
If corn is not to your taste, you may choose, as I did one evening, lobster-stuffed ravioli, which featured generous bites of lobster meat, basil-seasoned in an infusion of olive oil. Several other appetizers - soft-shell crabs, coquilles St. Jacques, artichoke hearts stuffed with Alouette cheese, a pate maison, on and on - are enough to draw one back just to peruse the list.
Looking through the entrees, it is apparent that chef John D'Amico is giving a new meaning to “surf and turf” (although the phrase does not appear on the menu). Instead of a small filet mignon and a rock-lobster tail or a triad of prawns, smaller portions of meat and a variety of seafood turn up in enticing pairings. One dinner designed around three lightly breaded, sauteed medallions of veal crowned one with a fresh sea scallop, another with a large and completely peeled cold-water shrimp, and the third with the meat of a lobster claw. Delicate sprigs of fresh dill scented the Normandy wine sauce, and the modest veal played a low-key role.
A similar pairing of land and sea is a lightly breaded breast of chicken, really three pieces - look for supreme de volaille - again with a generous serving of lobster and a cold-water shrimp. At the center of the presentation was a perky mousseline of sweet potato, an unexpected treat perfectly matched to the apple and mushroom Frangelico sauce. A few spears of asparagus added color.
Few are the restaurants, at least in this part of the country, that require men to wear jackets; Chez Francois is one of them, as you will be reminded when you call - a must - to make a reservation. But there is a perfectly delightful, informal patio above the water's edge where the same menu is served and jackets are not required. There is no smoking in the dining room, though it is allowed on the patio.
Constraints of space in the historic old building make the addition of wheelchair-friendly restrooms, as well as an expansion of the kitchen, impossible. However, the restaurant is otherwise wheelchair-accessible. There is ample parking along the side of the street in the first block north from the intersection of U.S. 6 and State Rt. 60, Main Street.
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