Restaurant Review: Francie in Brooklyn

I think most of us all will always remember our first real meal in our restaurant in the age of Covid – not the time we sat on the street next to a potted palm, twinkling in the sun like some cave-dwelling animal, but the time we walked into the dining room and took off our mask. After all we’ve been through, the pleasure of an inside meal mixes with our fear of airborne pathogens to create a very special mix of dizziness and nervousness, just the kind of mental state that tends to take root in our heads.

For me, it happened in Francie, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on a March day I got my first dose of the vaccine.

Very few restaurant critics’ work meals have a sense of occasion, but this one fit right, and Francie fit the moment like a pair of ABC’s Lululemon pants. Eating inside was the only option there; The sober neo-Renaissance building in Frances, designed as a bank in 1888, has no street or sidewalk frontage that could be used for outside tables. But having to wait until last December for it to open has given contractors time to install UV lamps that emit virus in air ducts.

The dining room was only a quarter full, it was the maximum at that time, and the glass partitions between the tables. Other than that, everything I’d been missing about in-restaurant dining came back in a flood – a partially alcoholic flood that started with four cloudy ounces of icy martinis shaken so smoothly that it was almost rubbing. (I can’t explain it, but the martini tastes better inside.)

Next, I looked for a half-dozen baby oysters that were nested in a tangle of rocky weeds and pebbles, as if they had been washed ashore. Mix the liquor with the juice of parsley, radish and brine. I drank it like a vampire.

Although at the time, Francie’s roast duck was a regular feature on my Instagram feed, I still did a double take when I came across it in person, a gorgeous golden honey-coated soccer ball surrounded by green needles of pine and rosemary. After returning briefly to the kitchen, he appeared again in slices with a dry concentration of flavor that a steakhouse would envy. However, the star of the dish turned out to be its condiment, a viscous, salty, pork sopressata jam. It was great smearing a duck piece. I have no doubts it would be delicious on frozen bread or a pile of junk.

The chef behind these and other persuasive arguments for getting out of the house is Christopher Cipollone. I last met his cook a few years ago at Piora, a West Village restaurant where he gracefully oversaw a wedding of Korean and Italian cuisine. He later spent a year in San Francisco on an all-Italian setting at Cotogna.

His menu at Francie, where he’s also an owner, is less programmable than he’s done at either of those places, but he hasn’t lost his sense of pasta, and he can still reach into his wardrobe for an Asian ingredient without pulling the muscles.

Mr. Cipollone’s cooking appears to be a lot less tight now than it was at Piora. Francie wears his fine dining attitudes loosely and comfortably, while blinking indicates that none of his fantasies should be taken seriously. The restaurant ordered cloth face masks embroidered along “Francie’s” jaw line, then strapped them onto an Italianate marble statue of a young woman sitting in the private dining room. Around Halloween, a couple of full-size skeletons are centered in the bar. One was wearing a robe from an antique shop and faux pearls, the other a porkpie hat – Andy and Ducky from “Pretty in Pink”.

I waited until October, when eating inside had become a routine for me, before going back. Plexiglass is gone, and so has most of the day-to-day epidemic disruptions. I settled at a table near the bar to discover how many joys my first meal had caused after confinement delirium.

There wasn’t much joy in the only plant-focused main course, as it was filled with milk, like a bargain bowl from a hippie health food restaurant in the ’70s, with a lightly spiced mass of lentils, rice, mushrooms, and eggplant. But there was a lot to like about the herb-crushed halibut fillets that were grilled in the kitchen and paired with a fruity emulsion of red wine and butter.

Frenchie roast duck is served without legs or wings, but the kitchen uses the rest of the bird for other dishes. There are entrees of duck sausage and duck bolognese with pappardelles and house-made duck mortadella wrapped in pink folds atop mini rafts of toasted brioche with pistachio and mustard.

This mortadella crostini is exactly the kind of free interpretation of Italian tradition in which Mr. Cipollone excels. He does it again when he reworks an old-fashioned fall mix of pasta with sweet pork sausage and bitter copper. Rigatoni is thrown into it with the melted spijarello; Sausages, crumbled, hidden behind chopped chanterelles and live pieces of an heirloom Japanese pumpkin.

And if all that doesn’t convince you to wear a pair of shoes, let me direct you to an attraction that Francie calls soufflĂ© cakes. This is something like a blini that rises, and rises further, until it takes the form of a chef’s tok. Sweet buns are meant to be smeared with seaweed butter and a glossy black puddle of caviar.

For some, the meal will end with a mascarpone cheesecake or a door of a Neapolitan sundae built by James DiStefano’s pastry kitchen. Full disclosure: I never skipped the cheese course. Mr. Cipollone’s partner in Francie, John Winterman, drives a marble-covered cheese cart around the dining room.

When he led him to mooring from my elbow and hoisted lid on a dozen or more specimens, I fell into a trance as he carved smooth, black Pennsylvania wood and a weed-crusted wedge distilled from the milk of alpine cows. After three or four (I wasn’t counting), I finally pulled out a potion of ebobis that flowed icy from spoon to plate.

You probably shouldn’t eat this way every day. But when you’re wandering and getting lost, in the woods or in the wilds of your apartment, Francie is there to welcome you back.

What do the stars mean? Because of the pandemic, restaurants are not being given star ratings.

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