“It’s like last year never happened,” somebody said after we had been sitting for a minute or two in the refreshingly loud, refreshingly crowded dining room at the new Williamsburg destination Francie. There were no masks in sight, except on the staff, and servers were dressed in the kind of familiar bistro uniforms (aprons, pressed white shirts, etc.) that made them look as if they’d been recruited by Danny Meyer himself. With its tastefully muted color tones and haute brasserie style (horseshoe banquettes along both walls, a bustling open kitchen in the back), the room had a nostalgic, pre-pandemic look to it, as did the menu, which included all sorts of dimly recalled delicacies, like soufflé cakes topped with caviar, rounds of ravioli stuffed with lobster, and an elaborate “crown of duck” for two, which, on the evening I ordered it, was brought to the table before carving, nestled in a garland of flowers.
The proprietors of Francie, John Winterman (formerly of Bâtard) and chef Chris Cipollone (Piora), are fine-dining traditionalists of the old school, although, like anyone who has had to navigate the long pandemic winter (the restaurant officially opened in December but closed shortly after), they have made many adjustments along the way. They sold cocktails out the front door of the former bank building that the restaurant occupies and concocted a to-go menu for a while (duck sausages, a Sicilian fried chicken dusted with fennel pollen). Unlike Peter Luger up the street, Francie was prevented by city regulations from building a network of alfresco dinner huts, so the feeling you get in the crowded indoor space — or at least the feeling I got — is at once strange and comfortingly familiar, like going to the movies or attending a Broadway premiere for the first time in a long while.
On the evenings I dropped in, the festive crowd included local couples out for dinner in their understated Brooklyn finery and even a culinary tourist or two, possibly attracted by the restaurant’s recent Michelin-star seal of approval, who posed brightly at their tables while servers snapped their pictures. They sipped pink ’80s-era Cosmos from a very good retro drinks list and picked at garden crudités arranged in little crystal bowls and collections of oysters and prawns served in the formal, slightly old-fashioned way: on plates strewn with chilled beach pebbles and strands of seaweed. The petits fours we liked best were the ribbons of housemade duck mortadella balanced over thin slices of toasted brioche, although an elaborate bombolone flavored with parsnips had its charms too, and so did the fluffy, faintly lemony soufflé cakes that were dressed with plenty of seaweed butter in addition to the caviar.
Cipollone has an eye for these kinds of subtly lavish (and subtly dated) ingredients, which he folds into relatively simple dishes to give them a little extra kick. My market salad was garnished with crumblings of dehydrated black olives, and an order of crunchy, late-spring asparagus was set in a pool of hollandaise and dusted with bottarga. Instead of artichoke, the very good barigoule here is simmered with mushrooms (porcini, morels) and crispy nuggets of deboned chicken wings and topped with a single egg yolk. In addition to the lobster ravioli, the sneakily opulent pastas include fat, hat-shaped tortelli, stuffed with suckling pig and sprinkled with pork cracklings, and tubes of rigatoni that the pasta-makers in the kitchen tinge a summery green with an infusion of green garlic and toss with a sausage ragù seasoned with fennel pollen.
The richness of this type of stylized, haute comfort cooking may take some getting used to after months of subsisting on canned pantry recipes and carryout food, but if you pace yourself and pool your cash resources, several of the dishes at Francie are worth the price of admission. There’s an artfully constructed vegetable pithivier encased in a buttery pastry shell and a perfectly seared Heritage-pork chop that is enlivened with a delicious sweet-and-sour combination of tangy cherry peppers and molasses flavored with balsamic vinegar. Good beef is expensive these days, which may be why the côte de boeuf ($175 with a pot of hollandaise and steak fries on the side) didn’t seem worth its extravagant price, so if you’re in the mood for a true feast, call for the aforementioned flower-strewn duck ($98), which is dry-aged for weeks to a perfumed tenderness and basted with honey for a sweet, Peking-duck crunch.
As at many places around town, there’s a sense of celebration in the air at Francie, and why the hell not? I enjoyed a modest glass of Spanish red wine with the excellent duck, but there are a variety of familiar big-money bottles to choose from on the reserve list (the ’09 Harlan Estate Cab for $1,900 being the biggest), along with many carefully curated Champagnes. There are multiple tequilas and amaros to blow your cash on too, and even a fine cheese selection, which is trundled among the tables by Winterman himself on what he insists is “the last cheese cart left standing” in New York. If you have the room, or the energy, the desserts include a rum baba (with pineapple and plenty of crème fraîche), a carefully articulated pastry version of New York cheesecake, and a very large sundae for two, which the slightly exhausted band of revelers at my table couldn’t make much of a dent in no matter how hard we tried.