I have to admit I never really ate at Franco’s. I phrase it that way as my only visit was for a corporate Christmas luncheon and restaurants are rarely at their best when serving a banquet. It was good but I would be hard pressed to remember anything special about it. People have given high praise to Franco’s and I’ll take their word for it. A couple of years ago Franco’s gave birth to Sensi, down on Tobacco Row in the Bottom, and, with M’s birthday in a few days, that’s where we found ourselves. M was actually a little hesistant to go. She likes to look at menus in advance but Sensi has no web presence. Odd in this day and age. The web can be a great, inexpensive, selling tool for a restaurant considering the fragmented advertising world. It also means I have no online menu to reference, so all ingredient errors are mine.
We arrived early in the evening (Finn being a toddler has made us early birds as he no longer falls asleep in a carrier) and started in the bar. The space is very minimalistic. Bare concrete with burgundy accents, link curtain separating the bar and dining area, and,thankfully, no TV. We ordered our usual martinis and I got my first hit of sticker shock. I really have gotten used to spending $10-$12 for a martini, especially when they are oversized. $14.50 for less than a supersized was a little excessive. Add to that M sending hers back as the lipstick on the glass didn’t match hers… We were off to a bit of a rocky start.
Before we went to the table Finn and I ventured into the bathroom. Kinda scary. Big patch of peeling paint and crumbling drywall by the sink. Dirty with random puddles of liquid in bad places. What you would expect a nightclub restroom to look like towards the end of a busy Saturday, not in a fine dining establishment at the beginning of the evening. M later told me the ladies room was fine.
The shakiness continued once seated when I noted the large piece of dried green vegetable matter on my fork. The staff was very apologetic.
The wine list was a bit daunting. I know the different Italian wine varietals but not Italian vineyards well enough to make an informed decision on a top heavy wine list. I prefer to experiment at home. Dropping large bank on a shot in the dark is, as Finn would say, scary. We played it safe and went with the Penfold’s Cabernet/Shiraz.
M chose the Grilled Portobello Crostini to begin. The mushrooms were grilled and seasoned perfectly but I really enjoyed the prosciutto wrapped mozzarella. It had been heated just enough to soften the cheese but not melt it. I was starting to feel better about our dining destination.
I wanted to try a number of different items and got my wish with their Seafood Quatro. As it was slow that evening, only three other tables, I requested the replacement of the oyster shooter with…. anything. Just not a real fan of oysters.
~RVA Foodie took me to task recently for not having any links on my blog. So this would be the point I would send you to read his great post on misguided gourmands run amok trying to pair oysters and ice cream…~
The waiter seemed to have no problem with my request and the chef added a little crab cake to my Quatro. I would highly recommend that as a starter, almost like a crab hush puppy but delicate enough to allow the crab to shine. Other items on the plate included chilled shrimp with a remoulade (the shrimp were firm and moist, not overcooked, the sauce just strong enough add flavour not cover the sweetness of the shrimp), seared tuna with soy reduction and wasabi (nice but I believe it was cooked in advance then chilled and sliced to order) and finally a rather tepid baked clam with breadcrumbs and bacon (more on this later…). Two hits, one grounder and a miss.
We also had a cup of the lobster bisque to share. Being a superfan of bisques I held out high hopes for this and I was not disappointed. The pink soup was drizzled with chive (?) infused olive oil and had a healthy amount of lobster meat in the soup. The meat had been added prior to serving as it wasn’t mushy and had probably been heated. A mound of lobster or crab on top of a bisque looks pretty but the meat is typically cold and takes your soup from piping to room temp in no time flat. Kudos to the chef for thinking this through.
The infused oil did have an unintended effect. With the setting sun shining through the window it now looked like my glass had lipstick on it. From the earlier missteps I was fast becoming hyper-critical and jumped to a conclusion. Turned out it was from the infused oil on my lips. My bad. Chastised by M I went and had a time-out.
Per our request Finn’s entree arrived while we were having our appetizers. The menu offers all their pasta dishes at half size for an app – or the perfect size for a little foodie. We ended up ordering the potato gnocchi. Served with mushrooms and a meat ragout Finn went to town on this. I tried it, got a dirty look from Finn, and had to agree it was outstanding.
M went shellfish for dinner, lobster that is. A de-shelled, one and half pounder, over a bed of orzo style rice. This plate was pretty to look at and lived up to the presentation. The rice was nearly a risotto, mild and creamy, the lobster meaty, not stringy or overcooked. Just a great combination.
I went with a special for the evening, Wagyu Beef – a Kobe style beef from Australia. I had asked for guidance on cooking temps and jumped at Pittsburgh Rare (seared to the point of burning on the outside and nearly blue rare on the inside). When the plate arrived I realized I may have made a mistake. The steak (I have no idea what cut, it could have been a slice of untrimmed tenderloin or an eye of round) was less than an inch thick, too thin for Pittsburgh cooking, and was thickly coated with some sort of rub. Sure enough it was cooked unevenly inside from rare to medium, the amount of spices masked the subtle flavours that are the hallmark of Kobe/Wagyu, and, while I know it is supposed to be highly marbled it was, quite frankly, greasy. One entire side of the steak was not marbled, it was gristle. For the price of the dish I would not expect my favourite part to be the whole cloves of roasted garlic (they were really good!).
Desserts and coffee came next. I can always tell someone is paying attention if my espresso arrives hot due to a preheated cup. I am a bit curious as to when restaurants stopped serving espresso with a lemon peel, this has been happening a lot lately, but on request the waiter returned with one peel that may have consumed an entire lemon. The desserts we ordered were excellent. M’s Tiramisu was coated in cocoa and well liquored but not soggy. Finn and I shared a dessert that billed itself as having a beignet (more like a small puff pastry with a light chocolate ganache inside) with a wonderful hazelnut mousse. We were full and happy.
Flash forward to 3 in morning and me hunched over giving homage at the temple of porcelain. We shared nearly all our dishes but I was the only ill one. I could still taste the greasiness of the overpriced Wagyu but I really think it was the tepid baked clam. This morning brought a few more agonies but I am feeling much better now, thanks.
A bad clam won’t condemn a restaurant in my eyes and there were enough good, ambitious dishes that I do believe we will be back. I would really like to try their 7 course tasting menu but a meal that long requires a trip without Finn.