October 2006 Overall Rating: 4.5
(Ratings on a scale of 1-5)
Food Quality: 5
Menu Selection: 5
Franco’s Trattoria, formerly known as Franco’s Pizzeria, has remade itself. Its former incarnation was as an upscale pizza and sandwich joint. Successful restaurants rarely are overhauled, and there’s nothing to suggest this was an exception. The decor’s basically the same (with one critical addition), but the menu’s gotten completely revamped. Now, Franco’s is no longer just an Italian outpost, but rather is a one-stop world tour, with excellence the guiding principle.
Not that the old place wasn’t stylish. The then- and current owners, Cristiano Ruffigno and Jeremy Carroll, couldn’t be tacky if they had guns to their heads. No, it was the pizza: Perhaps our provincial American tastes are to blame, but the pies lacked the… ‘zazz’ that we apparently crave. The pizzas are still there (primarily for the kids). Enough about the past; let’s talk about the exciting here and now.
The same building houses the same layout and decor. But it looks different, snazzier. The trick was pulled off by the simple adding of white tablecloths and cover paper, with real napkins and silver ware. Kind of like the way the right tie makes the suit or the right purse… you get the picture. It’s still relatively small, but with more tables and booths than what appear at first blush. The decor still exudes understated elegance. Soft green and red geometric shapes on the walls, slender brushed aluminum halogen lights hanging from the ceiling and white tablecloths combine to create a smart and unfussy look.
The menu: The jaw drops, the mind boggles, the mouth salivates. “World Fusion” is the preferred term of art, and it will do as an attempt to explain the astonishing variety found there. Vietnam, Cuba, Thailand, Egypt, Japan, Greece and of course Italy are just some of the countries represented.
The lunch menu’s contained within the dinner version, which is innovatively divided up into sections labeled “Cold” (salads and much more) and “Hot”, which subdivided into “Garden” (vegetarian fare), “Sea”, and “Earth” (as in meat). All of the dishes range from $5 to $12, and most are of small-to-modest proportions, encouraging the sampling and sharing of several dishes instead of one or two main ones. The chef, Brandon LeBlanc, promises that the menu will have changes made every couple of months or so, more tweaking than wholesale.
LeBlanc is a young 20-something who graduated from John Folse’s chef factory, and who also served an apprenticeship at his restaurant, not to mention six-month tours of duty in Napa Valley and Italy. He explained that the new menu was developed through trial-and-error.
Franco’s has had “tapas” (Spanish for “snack or appetizer”) night on Wednesdays for some time, where small dishes were presented for quick gobbling. Eventually patrons developed favorites and began asking for them to reappear. Voila, the most-requested items made the cut on the new menu. LeBlanc and Carroll went further in explaining their creative process, and it sounded a lot like musicians jamming together after hours.
I went on consecutive days, first lunch and then dinner. I followed the tapas philosophy and tried many of the selections.
• Tuna tartar with mango-avocado salsa and Thai-citrus vinaigrette: An explosion of taste, the raw tuna in bite-size hunks swimming with the fresh mangos and avocados.
• Roasted red pepper and almond hummus with pita bread: Delicious.
• Spring rolls filled with seared tuna, papaya, grilled scallions, and sunflower seeds with peanut sauce: The wraps on these rolls were suitably gummy, and the innards were perfectly balanced; the peanut sauce had an extra kick.
• Grilled portabella mushroom “steak” with Cabernet glace and fried leek and shallot rings: The inherent meatiness of this stout mushroom was accentuated by the complex dark sauce bathing it. The fried rings on top were a nifty idea.
• Five spice-encrusted black drum with edamame, red onion, and tangerine-soy glaze: The Chinese spices welded to the firm flesh of the drum brought spasms of delight from our table. The vegetables were swimming in the slightly-sweet soy sauce.
• Fire-roasted oysters with Japanese bread crumbs and ginger-ancho chile butter: You’ll remember, then forget, the classic oyster Bienville dish.
• Egyptian spiced chicken breast with grilled vegetable cous-cous: Investigative reporting unearthed the secret to this unique twist on the tired breast: yogurt marinade. You won’t have any idea that’s what’s behind the extraordinary juiciness.
• Vietnamese rice noodle bowl with shrimp, straw mushrooms, bean sprouts, carrots, fresh mint, and spicy Asian Broth: A soup of surpassing taste and bounty.
• Rack of Lamb crusted with Hibiscus mint tea with grilled vegetable ratatouille and orange-caper butter: Too good and too tiny, two lamb chops tantalize, deliver and then vanish.
• Grilled petite filet mignon topped with Maytag bleu cheese, apples, and walnuts with port wine reduction: My nine-year-old son ate it up, and he doesn’t eat cheese or fruit.
• Braised pork belly with root vegetables, pork jus, and gremolata: Decadence, pure and simple.
• “Deconstructed” caramel apple with Amaretto-infused caramel and cinnamon tasted almonds: A do-it-yourself treat that’s as much fun to eat as it is delectable.
• Chocolate and Bailey’s Irish Cream cheesecake with fresh berries: Uh, great or greatest cheesecake ever?
If this partial listing of menu items hasn’t got your interest in overdrive, then you’re reading the wrong column. This bistro could hang with the best New Orleans has to offer.
The service was great, expert in knowing when to show up, when to disappear and when to suggest other dishes. Except she could have stopped us before we almost committed suicide by gluttony.