Is there anything more intoxicating than the scent of food roasting over a wood fire? That seductive aroma is one of the first things you notice when you walk into Restaurant Josephine. It’s just one of the many ways that Josephine, a French bistro-style dinner house that opened earlier this year in Auburn, tantalizes your senses.
The restaurant’s owners are Courtney McDonald and Eric Alexander, a pair of talented chefs who used to run the kitchen at nearby Carpe Vino wine bar. They met 20 years ago, as students at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park in New York, and have worked together ever since. Now married and parents to a 10-year-old daughter named Josephine, they’ve created a restaurant that is a very personal expression of themselves and the things that matter to them.
With banquettes upholstered in forest-green velvet, gilt-framed mirrors, a black-and-white hex-tile floor and art deco wallpaper, Josephine looks like it’s been around since the 1920s. That’s a clever illusion: The original space was a photo studio before the couple’s business partner, general contractor Britton Reed, remodeled it to resemble a French boîte, with a zinc bar and a framed chalkboard menu advertising the day’s selection of fresh oysters. McDonald and Alexander decorated the walls with family photos, vintage coasters and other items they’ve collected over the years. “You can always tell when the people who own a restaurant designed it themselves,” says Alexander, “because it’s personal—not a concept.”
Situated in midtown Auburn, a picturesque part of town that could be the backdrop for a Hallmark holiday movie, the restaurant originally was scheduled to open in early 2020. But the pandemic had other ideas. So McDonald and Alexander kept busy doing private events and curbside pickup of meals like crispy “iron” chicken and dishes to assemble at home, such as shuck-’em-yourself oysters and French onion soup kits. They finally opened the restaurant for real this past June, when the governor lifted restrictions on indoor dining. By then, Auburn diners had already discovered the newcomer, and the restaurant has been a wild success ever since. Reservations are necessary and disappear quickly; walk-ins are accommodated at the bar.
The menu has a bistro bent, with French mainstays such as steak frites and its seafood cousin, moules frites, French onion soup, duck liver mousse, and escargots and mushrooms “en cocotte.” In a nod to Alexander’s Lithuanian great-grandmother (also named Josephine), many of the dishes employ Eastern European ingredients or techniques. Vareniki, similar to pierogi, are Russian dumplings that change seasonally: In winter, they’re filled with potatoes and leeks. A lovely mushroom toast appetizer pairs house-made tvorog (a Russian farmer cheese) with creamy, sherry-scented local mushrooms and Russian-style pickled chanterelles. The “iron” chicken gets its crispy skin from being weighted down on the wood-burning grill with a vintage clothes iron—an old Eastern European trick, according to Alexander. He and McDonald sourced the primitive cast-iron appliances from thrift stores and eBay. (They acquired the restaurant’s unmatched china the same way.)
Is this a special occasion restaurant or an everyday one? Actually, it’s both. You can splurge on champagne and caviar service ($80–$100 for 30 grams) or grab a beer and a burger—albeit a very nice $19 burger, with Gruyere and onion confit on a potato bun, served with crisply addictive frites. Alexander supervises the kitchen; a trained pastry chef, McDonald oversees the front of the house and prepares the desserts, including chocolate mousse and tarte au citron, made with Meyer lemon, fennel pollen and dollops of toasted meringue.
The restaurant has a buzzy, bustling, partylike ambience, with the music a tad on the loud side and friendly servers who don’t hesitate to urge you to order something they think you will like. (Our waiter practically commanded us to get the roasted pumpkin soup topped with a swirl of sweetened brown butter. He was right; it was marvelous.) Alexander and McDonald’s daughter Josephine hangs out at the restaurant, occasionally pitching in to help. “That lack of pretentiousness is a big part of what motivates us,” says Alexander. “It’s what makes people happy, and it’s why we wanted to do our own thing.”