By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
When your family has been dedicated to the art of perfecting classic haute cuisine française for three generations – including operating one of the most iconic French restaurants in modern Mexico City history, handcrafting their own cured saucissons and long-fermentation sourdough bread, and establishing their personal vegetable and poultry farm to ensure a steady supply of fresh, organically grown produce – it is almost as if you have Boudreaux wine running through your veins instead of blood.
That is the case with Valerie Avernin, who, after watching her father François (with the devoted support of his wife Paquita) open his first premium French eatery back in the mid-1960s in the capital’s then-fashionable Colonia Juárez (the seminal Champs-Élysées, which would become the gold standard for high-end French cookery in Mexico for the next 50 years), knew that becoming a consummate cuisinière was her life’s professional calling.
But Daddy François had other ideas, so instead of letting his daughter enroll in a Cordon Bleu cooking school in France, he shipped her off straight out of high school to the L’Ècole de Hôteliere de Lausanne in Switzerland.
(Valerie’s sister, Sophie, did not fare much better, being sent abroad to learn about viticulture and enology, which eventually led her to a career in wine importation.)
But unlike Sophie, Valerie’s obsession with fine gastronomy and restauranteering never really died, and after dutifully completing her hotelier classes in Lausanne, came straight back to Mexico and convinced her father to let her partner with him in his next food service project, the opening of a small chain of casual French bistros called Mosaico.
But at the heart of the Avernin brand was not brasseries and casual dining, but the production of sophisticated, time-honored provincial classics like the black-peppered entrecôte with pencil-thin fried potatoes, aloyau sirloin steamed in red wine and tarragon, and slow-baked chicken breasts filled with steamed cauliflower and grilled shallot giardiniera that had become the staples at the now-long-gone Champs-Élysées.
So, once again, the Avernin family switched gears in mid-business-stream, selling off one-by-one their collection of Mosacio brasseries across Mexico City and investing in a more traditional, white-linen restaurant in the up-and-coming Colonia Roma Norte neighborhood, which opened under the appropriate name of Maison de Famille in 2014.
The food and service inside the Colonia Roma Norte property – a stately nouveau baroque mansion with an unexpected art deco feel – were superb, but the location of the stylish Maison de Famille was far more suited to the laid-back, denim-loving millennial crowd that preferred street food to haute cookery than to the more seasoned over-40 connoisseurs of fine dining that the restaurant’s chefs were catering to.
Mind you, this is not to say that the Roma Norte Maison de Famille was not a financial success, which it most certainly is.
By 2:30 p.m., the restaurant is almost always packed, especially on weekends, but there is a sort of out-of-placeness about it, and while the interior ambience is refined and elegant, the ongoing parade of colorfully dressed street artists, wannabe musicians with over-strained vocal chords and out-of-tune instruments, and the odd eccentric cannabis hawker who wants to sell his wares to anyone who he can stalk just outside the premises does detract from the polished European charm that the owners set out to create.
So finally, earlier this year, François and Valerie decided to transplant their classic French restaurant model to a secluded, colonial-style setting in the picturesque and cobblestoned Colonia San Ángel in Mexico City’s far south.
Without closing or compromising the Roma Norte restaurant, the new San Ángel Maison de Famille officially opened last spring with a small champagne-fueled debut attended mostly by members and friends of the Avernin clan.
Technically, it is still a family affair business, but while her father is never very far away, it is Valerie Avernin who oversees the day-to-day workings of Maison de Famille San Ángel, and that is fine with her.
She says that her training in hospitality and hotel management have served her well in understanding how to run the 40-table restaurant, which serves not only daily lunch and dinner, but also breakfast starting at 8 a.m.
The covered patio in the center of the San Ángel Maison offers an inviting and relaxing backdrop for family gatherings and long, lingering meals, while the interior salons — some with fireplaces — are well suited for business lunches and more formal affairs.
There is also a small cozy bar at the entrance of the restaurant, where you can enjoy a grapefruit margarita, the house specialty, and a glassed-in display case off to one side where you can purchase fresh sausages, cheeses and breads to take home.
As for the food at Maison San Ángel, those of us who still remember fondly the grace and elegance of the now-shuttered Champs-Élysées and its extraordinary can’t-go-wrong-with-whatever-you-order menu can feel a delightful sense of culinary déjà vu.
All those delicious Avernin paramour starters like homemade duck paté with champagne fig chutney and escargot bourguignonne drenched in parsleyed butter are still on the bill of fare, along with the family’s signature handmade sausages.
And there are also a few new items to open your palette, such as aubergine and vegetable tapenade and Spanish manchego cheese croquets.
If fresh greens are your thing, try the heart of lettuce and anchovy salad or the gorgonzola and dried fruit medley.
The classic baked French onion soup, dripping in melted gruyere and seasoned with fresh thyme is a definite winner, and there is an enduring home-style flavor to the cream of lentils chowder with duck confit.
The broiled fish fillet with balsamic onions is delicious and light enough to not make you feel too bad about breaking your diet.
The house chefs, José Luis Osorio and Alexis Preschez, also come up with a selection of 12 to 15 select seasonal dishes each week.
But if there is one item on the menu that stands out about all the others – at least for me – it is the freshly pressed semolina tagliatelle in a creamy morilla mushroom sauce, which is intended to be an appetizer but is hardy enough to serve as a main dish.
Maison de Famille San Ángel’s dessert carte is beyond tempting, with options like cardamom crème brûlée, passionfruit cream layered cake and ultra-thick dark chocolate mousse.
If you live in the north of the city and the prospect of driving all the way to the south of the city is too overwhelming to venture your way over to Maison de Famille San Ángel, you can still get basically the same menu and superior service at the Roma Norte branch, but there you won’t have the colonial patio dining hall and you might have to put up with that caravan of sour-noted minstrels.
Maison de Famille San Ángel is located at Avenida de la Paz 14 in Mexico City’s southern Colonia San Ángel (tel: 5131-5039).
It is open to the public Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Sundays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
All major credit cards are accepted and there is valet parking available at the entrance.
The original Maison de Famille is located in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma Norte at Calle Colima 152 (tel: 5525-2546).