A French Kiss

Vermilion's Chez François is a tasty destination.

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If the bustling waiters wear uniforms that seem designed by Toulouse-Lautrec . . . if expensive pleasure boats putt-putt past the front door . . . if the award-winning wine menu weighs about as much as a newborn baby . . . why, then you must be at Chez François.

Chef John M. D'Amico and partner Matthew N. Mars opened this cozy French restaurant on the banks of the bucolic Vermilion River, about forty minutes west of Cleveland, in 1987. The rustic building that shelters it dates back to the 1840s, when it served as a sail loft for nearby shipbuilders. Today, Chez François continues to owe much of its charm to the river and its heavy traffic of cabin cruisers and sailboats, whose passage presents guests with an ever-changing show.

During summer months, the covered (but not enclosed) Riverfront Café, with its menu of light (but not inexpensive) appetizers, salads, and entrées, is a popular place for alfresco dining and some first-class river watching. But those whose top priority is getting the full Chez François treatment know to reserve their seats inside the crowded little dining room, with its more extensive menu, and confine their sightseeing to whatever can be glimpsed through the restaurant's large windows. After all, this is one of Northeast Ohio's few remaining French restaurants, and it would be a shame to let the scenery upstage culinary classics like Pâté Maison, Coquilles Saint-Jacques, and Carré d'Agneau.

Equally as interesting as the food is Chez François's selection of top-rated premium and rare wines, with a focus on Californian and French wineries. In fact, the restaurant has been a recipient of Wine Spectator magazine's Award of Excellence every year since 1992. Despite its impressive credentials, the wine list includes a number of affordable offerings, so there is no reason to deny yourself a nice bottle of wine with your meal. We chose a 1995 Chorey-Les-Beaunes Pinot Noir (from Jean-Luc Dubois in the Côte de Beaune subregion of Burgundy) for its light body and versatility; at $30, it was a good value.

Still, deciding on a wine hadn't been easy. It wasn't just that the small novella of a wine menu includes more than 270 tightly packed entries, each in teeny-tiny typeface. The problem was compounded by the fact that our otherwise perfect waiter was in a big rush to reclaim the magnificent document and have us get on with the business of ordering. Surely, we thought, we weren't the first guests to want to leisurely peruse the encyclopedic wine list. And assuming we didn't have the restaurant's sole copy in our hands, we couldn't quite fathom our waiter's hurry.

We eventually bowed to the pressure, however, and turned our attention from wine to appetizers. A generous portion of fine-textured Pâté Maison (the "house pâté" of ground and seasoned chicken liver) was light, mild, and delicious, served with a delightful assortment of "go-withs" including zippy little cornichon pickles, salty kalamata olives, chopped red onion, half of a hard-boiled egg, and stoned wheat crackers. (Crusty French bread would have been the preferred accompaniment, but we had to wait until our salads were served before we got our breadbaskets.)

Coquilles Saint-Jacques à la Parisienne — five large sea scallops in a satiny fish velouté seasoned with garlic, shallots, Dry Sack sherry, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese — was also a treat. Although the creamy white sauce was robust, it didn't overwhelm the fresh sea taste of the scallops, which were still tender if just a shade beyond perfectly done. The seafood and sauce were loaded into a large natural scallop shell and piped all around with a portion of puréed duchess potatoes, making for a classically pretty presentation.

Homard et Saint André en Croûte — a signature appetizer made of bits of cooked lobster and a mild French triple cream cheese wrapped in dainty puff pastry — was subtly sweet but otherwise surprisingly bland. The two little turnovers could have used more filling; as it was, they seemed nearly overwhelmed by the bold-tasting black currant sauce that accompanied them.

A final appetizer, exotic Carpaccio de Filet de Boeuf served with sautéed wild mushrooms and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano, was also a bit understated. The gossamer-thin slices of raw prime beef were as tender as a kiss, but, besides the bite of an occasional cracked peppercorn, they lacked much flavor. The menu had described the meat as being topped with aged balsamic vinegar and white truffle oil, which would have lent it some necessary depth; to our disappointment, we were unable to pick out those tastes.

Entrées come with an outstanding baguette of warm and crusty French bread and a house salad of locally grown, in-season greens. Tonight the salad was a wonderful toss of melt-in-your-mouth Savoy spinach topped with bits of sweet-and-smoky bacon, chopped egg, thinly sliced red onion rings, and a thick, sweet-and-sour housemade champagne vinaigrette, flavored with Dijon mustard, garlic chives, cilantro, and shallots.

Just because D'Amico's menu is heavy on the classics doesn't mean that trendy items are overlooked. Case in point was an entrée special of Alaskan "hook-and-line caught" Copper River King Salmon, a fish that is available for only a short time each year and is thought by some to be the best-tasting salmon around. Our generous filet had a satiny texture and a pleasantly mild taste that was beautifully set off by chargrilling and a touch of Italian truffle butter; again, like the scallops, the salmon could have spent a moment's less time on the grill. The dish came with a portion of braised Napa cabbage, well-seasoned mashed potatoes, and several spears of impeccably fresh and sweet Ohio asparagus. (Was it the best salmon I have ever eaten? No. Although it was quite good, I've had Alaskan salmon from other, mostly unnamed rivers that was equally delicious.)

Escalope de Veau aux Fruits de Mer — a breaded and sautéed veal cutlet topped with bits of lobster, a shrimp, a scallop, and a creamy white sauce Normande flavored with fresh dill — was a mixed bag. The veal — sweet, delicate, and fork-tender — was dreamy, but the overcooked seafood, with a few shards of what seemed to be lobster shell, was less than enchanting. The entrée came with the same flavorful mashed potatoes and fresh asparagus.

Sautéed breast of free-range chicken in a light egg batter, served with bits of lobster, a shrimp, mushrooms, chunks of sautéed Jonathan apples, and several whole roasted hazelnuts, in a fragrant Frangelico (hazelnut liqueur) cream sauce over a sweet potato mousseline, was much more satisfying. (Even its French name — Suprême de Volaille aux Noisettes et aux Crustacés — was a tasty mouthful.) The chicken was moist and tender, and the blended flavors of the shellfish (which, in this case, was not overcooked), apples, and hazelnuts, not to mention the creamy mashed sweet potatoes, lent the dish a sweet flavor and festive flair, like something from an ancestral Christmas banquet.

Our final entrée was also excellent. Australian rack of lamb (Carré d'Agneau au Naturel) had been topped with an herb crust and roasted to a rosy medium rare before being carved into five dainty chops that were bursting with flavor. The chops were attractively fanned around a mound of mashed potatoes; asparagus spears and a few pieces of sautéed apples gave the savory meat a sweet balance.

We are not the type of people who can drive almost an hour to dinner and then go home without dessert. This is fortunate, because Chez François has one of the largest, most tempting menus of housemade sweets of any restaurant in the area. Offerings range from chocolate mousse garnished with raspberries to a wedge of aged Roquefort served with sliced apples, but the clear emphasis is on fresh fruits and berries. One of the best was an excellent Framboises Flambées Romanoff — vanilla ice cream and chunks of chocolate wrapped in a layer of sweet meringue, flamed tableside with brandy, and finished with marinated raspberries. Hot and cold, sweet and piquant, creamy and a little crisp all at once, the dessert was the thing of which late-night cravings are made.

In addition to the formal dinner menu and the more casual Riverside Café menu, the restaurant also hosts occasional wine-tasting dinners, celebrates special events like Bastille Day (July 11), offers a four-course prix fixe menu daily except Friday and Saturday, and has a multicourse "chef's signature" tasting menu each evening.

While not everything is consistently perfect at Chez François, chances are good you'll find something to float your boat.

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