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BLOG — Weathered l’Auberge a Dayton institution

When Kirk and I got engaged in 2006 we went to l’Auberge to celebrate. Dayton’s renowned French restaurant had just remodeled in nouveau Art Deco with bold colors, soft high-back chairs and theatrical salt and pepper shakers. We had a cozy corner table with a direct view of the newly glassed-in kitchen, where we could see our chefs diving in and out of their workshop of stainless steel and steam. Though wanting for guests to fill it, the space felt warm and energized with authentic creativity. Though I recall that roasted pork belly dominated many of the dishes, the meal was excellent with enough novelty to warrant the pomp in the plating. That night I shared what is still the most memorable dessert of my 35 years of existence, and it had nothing to do with the occasion it commemorated. This island of almond brittle buoyed by a warm pool of silky caramel soup with grapefruit, kaffir lime leaves and Szechuan peppercorns was cradling a raspberry sorbet beset with spires of caramelized sugar announcing a collective triumph. The unorthodox pairing of flavors came together as in an egg to produce a new and totally unique life form. It would not reproduce in my kitchen, and I knew that the ephemeral quality was part of its beauty.

This month we returned to l’Auberge for a more modest dinner at the Bistro. As with the main dining room several years earlier, few others had chosen that restaurant on that night. A man wearing a suit and tie and looking a little worn, seated us in the room still colored by the Toulouse Lautrec dancers painted on the walls. And even with a few bowed ceiling tiles and paint chipping here and there, the fresh pink roses on every table gave the room energy and warmth. I wish I could say the same for our dinner.

The wiener schnitzel was good, with plenty of butter and capers to call it authentic enough. But the lobster bisque was as salty as the sea it came from, and I swear I had the same Caesar salad at the Olive Garden last year. The duck spring rolls were neither crispy nor interesting, and I had a sinking suspicion they came from a package. The “oyster tempura” was not. Just because you batter and fry a thing, does not tempura make. A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but wouldn’t the roses drop petals if we used that name to describe zinnias?

By that point my heart couldn’t take another disappointment, so we skipped dessert, and it was a good thing, because with our neighbors’ liquor bill charged to our tab, we couldn’t afford it anyway.

What is the purpose of ragging on an old guard restaurant in the neighborhood that has for 31 years educated several generations on the roots of French cuisine and the art of bold restauranteuring? I am despicable for insulting the innovators of their time.

Chefs Josef Rief and Dieter Krug came to Dayton from Cincinnati’s King Cole in 1979 to, in their words, “transform the culinary habits of Daytonians,” whose “middle class driven food market” was “dominated by steakhouses, fast food chains and supper clubs… and offered very little the in the way of culinary originality,” the l’Auberge Web site states.

The partners opened in the style of a French Country Inn and went home for months without a paycheck. But they courted the Dayton business community, and their restaurant gained first regional acclaim and then national recognition, which culminated in the receipt of a Mobil 4-star award. I remember going there as a young person and feeling very chic to be able to say that I was dining at l’Auberge and would probably order escargot, fois gras and mousse au chocolat for dessert.

L’Auberge has since reinvented itself several times, first by adding the casual Bistro and then the showroom, followed by the bar and finally the outdoor patio. The building is large, perhaps too big to be sustainable in this foodie market with new restaurants opening on every corner and at every highway exit. French food isn’t even that original in Dayton anymore, with C’est Tout in Centerville and Rue Dumaine near the Dayton Mall. The competition only expands from there, with creative and affordable cuisine offered at Meadowlark and closer to home at the Wind’s.

But as disappointed as I was last week, I wouldn’t hesitate to counsel diners to take a chance on Centerville’s haggard hero before bowing to the commercialism of the fake village at the Greene. L’Auberge was shaped by principles much more sustainable than greenbacks. And even though they miss the mark on certain nights, the business maintains a commitment to creating memorable experiences that will outlive both the restaurant and its chefs. And with that kind of integrity, I’ll never stop returning, if only for the possibility of a fleeting finish like the one I shared at my engagement.

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