Two Men and a Restaurant
Franz & Josephs opened last December with little fanfare: no stars, no multimedia PR campaign, no famous chefs or fanciful themes. Seems they're intent on succeeding with a comforting ambiance, reliable service, and good (though not exceptional), moderately priced food. Sounds a little far-fetched, I know, but supposedly millions of people around the world and in many parts of this very nation visit restaurants for just those reasons. Of course we scoff at such notions in our little sunshiny world of South Florida, where dining experiences tend to be based on the tree-falling-in-a-forest paradox: If I eat at a restaurant, and no one of any stature is there to see me, have I really eaten?
There may not be celebrities at Franz & Josephs, but every customer is made to feel like one. Franz, hosting the front of the house, was so personable and attentive to my needs that it was only after I saw him treat other arriving guests with a similarly beaming familiarity, that suspicions of a blown cover were laid to rest. He's no rookie at charming restaurant patrons, having spent 26 years across the street doing just that at the since-darkened Kaleidoscope. Partner Joseph was chef there as well, and now patrols this kitchen of his own; he also prepares the superb desserts.
The dining room is warm, elegant, and serene, the walls awash in pumpkin color, the banquettes and carpeting a dark green. A baroque clock occupies a shelf by the back wall, and modern track lighting, along with lamps and candelabras, set their glow upon the white-clothed tables and wine-and-beer bar that together seat more than 100. Service was friendly, efficient, and smooth. Waiters approached and receded from the table with the fussless rhythm of successive waves: menu, water, bread, wine, food. The bread basket may have been part of the succession, but it wasn't successful. Maybe they should consider serving one type of bread and making it distinctive, which is the theory behind small menus in general: The fewer items you have, the easier it is to ensure quality. The flip side is that, just as the words in a short story carry more responsibility than those in a novel, when you're offering limited choices in any menu category, they should be special. The appetizers, soups, salads and dessert tray at Franz & Josephs succeed in this regard; the main courses do not.
Special doesn't have to mean different. The all-too-standard starter of fried calamari ($6.95) was elevated by impeccable execution: crisp, crunchy, and cornmeal crusted, served over a sautéed julienne of peppers and red onion, with a saucer of hot stewed tomatoes for dipping. A ripe, lightly grilled avocado with a marinated mélange of softly poached and chilled shellfish was also flawlessly prepared, and pretty to look at, too: The avocado fanned out beneath a generous mound of sweetly dressed shrimp, scallops, and mixed greens in the center, stark black shells of six plump mussels forming a crown. Steamed mussels also are available as a starter, as are escargot in Roquefort butter, and a duo of seafood cakes served with tomato coulis. The only nonfish appetizer is a curious choice -- "blooming onion" with marinara sauce, a dish usually associated with barbecue chains.
Didn't try the soup du jour, which one night was cream of chicken, another time carrot-ginger, but the onion soup ($4.95) was ideal: melted Gruyère darkly caramelized over croutons in a tasty broth of onions and beef stock. Salads, including caesar, grilled asparagus with shallot-caper vinaigrette, and marinated hearts of palm, were sprightly and appetizing. So, too, was the mix of field greens that came with main courses.
Having just one chicken, three meat, three fish, and four pasta dishes is an effective way to keep foods rapidly rotating in and out of the kitchen, and the entrées at Franz & Josephs were undeniably fresh; unfortunately each was also flawed. Fettuccine with shrimp, rosemary, sage, white wine, and shaved Reggiano arrived with a light, unannounced tomato sauce and without the cheese; still, it would have been fine if the pungent herbs didn't dominate in such a heavy-handed manner. The meat loaf, an old-school recipe baked with a spinach-wrapped hard-boiled egg in the center, was flavorful but dense, the gravy a bit gloppy from cornstarch thickening -- all in all the sort of meat loaf anyone with just a modicum of cooking talent could concoct. Mashed potatoes on the plate were plush, the sautéed carrots and zucchini cooked just right. Veal "française," which in real old-school terms would refer to a garnish of asparagus tips, cauliflower, and hollandaise, and in more modern lingo generally means coated in egg batter and pan-fried, came with capers and lemon juice, a style usually referred to as "piccata." Misnomer or not, there was too much garlic on the veal, and two of the four thin cutlets were cut in the direction of, not against, the grain -- tough! If you want a meaty main course here, I'd suggest sticking with the succulent New York sirloin ($19.95).
The old-world slant of this menu shifts somewhat with the seafood selections: snapper pan-seared with mango chutney-glazed bananas, grilled salmon with fresh corn salsa, and sesame crusted tuna with wasabi and pickled ginger ($19.95), though these are really the most antiquated of "modern" fish combos.
There's nothing wrong with that, but there was a problem with the tuna: The sirloin-shape "steak" was too thickly encrusted with sesame seeds, and also grisly in parts. Most places use the loin, or eye of the tuna, which is softer and when sliced has a more subtle sesame coating along the fringe. Rice and steamed bok choy were apropos accompaniments, and nicely done.
Desserts are so rich they could run for president. An almond layer cake with white chocolate chips, crushed nuts, and luscious frosting, was a sweet tooth's delight; chocolate-peanut butter pie was an airy, heavenly mousse; and key lime pie ($4.50) was one of the best I've had, once and for all settling the question of which topping is best (they use whipped cream and meringue, folded into each other). Sweet, homespun, and gratifying -- I'm speaking of the desserts, though the same words could apply to the dining experience at Franz & Josephs, which is so pleasant that even less-than-inspiring entrées can be accorded forgiveness. Just the same, they might want to rethink some of those dishes.
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