Frenchie's Diner in Coral Gables: A Lovely, Uncontrived Affair
French onion soup and Frenchie's owners Gabriel and Shannon Castrec with their daughter Coco.
The croque-monsieur at Frenchie's Diner is not meant to be neat. The ham sandwich is smothered in a rich, viscous béchamel and crowned with blistered, bubbling Gruyère. Its center is soft. The bread is soaked in the milk gravy, infused with slivered garlic and fresh bursts of lemon juice. It has a thick crust that is golden and crisp. Strands of melted cheese stretch, dangle, and spin about forks like a shadow trails a dancer twisting on a stage. The sandwich is sprinkled with chopped parsley, paired with batons of fried potatoes, and enjoyed best without moderation or restraint. It is delightfully untidy and perfect in its own way.
Frenchie's is a petite Coral Gables restaurant where the menu is squiggled in different colors on a chalkboard that fills one wall. Selections are also written on smaller boards that function as menus and are shuffled by waitstaff around the room. At this 50-seat spot, some porcelain dishes are white; others are adorned with blue florals, gray patterns, and gold trim. Many spoons have light-pink handles; others are just stainless steel. Black-and-white floor tiles, mismatched artifacts, and rose walls suggest the space is an American diner. Peerless beurre blanc, duck confit, and steak frites give the impression of a French bistro. The restaurant, in fact, is a bit of both.
View the slide show "Closer Look: Frenchie's in Coral Gables."
The setting combines classic French cooking with the nonchalance of a family-owned American place. Husband and wife Gabriel and Shannon Castrec are the family. Gabriel hands out kisses and glasses of rosé. He chats and darts from guest to guest. Shannon is rouged by the flames in the kitchen — and also from the many compliments on her cuisine. She has a degree from the French Culinary Institute in New York, yet she opts not to wear a chef's coat. She dresses like a home cook: a solid T-shirt that's sometimes green, sometimes blue, and a white apron that's sometimes stained, sometimes clean. ("Chef's jackets are uncomfortable," she says. "My husband gets mad at me because my arms are battle-scarred with burns. But I don't need to wear a chef's jacket to be a chef.") She is American. Gabriel is French. Together, they run a spot that, since opening in 2012, has become a neighborhood favorite.
Frenchie's Diner is the kind of place every wide-eyed cook aspires to own. The short menu comprises daily specials such as fish and soup that change based on the chef's whims. One evening, there was perfectly cooked pan-seared Florida pompano with an accompanying cold salad of firm asparagus and yellow cherry tomatoes, coupled with vibrant segments of orange and lime. The fish sat atop a lemon-colored pool of refreshing citrus beurre blanc. There was also a delectable potato-leek soup — its delicate flavors enriched with decadent butter and cream. Frenchie's goes beyond good sandwiches; the restaurant bounces seamlessly between casual and refined cuisine.
Frenchie's is open weekdays for lunch, serves dinner Thursdays and Fridays, and operates just a few hours a day. During lunch, the restaurant hosts a parade of office workers. It serves tuna niçoise salad and hamburgers with fries. Dinnertime is like an intimate party at a friend's home. One night, Shannon and Gabriel sat and sipped some wine. They lit a guest's birthday candle. They toasted with champagne. Their restaurant feels relaxed and familiar.
The French onion soup evokes sentiments of comfort. A traditional clay vessel seethes with steaming broth, fortified with caramelized onions, dry red wine, chicken stock, and demi-glace. Valiant spoons dig into the hot well of liquid, herbs, and alliums. (A spoon rarely emerges without a thin string of melted Gruyère.) The broiled cheese — overflowing, gooey, and luscious — is kept afloat by a chunky crouton. Unlike other versions of this classic, the slivered loaf is not soggy. Instead, its crust pokes gently through the cheese. The crunch provides brittleness in an otherwise texturally dull soup.
That success makes Frenchie's complimentary baguette all the more disappointing. The bread, purchased from a supplier, tastes previously frozen, like it's been thawed and baked pre-service. Loaves are served warm, yet not even a toaster remedies the faults of this flute.
The lackluster bread is forgotten after a taste of Frenchie's duck confit. The magnificent bird is salted and seasoned with herbs and crushed garlic for more than 24 hours. It is cooked in its own fat until the duck gains a deep pink flesh, which flakes effortlessly into tender morsels of succulent pulled meat. Paired with tossed baby greens and roasted fingerling potatoes, the duck confit at Frenchie's Diner is a flawless execution of classic French technique.
Slight imprecisions in the cuisine are forgivable, because Shannon's cooking is so honest and personable. Midafternoon on a recent Friday, her face glistens with perspiration as she walks out of Frenchie's kitchen. She takes off her apron and says goodbye to the sole waiter who remains on call. Standing silently behind the bar, he sprinkles sugar atop a dish filled with sweet custard. His face lights up, glowing from the glare of a blow torch's flame. When the crème brûlée arrives at the table, the sugar is too scorched. The crackled crust is uneven and blackened on the edge. But the custard beneath is impeccable. The dessert proffers a mélange of textures: brittle top, smooth bottom; warm sugar, cool cream. Speckled with teeny vanilla beans, it is delicate in its flavor.
Bitter, burnt sugar is forgettable at Frenchie's Diner. What's memorable are the charming porcelain plates, the tasty confit and frites, the exquisite flavors of a fish fillet, and the melted cheese that dangles from forks and spoons. It's the place for an oozy bite from a simply marvelous croque-monsieur. It's where to go for a lovely, uncontrived affair.
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