French Kissed

Ian makes out (like a bandit) at Franco.

With apologies to Ford Madox Ford, this is the saddest story I have ever heard: "We are sold out of one starter tonight, the sweetbreads."

You know that scene at the end of the last Star Wars film where Darth Vader learns that Princess Natalie Portman died giving birth and shouts "Noooo!" with such primal rage that even the most devoted Star Warsfan can't help but giggle?

That was yours truly on a Saturday night at Franco, a fantastic new French bistro in Soulard: no sweetbreads in the kitchen and murder in my heart.

Perfectly Franco: Tom Schmidt
Jennifer Silverberg
Perfectly Franco: Tom Schmidt

Location Info

Map

Franco

1535 S. Eighth St.
St. Louis, MO 63104

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: St. Louis - South Grand

Details

Franco
1535 South Eighth Street, 314-436-2500.
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Sat.
Dinner 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 5-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
(Bar open till 1 a.m. Mon.-Sat.)

Pommes frites $5
Sweetbreads $9
"Wood Grilled Bistro Steak "$20
Braised lamb shank $23
"Caramel Apple "$6

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I exaggerate, of course — but only slightly. I ordered sweetbreads on my first visit to Franco, and in the days that followed I didn't want to eat anything but those delicate morsels of offal, as white as whole milk and nearly as creamy. Executive chef Justin Keimon sautéed the sweetbreads, imparting a gentle sweetness to their mild flavor, then topped them with a fricassee of wild mushrooms, giving the dish a meaty swagger.

I knew I should try something else, and Franco's selection of "Small Plates" offered several tempting choices, but if I counted on one hand the number of places in town that featured sweetbreads regularly, I'd probably have enough fingers left to throw a knuckleball.

When you have the chance to order sweetbreads in St. Louis, you do.

Many in the crowd packing Franco that night (and what a crowd — I scored a reservation at 9:30 and considered myself lucky; we didn't sit down until after 10) must have agreed, so my friends and I had to be content with a generous slab of seared foie gras in a cherry compote, the tart sauce like a knife through the unctuous liver. Wringing our hands, we suffered through a roulade of smoked salmon and crab with dots of grapefruit gelée, the salmon so tender, its flavor more reminiscent of the ocean than of smoke, that you might mistake it for sashimi. Sighing, we made do with a fat, nutty country pâté and pork rillettes with a hint of apricot.

Still, as our waitress cleared our starters, euphoria faded and despair reared its ugly head once more. I knew sweetbreads would return to Franco, but with so many other restaurants to review and so few days in the week, I didn't know when I would return to Franco.

OK, I admit: As far as tear-jerkers go, that's no Old Yeller. Consider this one then. Call it speculative fiction: Tom Schmidt, who owns Franco with his father, Ed, originally intended to open a diner.

Then the 26-year-old Schmidt happened to have dinner at what he describes as a "swanky" restaurant in Manhattan's painfully trendy Meatpacking District. There he had skate wing with frites.

For $16.

In Manhattan.

Schmidt realized that there were few, if any, St. Louis restaurants where you could get a similar meal at such a reasonable price.

"We need this," he recalls thinking. "We need this pretty bad."

So the diner became Franco (named for Schmidt's three-year-old nephew, whose photo graces the wall behind the host's stand), which opened in the handsome old Welsh Baby Carriage building in mid-November. It's a beautiful space: Exposed brick walls and high windows frame the main dining room; from the ceiling hang panels of wood curved like rippling water.

The only drawback is the bar: a lovely space but a narrow one, with its few tables reserved for diners. When there are more people waiting than there are seats at the bar, you get a significant and uncomfortable logjam.

The kitchen sits at the north end of the dining room. Through the pass you can see Justin Keimon and his team working efficiently and, considering how much food they put out, with admirable quiet. Keimon has kicked around St. Louis restaurants for a while now — Grenache, R.L. Steamer's — and at Franco Tom Schmidt has given him a "clear canvas." The menu changes daily, often based on whatever looked good that morning next door at Soulard Market, with an emphasis on organic, locally raised food. Almost everything is made from scratch in the kitchen. And not just everyday items like bread and soup, either; Schmidt told me that Keimon is currently curing duck-breast prosciutto.

Keimon's main dishes are hearty bistro classics. Braised lamb shank is a tremendous dish. The bone juts out of a large bowl like the mast of a ship. The meat falls apart at the mere rumor of a fork. It's served in its natural jus, an entire lamb's worth of flavor concentrated in each drop. When the jus starts to overwhelm, roasted shallot-crème fraèche risotto provides piquant ballast.

Cassoulet was dense with smoky pork sausage and perfectly al dente haricots blancs. For a "Wood-Grilled Bistro Steak," slices of the pleasantly chewy, ruby-red cut were fanned out in a red wine-olive sauce; the dish reinforced my belief that you are far more likely to enjoy a simple steak frites than the overpriced hunks o' beef purveyed at many a steak house.

The only misstep was Atlantic salmon sautéed in a lemon-fennel glaze: a lovely piece of fish, beautifully browned, but done in by a glaze that was too tart. Roasted Missouri trout evinced a lighter touch, with olive oil smoothing out the lemon drizzle atop the incredibly tender fish. The kitchen also showed deft touch with two soups of the day: a potato and leek with crumbled bacon that was surprisingly airy for its rich flavor, and a sweet potato-apple purée with a touch of hazelnut cream that might just as well have been a sophisticated dessert.

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