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A FRANK Tale: Passion

(Most images in this post are courtesy of Stephanie M. Casey at Real Fine Food, a blogger who often attends our dinners to photograph and blast them onto social media.  Find her on Facebook and Instagram also.  Thanks, Stephanie!)

FRANK has been getting an uncomfortable amount of press recently, and while we shouldn’t complain…(all the press has been exceedingly praiseworthy)…the word is getting out, demand is going up, and we’re having to pace ourselves to ensure that we’re not just cranking the dinners out, rather than giving each one the time and effort it deserves.  Lots of folks want us to open a restaurant…but then…it wouldn’t be FRANK anymore.

To complicate matters, because we’re now in the public eye, we’re starting to attract a bizarre series of fake Yelp reviews.  We’re not sure why people who’ve never been to FRANK feel it’s important for them to submit a great review for us.  A recent one states, “Great music. My favorites from the menu: kimchi burger, fried mashed potatoes always a good idea and a cocktail that is no longer on the menu.”  Luckily, Yelp seems to magically recognize that most of these reviews are bogus, and they file them under the “Unrecommended Reviews” section.  But we got a big kick out of the kimchi burger and fried mashed potatoes bit.  Oh…and especially that cocktail that’s no longer on the menu.  EVERYTHING at FRANK is no longer on the menu.  We only do a menu once.

I digress.  Back to FRANK!  So Valentine’s was approaching, and this is always a big time of year for us.  For ANY restaurant, really.  The whole country goes out to eat on Valentine’s Day.  This year we decided to boldly try something we’ve never done before…3 successive weeks of events, 12 dinners, 240 diners.  That’s tricky, because a lot of our local farmers don’t necessarily produce in that kind of quantity, but after chatting with them, we decided to give it a go.

In terms of themes, our first Valentine’s dinners had a “chocolate” theme…every course had chocolate in it:

Then, in 2014, our menu was composed of historical aphrodisiacs:

So as we were tossing around possible theme ideas for 2015, Adrien suggested we focus on all red foods, since red is the color of the holiday.  That idea sounded cool, but stating the theme as “RED” seemed weird, so Jennie suggested “PASSION” instead.  And we ran with it.

The dinner was doing to be documented by a food writer from Edible Magazine, which celebrates restaurants featuring local ingredients, and as we were going around to our farmers and suppliers to gather ingredients and inspiration, we discovered that the “Passion” theme didn’t only encompass red ingredients.  It sort of became a mantra for the entire FRANK concept.  These farmers give their lives to the soil, coaxing beautiful ingredients from the ground, carefully raising generations of meat animals…this life is a challenging one, and not one that is easily perpetuated unless you have a true passion for it.  Then these farmers turn their ingredients over to US, and WE have a passion for transforming them respectfully and conscientiously into a beautiful plate of delicious food to put in front of our DINERS, who are passionate enough about food to come to a complete stranger’s house to have dinner with a bunch of other complete strangers.  So not only were our ingredients passionately red…the concept of passion ran deep throughout this menu, as well as ALL our menus.  Here’s what we came up with:

When our diners arrive at this secret location they only found out about 24 hours beforehand, they are always welcomed with a drink and an “amuse-bouche” (a French term for a small bite to awaken the palate…ie, an appetizer) and this time the drink was a Kir Royale.  A “Kir” is a cocktail made of white wine and some type of fruit liqueur, traditionally “Creme de Cassis” which is currant liqueur.  There are dozens of variations, with “Kir Royale” subbing Champagne for the wine, and sometimes (at least in America) Chambord (raspberry liqueur) rather than Creme de Cassis.  These cocktails tend to be sugary-sweet, so we tempered ours with fresh cranberry puree.  Our amuse-bouche was a combo of spicy Mexican-style chorizo tossed with tiny cubes of very crisp potato, topped with crema, a pickled garlic flower, and a pickled slice of red Fresno pepper.  A very full-flavored bite with quite a bit of heat (balanced, though, by the crema and the acidity of the pickles), and lots of different textures:

Mexican chorizo, crispy potato, crema, pickled Fresno and garlic blossom. Photo courtesy of Stephanie M. Casey.

Garden Harvests' baby beet greens and romaine, blood orange, pomegranate arils, pickled red onion, watermelon radish, pom vinaigrette, 63 degree local duck egg, housemade 8 month bleu ricotta salata. Photo courtesy of Stephanie M. Casey.

First up was the evening’s salad.  Now, I know a few of you go absolutely nuts for a great salad, but you are the definite minority.  Most people endure a salad course to get to the “real” stuff after.  But a surprising number of diners (and mostly guys, believe it or not) said to us, “Now, I am NOT a salad guy.  At all.  But that salad was really, really my favorite thing of the night.”  Our salad had, as its foundation, some beautiful baby romaine and baby beet greens from a farm just south of Dallas called Garden Harvests.  It can be exasperating for chefs to find local produce in the winter here in North Texas, because most farmers here let their fields lie “fallow” in winter.  (This lets the soil rest and rebuild nutrients for the next season’s planting.)  But not Garden Harvests.  They produce year-round and use permaculture-inspired soil building techniques to ensure their soil is healthy and productive all the time.  Our friends there, Jessica (sister of famed singer-songwriter Sarah Jaffe) and Fina (who used to be an executive chef for Whole Foods) raise produce throughout the winter, and we are SO lucky to have such a great relationship with them.  Their greens were from-the-field fresh, tender, and delicious.  We added red ingredients like pickled onion, pomegranate arils, and blood orange, and dressed it all in a perky pomegranate vinaigrette.  Watermelon radishes are in season now, and most folks have never seen this unique heirloom radish that looks like a watermelon in cross section, so we added a hefty slice of that.  And we were SUPER lucky to be able to source enough local duck eggs to feature one on the plate.  Ducks aren’t like chickens, which will keep laying eggs year round if you keep pulling eggs out of the nesting box.  Ducks will only lay a handful of eggs a year, and if you keep taking them, they’ll just stop laying when they’re done.  But we have access to a wonderful local duck farmer, Maria Garcia, via the Fresh and Local Produce Stand of Melissa.  Mona, the proprietor there, calls Maria the “unlikely duck farmer.”  She never set out to farm ducks, but she loves ducks so much she’d take in an orphaned duckling, or a flock a farmer no longer wanted, and soon she had TONS of ducks on her property.  Our winter here in Texas has been VERY strange, and her ducks are just laying like crazy.  So while ANY local chef would laugh at you if you asked him if he could source 240 local duck eggs for a menu, we had the last laugh when Mona said, “Sure I can give you 20 dozen.  Could you take 40 dozen?”  Our duck egg was prepared our traditional way…slow-cooked in the shell in a controlled-temperature water bath (ie, immersion circulator or “sous vide”) for a full hour at low temp.  While we’ve found that hen eggs are perfect at 63.5C (or 146.3F), duck eggs seem to reach the perfect consistency at 63C (or 145.4F).  And yes, there’s a HUGE difference in texture between each 10th of a degree!  When you cook an egg at exactly its coagulation temperature for an extended period of time, you get this impossibly-delicate, custard-like, silken texture to the egg…it becomes something extraordinary, rather than mundane.  And since a duck egg has a much higher yolk-to-white ratio, you get so much more of that sinfully rich yolk, which is set so gently that it doesn’t run when you cut into it, but has the texture of whipped yogurt.  And the final component to this gorgeous salad was a housemade cheese…something I accidentally invented last year when I was making cheeses regularly.

When you make a lot of cheese, you end up with a lot of whey…the liquid that separates from the milk fat when it curdles.  Whey still has some particles of milk fat in it, and those can be extracted with the ricotta method.  Everyone knows ricotta.  But the Italians make a hard cheese by salting the ricotta curds generously and pressing them in a cheese press overnight.  This is known in Italy as “ricotta salata” or salted ricotta.  They typically use this as a grating cheese, and it tastes similar to Mexican cotija.  I accidentally left a wheel of ricotta salata in my ageing chamber next to a bleu cheese for a few months, and forgot about it.  When I found it, it was covered in the blue mold “penicillium roqueforti” that had migrated over to it from my bleu cheeses.  P. roqueforti not only has a distinctive flavor, but it transforms the inner texture of cheeses, and by the time I cut into this accidentally forgotten wheel, its interior was no longer granular like a traditional ricotta salata, it was much creamier, and had the flavor of a bleu, but the texture of a gouda.  So I made a few more wheels of ricotta salata, using raw goat milk from the Latte Da Dairy in Flower Mound, deliberately innoculated them with p. roqueforti, and aged them for 8 months at 85% humidity and 55F, taking them past that gouda texture to something more like an aged cheddar.  The resulting cheese was just mind blowing…like nothing I had ever tasted before.  Probably because it originated as a mistake.  Happy accidents!  If you’re interested in cheesemaking, here’s my article on this cheese and several variations.  It’s actually quite easy to make at home, and you only need a few special pieces of equipment.

Housemade bleu ricotta salata, aged 8 months.

There's a secret hot spring out there, waiting for you to find it!

Soups are sort of a FRANK institution…they often garner more “favorite of the night” votes than even the main course, and this menu was no exception.  As we were thinking about red soups, Jennie brought up a memory the 3 of us chefs shared from just over a year ago, when we road-tripped together from Dallas to San Francisco last January.  We had many adventures, including soaking in a wild hot spring in a deserted valley between snow-capped peaks in the center of nowhereNevada.  And by the time we reached San Francisco, we were tired of road trip food and wanted something fresh and fulfilling.  Jennie’s chef-friend Erin welcomed us into her extraordinary home with a meal I’ll remember forever…a roast chicken, crusty bread, and a romesco sauce…OH that sauce…  Romesco is a Spanish dish, a puree of red pepper, nuts, and oil.  (Think of it like Spain’s version of pesto.)  Erin’s romesco was so fresh and bright and explosive…after we had cleaned our plates of it, we fought over the last bits in the serving bowl, and then we raided the kitchen because we knew the Vitamix would still have some left in it.  We could not shut up about how delicious it was.  And since we all 3 shared that same memory, Jennie was inspired to create a soup based around that sauce…and again, the “soup-whisperer” did it.  A Romesco soup of fire roasted red peppers, roasted tomatoes, our slow-cooked confit garlic, and thickened with almond butter.  It almost tasted like pureed bacon, it was so smoky and meaty, though it was, in fact, a vegetarian soup.  Adrien prepared a really bright herb puree to swirl on top, and I made a buttery focaccia which we toasted with 3-year Vermont cheddar for our diners to dip into the soup.  It was like the best-ever grilled cheese and tomato soup you ever ate on a cold, rainy night:

"Romesco" soup: fire roasted red pepper and tomato, almond butter, herb oil, served with housemade focaccia and 3-yr Vermont cheddar crostini. Photo courtesy of Stephanie M. Casey

It has become a FRANK tradition to serve a boozy sorbet before the main course, and even though last year we served a passion-fruit sorbet, and even though passion fruit isn’t red, we knew we HAD to have passion fruit somewhere on our Passion menu.  To change it up from last year, I selected the Brazilian cocktail “caipirinha” (“KAI-pee-DEEN-ya”) as our inspiration.  Caipirinhas are only just now making their way onto American bar menus, typically followed by the interpretive phrase “Brazilian margarita.”  The caipirinha is traditionally made with lime juice, sugar, and cachaça (kah-SHAH-sah), the national liquor of Brazil.  Distilled from sugar cane juice, like rum or Peruvian pisco, cachaça can be white (young) or gold (“ouro” or barrel aged).  Only a handful of cachaças are imported in the US, and most of them aren’t very good.  MY favorite brand is Cachaça Seleta, which you can only get in Brazil, but since Christian’s family visits frequently, they always bring me a suitcase full.  It’s an ouro cachaça, barrel aged, but still clearly retains the raw-sugar character that reminds me of molasses.  And my favorite cocktail is a caipirinha maracuja…passion fruit, lime, sugar, and Cachaça Seleta.  So our sorbet was just that.  Bright, rich, tangy, and exotic.  (People wanted more.)  We topped the sorbet with a candied hibiscus flower.  Hibiscus is used to make a variety of teas around the world, notably the sweet and tangy “Jamaica” beverage served at traditional Mexican restaurants.  The flowers are tart and acidic.  We simmered a handful of the dried flowers in a sugar syrup for an hour to reconstitute them, but they retained their characteristic crunch.  I could literally eat these like popcorn, they are so crispy and good.

Passion fruit cachaça sorbet with candied hibiscus flower. Photo courtesy of Stephanie M. Casey

For the main course, we knew we had to serve a RED colored meat, and that usually means beef.  We’ve been spoiled of late, having access to Beeman Family Ranch’s incredible prime Texas Akaushi/Wagyu.  But the Beeman family has ranches all over the state, and they do the “intensive finishing” method where their cattle are corralled for the last few months of their life, eating only corn to fatten them up.  Fatty is definitely what you want for cuts like brisket and short rib, and steaks like ribeye.  But we’ve really been on the hunt for something MORE local than Beeman, and perhaps a bit more natural…ideally cattle that aren’t “finished” and spend their entire lives at pasture.  Enter Triple J Livestock.  Farmers Diane and Benjamin run this extraordinary small farm exactly 17 miles from FRANK, and their entire farming model is based around their pastures.  Their animals spend their entire lives right there on the farm.  They are born there, they live in the pasture, and there’s a USDA-inspected processing facility right there on the farm.  So their animals are never subjected to the terrifying 18-wheeler or train ride to a “finishing lot” where they live in the dust and manure with thousands of other cattle, eating only corn, before being shipped again to the processing facility.  It really is amazing.  They also raise sheep and goats, and let me tell you how hard it is to find local lamb here!  (Dallas-area residents…they sell to the general public and you don’t have to commit to buying a whole side of beef, give them a call and tell them what you’re looking for…say 12 pounds of tenderloin?…and they’ll see what they can do for you.  Also, it’s the only place I know of where you can pick your lamb or goat right out of the pasture and they process it for you while you wait.)  We literally did a dance of joy after we found them and went down there to take a look at the farm.  The animals are so happy and well-cared for.  And as the old-world farmers in Europe will tell you, an animal that lives a happy life without stress or worry tastes infinitely better than an animal who lives otherwise.  (Though the better flavor is incidental.  ALL animals should be raised with care and treated with love and respect, whether they are a meat animal or a companion.)

Our main course had a base of farro (pronounced acceptably both as “FAH-roe” and “FAIR-roe”), which is a method of cooking wheat and its related grains (spelt, triticale, barley, rye, etc.) similarly to the way you make risotto from rice.  It is sauteed with aromatics and then cooked slowly with wine and stock.  We used red wine for ours, in keeping with the theme.  Farro is vaguely similar to risotto, only much more toothsome and hearty.  I love it.  And more than a handful of diners said it was their single favorite flavor of the meal.  On top of our farro we served red Swiss chard prepared two ways: roasted and pickled.  And then a beautiful piece of steak from Triple J.  Most nights we served sirloin, which is probably my personal favorite all-around steak.  It tastes like beef, has a bit of bite, and doesn’t have the mega fat content of ribeye or NY strip.  (On Valentine’s we served filet/tenderloin, which is perceived by the market as being the “primo” cut because it’s tender, but tenderness means less flavor, because the muscle gets very little exercise.  I’m not a fan of tenderloin.)  We don’t serve steak very often at FRANK because we have 18-20 diners, and we work out of a home kitchen.  You can’t cook 20 steaks to order and serve them simultaneously from a home kitchen.  But we have a trick that makes it easier for us.  We cook our steaks with the “sous vide” method.  We vacuum seal the whole roast (after liberally seasoning it) and put it in a controlled-temperature water bath and cook it for several hours at exactly medium-rare temp (130F).  This ensures that the steaks don’t overcook, but gives the meat time to reabsorb those juices that normally flood out of the steak when you cut it, which is what gives some diners the impression that they’re eating raw, bloody meat.  So those folks who love rare and medium rare meat are still getting that perfect red-pink color when they cut into it, but those who are squeamish of rare meats find a texture inside that is completely non-scary…tender yet firm, moist but not oozing red juice all over the plate.  We give the steaks a quick high-temp sear in cast iron for a few seconds just before serving to get that lovely crust, drape it in a red wine sauce and top with some beet microgreens, and the steak completes the RED plate:

Red wine farro, braised and pickled chard, Triple J Farms sirloin. Photo courtesy of Stephanie M. Casey

When we were developing the menu for a red-themed meal, and it came time for dessert, none of us could get away from that awful American abomination known as Red Velvet Cake.  Now, when you say, “Red Velvet Cake” to a crowd, you’ll get only 2 reactions: gagging and dry heaving, or MMMMMMMMMMM!!!!!  No one feels indifferent about it.  But let me ask a different question:


You’ll get a variety of answers.  “That cake from Steel Magnolias.”  “I don’t know, but it’s red flavored.”  Someone in-the-know will tell you, “It’s a chocolate cake with red food coloring in it.”  And they are correct.  But my question was always, “WHY?  FOR THE LOVE OF GOD?  DO WE NEED TO PUT RED FOOD COLORING?  IN CHOCOLATE CAKE?”  What’s the point?  Especially since, in order for the red color to come through, we have to put LESS chocolate in the cake than in a normal chocolate cake?  So it’s just this weird some-what chocolate cake that’s “red flavored?”  Turns out there’s a VERY long and “colorful” history behind red velvet cake that dates back to well before the 1800s, and the cake wasn’t made with food coloring until the late Great Depression.  It was red-colored because of a natural chemical reaction between unprocessed cocoa powder and acidic buttermilk.  But when cocoa manufacturers started treating cocoa with lye to darken its color and make it appear richer and more luxurious, that chemical reaction stopped happening.  Determined to reconstruct the centuries-old recipe that magically acquired the color via natural means, I spent a few days experimenting.  And I figured it out.  You can read ALL about the history of Red Velvet Cake and get my recipe right here on my blog.

Traditional chocolate cake at left. Old-fashioned red velvet cake at right, with NO food coloring OR beet juice. Click the image for the recipe.

So, with that little problem solved, we built our dessert around REAL Red Velvet Cake.  We topped the cake with a ganache made of white chocolate and baby beets (from Garden Harvests Farm, of course).  Since Red Velvet is usually served with cream cheese frosting, we made a cream cheese ice cream (with raw milk from Lucky Layla Dairy in Plano) and accented it with white pepper to give it some heat.  Adrien made a raspberry puree for the plate, and also soaked some plums in fermenting hibiscus tea, which naturally carbonated them, so they were a little fizzy, tart, and sweet.  We garnished with baby rose leaves and pink peppercorns.  It was a raucously-red dessert with tons of flavors and textures.

Real Red Velvet Cake (with no food coloring or beet juice), white chocolate and baby beet ganache, cream cheese white pepper ice cream, raspberry puree, carbonated plum. Photo courtesy of Stephanie M. Casey.

Another crazy FRANK menu behind us.  The diners had a blast, per usual, and I always say to them, “Food is only a fraction of FRANK.  The reason it is such a rare and memorable experience for you is because of YOU.  And everyone sitting around you.”  Great restaurants are a dime a dozen all over the country, whether you’ve got a Michelin-starred chef churning out modernist masterpieces, or a fleet of hard-working Latino line cooks masterfully controlling 20 different orders at once, or Mom and Sis in the back preparing recipes passed down through the generations of their families.  Great food is EVERYWHERE.  What makes FRANK unique is that we force you to sit uncomfortably close to perfect strangers, in a weird place that’s clearly not a restaurant, and you suddenly discover that if you take a moment to REACH OUT to people, you might discover that there’s a much bigger world beyond your family, work, and friends.  Somewhere along the line, Americans got too busy with family, work, and friends to participate in their community.  Then something called “social media” made it possible for us to not actually need to spend any actual TIME with our family and friends to remain “connected” to them.  So our culture is gradually retreating behind the closed doors of our homes to the point that we don’t know our neighbors, we avoid eye contact with strangers at the gas station and the grocery store, and the idea of having to share a table at a restaurant with another party is abhorrent and horrifying to us.  FRANK proves that food has the power to overcome those barriers and let folks discover that perfect strangers can become dear friends over a radically short period of time, if you’ll only give it a chance.  Our communal table is infinitely more important than the food we put on top of it.

Photo courtesy of Stephanie M. Casey.

A FRANK Tale: The Godfather

Photos in this blog appear courtesy of our friend Stephanie Casey at Real Fine Food.  Follow her on Facebook and Instagram, also!

With FRANK pulling in some crazy press recently (a Dallas Morning News article called us “The Best Restaurant in DFW” and Modern Luxury featured us with 3 other restaurants as “Best of the City”), the pressure has been on to do MORE of them.  “Why not try 8 seatings for the next one?” Jennie proposed.  We had never done that before.  7 was the max.  We’re never afraid of a challenge, so 8 it would be.

Yours, truly, as Don Vito Corleone, with an actual bottle of the Corleone family's "real" business: Genco olive oil. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Casey.

We’ve developed a tradition of hosting an Italian feast at FRANK every winter.  While Italian is great in any season, there’s just something about the gray, dreary winter that makes you crave pasta and spicy tomato sauce and crusty bread and good red wine.  Adrien, who has now become a FRANK fixture, and Jennie were sitting around tossing out menu ideas one night and The Godfather came on TV.  For both of them, NOTHING is more important than The Godfather, so menu planning stopped while they watched the film…until they got to the spaghetti and meatballs scene, and they both simultaneously screamed, “FRANK GODFATHER!!!”  We had long been tossing around the idea of menus inspired by our favorite films and bands, so it seemed to be a perfect fit.

The only problem was that I had never actually seen the Godfather, so as they were excitedly babbling to me about menu ideas, I was a bit lost.  Until the word “Sicily” was tossed out.  Because Sicily is a special place for me.  My partner’s sister and mother live there.  Some of my fondest travel memories are from Sicily.  I adore the food, the island, the people…

Yours, truly, below a crumbling fairy-tale castle perched on a rock crag in Erice, Sicily. Sicily is my favorite European travel destination. Castles, Greek temples, Norman ruins, beaches, volcanoes, wine, cheese...and almost no tourists.

So all that really remained was for me to watch The Godfather for the first time.

I know, I know…it’s pretty inexcusable that I had never seen it.  One of the greatest films of all time, by most standards.  So I saw it.  And it was great.  In fact, I felt like I had seen it before many times…it’s that good.  (Or just that omnipresent in pop culture.)

We wanted the menu to both be an accurate introduction to Sicilian cuisine, and also have direct inspiration from the film, and here’s what we came up with:

Image courtesy of Stephanie Casey

For the amuse bouche, we decided to start with a dish that’s so distinctly Sicilian and is so pervasive in their culture that there’s not really anything else MORE Sicilian that you could start with.  Arancini, pronounced “ah-ran-CHEE-nee.”  A crispy fried ball of cheesy rice that sometimes has a nugget of meat or peas in the center.  Arancini is the first thing I ever tasted in Sicily…we literally drove straight from the airport in Palermo to a gas station nearby, and I was told to go inside and get an arancini.  I had no idea what to expect.  The clerk pointed me to a case that looked not unlike a hot dog case, filled with giant crusty balls the size of softballs.  I shelled out my 2 euros (about $3 at that time) and sank my teeth into a food memory I’ll never forget.  Crunchy-crisp on the outside, sticky and gooey and rich on the inside.  So filling.  So fulfilling.  Arancini are the hot dog of Sicily.  Every gas station has them.  Street carts sell them on every block.  For our version, we made it considerably smaller and used wild mushrooms and white truffle to flavor the risotto on the inside, so technically it was arancini di funghi.  And while we’re talking technicalities…arancini is the plural, so if you’re only eating one, you’re eating an arancino.  (More on this later.)  And if you’re familiar with Sicily, you know they have their own distinct language that’s similar to Italian, but not quite.  So you may encounter the spelling and pronunciation “arancine” in some areas of Sicily.  This is one of the more popular amuse bouches we’ve ever served at FRANK.  When Jennie does her end-of-meal quiz about which course was the diners’ favorite, it’s rare for the amuse to get more than 1 vote per night, but the arancini got multiple votes every night for best dish.  It was pretty freakin good:

Wild Mushroom and White Truffle Arancini. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Casey.

To get things started, we served up a panzanella salad.  Panzanella (“pan-zuh-NELL-uh”) is popular across much of Italy and Sicily, though it originated in Tuscany.  It was a way to use up stale bread left over from the night before.  The bread would sit out all night and get dry, and the next day they would toss those crusty crumbs with tomatoes and let them get a little moist, and serve it up as a salad.  We made our own bread (of course) and then tore it into chunks and sauteed it in garlic olive oil until crisp.  Then we tossed the chunks with a citrus vinaigrette and heirloom tomatoes, and some lovely baby beet greens from Garden Harvests Farm in Waxahachie, which is co-run by Jessica Longoria, the sister of the awesome artist Sarah Jaffe, who’s a friend of Jennie’s.  Jessica delivered our beet greens in the rain the morning before our dinners began, and I’m not sure I’ve ever worked with a more lovely salad green.  (Find Garden Harvests produce at Green Grocer on Greenville Ave, or Urban Acres in Oak Cliff!  For those of you who seek out local produce, you know exactly how hard it is to find in the winter, so this is a gold mine!)  To complete the panzanella in true Sicilian fashion, we had to have seafood on the plate.  Sicily is an island, and seafood makes up the vast majority of the protein Sicilians consume.  And if there’s a quintessential Sicilian seafood…it’s octopus.  “Polpo.”  The waters of the Mediterranean and Tyrrhenian Sea teem with octopus, and every Sicilian grandmother has her own secret for transforming this normally tough, rubbery creature into a tender, mouth-watering masterpiece.  Adrien’s favorite meat is octopus.  He made it on MasterChef.  In fact, it’s the very first memory he has as a child…seeing and eating octopus for the first time.  Octopus makes a lot of Americans squeamish.  Those brave enough to try it typically have it at a sushi restaurant, where the traditional Japanese preparation leaves it quite rubbery and tough.  The Japanese appreciate this texture.  But Americans typically do not, so one taste of octopus, and most Americans wash their hands of it for life.  Which is a shame.  Because octopus is truly an extraordinary meat in the hands of an Italian cook.  I will never forget my first taste of Italian grilled octopus.  I actually wept, it was so delicious.  Fork tender, smokey, almost dissolving on my tongue.  So we serve octopus as often as we can at FRANK, to help change people’s minds about it.  And every night, people were tasting it either for the first time, or VERY reluctantly for the second time.  I don’t believe a single bit of octopus was left on any plate during all 8 dinners:

Octopus and beet green panzanella. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Casey.

Next up was something I knew had to be on the menu…caponata.  (Or capunata, depending on where in Sicily you are.)  The Sicilians invented this dish, and it’s served on virtually every menu at every restaurant on the island.  It’s a combination of vegetables, always with eggplant as the primary, stewed in vinegar and honey.  It is served both hot and cold, often as a salad or side dish, but occasionally as the main dish.  And I can’t get enough of it.  I’ve been perfecting my own version of caponata for years and have served it at dozens of dinner parties.  Mine has eggplant, celery, onion, shallot, garlic, and tomato, seared hard in olive oil until crusty, and then combined with capers and green olives.  Then the seasoning is made perfectly sweet-sour with homemade apple cider vinegar and honey, and I fold in lots of fresh basil.  It’s a flavor explosion.  We served it on top of a crispy polenta cake, with a 63.5 degree egg from our flock of hens.  On top of the egg was a pesto of basil and pistachio, a nut which made Sicily famous across the ancient world for producing the finest pistachios (or “pistacchios”).  It was a great course, lots of unique textures and flavors, and a big hit:

Crispy polenta cake, eggplant caponata, 63.5 degree egg, pistachio pesto. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Casey

Boozy sorbets have become de rigueur at FRANK as a palate cleanser before the main course.  And to this point, our food has been largely Sicilian, but not necessarily Godfather.  So when thinking about what type of boozy sorbet could accomplish both tasks, we immediately went to brandy, since so many scenes in the film involve the drinking of it.  We don’t drink enough brandy in this country.  Brandy is what you get when you distill wine, and for the majority of brandies, that means grape wine.  (Some classic American brandies are distilled from pear wine, cherry wine, etc.)  Somewhere along the way, brandy fell out of favor, but it’s really an amazing spirit.  Especially the ones that are carefully aged.  We decided to pair the brandy with blood orange, for several reasons.  First, because the most famous blood oranges in the world are grown in Sicily and have a protected geographic status within Europe.  And second, because oranges are a major symbol within the Godfather film series.  It started out as an accident.  During the early shots of the film, Coppola realized that the set and lighting was very stark, dim and monochromatic.  Scrambling around for a splash of color that wouldn’t interfere with the shot, oranges ended up getting placed in various scenes…and coincidentally, they seemed to appear in scenes that related to that particular character’s imminent demise or disaster.  When Vito Corleone gets ambushed and shot, oranges spill all over the road around his body.  Just before producer Jack Woltz’s horse gets beheaded and placed into bed with him, a large bowl of oranges sits in front of him as he converses with Tom Hagen.  At the meeting with the heads of the five families, bowls of oranges line the table.  (Weeks later, all the heads are murdered.)  On the day of his own death, Don Vito Corleone cuts up and eats an orange with his grandson just before plummeting to the ground.  Coppola mused that this was all an accident in the first film, but they loved the theme so much they continued in the subsequent films, and oranges are all over the place.  So we combined the orange and the brandy into a sorbet of such high proof that we had to freeze it with dry ice to get it to solidify…and folks devoured it:

Blood Orange Brandy Sorbet. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Casey.

And now…the main course.  In Italy, meals have a very specific structure.  First comes the antipasto, or appetizers, then comes the primo or first course, which is usually pasta (but can be soup, polenta, risotto, etc.), and then comes the secondo or primary course, which is the meat course.  Pasta is almost NEVER served as the main course in Italy.  But we did it, because of The Godfather.  There’s not much actual cooking in the Godfather, but there’s a famous scene where Clemenza is teaching Michael to make spaghetti and meatballs…because if he ends up in prison, he’ll need to know how to cook for the boys.  When Coppola was adapting Mario Puzo’s book, he really wanted to keep the spaghetti and meatballs scene intact, because he wasn’t entirely certain the film would be a success.  He mentioned, “If it’s a flop, at least the audience will know how to make a decent spaghetti sauce!”  We knew our main course HAD to be spaghetti and meatballs, and in true FRANK fashion, everything had to be from scratch.  Ever made homemade pasta for 160 people?  No easy task.  It took us an entire day, assisted by our lovely server Lindsay, who is also a brilliant chef herself.  By the time we were done, it looked like a cocaine deal gone terribly wrong…the loft was absolutely covered in flour!

Jennie and Linsday making homemade spaghetti

But there’s nothing lovelier than a nest of freshly-made pasta:

Housemade pasta. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Casey.

The sauce would have to be truly epic.  Chef Jennie chose the “arrabbiata” style, which is a bold, spicy sauce of tomato, garlic, and red chili flakes.  Making tomato sauce in Texas in December always necessitates turning to a can of tomatoes…it’s actually really hard to get tomatoes worthy of a sauce at ANY time of year, even when you have tomatoes in your garden and let them ripen on the vine.  The best sauce tomatoes are varieties with a high flesh/low moisture content, like Romas and other plum-shaped tomatoes.  You definitely don’t want a “juicy” tomato when making sauce.  The big beefsteak tomatoes have too much liquid and too many seeds to make a superior sauce, and that’s what most of us raise in our gardens.  Luckily, the best sauce tomatoes in the world are grown in the Campagnia region of southern Italy, near the town of San Marzano sul Sarno, and are widely available around the world…though definitely not inexpensive.  I get really annoyed when people turn up their noses at a sauce made from canned tomatoes.  Most canned tomatoes, in particular San Marzanos, are allowed to vine ripen and are canned immediately after picking.  On the other hand, ALL supermarket tomatoes, the vast majority of Farmer’s Market tomatoes, and even many home grown tomatoes, are picked from the vine before ripening, and allowed to ripen off the vine.  This results in a totally different texture, flavor, and sugar profile than if they were allowed to ripen on the vine.  I can make you a far better tomato sauce from the cheapest can of tomatoes than I can from the best-looking and most expensive tomatoes in the produce section of the grocery store.  Every single time.  So unless you have a source for vine-ripened, just-picked plum tomatoes grown in perfect soil in a perfect climate, don’t ever EVER think less of someone for using canned tomatoes in a sauce!  Incidentally, the omnipresent “Roma” tomato is a hybrid of the San Marzano variety, bred for a thicker skin (ie, easier transport from farm to market).  This may have been the best tomato sauce I’ve ever had, Jennie nailed it.

Then…the meatballs.  In The Godfather, when Michael Corleone has dinner with the police chief McClusky and the mafia family head Sollozzo (and ultimately murders them), as they walk into the restaurant, McClusky asks if the Italian food is good there, and Sollozzo says, “Try the veal, it’s the best in the city.”  Neither Jennie nor I are particularly mad for veal, and serving veal can be fraught with humanitarian concerns, just like foie gras.  But we were able to source pastured veal, which is becoming more common than the old-style way of raising veal (ie, keeping the calves tied up in a barn so they can’t move around and develop firm muscle structure).  Pastured veal is from calves that live their life as a normal calf does, grazing alongside its mother so it eats both grass and milk.  The texture and flavor is more similar to beef than old-style veal, but honestly…old-fashioned veal wasn’t really all that great to begin with.  What’s the point of going out of your way to produce a soft, bland meat?  Our meatballs were half veal and half pork, and chock full of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, shallots and garlic, and homemade bread crumbs.  Rolled and seared rustically, and perched atop a mound of that fresh housemade pasta and tangy, spicy sauce with some fried garlic, fresh basil, and tons of cheese on top:

Housemade spaghetti, arrabbiata sauce, veal meatballs. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Casey.

One of our first-time diners later confessed to me, “I was expecting FRANK to be this super fancy thing from your reviews, and when you sent me the menu the night before and I saw that the main course was spaghetti and meatballs, I almost didn’t come.  But this is the BEST spaghetti and meatballs I’ve EVER had…can I have some more?!?”  I really loved that moment.  Jennie and I never set out to make FRANK this ultra-sophisticated restaurant serving only haute cuisine.  Our mission statement says, “Our recipes are inspired by classic, traditional preparations, enriched by our collective creativity from years of travel and kitchen adventures. FRANK is food…to the point.”  This cuts to the very heart of my own personal food philosophy.  Some creative chef can come up with a new flavor combination and preparation, and it may be extraordinary and inspiring and incredibly delicious.  But it will NEVER have the impact on another human as a recipe that comes from their family history, something they’ve eaten since they were a child, prepared by those in their life who loved them the most.  A plate of spaghetti and meatballs will have more meaning to more people in this country than anything Jennie or I could dream up out of our own originality.  So rather than take the route that many chefs take…forging their own unique culinary legacy…we tend to focus on taking the foods that already have a centuries-old legacy, and making them as perfect and delicious as they can possibly be.  This is what sets FRANK apart from other restaurants of its type and price range.  FRANK is less about FOOD and more about PEOPLE.  Yes, the food is delicious.  But when you read our reviews, you’ll find, time and again, that people leave the experience raving about the EXPERIENCE.  The people they met and shared the evening with.  And that is fostered through the food.  Jennie loves to refer to FRANK as a culinary sociological experiment, rather than a restaurant.  And I couldn’t agree more.

Dessert.  When I posted on Facebook that we were doing a Godfather theme, virtually every comment mentioned the famous cannoli scene.  Clemenza and his henchman Rocco are ordered to kill long-time friend and family chauffeur Paulie for betraying the Godfather.  After Rocco shoots Paulie, he asks Clemenza what to do next, and Clemenza carelessly says, “Leave the gun…take the cannoli.”  (Little known fact…the actor that played Clemenza improvised that line, it wasn’t in the script, and it became one of the most-quoted and iconic lines of the film.)  So we knew we HAD to have cannoli on the menu.  (Quick Italian lesson…”cannoli” is actually plural, so if you have only one, you have a “cannolo”…or, if you’re in Sicily which has its own distinct dialect, a “cannolu.”  There is no such thing as “a cannoli,” that’s akin to saying, “I’m going to eat a cupcakes.”)  Cannoli are an iconic Italian dessert made of a crispy shell of fried pasta dough, filled with lightly sweetened ricotta.  They are a ridiculous amount of work, which is why they are typically only sold at specialty bakeries.  The pasta dough is like any other pasta dough…primarily flour and eggs, but instead of adding water to hydrate the dough, you add Marsala…a sweet dessert wine from Sicily.  This gives the dough a hint of sweetness and complexity.  We let the dough rest for a day in the fridge to fully hydrate, then rolled it thin in the pasta machine before wrapping around specialized stainless steel cannoli molds, sealing together with egg white, and deep frying until crisp.  Then you have to immediately remove the shell from the mold or it will stick to it…not an easy task when you’re dealing with a 320 degree piece of metal!  Just before serving, we filled the shells with ricotta which we lightly sweetened and scented with orange zest and vanilla.  And each end was dipped in pistachios, the quintessential Sicilian nut.

We were slightly concerned that a single cannolo wouldn’t be a sufficient dessert, and worried that 2 cannoli might be too much or too one-note.  So we rounded out the dessert with some tiramisu, which is an often-bastardized mid afternoon snack in Italy…rarely dessert.  The name “tira mi su” literally means “pick me up” and is commonly taken with coffee in the afternoon to tide you over until a late dinner.  Traditionally it consists of a circle of sponge cake soaked with espresso, sandwiching layers of mascarpone cheese custard.  The recipe morphed into the use of ladyfingers (finger-shaped pastries, normally of sponge cake, but occasionally of cookie-like biscotti), and some pastry chefs added liquor to the espresso for soaking them.  Tiramisu has the distinction of containing a pair of ingredients that are the two most bastardized Italian words in America: espresso and mascarpone.  Even some TV chefs rampantly mispronounce espresso as “expresso.”  I can’t count the number of times Joe Bastianich, an Italian restaurateur whose mother is one of the most famous Italian chefs in the country, mispronounced it “expresso” while we were filming MasterChef.  That’s wrong.  Don’t do it.  Next we come to “mascarpone,” a rich Italian cream cheese that is so mispronounced that the mispronunciation has become more common than the correct one.  You often hear it bastardized as “MAR-ska-pone.”  That’s wrong.  Don’t do it.  The ONLY acceptable pronunciation of mascarpone is:

MAHS – car – PONE – eh

In fact, ANY time you see an “e” at the end of ANY Italian word, it MUST be pronounced.  Like “pappardellE” or “tagliatellE” or “provolonE” or “profiterolE.”  99.9999% of Italian words end in a vowel, which is always, without exception, pronounced.  This is why Italians learning English often insert a vowel at the end of every English word that ends in a consonant.  “I live-a in-a the town-a of-a Dallas-a.”  So even if it doesn’t feel right at first, take a risk and properly pronounce your Italian ingredients!  ESPECIALLY mascarpone.  But I digress…so tiramisu is an afternoon snack in Italy, and consequently, it’s not very sweet.  American pastry chefs have transformed it into the sickly-sweet dessert most of us are familiar with.  But tiramisu in Italy is only faintly sweet.  I make a LOT of tiramisu…it’s my partner’s favorite “dessert.”  (Click HERE for my dessert version with pumpkin custard and caramel-soaked ladyfingers!)  And for FRANK, we did it the old fashioned way, with circles of sponge cake (soaked in espresso and hazelnut liqueur), and delicate layers of mascarpone whipped with espresso and a hint of sweetness, dusted on top with cocoa and a touch of cinnamon.  “Best tiramisu ever” was uttered a number of times, and even written on the FRANK chalkboard.  A fitting duo to end Godfather FRANK:

Orange pistachio cannolo and amaretto tiramisu. Image courtesy of Stephanie Casey.

An epic menu to celebrate an epic film.  But wait…there’s a Godfather 2…and 3.  Will there be FRANK encores of this theme?  Only time will tell.  Thanks for reading, feel free to comment below, and subscribe to my blog in the upper right corner of your screen so you don’t miss any of my excessively wordy food blogs!

FRANK is making waves!

We’ve been doing FRANK for nearly 3 years now, which sounds like a long time, but seems like practically nothing.  All sorts of exciting things have happened in those 3 years, and we’ve churned through dozens of creative, interesting, and fun menus.  We were filmed for the awesome TV series The Illegal Eater which has aired around the world.  And while FRANK was originally designed to be a secret…something fun you shared with only your closest foodie friends…word has apparently gotten out this month.

First, the Dallas Morning News ran an article entitled “The 100 Best Restaurants in DFW – According to Yelp” and listed us as the best restaurant in Dallas!  This was a really interesting list, because Yelp is a user-driven review site.  When you read a food critic’s top list, the list is certainly skewed to their specific taste…and all-too-often they have a palate that is jaded from years of eating at the most expensive and envelope-pushing restaurants.  Certainly they don’t eat like you and I do.  Yelp is a forum where everyday folks submit their impressions of restaurants, so you get a much more realistic idea of how good a restaurant is.  We’re increasingly discovering that the majority of our diners have discovered FRANK on Yelp, and feel very humbled that we’re the ONLY “fine-dining” restaurant in Texas with a perfect 5-star rating there.  Check out our Yelp reviews to see how our diners describe the experience at FRANK!

I was also excited to see several of my favorite spots on that list, including Jimmy’s Food Store (#10 on the list, absolute BEST Italian sandwiches in the area), LA Burger (#22, a Korean burger joint with delicious kimchi fries), Babe’s Chicken Dinner House (#40, a north Texas classic that I always take out-of-towners to), Hopdoddy Burger Bar (#45, breathtakingly delicious gourmet burgers, their Terlingua burger with housemade chili and fritos made me weep), Nazca Kitchen (#53, pan-Latin-American deliciousness…best yuca fries I’ve ever had by a HUGE margin), Pizza di Mia Madre (#55, a Lewisville institution that delivers fabulous pizza along with fresh-baked cookies), and at spot #93, which ain’t too shabby considering the metroplex has over 6,000 restaurants and Dallas alone has the highest restaurant-per-capita ratio in the US, is my go-to restaurant in my little hometown of Lewisville: Parma Pizza and Pasta…an unassuming family-run dive in a strip mall that lures people from downtown Dallas for its dynamite pizza, flawlessly-seared scallops picatta, and the best calzone I’ve eaten anywhere on the planet.  I can’t tell you how excited I was to see it on that list!

Honestly, that accolade would be good enough for us for the entire future of FRANK, but coming right on its heels was the January “Best of the City” issue of Modern Luxury Magazine, where they reveal the top institutions in Dallas dining, bars, arts, design, etc.  On the cover page for the article, they featured exactly one food image, and it was from FRANK!  Chef Adrien’s flawless oyster with beet mignonette:

In the food section, they focused on 4 restaurants…Gemma and FT-33, both pricey, sophisticated New American establishments.  Pecan Lodge…generally recognized as the best BBQ in North Texas.  And us.  ???  Our picture appears right next to Matt McCallister, the Dallas powerhouse chef who was a semifinalist for the James Beard Best Chef award this year.  (That’s basically like the Oscars for chefs.)

Right on the heels of the Modern Luxury article, D Magazine published a cool feature article called “Hidden Dallas” where they outlined all sorts of secret things most people don’t know about the city, and we were one of the few restaurants featured.  And in early March, the spring issue of Edible Magazine will featured a big spread on our Passion-themed dinner.

We’re not sure what to think about it all.  FRANK is just me and Jennie, and more recently Adrien, three washed-up MasterChef contestants throwing a fun dinner party and inviting a bunch of strangers.  But it’s most definitely a dramatic departure from your normal restaurant experience.  Often, you’re greeted by a dog when you walk through the door.  You sit (VERY) snugly around a giant homemade table next to someone you’ve never met, and you eat what we’ve cooked for you in that tiny kitchen over there…there’s no ordering off a menu, and we really hope you like it because that’s all there is!  But by the end of the night (usually about 3 hours after you entered), something magical has occurred.  The wine has flowed and the food kept coming, and you’re talking to that stranger next to you as if he was an old friend.  You’ve discovered you work in the same industry, your wives used the same florist for their wedding (who happens to be the same florist who does our flowers at FRANK), and your kids go the same college.  And you’ve made plans for a double date the following weekend.  And now, when you enter the FRANK lottery, you enter for 4, just like they do, hoping to increase your chances of scoring reservations again, and getting to dine with your new friends.

I can’t count the number of times this has happened.  Jennie and I will be attending a local food event and come across groups of folks who met at our table and are now fast friends.  Because food has this amazing power to bring people together, and most restaurants don’t facilitate this power.  They simply let you enjoy a great dinner with people you already know and love, despite the fact that there are probably a dozen other people in that restaurant at that moment who might change your life if you met them.

As our last dinner drew to a close, most of the crowd had gone, but a few folks were still lingering over wine and chatting intimately, about 4 hours after the event had begun.  One of them stood up and looked at me while I was doing dishes…a really sweet gal, she had attended FRANK the previous month as a solo diner and she met another solo diner who, coincidentally, lived across the street from her.  They were both new to Dallas and didn’t have many friends.  After meeting at FRANK, they had become dear friends and had returned as a pair the next month to dine and meet new folks.  She smiled at me with tears in her eyes, and overcome with joy, she jumped up and down and shouted, “THIS…IS…SO…MUCH…FUN!”

A toast at the FRANK table. Image courtesy of Stephanie Casey at Real Fine Food

Does FRANK serve the best food in Dallas?  Of course not.  Do we have the vision and skill of praise-worthy Dallas chefs like Matt McCallister or John Tesar?  Of course not.  And while it’s truly an honor to appear on lists like this, FRANK is still a humble little sociological experiment…a dinner party of honest, homemade food, sourced as carefully as we’re able, prepared with genuine love and passion, and served by us directly to those we cooked for.  It’s not something we could ever do at an actual restaurant, which is why we just laugh when people beg us to open one and even offer up financial backing.  FRANK is its own unique, bizarre, delightful little thing.  And our guests are as responsible for making it amazing as we are.