Most of us, I guess, will always remember our first real meal at the Covid-era restaurant – not the moment we sat on the street next to a potted palm tree, blinking our eyes at the sun like a cave animal, but the moment we walked into a dining room and took off the mask. After everything we had been through, the pleasure of an indoor meal mixed with our fear of airborne pathogens to create a very particular cocktail of dizziness and nervousness, the kind of psychological state that tends to go downhill. take root in our heads.
For me it happened to Francie, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on March day, I received my first dose of vaccine.
Very few of a restaurant reviewer’s working meals have a sense of occasion, but this one did, and Francie adapted to the moment like a pair of Lululemon ABC pants. Eating inside was the only option there; Francie’s understated neo-Renaissance building, designed as a bank in 1888, has no street or sidewalk facade that can be used for outdoor tables. But having to wait until last December to open gave contractors time to install ultraviolet lights and virus filters in the air ducts.
The dining room was only a quarter full, the limit at the time, and plexiglass barriers stood between the tables. Otherwise, almost everything I had missed for eating inside restaurants came back in a flood – a partly alcoholic flood that started with four cloudy ounces of a frozen martini so sweet it was almost frictionless. . (I can’t explain it, but martinis taste better on the inside.)
Then I went looking for half a dozen clams that were nestled in a tangle of wrack and pebbles, as if they had been washed up on shore. Their liquor mingled with parsley juice, horseradish and brine. I drank it like a vampire.
Although Francie’s roast duck was a regular feature of my Instagram feed by then, I still did a double take when I met him in person, a large golden honey glazed soccer ball surrounded by green needles of pine and rosemary. After a brief return to the kitchen, it reappeared sliced with a concentration of dry-aged flavor that a steakhouse would envy. Still, the star of the dish turned out to be his condiment, a sticky, salty, porky soppressata jam. It was wonderful spread over a piece of duck. I have no doubt that would be delicious on a frozen bagel or a stack of junk mail.
The leader behind these and other arguments for getting out of the house is Christopher Cipollone. I last encountered his cuisine a few years ago at Piora, a West Village restaurant where he gracefully presided over a marriage of Korean and Italian cuisines. He then spent a year in San Francisco in an all-Italian fashion at Cotogna.
His menu at Francie, where he also owns, is less programmatic than what he’s done at either of those places, but he hasn’t lost his taste for pasta, and he still can. search the top of your cupboard for an Asian ingredient without pulling a muscle.
Mr. Cipollone’s kitchen seems a little less strained now than it was in Piora. Francie wears her gastronomic attitudes in a loose and comfortable manner, while signaling that none of her fantasies are to be taken too seriously. The restaurant ordered cloth masks with “Francie” embroidered along the jawbone, then attached one to an Italian marble sculpture of a young woman sitting in the private dining room. Around Halloween, a few life-size skeletons were stationed at the bar. One was wearing a vintage store cape and faux pearls, the other was wearing a pig hat – Andie and Duckie from “Pretty in Pink”.
I waited until October, when dining inside had become a routine for me, before going back. The plexiglass was gone, as were most one-day pandemic crises. I sat down at a table near the bar to understand how many of the joys of my first meal had been induced by post-containment delirium.
There wasn’t much joy in the only plant-based main course, a filled pithivier, like a bargain bowl from a 1970s hippie diet restaurant, with a piece of lentils, rice, mushrooms. and sub-seasoned eggplant. But there was a lot to love about the herb-crusted halibut fillet the kitchen had roasted and paired with a bright, fruity emulsion of red wine and butter.
Francie’s roast duck is served without its legs or wings, but the kitchen uses the rest of the bird in other dishes. Duck sausage aperitif, duck bolognese with pappardelle and homemade duck mortadella draped in pink folds on small rafts of toasted brioche with pistachio mustard.
These mortadella crostini are exactly the kind of free interpretation of the Italian tradition in which Mr. Cipollone excels. He does it again by reworking the old fall pasta combination with sweet pork sausages and bitter brassicas. His rigatoni are mixed with wilted spigarello; the sausage, crumbled, is hidden behind chopped chanterelles and lively pieces of a Japanese heirloom pumpkin.
And if all of that still hasn’t convinced you to put on a pair of shoes, let me direct you to an attraction that Francie calls soufflé cakes. They are something like blinis that go up and up again, until they take the shape of a large chef’s hat. Sweet cakes are meant to be smeared with seaweed butter and a shiny black pool of caviar.
For some, the meal will end with a mascarpone cheesecake or a doorstop of a Neapolitan sundae built by the pastry chef of James Distefano. Full Disclosure: I’ve never gone over the cheese price. Mr. Cipollone’s partner in Francie, John Winterman, drives a marble-covered cheese cart into the dining room.
When he led him into a bunk by my elbow and lifted the cover over a dozen or more specimens, I entered a sort of trance as he carved a blackened and ashy Pennsylvania goat log and quartered in a crust of herbs distilled from the milk of alpine cows. After three or four (I was not counting) he finally picked up a mouthful of Époisses which flowed, icy, from the spoon to the plate.
You probably shouldn’t eat this way every day. But when you’ve wandered and lost, in the woods or in the wilderness of your apartment, Francie is there to welcome you again.
What the stars mean Due to the pandemic, restaurants are not receiving stars.