The Franklin is a new restaurant in a historic neighborhood with a very modern look built around old bones. Against all probability, the food reflects this mix, taking familiar Louisiana flavors in unconventional directions.
There’s plenty of opportunity for friction between all these moving parts, as when the expectations of fine dining clash with no reservations, late-night hours and the tides of Marigny nightlife. But it’s a real pleasure when they all slide together smoothly and click into place.
The building, a long-vacant former grocery, had been reduced to dirt floors and open rafters when work on the restaurant conversion began two years ago. With the chance to design from the ground up, the Franklin took full advantage to accommodate the modern upscale/casual dining mode at every turn. Small, dark and stylish, the dining room is an artful arrangement of nooks, partially screened chambers, passages, mirrored panels, votive candles and contemporary art. The big L-shaped bar dominates the room, and behind it, glass columns of golden bubble patterns rise like fizz to the top of a glass.
It looks like the sort of restaurant you see in design magazines, not in former Marigny groceries. The menu, however, brings things right back home.
An appetizer (or small plate or whatever) of tempura fried avocado ($11) is still defined by the sweet crabmeat rising over it. Crabmeat also escorts the grilled redfish ($24). It has the makings of a perfectly normal Louisiana fish house entrée until the kitchen bumps it up with fat bundles of aromatic brown rice wrapped in Napa cabbage, turning sides into something of a sushi roll. It’s a contemporary touch that changes the landscape of a familiar dish without upsetting its fundamental appeal.
The Franklin is not technically an oyster bar (the shucking happens behind the scenes) but oysters are definitely a major specialty. Some are served raw ($8/half dozen), others seem to have been popped from the shells directly into buttery garlic cream for a very light poaching ($12) or dropped into a stew with smoky paprika ($7). Add the fried ($10) and grilled ($12) varieties, and we have a mini-menu of oysters all on its own.
If the Franklin’s look brings to mind Bouligny Tavern, the Uptown lounge from Lilette chef John Harris, you’re onto something. The local firm Bockman+Forbes designed both Bouligny Tavern and the Franklin, and Franklin proprietor Jason Baas spent a decade working at Lilette.
Baas opened the Franklin and developed its menu with Jim Bremer, who was better known for his pioneering work connecting New Orleans restaurants with local produce but returned to his earlier role as a chef for this project. Bremer left over the summer, and former sous chef Zack Tippin stepped into the head chef role.
One thing I like about the Franklin is the way even the dishes that seem like Instagram bait are actually fairly straightforward concepts, albeit uncommon ones.
If combining beef with ice cream sounds like a dare dish, whipping foie gras into that ice cream is like doubling down. For this steak à la mode ($14), however, the mouth-coating ice cream works like a slab of maitre d’ butter, melting just as slowly and adding a stark contrast in temperature over the chew and char of lean skirt steak. Similarly, the slices of strawberry worked into steak tartare ($12) reveal delicious synchronicity, with bright bursts of fruit accentuating the raw savor of the meat and the bracing balsamic laced throughout.
An outlier dish elsewhere, sweetbreads seem to have become a standard at New Orleans bistros. The Franklin’s treatment ($19) is delightfully strange, pairing the mineral funk of grilled glands with oxtail rendered down to intensely beefy strands over bread so thoroughly soaked with juice it seems the grill marks alone hold it together. Across the spectrum, quinoa nori rolls ($17) are like vegan sushi, stuffed with the stalks and pinhead caps of thin enoki mushrooms and gilded with a jammy mushroom reduction.
Tables are bare, and one is communal. Service is informal, menus are simple paper handouts and only a few dishes break the $20 mark. All of this fits the upscale/casual profile. But there’s nothing casual about the way the dishes are conceived or presented, or the way wine and cocktails are handled. That makes the case for anytime dining with special occasion crossover potential.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.
2600 Dauphine St., (504) 267-0640; thefranklinnola.com
Dinner and late night daily.