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 Wars fan 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.
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.
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.
Desserts included both the reliable (Tahitian vanilla crème brûlée, as satisfying as good crème brûlée always is) and the clever. The standout among the latter was the "Caramel Apple," green-apple sorbet from local favorite Serendipity, roasted apples and cajeta, a Mexican version of caramel syrup, made with goat's milk.
Here, sadly, the meal ends. Though classy, Franco is utterly unpretentious, so there's no shower of petits fours to keep you at your table. Which, come to think of it, is odd. Given the choice between lingering at a four-star table in a monkey suit and lingering here, I'd choose Franco every time.
This is the saddest story I have ever told about myself: One summer I subsisted on nothing but cornbread and French fries.
I was working as a deli clerk and short-order cook in Ocean City, Maryland. The cornbread came from a boxed mix. The fries we made ourselves. These were boardwalk fries: cut fresh, soaked in water, blanched twice, doused with salt and eaten out of a paper cup that started to disintegrate with the first drop of grease.
These were as vital to summers down the ocean (as we say there) as the sun and the surf, but I took them for granted until I learned how to make them. There was no secret, just a time-tested process that you either followed or you didn't. If you did, you got the crispest and saltiest and most delicious fries you could imagine. If you didn't at just a couple bucks a cup no one really cared.
I made them the right way. I knew I'd be stealing a handful from every batch I made, so I wanted to steal the very best fries I could. I also knew that while the fries were a simple pleasure, they were a pleasure, deserving of my attention.
Pommes frites at Franco cost $5 and come in a metal cone rather than a paper cup, with a side of mayo, not ketchup. Otherwise, they're boardwalk fries. I ordered them at the same time I ordered the sweetbreads, and while the sweetbreads blew me away, it was the frites that took me back to the 64th Street Market in Ocean City. There I first realized that food wasn't just taste and energy and a full belly.
Franco isn't the "best" restaurant in St. Louis. It's not haute or innovative cuisine as you might find at An American Place or Niche. It's not fancy or pampering like Tony's. But I can't think of a better place to reconnect with why you fell in love with food and restaurants in the first place. And if you've never thought about food or restaurants in those terms, I can't think of a better place in St. Louis to start your own story.
It'll have a happy ending. Promise.
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