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.
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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.
Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyCodik.