In the last quarter of the last century, it became quite the norm for the interiors of old industrial buildings to be remodeled for the installation of new, handsome businesses and residences. So Franco, with its sleek post-modern décor, located in an ancient baby carriage factory, seems unremarkable on that score. But many restaurateurs would be envious of its proximity to a centuries-old farmers market, even though many of the contemporary merchants there don't grow their wares themselves. Alas, Franco is not open at the correct time to allow us one of our great delights, breakfast at the market, but they're open for lunch during the week, so on Friday when Soulard Market gathers speed, that's a possibility.
There are those who hear the name and think of the late dictator of Spain (who, we remind you, is still dead, per Saturday Night Live), but the name refers to the food coming from the kitchen of executive chef Matthew Abeshouse. Yes, it's French, but it's more French-ish, with authentic contemporary American notes like a bit of maple in a salad with greens, apples, and blue cheese. The interior hints at nothing French-y, its high ceilings baffled by wavy hangings designed to bring the eye down, with plenty of brick and steel. The room is noisy when a crowd gathers, but on a weeknight, it's quiet enough for business conversations—that, in fact, could be overheard easily a table away.
Franco seems to be making its own bread. The resulting baguette is less the crusty, full-of-holes version than a fine-crumbed pain de mie, which the French often use for sandwiches. It's tasty, just a surprise to see it. A biscuit made with pepperjack cheese sported some green onion as well and displayed a texture more like a scone than a biscuit, crumbly with richness but slightly dry. A plate of country-fried frog legs brought three of them in a light batter laced with black pepper, the meat moist and tender. Alongside came grits with lashings of cream or butter, so rich were they, some excellent greens cooked with bacon, and a bit of red wine pan gravy. It's hard to say which was best, the frog legs, the grits or the greens.
This is a perfect time of year for cassoulet, the meat-and-bean dish much loved and much argued over in the southwestern part of France. We'll spare you the details of the discourse, but what we're talking is white beans, several meat options, slow cooking in an oven and a crusty top. Like a lot of bean dishes, it's not a particularly photogenic dish, but its flavor can be exquisite, and Franco's is darn close to that. The sausage, made in-house, is tangy and delicious, and anything that has duck confit as an ingredient is swell in our book. But it's the beans themselves that brought the wow factor. Tender, perfect, incredibly well-seasoned...sublime, absolutely sublime. (And it led us to wonder: Is Granny's ham and beans a descendant of cassoulet?)
Ann will eat lamb shanks in any weather, so she needed no excuse. This lovely piece of meat, as tidily trimmed as an expensive French chapeau, arrived with a risotto, roasted carrots, turnips and parsnips and the pan juices. Not cooked to death but a texture that yielded to a fork, the flavor was of the meat, not a riot of competing herbs, and the pan juices were the same way. While the risotto lacked creaminess and was dangerously close to just rice with sauce, the roasted vegetables' caramelized natural sugars came into play nicely, especially the parsnip, a root we are coming to appreciate more and more via its innate sweetness.
We've eaten tarte tatin several times lately, and while we were curious about how Franco does it, we figured our readers might be getting tired of it. And while we were tempted by profiteroles filled with chocolate mousse and topped with a caramel glaze, we ended up with a tangerine-lemon tart and some truffles. The tart's filling was properly creamy but lacked much citrus zip. The crust, made of a short pastry (like a cookie) rather than the flaky sort, was more interesting than the filling. Truffles were chocolate ganache with fig, white chocolate with lemon and a dark chocolate with peanut butter and bacon. The textures were silky, but we'd have liked more fig in the first one, and more lemon in the second. Only the dark chocolate, with its enrobed center of peanut butter and a little smoky bacon gave bang for the bite.
The wine list, while not exclusively French, is much deeper on the European options than the American ones, and offered some good values. Service is highly professional.
1535 S. Eighth St.
Lunch Mon.- Fri, Dinner Mon.- Sat.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: No