The French are coming to reclaim their city—and they’re bringing a killer cassoulet
By Dave Lowry
Photograph by Katherine Bish
Sometimes our powers of influence frighten even us. Only last year we were complaining—uncharacteristically, we know—about the surplus of self-labeled bistros and the dearth of restaurants that actually were bistros. Now, inexplicably, the city has sprouted several spots that deserve to tout themselves as such: relatively informal places with modest, affordable wine lists and a limited menu studded with house specialties. Franco, opened about five months ago next to Soulard Market, is among the best of these. Coincidence? You be the judge.
Franco has reclaimed one corner of the old Welsh Baby Carriage factory; the rest of the building is being converted to lofts. The space is comfortable. Marble-top tables are smart; so, too, are the plastic-and-aluminum Cesca chairs. A bar up front is set off from the dining area by a beautiful rustic wine rack. The kitchen looks out on the scene, close enough to offer a view of the action, removed sufficiently so it doesn’t intrude. Wide windowsills permit cozy nook seating. Original concrete pillars, wooden floors and exposed-brick walls add to the ambience, though those walls are to acoustics what Sean Penn is to coherent thought (in other words, it can be loud here, even with the airborne wooden noodles overhead to help absorb noise).
This is a remarkable menu; every selection tempts. Just choosing an appetizer can be mildly agonizing. A quartet of big sautéed frog legs, the meat snowy and tender, is bathed in a light Kermit-green dressing of garlic and shallots and a touch of curry. The blob of foie gras is skimpy but entirely delectable, exquisitely grilled and glistening in its own succulent fat. American restaurants seem to insist on offering an obligatory sweet contrast to the liver—here, it’s a reduction of apples and cherries—but blessedly, it’s set off to the side and easily ignored, as it deserves to be. Thick toast points add their own buttery taste to the already shockingly rich foie gras. Sweetbreads—sadly unappreciated and rarer than a Central West End Republican—are fried, with a pleasant, understated seasoning, then given a spritz of glossy purplish balsamic reduction and served with chunks of toasted bread. If you have any compunctions about eating these sweet little globes, please overcome them. This is a praiseworthy appetizer.
The going is no easier in choosing a main course. You would be better off asking the waiter to simply bring anything on the menu—you would undoubtedly be satisfied. The slosh of lager that the classic bistro steak gets before hitting the grill gives the meat—sliced and accompanied by very good frites and a skewer of grilled vegetables—a distinctive, smoky aroma. The trout is filleted into small steaks instead of served whole; odd, but it works, abetted considerably by a crumbly gratinée crust that’s subtle. A side of tiny, delicate Brussels sprouts—roasted with butter just long enough to brown their edges—complements the dish handsomely. Pork tenderloin gets the treatment it deserves: It’s cooked until just done, retaining all its flavor and texture, then sliced and glazed with a light mustard sauce and served with dill-scented spätzle and a spray of emerald broccolini. A hefty fillet of salmon with a cider glaze was fine, but the promised risotto was actually a creamy dollop of mashed potatoes. It was enjoyable evidence of a kitchen that’s experimenting, but diners should be able to expect menu and meal to match.
Among the “Large Soups,” chicken and dumplings and a roasted-lamb stew have gotten raves from diners here; we had to try the seafood stew, however. It was eminently satisfactory. A deep pool of hot, herby fumet, redolent of garlic, olive oil and good fish stock, supported generous servings of sliced squid, plump scallops, shrimp and mussels. The preparation was simple and the presentation similarly so, making for a bright, filling meal.
Franco would still be a recommended destination if its menu were limited to its delectable, first-rate cassoulet. It’s rendered in a sort of Castelnaudary style (although we didn’t detect any tomatoes, a signature of that version), with pork and sausages and white beans cooked excruciatingly slowly in the fat of the meat to yield a hearty, mouthwatering stew. The smokiness of the meat pervades the beans; the juice drips off the spoon like savory syrup. Franco’s version has a roasted-breadcrumb toppingthat adds another tex-ture to the experience.
A good cassoulet is tough to make. A superior one is a minor masterpiece. You won’t appreciate it in the hot St. Louis summer, so wait until fall, when the wind starts whipping like a jockey in the home stretch. Wrap your chilled fingers around that big white bowl, take in the heady aroma of the beans and pork and appreciate Franco’s cassoulet.
Desserts—among them an apple tart, house-made cookies and a root-beer float—are similar to the rest of the menu: limited and all worthwhile. Recommended: the refreshingly simple crème brûlée, with a smack of Tahitian vanilla in the crème. Or ignore the improper menu designation of Pernod as an aperitif and drink it as it should be, leisurely and slowly, cut with a little chilly water. It’s a great way to end a meal here.
The wine list, befitting a good bistro, is manageable and affordable. An ’03 E. Guigal Côtes du Rhône for $26? This was a fabulous vintage, the wine spilling over the tongue with cherries and vanilla and just enough tannin to go superbly with the pork or steak. Snappy with citrus and with more of a crispy mineral bite than granite pliers, the Salomon Hochterrassen is a should-try, especially with the fish stew. Austrians call drinking such wines “drinking rocks”; these selections are still not as popular here as they will be and, correspondingly, are still a bargain.
Again consistent with the spirit of the bistro, Franco’s dinnerware is thick white porcelain, simple, functional and beautiful, that displays the presentation of the food nicely but without pretension. Service here is friendly but often inexcusably slow. A salad order was forgotten or ignored. Most new restaurants experience glitches; Franco needs some attention in this area—not much—and it will easily join the top tier of eating establishments in the city.
Address: 1535 S. Eighth
Average Main Course: $17
Reservations: Mais oui
Dress: Two words: understated panache
Bottom Line: As authentic a bistro approach to dining as we have in St. Louis, with some delectable specialties in a convivial setting