July 2007 Issue
July's Featured Restaurant
Set in a historic building on the banks of the Vermilion River, Chez Francois, inside and out, oozes rustic, yet romantic appeal.
From the moment you set foot in the dining room - with its exposed brick walls, dim lighting and a picture-postcard view of the river - you know you're at one of the most celebrated French restaurants in the state.
My friend and I arrived for dinner one warm May evening, and requested a table in the newly remodeled Riverfront Cafe, a covered deck. There's no better way to spend a summer evening than dining alfresco, watching the sunset as boats motor by on the water.
Chez Francois, owned by Matthew Mars and chef John D'Amico since 1987, is known for its French cuisine, extensive wine list and stellar service. We began with an amuse-bouche (a bite-size morsel), compliments of the chef. This evening, it was a creamy asparagus soup in a tall shot glass. Appetizers followed. My friend ordered the lobster bisque (seasoned with garlic, shallots and tarragon), which he described as “almost too rich to finish,” yet he managed just fine. A vegetarian, I eagerly devoured the artichoke hearts, sauteed to perfection and stuffed with Alouette cheese, breaded with hazelnuts and served with Dijon honey mustard and raspberry sauce.
The menu changes seasonally and features fresh, local produce. Our server offered to have the chef prepare me a special entree of sauteed seasonal vegetables. The result was a generous, artful arrangement of sauteed asparagus, thin strands of zucchini, shredded hearts of palm with a hint of lemon, finger potatoes, wild mushrooms, and mashed sweet potatoes topped with fried, shredded sweet potato garnish.
But Chez Francois is most revered for its nonvegetarian entrees. The summer menu, for instance, includes Chesapeake soft shell crabs, Breckenridge lamb, lobster-stuffed zucchini blossoms and filet mignon. My friend ordered the fish special, potato-crusted grouper in a Noilly Prat sweet vermouth sauce, which he found to be fresh, flavorful and tender.
Perhaps the best part of the evening, though, was the dessert: We shared a rich, molten chocolate cake, served with French vanilla bean ice cream in an almond cookie cup and fresh berries. The cake - just-out-of-the-oven warm, gooey and sweet - was a chocoholic's fantasy.
Chez Francois 555 Main St., Vermilion, 440/967-0630. http://www.chezfrancois.com/. Open for dinner Tues.–Sun. Closed Mon. Entrees $28-$38. CR