Je ne sais quoi is a French term meaning something appealing that cannot be described in mere words; it's visceral. In contemporary dining, we might experience that reaction through the food, the dining experience itself or both. At Spokane's Française restaurant, we found this French-inspired shimmer showcased throughout.
A restaurant's entryway, for example, is not something you'd expect to ooh-la-la over. Yet, you might at Française as you open the door and walk through an artful assortment of live plants in brass and white ceramic pots, some hanging, and all thriving in the light-flooded vestibule.
Functionally, the greenery defines the space and points guests toward the greeter station. It also makes for a nice view as you're dining, framing the entrance and exit of other guests. Viscerally, though, the plants just feel good... These vibrant, living things that are also welcoming and familiar.
That's by design, says Adam Hegsted, the region's nationally known chef, entrepreneur and culinary industry leader whose Eat Good Group company developed Française this spring and opened it in June.
"We want to make it feel like it's been here for 100 years," says Hegsted, noting that the restaurant's décor purposely includes "things you might have in your home or that would feel familiar."
The building that houses Française is actually 112 years old, the last 10 years of which belonged to the recently shuttered Casper Fry Southern-style eatery, with a distinct aesthetic including exposed brick walls, a dark wood floor and 13-foot ceilings.
That appealed to the Eat Good team, says Hegsted, who worked with Eat Good's chef de cuisine and operations manager, Aaron Fish, as well as Française' general manager Nicole Bronkema to highlight the patina of the place. They kept Casper Fry's rough-plank tables with industrial metal bases and the austere bar in the back of the restaurant, but they incorporated a soothing blue-gray color scheme, eclectic artworks and soft touches like linen curtains.
Française commissioned an Eiffel Tower mural by North Idaho-based artist Alexandra Iosub for the brick wall of the long, narrow space. The opposite wall has been covered with a muted blue and cream floral art nouveau wallpaper. On it hang the beginnings of a "gallery" of various sized gold-framed mirrors and French art prints.
"Basically I just buy a bunch of stuff, and then everyone's like, 'This sounds like it's gonna be really ugly,'" says Hegsted, who contemplated graphic design in high school before committing to the culinary industry.
Even though Hegsted laughs as he describes this process, it works. The plants, curtains, industrial furnishings and other décor meld to create a distinct vibe of familiar yet unexpected inside Française.
Hegsted often takes a similar approach to menu planning, with his contemporary or culturally inspired spin on familiar comfort foods.
Dishes on the Française menu, which lists French and English titles, feature French classics like pate de campagne or country pâté ($8) served with traditional grainy mustard, cornichon pickles and walnuts, and confit de canard a l'orange or slow-cooked duck with orange sauce ($22).
For comfort fare, go for gnocchi with truffle cheese sauce and sautéed mushrooms ($14). Or, for a lighter meal, order the Lyonnaise salad ($11) with frisée, escarole, crispy pork belly and poached egg, or charcuterie ($22) with a cocktail like the boulevardier ($13).
For dessert, try beignets ($8) or the luxurious strawberry-rhubarb custard ($8) called pot de crème au fraises.
Française' menu also reflects Eat Good's penchant for meat-and-potatoes dishes and eggs served in various forms. (Fun fact: The company's initials spell the word egg.) That means a burger ($17) topped with gooey Swiss cheese called raclette, as well as deviled eggs ($11) with steelhead caviar and crème fraiche.
"There's certain things we've tried and we know work," says Hegsted, who figures he and Fish wrote around 50 recipes for Française. "And there's a lot of things we don't know."
The vegetarian and gluten-free walnut pâté ($11) might not be a top seller, says Hegsted, even though it tastes like conventional liver pate. So they may say au revoir to the pâté or any of the other roughly 30 dishes on the menu, which continues to evolve, Hegsted says.
Française is still in its soft-opening stage, having debuted to the public in mid-June. Soon, guests can look for chef Kayleigh Wytcherley (formerly of Bark, A Rescue Pub and Craft & Gather) to put her stamp on the menu, including adding lunch, brunch and seasonal items.
For now, though, Wytcherley is focused on making sure "everything is going out as perfectly as possible," she says.
Bronkema is also fine-tuning her arena, which includes front-of-the-house operations and the wine list, says the French-speaking general manager who studied winemaking at Walla Walla Community College.
"One great thing about working with Adam is that he really allows his chefs and managers to put a bit of themselves into their restaurants," adds Bronkema, who came out of semi-retirement when she heard Eat Good was doing a French-inspired place. "So, it really becomes a collaboration as you're creating the space and seeing it evolve."
Creating a solid team is important to the Eat Good Group philosophy, adds Fish, who oversees back-of-the-house operations like hiring.
"I felt like Kayleigh was the most authentic person in the pool of people that we interviewed," Fish says. "She had the skill set, the drive and the experience building and maintaining teams."
Her team is pumped, Wytcherley says.
"I don't think I've ever had a staff that is as excited to be at work as my staff is," she says.
That's what they strive for, says Fish — a culture where employees enjoy coming to work and want to make a long-term career out of an admittedly challenging industry.
"I think that's kind of our ethos," says Fish, "and it comes down from the top." ♦
Française • 928 S. Perry St. • Open daily 3-10 pm • francaisespokane.com • 509-315-4153