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A FRANK Tale: REAL Mexico

(Most photos in this blog appear courtesy of Stephanie Casey at Frugal Foodie Dallas, who live-blogged our menu for us!  Thanks, Stephanie!)

We’ve been wanting to do Mexican FRANK for a very, very long time.  Since the beginning, in fact.  BUT…when you live in a place like Texas, which is oversaturated with both TexMex AND traditional Mexican food, it’s not a menu to venture into lightly.  So we were waiting until the moment felt right.  And when Adrien Nieto called us up and told us he had just finished opening up a new restaurant in San Francisco and was free for a month, we knew the moment was right.

For those of you who didn’t watch MasterChef, Adrien was in the final 2 of our season, and many (if not most) viewers who watched it believed his menu was far superior to the final winner.  But if you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know that MasterChef isn’t real anyway.  Suffice it to say that Adrien blew us all out of the water from the first instant we met him.  He was born and raised in Ventura County, but his parents are first generation Mexican-Americans and he grew up absolutely steeped in both traditional Mexican cuisine, as well as the fresh, produce-centered cuisine of California.  This guy is brilliant.  And Jennie and I both felt like we’d be doing our diners a disservice if we did a Mexico FRANK without him.

As we began to conceptualize the menu, it was funny to discover that all 3 of us had very similar ideas.  We wanted to keep the focus squarely on the cuisines of central Mexico, rather than on the TexMex that so many Dallas folks are familiar with.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s a LOT of authentic Mexican restaurants here, but they tend to be small, neighborhood dives tucked away in strip malls and patronized mostly by Mexicans and adventurous folk who don’t mind a menu that’s all in Spanish and servers who barely speak English.  (My kind of places, and I’ve eaten at dozens of them.)  But there’s very little upscale, refined, authentic Mexican food in Dallas, and we wanted to fill that gap, even if only for 2 weeks.

After many hours of back-and-forth, along with research to find out if we could even get some of the ingredients, the menu was finalized:

We named it “Con Gusto” at Adrien’s suggestion, because this means “with pleasure.”  That carries many, many connotations in Mexico depending on the context, and I’ll talk about that at the end of this blog.

We ALL wanted ceviche (“say-VEE-chay”) on the menu, and it’s one of Adrien’s favorites.  Ceviche is raw fish and/or shellfish marinated in a highly acidic citrus dressing.  The acid “cooks” the fish by performing the same chemical process that happens to meat when heat is applied to it…the protein strands in the meat denature, or unravel, in the presence of either or heat or acid, and the normally translucent meat becomes solid white.  Our ceviche contained whitefish and shrimp, along with cucumber, serrano pepper, and shallot, marinated in lime and orange juices and tequila.  However, we put a bit of a spin on it by adding “sangrita.”  Spanish for “little blood,” sangrita is a condiment that is usually served alongside a high quality sipping tequila to cleanse your palate between sips.  In the US at most fancy tequila bars, sangrita is made with a tomato base, but this is a bastardization.  In the Mexican state of Jalisco, where the vast majority of the world’s tequila is produced, sangrita was originally made with reduced pomegranate juice, giving the liquid a dark red color.  So our sangrita was made traditionally by adding orange juice and chile to the very reduced pomegranate “molasses” and we topped the ceviche with it.  Its pungent, dark, sweet, spicy flavor was a perfect compliment to the bright, fresh flavors of the ceviche.  And we served it with a welcome cocktail made of champagne, cactus water, pineapple juice, jalapeno simple syrup, and a candied jalapeno.  A perfect start!

Next up was another dish we each wanted on the menu, but only discovered this when we began pow-wowing.  Stuffed squash blossoms, or “flor de calabeza.”  Squash blossoms appear in many unique ways across the vast culinary landscapes of Mexico, from salads to casseroles to tacos, even to dessert.  But when was the last time you saw them on a Mexican menu?  We decided to stuff ours with an ingredient we were all VERY eager to introduce to our diners: huitlacoche.  (“WHEET-la-COACH-eh”)

This unique ingredient results when a corn field becomes “infected” with a fungus called ustilago maydis, or, in the US, “corn smut.”  It causes the individual kernels of corn to swell massively in size and turn gray, looking like…well…like a mushroom.  In the process, it transforms the flavor of the corn into something that’s still unmistakeably corny, but also earthy and rich, like a mushroom.  In Mexico, when a corn farmer sees these “mushrooms” growing out of his ears of corn, he falls to his knees and thanks God, because it means he’ll fetch 10 times more for his corn that year.  Huitlacoche is a delicacy.

In the US, however, it’s a very different story.  Corn smut is considered a deplorable disease, and the USDA has spent many millions of dollars trying to eradicate it.  When a US corn farmer notices these gray mushrooms growing from his corn, he sets his fields on fire, files for crop insurance, and prays it never happens again…not realizing what a valuable treasure he had been gifted.

Needless to say, finding huitlacoche can be daunting.  Yes, every Mexican market sells canned huitlacoche…but have you ever had canned mushrooms?  Same principle.  Gross.

There is 1 farmer in all the US who is smart enough to deliberately innoculate his corn fields with ustilago maydis and intentionally raise huitlacoche.  His name is Roy Burns and his farm is in central Florida, and he is kept almost completely out of stock of his huitlacoche because in-the-know chefs like Rick Bayless and Jose Andres take shipments every week.  Huitlacoche is highly perishable, so Roy freezes it as soon as it’s harvested, which preserves its delicious flavor.  (Though the texture does suffer a bit with freezing.  However, you’re not likely lucky enough to taste fresh huitlacoche unless it happened to your corn.)  I called up Roy and begged him to ship me some, and thankfully, he did.  It arrived overnight in a cooler…at extraordinary cost, of course!  But completely worth it.

We combined the huitlacoche with some wild mushrooms and garlic, and stuffed the squash blossoms with it.  Then we made a batter similar to a tamal using masa harina (ground corn flour treated with alkaline water) and cornmeal, and dipped the blossoms in this before frying.  The result was similar to a tamal, but crispy on the outside.  We served the blossom on a lovely chilled sauce of crema de Mexicana (Mexican sour cream) with roasted poblano peppers and tons of cotija cheese, which is similar in flavor to Parmigiano-Reggiano.  (I still have dreams about that sauce, it was SO GOOD.)  And on the side was a little slaw of red cabbage, jicama (“HEE-kah-mah”) which is a root vegetable with a crisp texture like an apple and is lightly sweet, and epazote (“eh-pah-SOAT-eh”) a bitter herb whose flavor is unlike anything you’ve ever tasted.  One of our diners exclaimed, “It tastes like tarragon and basil with some rosemary and juniper berry and hops thrown in, along with kale and spinach.”  We dressed the slaw with a vinaigrette of mint and jalapeno.  This may, in fact, be my favorite course we’ve created at FRANK thus far, and it was the runaway favorite at most of our seatings:

The next course was created solely by Adrien.  While he had his fingerprints all over the entire menu, we wanted to give one entire course to him, to let him run wild.  And it turned out to be very special, indeed.  The protein was octopus, or “pulpo” as it’s called in Mexico.  Octopus is a tricky meat.  The vast majority of Americans have only experienced it at sushi restaurants, where the Japanese treasure its ability to be INCREDIBLY chewy when steamed or boiled.  THEY love it that way.  Americans, of course, do not.  So most Americans who’ve eaten octopus have eaten it that way, and said, “No thanks…don’t need to try that again.”  Which is a shame, because, when cooked properly, octopus is one of the most delicious, tender, succulent meats out there.  I didn’t know this until MasterChef, when I tasted octopus from both Adrien (who made it in the semifinals) and from Mario Batali, who is the executive chef at Joe Bastianich’s Los Angeles restaurant Osteria Mozza.  Eating octopus from them was a revelation.  I actually cried.  (Seriously.  Yes, I know I cry all the time, but very rarely does the flavor of a dish make me cry.  Properly cooked octopus did.)

So Adrien did it the right way…first pounding it like crazy to tenderize the meat, then a braise in the pressure cooker to infuse it with delicious Mexican flavors and make it melt-in-the-mouth tender, then a sear on cast iron to give it a nice crust.  Adrien is no stranger to pulpo.  In fact, it is the very first memory he has…in his entire life.  He remembers being on the ocean in Mexico with family, going to a food stall that was famous for seafood stew.  He remembers his Aunt buying a bowl of the stew and passing it down to him.  He remembers seeing the funny-looking tentacles sticking out of the spicy broth.  He remembers tasting it, with its tender texture and rich, spicy flavor.  That was the VERY FIRST THING he remembers in his life.  And, as so much of FRANK is about storytelling and truly special dishes, this was as FRANK a dish as any we’ve ever served.

The octopus sat atop a puree of black beans that were cooked with 2 different stocks, the stock from the octopus and the stock from our short rib from the main course.  He pureed this into a thick soup consistency, then topped it with some chayote squash sauteed with chorizo, lightly dressed arugula, a salsa verde with avocado, and then the octopus.  It was garnished with pickled radishes, one of his very favorite things to eat.  Any time we serve octopus at FRANK, some of our diners get VERY nervous…but just like always, after one bite, they were completely sold:

Next it was time for our traditional “boozy sorbet” course, and all 3 of us are crazy about mezcal right now.  Mezcal is similar to tequila, but instead of being made from the blue agave plant, it’s made from the maguey or American agave plant, which is more commonly know as Century Plant.  You see these in people’s yards from Texas to California, they are very popular ornamentals.  The tough spines are sheared off the plant to expose the heart, which is roasted over an open wood fire, crushed, and fermented into a lightly alcoholic substance that is distilled twice.  The open fire roasting gives mezcal an intense smokey flavor, like a very peaty Scotch.  Most mezcal is made in Oaxaca.  (Side note, mezcal was popular for awhile because some of the cheaper bottles came with worms or scorpions in them.  NONE of these brands is worth trying, avoid them.  A delicious mezcal that is widely available is called “Vida” sold by the brand Del Maguey which markets many varieties of mezcal.)  Mezcal is become VERY trendy right now, and clever barkeeps are discovering all sorts of delicious cocktail combinations.  (One I keep seeing everywhere is mezcal with chartreuse and grapefruit.)  We wanted to keep our flavors authentic, so we made our sorbet with tamarind (a bean pod with an intense sweet/sour flavor, popular in many cuisines around the world), grapefruit, and orange.  Many of our diners were trying mezcal for the very first time, and the sorbet actually got a few votes for best course on the entire menu!

Now, the main course.  This one was inspired by a breakfast that Jennie recently had in Mexico City, where she was offered grilled cactus and cheese.  She was so taken with the flavors and textures that she really wanted to put it on the FRANK menu.  The pads of the prickly pear cactus, called “nopales,” are delicious and have been a staple in Mexico for millenia.  They have a tart, astringent taste, almost as if they’d been marinated in vinegar, which most people are shocked to discover.  The cheese commonly paired with cactus is called “panela,” which is confusing to some people because panela is also the name of an unrefined raw sugar cake that is common in Central and South America.  But Mexican panela is a cheese with a strong, chewy structure, so it can be grilled to a nice delicious crust without melting and losing its shape.  For the protein on the plate, we chose beef short rib, one of our favorite cuts, and also popular in Mexico.  We were able to get USDA Prime short rib from our friend Clark, whose family runs Vintage Beef farms and consistently produces the best beef we’ve ever worked with.  One of the things we love about short rib is that it’s the beef version of bacon…it has that remarkable ability to be both crispy and succulent and juicy at the same time due to its fat content and its high level of collagen.  We braise our short rib for 10 hours at low temperature until it is so tender it’s almost hard to work with.  Then we remove all the meat from the bone and cartilage (very laborious!) and reserve the fat.  Then, just before serving, we saute that meat in the fat, so it’s crispy on the outside, and tender and juicy on the inside.  A perfect meat to place beside the tart, crisp cactus and the grilled cheese.  To round out the plate, we put our famous 63.5 degree shell-poached egg on the plate.  It always impresses folks who’ve never had an egg cooked at the proper temperature of 146F or 63.5C.  (Most poaching and boiling is done in water that’s 200F or higher, which means the white is overcooked and the yolk is still raw.  When you cook an egg at a much lower temperature for much longer, you get a uniform, silky, custard-like texture throughout the white AND the yolk.)  We also passed homemade tortillas around the table, both white and blue corn, and we had made a homemade butter with ancho chile in it to spread on the tortillas, and also offered passion fruit margaritas in addition to wine.  (We squeezed more than 60 pounds of limes over the course of 2 weekends to make these dinners…not an easy task, nor cheap, since the lime shortage has driven the price of limes sky high!)

And last but certainly not least…dessert.  I had a hard time selling my idea to Jennie and Adrien, because neither of them like flan.  And neither do I.  But several years back, just before I left for MasterChef, I was introduced to a version of flan that blew my mind at my favorite local Mexican food restaurant, Agave Azul.  The texture was nothing like a traditional flan…it was more like a ricotta cheesecake.  I kept prodding their chef to tell me how he made it, and he never would, so I had to embark on my own experimentations to recreate it.  I finally settled on a Mexican cheese called “requeson,” which is very similar to ricotta.  It gave the flan a rich, irregular texture, removing the jelly-like texture that turns many people off from flan.  After describing it to Jennie and Adrien and assuring them they’d love it, they still weren’t entirely sold.  So I made a batch and took it to Jennie’s place and left it in her fridge for them to taste.  And one bite was all it took.  Our flan was flavored with reduced tequila and vanilla, and we used piloncillo (“PEE-lone-SEE-yo”), the rawest form of sugar, and tequila to make the caramel.  Piloncillo is a fabulous ingredient…it comes in little brown cones which you’ll often see in the produce section at Latin American markets.  They squeeze the juice from sugar cane, boil it down until it’s syrupy and thick, and pour it into cone-shaped molds to set.  Sugar doesn’t get any more raw than this, the flavor is intense and dark and rich.  On top of the flan we put some candied pepitas, or pumpkin seeds, which have been an important food in Mexico since long before the Spanish conquistadores first set foot on its shores.  We also put some raw cacao nibs on the plate…cacao is the pod that chocolate is made from, but in its raw form, its crunchy, bitter, and intensely flavored.  And I can’t tell you how many people said, “I hate flan and was scared when I saw it on the menu, but this was DIVINE.”

And we served the dessert with some Mexican-style hot chocolate, rich and intense with heavy cream, coffee, vanilla, cinnamon, and chiles.

This was a truly fabulous dinner, and as I mentioned in the beginning, Adrien named it “Con Gusto,” which has many contextual connotations in Mexico.  Not only does it mean “with pleasure,” it also means “welcome, what is mine is yours.”  And it also means “with passion.”  If you’ve never ventured beyond the border towns of Mexico, or the Americanized beach resort towns, you have yet to experience the single most striking thing about Mexico…the hospitality of its people.  And food is ALWAYS the first and most important symbol of hospitality there.  If you recall the Thanksgivings of your childhood,when all the relatives gathered for an over-the-top feast…this happens almost weekly in Mexico.  ANY occasion warrants the gathering of the generations, and a ridiculous overabundance of food.  Food is how the people of Mexico show their love for each other, it occupies a MUCH more sacred place in their culture than it does here in the US.  As Adrien spoke about his family’s heritage and what food means to him, he brought things full circle by saying, “It has been so interesting to see what Ben and Jennie are doing at FRANK, because it reminds me so much of my family dinners as a child.  This isn’t a restaurant.  You don’t get this at a restaurant.  These guys are sharing their love with you, and you are sharing it with each other…with all these new friends you’ve made tonight.  Food has the power to make these kind of connections, but a restaurant robs it of that kind of power.  That’s what makes FRANK so special, and so exciting to be a part of.”

I usually spend so much time blogging  about the food at FRANK that I don’t often talk about this, which is REALLY what FRANK is all about.  Our diners sit at an 18-foot long table that we built ourselves out of lumber reclaimed from an old farmhouse in Ft. Worth.  The table is narrow, so the people across from you are very close.  We sit 18-20 per night, so the people sitting next to you are actually touching shoulders with you.  It’s not a roomy experience, to say the least.  But this, combined with a little wine for lubrication, and a few plates of delicious food cooked with love, are all it takes to break down those ridiculous social barriers we’ve put up, to keep our interactions with our fellow man superficial.  “How are you today?”  “I’m fine, thanks, how are you?”  After 2 or 3 hours of dining with complete strangers in this setting, people have discovered new best friends.  I joke at the beginning of FRANK, “Sit next to someone you came with, but across from someone you’ve never seen before until tonight…I promise you’ll be best friends on Facebook by the end of the evening.”  But it’s actually true…deep friendships have been forged around our table.  Occasionally Jennie and I will be walking around Dallas and we’ll come across groups of people who met at FRANK, and now dine together regularly and have become very close.  And while we both love to cook…THIS is why neither of us could ever be chefs in a conventional restaurant, because our love for cooking is born out of our love for PEOPLE, not for our love of ingredients and techniques.

And FRANK has been an extraordinary and rewarding place to let that love run wild!!

A FRANK Tale: Eggs Galore

I’m vastly behind on FRANK blogs…well, because we’ve been doing FRANK so often recently.  And each one has truly been epic enough to deserve its own blog.  This past April we celebrated our 2 year anniversary, and we decided to revisit the theme of our very first FRANK back in 2012…”The Egg.”  We had chosen this as our first theme because the egg represents the origin…the beginning, and that first menu was lovely:

Of course, we’ve been at this for 2 years, and the scope of our menus and techniques has become broader, so we knew this new egg menu would have to be amazing.  It took us a week to conceptualize it, but when it was finished, we were very, very happy: a tour around the world exploring how the egg is used in different cuisines.

For the amuse bouche, we kept it simple with a delicious soft scramble, served inside the shell.  If you’ve never had a soft scrambled egg, you’d be completely and totally surprised.  It turns out that, all these years, we’ve been cooking eggs at too high a temperature.  Egg proteins begin to coagulate (or cook) at around 145F.  But if you boil an egg, you’re dropping it into 200-212F water.  If you poach it, you’re cracking it into water around that same temperature.  If you’re frying or scrambling, your putting the egg into a 300-350F pan, or even hotter.  But eggs want to cook at 145F, so our soft scramble (and most of the egg applications in this menu) were cooked at appropriately low temperatures, which results in a truly exquisite, custard-like texture.  The eggs are still fully cooked…far moreso than an over easy egg or the runny, still-raw center of a poached egg…but they are soft, luxurious, pillowy, and delicious.  A soft scramble takes place in a pan over low heat, gently stirring the eggs every few minutes for 30-45 minutes until they are set, but soft.  And into this scramble, we added some wonderful, seasonally foraged ingredients:

This is the elusive morel mushroom, an extraordinary mushroom that grows only in the wild and cannot be cultivated.  Morels appear in spring, just as the warm rains begin to fall, and morels grow in all 50 states, even Hawaii!  But every morel eaten in the world was hunted down and picked by someone in the forest, and you either pay dearly for that (morels can sometimes fetch up to $100 a pound in upscale markets), or you find them yourself.  In our case, we found them ourselves…though we had to drive a couple hours north from Dallas to get a decent harvest.  (It was too dry here in north Texas, I found only 1 morel mushroom near my house this season.)  Up in Oklahoma, however, the harvest was pretty epic due to their long, wet winter.  We found grey morels, which grow in association with elm trees, blonde morels which grow with elm and juniper, both of which are fairly commonly found, and rare giant golden morels, which grow with ash trees.  Morels are very special mushrooms and we were so excited to be able to share an ingredient we had foraged on the menu.  To round out the flavor of the scramble, we also added wild onions which I foraged in the park behind my house.  They are everywhere this time of year, and are delicious.

Then we wanted to throw our diners for a bit of a spin, by taking them to Japan, where they make a savory seafood custard called “chowan mushi.”  I was first introduced to chowan mushi at an extraordinary Japanese restaurant in Phoenix called Hana.  I was absolutely dumbfounded…the chef had to come out and explain to me exactly how he made it.  It’s very rare to find it in the US, but it’s very common in Japanese households.  And Japanese Americans who are familiar with our Easter traditions often compare eating their grandmother’s chowan mushi to an Easter egg hunt…as you dig down through this impossibly delicate, rich, savory custard, you come across little surprises: bites of tender scallop, little shrimp, tiny mushrooms.  Chowan mushi begins with “dashi” which is a complex broth upon which much of Japanese cuisine is based.  The mark of a great chef in Japan is his ability to make a perfect dashi with only a few basic ingredients, namely “katsuobushi,” which is bonito fish or skipjack tuna that has been fermented, smoked, dried, and then shaved…and “kombu,” which is a type of seaweed.  A good dashi is rich but light at the same time, exploding with flavor, yet still delicate.  And when you introduce eggs to dashi, they will set into a custard that is infinitely more delicate than the rich dessert custards we are familiar with in this country.  Because there is no milk protein to form strong bonds in the custard, it sets into such a tender matrix that the custard basically dissolves on your tongue.  And we introduced some very delicately poached bay scallops, some baby shrimp, fresh shiitake mushroom cooked in pork fat, wild garlic blossoms, and sauteed leek into the custard, so it was exploding with flavors and textures.  We finished off the chowan mushi with a dollop of tobika caviar, which gave a delightful crunch and pop to the dish.  And our diners just raved about it….it was probably the overall favorite on the menu and most of our guests had never experienced anything like it before.

For the next course, we headed to the UK, where the Scotch Egg was invented in a London bar and instantly because an iconic food there.  Traditional Scotch Eggs are hard boiled eggs wrapped in sausage and baked.  Eventually someone started rolling them in bread crumbs and deep frying them, which improved the texture…but still, a hard boiled egg is a dead egg, boring and way too overcooked.  In years past, I experimented with soft-boiled Scotch eggs, and had excellent results.  You can check out my recipe here.  But for a year, we’ve been serving our signature 63.5 degree egg at FRANK to rave reviews, so we figured we’d better experiment with turning that into a Scotch Egg.  If you’ve read my blog before, you know what the 63.5 degree egg is and can skip to the next paragraph.  As I mentioned, eggs begin to cook at 145F (which is 63 degrees Celsius), and we’ve learned that if you simply cook an egg inside it’s shell at exactly this temperature for an extended period of time, the egg cooks all the way through to the yolk, but at it’s PROPER texture, which is silken and custardy…a world away from the poached egg, which usually has overcooked whites, and undercooked yolks.  We’ve found our favorite texture comes by cooking the egg at 63.5 degrees for an hour, but the resulting egg is so tender and delicate that we’d never be able to wrap it in sausage without breaking it.

We experimented by freezing the egg after cooking it.  We weren’t sure if it would negatively affect the egg’s final texture, but it turns out that it doesn’t at all, so freezing allowed us to handle the eggs enough to turn them into Scotch Eggs.  Of course, a plain old hen egg wasn’t interesting enough, so we went with guinea eggs.  Guinea fowl are strange little birds that are often kept around the farm to ward off snakes and predators.  They’re fierce and will rip a rattlesnake to shreds if they see one.  But they range free, which means they hide their eggs, and by the time the farmer finds the nest, either they’ve hatched into chicks, or they’re too old to eat.  Running down 20 guinea eggs per night for 6 nights was no easy task, we had a network of farmers all over the Dallas area chasing their guineas around and bringing us 4 or 5 eggs at a time.  It was crazy.  But worth it, because when was the last time YOU’VE eaten a guinea egg?  Guinea eggs are small…about halfway between a quail egg and a hen egg, and they have VERY hard, thick shells with brown speckles all over them:

(The eggs we used in our epic Ode to the Egg anniversary dinner: at top left, guinea egg.  Top right, quail egg.  Bottom left, hen egg from our backyard flock of chickens.  Bottom right, local duck egg.  It had a slight greenish tinge to it…beautiful!)

So once the guinea eggs were cooked at 63.5C, and then frozen, and then shelled, we wrapped them in a housemade venison sausage which was a bit spicy and very hearty.  (My neighbor Ron took the deer a few months before…about as local and foraged as it gets!)  Then the eggs, still frozen, were coated in panko bread crumbs and deep fried for exactly 3.5 minutes at 300F.  This allowed the venison sausage to cook through, but not to overcook the egg.  Then we allowed the egg to sit for an hour or so to fully thaw using the residual heat from the cooked sausage.  Then, just before plating the eggs, we stuck them under the broiler to crisp up the bread crumbs and just warm the sausage without overcooking the egg.  A LOT of work, but the egg was exquisite, and everyone was so puzzled as to how we pulled it off when they cut into it and discovered this delicate white and yolk hiding on the inside:

We followed this with what is quickly becoming a traditional course at FRANK, a boozy cocktail sorbet.  We take classic (or new) cocktail recipes, and turn them into a frozen sorbet to use as a palate cleanser between rich courses, and our diners can’t get enough of them.  Just a few bites of intensely flavored frozen cocktail, but the trick for us was that we had to use eggs somehow.  Many classic cocktail recipes call for egg whites to be shaken with the liquor, which lightens the texture of the final drink and gives it a lovely foamy top.  So we chose the Pisco Sour, made with a Peruvian liquor called Pisco which is distilled from sugar cane in a way similar to rum…and we simply folded beaten egg whites into our sorbet after it was frozen, which resulted in a lovely light, open texture.  We topped it with preserved lemon, which is lemons that have been fermented (or “pickled”) and still have a bright lemony taste, but also unmistakably pickle-like.  They are absolutely delicious.  Our diners loved the sorbet.

For the main attraction, we decided to give a nod back to our very first menu by doing another pasta carbonara with duck egg, but instead of the traditional Italian guanciale (a dry-cured pork jowl), we did an American-style smoke cure on pork jowls.  Unless you live in the South, you probably don’t eat a lot of jowl.  The jowl is the cheek of the pig, and it’s an extraordinary cut of meat.  It tastes like bacon, but on steroids.  The lean part is SO much meatier…the fat is so much fattier…it’s like a bacon steak.  We used a wet cure on the jowls for a few days, then I smoked them to perfection, and the meat was truly epic:

We cubed up the jowl and crisped it in the oven, and folded this into the carbonara at the last minute.  And while I’m on the subject of carbonara, this classic Italian dish is often bastardized in the US by chefs who think that the creaminess of carbonara comes from cream.  So if you eat at the…gasp…Olive Garden and choose a spaghetti carbonara, it’s going to be a cream-based sauce, which is NOT traditional in the least.  A true carbonara is pasta, pasta water, aged cheese (like Parmigiano-Reggiano), egg yolk, and some type of cured pig meat.  For ours, we used the giant, thick, sinfully rich yolks from duck eggs:

(Note the duck egg on the left, and how different the ratio is of yolk-to-white from the chicken egg on the right!)

To take it to an even more insane place, we placed sauteed ramps on the plate.  Ramps are wild leeks that can’t be cultivated, and only grow in the spring in the American Midwest and Northeast.  They are harvested entirely by foragers, and the flavor of a ramp is just explosive…like sweet garlic, but much more intense.  We topped the whole thing with a quail egg.  It was easily the best pasta I have EVER eaten.

We passed our homemade bread with the pasta course, and had a homemade butter on the table, like usual, but this butter was pretty special.  It was “bottarga butter.”  This came up in a brainstorming session late one night when Jennie and I were trying to think of a truly mind-blowing, epic butter for the table that was in keeping with the egg theme.  Bottarga is a specialty product from Sicily and Sardinia, where they take the roe or egg sac of the mullet fish and dry cure it in sea salt.  The sac dries out and the briny flavors of the eggs inside concentrate, and then you grate the eggs over whatever you’re eating, usually pasta.  It is ruinously expensive and extremely difficult to find, but one of our specialty Italian stores in Dallas was able to get us some.  So we folded bottarga into our butter and grated more on top, and it was pretty decadent.

Finally, dessert.  We knew we wanted to do a frozen custard, which, in the US, simply means “ice cream” as virtually all our ice creams are actually custards.  I really wanted to use goat’s milk from my local farm for the ice cream, but they had so many babies still nursing there that I had to go a little farther away to get good, high quality goat’s milk.  I found it at the Hidden Valley Dairy in Argyle, and in the process discovered a really fabulous source for all sorts of fresh, local, small-farm products, from pork and beef to duck eggs and honey.  So next time you need the freshest ingredients and want to support local families in the process, head up to Argyle for the afternoon and see what all they have to offer!

I decided to turn the goat’s milk into cajeta (pronounced “cah-HEY-tah”), which is a Mexican delicacy that’s basically like sweetened condensed milk, only made with goat’s milk.  You cook the milk for hours over low heat until it concentrates and caramelizes.  While I was researching cajeta, I found a regional variation on cajeta from the Guanajuato area, called “cajeta quemada,” where the milk is cooked almost to the burning point.  Pastry chefs know that cooking sugar until just before it burns results in complex chemical reactions that break down the sugar molecules into all sorts of volatile aromatic and flavor compounds that are much more diverse and intense in flavor than ordinary sugar.  (Ever had that delicious burnt sugar on top of creme brulee?)  The same principle applies to cajeta, as the natural sugars (primarily lactose) in milk approach the burning point, they fracture into an explosion of flavor.  So I stayed up all night stirring this goat milk as it cooked down, stopping it just an instant before the point that it would burn.  I combined this dark, thick, rich cajeta with honey (also from Hidden Valley in Argyle) and egg yolks.  That’s it.  3 ingredients, milk, honey, and eggs.  Heat did all the rest.  And no one believed me, because the flavors were SO intense and rich.  It may…just may…have surpassed our Butter Pecan Ice Cream as the most popular ice cream ever served at FRANK.

We served the frozen custard with an “egg roll” or a little egg pancake wrapped around housemade mascarpone cheese, with some fresh rhubarb compote, shaved chocolate, candied pecans, and drizzled orange blossom honey all over everything.  Our diners scraped their plates clean.

It was a dinner to remember, one of the most complex we’ve ever served, and we were so lucky to share it with 6 nights of amazing diners, some of whom had been trying to get into FRANK since we first opened 2 years before!  We now have well over 4,000 people on our waitlist, and still have to utilize a random lottery to select who gets to sit at one of the 18 seats around our handmade table each night.  We are so honored that our diners have ranked us on Yelp as the highest-rated fine dining restaurant in the entire state of Texas!  We are currently the only restaurant in the state with a perfect 5-star rating from our diners.  It humbles and amazes us when we think of the 800+ folks who’ve sat at our table, eating things like Japanese seafood custard or burnt milk ice cream for the first time, sharing these experiences with their new-found friends across the table, and enriching our lives by their presence and palates.

Thank you to everyone who has helped us come so far, and here’s to many FRANKs ahead!!

All About FRANK

“Just who is this FRANK character and why does Ben Starr spend so much time with him?”  That’s a rough translation of an email I got from a delightful Italian fan last week.  Then I realized, many of you are intrigued with this FRANK thing I’ve got going on with my bestie from MasterChef Jennie Kelley.  And since most of you live so far from Dallas that you’ll never be able to experience FRANK, it’s high time I give you an inside peek at one of the most fascinating endeavors I’ve ever undertaken.

About a month after MasterChef finished filming, I was back in Dallas…after a quick trip to Thailand which was planned long before I auditioned for MasterChef, and turned out to be a much-needed decompression.  I immediately went to visit precious, darling Jennie Kelley, one of my top-18 “rivals” on the show.  In reality, Jennie and I were fast friends from the moment we met in a casting van with 10 other strangers.  I offered her some of the chicken wings I’d gotten at the grocery store (you basically STARVE during MasterChef, ironically), and the rest was history.

Jennie and I have a very similar connection with food, and we discovered this early on.  Some people are attracted to the ACTUAL process of cooking.  Combining flavors and techniques to produce something entirely new and creative.  These people make up the greatest chefs in history.  They are the people who look at ingredients and see art.  I am not one of those people.  And those people, like most artists, care very little what the public at large thinks of their work.  They know, in their educated and inspired hearts and minds, that their work approaches perfection.  And if the public balks, they may not care, or they may buckle into depressions-treatment-info.com.  But they don’t create their art for the public.  They create because they are driven to.

Jennie and I are passionate about cooking for a different reason…because of what cooking means to people.  To our friends and family.  To our culture.  We are drawn to the kitchen because of the human aspect.  Because of what happens to people when they gather around a table, whether they are life-long friends, or complete strangers.  We would be more appropriately termed “Food Anthropologists” or “Kitchen Sociologists” than chefs.

So when the stinky stuff started to hit the proverbial fan behind-the-scenes at MasterChef…and people started fighting and arguing, insulting each other, and being hostile…we broke down.  Because, to us, cooking is about bringing people together.  And here was our top-18 group, throwing cookbooks at each other and screaming at the top of their lungs over such petty matters.  And Jennie and I both knew that we had to stop it, or hit the highway home.  So we basically forced everyone to sit down, and we said, “Guys…we’re stuck here for 2 months.  We can’t contact the people in our lives that we love while we’re here.  The only people we have to lean on right now are each other.  And we’re all here because we love cooking.  So let’s stop fighting and being negative.  Let’s support each other and love each other, because we share SO MUCH MORE with each other than what differences we may have.  We will all be better cooks if we love each other rather than hate each other.”  And from that moment on, our MasterChef experience was different.  Perhaps not as drama-filled and back-stabby as the producers would have liked.  But, judging from the responses I’ve heard from all you wonderful people, unique in reality television and as a result…special.

But I digress.  There I am, sitting on Jennie’s couch.  The last time I was in Dallas, almost 3 months before, I didn’t know she existed…though I had walked past her apartment building a dozen times.  Now we felt like we’d known each other all our lives, a scant 10 weeks later.

“What now?” I asked Jennie.  “What’s next?”

“I dunno.  Do you wanna be a chef?” she asked.

“HECK no.  I love cooking WAY too much to be a chef.  I have to sit down with the people I cook for.  They are the only reason I cook.  I have NO desire to sit in the back of a commercial kitchen and churn out plate after plate of Xerox-copy food for people I’ll never meet.  What about you?  Do you wanna be a chef?”

And, as always between me and Jennie, she didn’t even need to respond.  We felt exactly the same.

“I have been thinking about this one idea, though, for years and years and years,” she said.  “I really wanna do an underground restaurant.”

Any mention of “underground” automatically triggers the primal instincts that led me to start exploring caves when I was barely 10 years old.  Cave exploring is my hobby.

“Well, we don’t have very many caves in North Texas, Jennie.  And I’m not entirely sure a cave is a great environment for a restaurant.”

She looked at me with that look I’ve seen a million times since, indicating, “I can’t believe you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re too cool not to know.”

Several days later, an unexpected package arrived from Amazon for me, and I tore it open to discover the book Secret Suppers: Rogue Chefs and Underground Restaurants in Warehouses, Townhouses, Open Fields, and Everywhere In Between by Jenn Garbee.  And if that’s not an intriguing title, I don’t know what is.  I drew myself a hot bath.  I poured myself a big glass of red.  And I opened the cover.

2 hours later the bath water was ice cold and I turned the last page.  Shivering, I jumped out of the tub and called Jennie.

“I’m in.  Let’s do this.”

Underground restaurants are their own unique thing.  Some people, when I explain it to them, say, “Oh, you mean a pop up!”  A pop-up restaurant is when a chef takes over an existing restaurant for a night, and does their own menu.  An underground restaurant is completely different.  An underground restaurant is a restaurant that doesn’t exist.  No one knows where it’s at.  It usually changes locations every time.  And it’s NEVER in a restaurant.  It’s in a house.  A field.  A barn.  (A cave?)  And almost always, the guests sit together, family-style, though they don’t know each other.  And instead of the chefs being stuck in the back, they are out there, mingling with guests, talking about the food, telling stories…  It’s the antithesis of a restaurant.  And nothing like a pop-up.

Strangely enough, I’ve been hosting underground restaurants for almost a decade and never even realized it.  They often took place in my front yard:

So it didn’t even require a second of thought to decide that Jennie and I, after joining forces, could create one of the coolest Underground Restaurants in existence.

“I wanna call it Frank,” she said.

“Frank?  Who’s that?”

“No…not Frank.  frank.  FRANK.  Like…straightforward.  You know…food, to the point.”

Bingo.  I got it.  No foams.  No scented airs.  No carrot juice caviar.  No duck liver spun into cotton candy.  No whimsically bizarre things that people would NEVER imagine themselves eating anywhere else.  REAL food.  The foods people know.  The foods that have been celebrated for centuries in cultures around the world.  REAL food.  Food that looks like itself.  Food that has a story that stretches beyond the calcined walls of the Modernist chef’s skull.  Food that was already a legend a century before the chef was born.  The kind of food that people cook for each other when it comes time to celebrate.  The Food of the People.

I, ever the spontanaetist (is that a word?), immediately said, “When are we gonna do it?  Next week?”

Jennie, ever the precautionary perfectionist, replied, “GOD no!  It’s gonna take months.  Everything has to be perfect.  We don’t even have a table.  We have to have a table.  The perfect table.  THE table.  The table everyone sits around.”

Well, of course, if we had to search the continent for the perfect FRANK table, it would take forever.  The clear choice, then, was to BUILD the table.  We had already discussed that everything at FRANK was to be handcrafted, right down to the butter on the table.  Why not the table, itself?

“Do you know how to woodwork?” Jennie asked.

“Nah.  But how hard can it be?  I’m always up for a new hobby.”  I could hear her curious skepticism in the silence on the line.  My statement was not without precedent, though.  Before MasterChef, I did appear on HGTV’s All American Handyman.  I may not be a woodworker, but I can build a house.

So, ever the thrifty person I am, and fueled with a fire to create a table that embodied all the character and history of the foods we intended to celebrate at FRANK, I found a century-old home in Ft. Worth that was being demolished, and they wanted someone to take the red oak flooring and give it a new life, rather than it ending up in a landfill.  Two weeks later, the floor from a home that saw generations of families grow up had been re-milled into the table that would become the very heart of FRANK:


Crude, to be sure.  Or, as I prefer to call it: “rustic.”  But full of character, with a story reaching back through the years…just as we wanted.

Now, table provided, Jennie had no excuse for delay.  It was time to make FRANK happen.  And on April 12, 2012, it did.

Fast-forward nearly a year, and if you type “Top Restaurants” into Yelp for Dallas, Texas…more often than not, you’ll see FRANK in the top 10.  (It rotates constantly based on current reviews for each restaurant.)  We’re always puzzled when we see ourselves on that list.  We’re only open once or twice a month.  Yes, the crowds originally came because they learned about me and Jennie by watching MasterChef.  But gradually, the crowd shifted to people who had no clue who Jennie and I were…they were at the FRANK table because they had heard about the food.  About the experience.  And that’s exactly how we like it.

So, once or twice a month, a crowd of 18 strangers assembles around the FRANK table, and for 3 hours, they eat.  Four, five…sometimes six courses.  Of food that’s crafted entirely by hand.  From the bread to the cheese.  And sometimes…to the wine or beer.  So, without further ado, I’ll tell the story of one FRANK.  Valentine’s FRANK.

The last week of January, Jennie and I confirmed that we would host FRANK the weekend before Valentine’s, February 8 and 10.  A Friday and a Sunday, a pattern we’ve discovered we like.  It gives us a day between seatings to recover and recook.  And it allows folks in the industry to attend, as many restaurants and bars close or have alternate staff on Sunday night.  And I push for a third seating on February 14, because that’s one of the biggest “date nights” of the year.  We’ve never done 3 FRANKs in a row.  But we’re almost a year old.  We can handle it.

Scheduling a FRANK can be daunting, because Jennie and I each juggle 2 full time careers outside of FRANK.  I do tech support and website management for a series of health-related websites, and I help translate recipes from the country’s greatest chefs and restaurants onto a home-cook level for the iPad app Nimble Chef.  Jennie is a food stylist (meaning she cooks and presents the food that appears in photos for magazines, cookbooks, even music videos), and she’s a founding member of the legendary band The Polyphonic Spree which, for the past 13 years, has toured the world, spreading their one-of-a-kind sound that infiltrates the human heart and voicebox and infects both with naught but peace, love, and an overabundance of explosive and highly-contagious joy.  So…it can be quite challenging to find a weekend each month when we’re both in town and have the ability to carve out the week before to execute FRANK.  Because it takes a full week.

So on Sunday, February 3, an invitation email is sent out to over 2,000 people around the country who want to dine at FRANK, announcing our Friday, Sunday, and Valentine’s Thursday seatings.  Guests have until Monday at 5pm to email us back, indicating their party size (up to 4 people), and the night(s) they are interested in dining.  Monday night, Jennie and I are faced with the daunting task of executing the lottery that decides the guest list.

There’s probably software that would simplify this task.  But we’ve got HUNDREDS of RSVP emails…some of which say, “We can come ANY of the 3 nights, but if it’s Friday, it will be 3 of us.  If it’s Sunday, it will be 2 of us.  If it’s Valentine’s Day, it will be 4 of us.”  For any given FRANK, we have 200-300 seating requests for only 18 seats.  And since we’re so passionate about a hand-crafted experience, even the lottery is hand crafted.  In a spiral notebook, we write down every party that wants seats for every night.  And then the random lottery takes place and the guest list is assembled.  And on Tuesday, we email the lucky winners with the good news that they’ll be dining a FRANK.  But they still don’t know WHERE frank. is.  Or what they’ll be eating.  They won’t find out until the night before they sit down at our table.

Monday night we start discussing the menu, because at this point, all we’ve decided is our theme: Chocolate.  Naturally.  Because it’s Valentine’s Day, and no food is more synonymous with romance than chocolate.  And this is a particularly challenging theme.  Usually, we pick a broader theme, like “FRENCH FOOD.”  Or “BRUNCH AFTER DARK.”  This menu, however, will feature chocolate in every course, and few of us are accustomed to eating chocolate in any course other than dessert.  We hash out a menu, which is entirely likely to change a dozen times before we start cooking, based on inspiration, research, and what we find when sourcing.

Tuesday we begin sourcing.  We have 18 guests, plus staff, to feed on 3 separate nights.  Friday and Sunday can be sourced at the same time.  But the following Thursday seating will require sourcing the next week.  We have a trove of local artisans and purveyors that help supply the freshest local ingredients for each FRANK dinner.  Some come from our favorite corner ethnic food markets.  Some come from legendary purveyors like Tom Spicer at Spiceman’s 1401, who supplies fresh herbs, greens, foraged mushrooms, and such to Dallas’s finest restaurants; or Paula Lambert at the Dallas Mozzarella Company, lauded around the world as one of the finest cheesemakers alive.  Some come from the Dallas Farmer’s Market.  Some come from my own garden, in my backyard in Lewisville:

This is one of the primary differences between FRANK and a restaurant.  The large portion of a restaurant’s ingredients arrive weekly from a commercial food supply company, like Ben E. Keith or Sysco.  Yes…the better restaurants may source the protein for their special from a local farm here and there.  But virtually all their ingredients arrive in massive boxes and jugs from mass-produced sources.  Because they are serving 600 people a night, 6 or 7 nights a week.  At FRANK, because we serve 18 people, 2 or 3 times a month, we can source the finest local meats and veggies, like pastured rooster from Farmer William at Grandma’s Farm in McKinney, free range eggs from Shepherd/Farmer Cindy at Jacob’s Reward in Parker, or raw milk from Farmer Todd at Lucky Layla in Plano.

By Thursday morning, everything is sourced, and the menu is finalized:

This is not a typical FRANK menu.  Normally, you would recognize way more items on the menu.  But our theme is chocolate…one of the most complex and challenging ingredients known to man.  For this menu, we’re going out on a limb to introduce our diners to pairings they’re probably unfamiliar with.  Like bleu cheese and chocolate.  If you’ve never tried it, you haven’t lived.  Get a nice dark bittersweet chocolate, some Gorgonzola or Roquefort, and a crisp cracker like Melba toast, and eat them together.  Your life will change.

We have over 22 components to prepare for the six-course menu.  Some take 15 minutes to prep.  Some take more than 12 hours:

  • Chocolate puff pastry (not sweet, just savory)
  • Seared cocoa- and paprika- rubbed flank steak
  • Chocolate hazelnut soup
  • Toasted crostini with gorgonzola cheese
  • Handmade chocolate spaghetti (earthy and bitter, not sweet at all)
  • A light citrus cream sauce for the pasta
  • Scallops crusted in raw cacao nibs, seared in cocoa butter
  • Sorbet of reduced Cabernet Sauvignon with candied shallots
  • Dark chocolate covered Champagne grapes
  • A Oaxacan-style mole sauce with over 50 ingredients, from avocado leaf to baby banana to 3 different types of chocolate
  • Chicken thigh meat braised in the mole
  • Crispy polenta cakes made with masa and cotija, a Mexican cheese with vaguely similar characteristics to Romano
  • Fried quail eggs
  • Cocoa and cinnamon toasted cauliflower
  • Crusty, old-world-style rosemary sourdough bread
  • Sweet-cream butter with fleur de sel (course sea salt)
  • Flourless chocolate cake
  • Goat cheese ice cream
  • Salted caramel sauce made with raw cocoa butter
  • Dark chocolate-dipped potato chips
  • Hot chocolate with 6 types of chiles, cinnamon, vanilla bean, and coffee bean
  • Dark chocolate truffles infused with espresso, coated with pink peppercorn and coarse Maldon sea salt

And here is yet another thing that separates FRANK from a restaurant.  At a restaurant, a team of prep cooks would arrive in the early morning to start on the sauces and the components that take longer.  The bread and butter, and many other menu items, would be picked up or delivered from outside sources.  Those prep cooks finish their shifts before dinner service begins, and the line cooks arrive and take the components readied by the prep cooks, and toss them together as they are ordered by diners, according to the executive chef’s recipes.  At FRANK, your prep cooks, line cooks, and executive chefs are ME and JENNIE.  We do everything.  By hand.  And then we put it on the table in front of you.

Occasionally, we have a “sous chef” who gets in the kitchen with us on Thursday to help cook.  This week it happens to be Michael Chen, from MasterChef season 3, who is recently back in Texas from a stint as executive chef at a restaurant in Rimouski, Canada on the banks of Quebec’s mighty St. Lawrence River.  Michael, as always, readily accepts mundane tasks and executes them with flawless diligence.  (“Michael, I need to you to melt this chocolate to exactly 98 degrees over 75 minutes, stirring every 30 seconds.”)  For those who don’t know, in order for chocolate to “melt in your mouth, not in your hand” it must be carefully melted to exacting temperatures very slowly.  This is called “tempering” and it can be incredibly challenging.  2 or 3 degrees too much, and your chocolate will not set at room temp and will be a runny mess.

For our menu, we are using several different types of chocolate.  Two are legendary in the pastry chef’s world, but may be unfamiliar to you: Valrhona from France and Callebaut from Belgium.  These are the two dominant names in the gourmet chocolate world.  They produce what are commonly respected as the finest chocolates in the world.  You can’t go to the store and buy a bar of Valrhona or Callebaut chocolate.  But if you buy a ruinously-expensive artisan chocolate bar with Madagascar orange peel and Himalayan sea salt…chances are the chocolate in the bar was sourced from Valrhona or Callebaut.  In addition, we’re prominently featuring a chocolate we fell in love with while sourcing…Agostoni from Italy.  To us, it put Valrhona and Callebaut to shame with its complexity, depth, and spiciness.  We’re also using El Rey, a chocolate company owned by a Venezuelan family, as well as “Mexican chocolate” which is blended with coarse sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon and commonly melted into boiling milk or water to make hot chocolate.

Wednesday night, Michael and I stay up all night making dark chocolate truffles infused with espresso and coated with Maldon sea salt (a famous salt among chefs, with large, crunchy, delicate crystals, that is produced in England) and pink peppercorns that I picked from a tree in Hawaii on a recent trip with Christian Collins and Adrien Nieto from MasterChef.  Thursday we “load in” to the historic building where FRANK will happen, and start cooking in earnest.  One of the biggest projects is the mole, which takes well over 12 hours to prep BEFORE the chicken is cooked in it.  Thursday night we send out a secret email to the diners to notify them of the location and menu, and we finally collapse in bed around 4am for a few hours of desperate sleep before an early rise on Friday…the day we serve.

Not only do we have to cook on Friday.  We have to transform the space into a restaurant by setting up the 18 foot communal table (which weighs about 200 pounds) and 18 chairs.

We also have to select a quote for our chalkboard to represent the evening:

Our servers arrive around 6pm and we brief them on the menu, and on any special diners who may not be drinking, or who may be allergic to shellfish or gluten and who will receive special plates.  We go over each course with them, so they know what they are serving, which wine to pair with it, when to pass the homemade bread, and who is celebrating anniversaries or birthdays.  Like everything with FRANK, our servers are not strangers.  Chris and Marie are our normal servers.  I’ve known Chris since he was 17.  Jennie has known Marie since she was the same age.  They are two of our dearest friends, and they make our life so much easier by letting us focus entirely on the food.

Chris and Marie, our go-to servers at FRANK. Image by Lauren Logan

At 8pm, the guests begin to arrive.  At first, they’re not sure what to expect.  They’re arriving at someone’s private home that they’ve never met.  They don’t know anyone in the room but who they came with.  We place Champagne into one hand, and an amuse-bouche (a fancy term for a small-bite appetizer) into the other, and introduce them to the other guests.  Chris puts some vinyl on the record player, and the crowd begins to grow as the Champagne flows.

At 830pm we tell everyone to rush the table.  Grab a seat.  Any seat.  As long as you’re sitting next to someone you came with, and next to a stranger.  Some of our diners get a little nervous about this game of musical chairs.  Some get incredibly brave and sit at the complete opposite end of the table from the person they came with.  Jennie and I give a quick history of FRANK and explain that they are about to take a 3-hour journey that will be completely different from any restaurant they’ve ever experienced, and the reason isn’t just the food…it’s the strangers sitting at the table with them.  Because, even when you go to dine at a truly exceptional restaurant, the only people you share that experience with is the people you came with.  At FRANK, everyone in the restaurant dines together.  And everyone is at the table because they are passionate foodies.  So whether a doctor is sitting next to a mechanic, or a 70 year old is sitting next to a 20 year old, they automatically have a connection that sparks conversation.  And they’re going to tell stories about other exceptional meals they’ve enjoyed.  And they’re going to excitedly discuss each course after they’ve tasted it.  And by the end of the evening, everyone is Facebook friends and making plans to dine together the following week.  (At one FRANK, one of the guests set up a special Facebook page JUST for the diners that night, so they could share photos and keep in touch with each other.)

Jennie then hurries back into the kitchen to get the first course ready, and I begin to discuss the evening’s theme and the food everyone is about to eat.  Since chocolate is our ingredient for the night, I pass around some raw whole cacao nibs and explain how chocolate goes from a pulpy pod filled with bitter, almond-sized seeds, to the confections they are familiar with.  I also pass around some chunks of raw cocoa butter and explain how this remarkable fat, that is rock hard at room temperature, but melts smoothly and sensually at body temperature, plays its own unique role as a cooking fat in this evening’s menu.  (Restaurants could never use cocoa butter as a cooking fat, despite its FABULOUSLY high smoke point, and luxurious flavor and mouth feel, because it is also fabulously expensive and just can’t be sourced in quantities large enough for commercial cooking.)  This is another unique aspect about FRANK…your chefs give you a thorough education about the food you’re going to eat.  We tell you about where it came from.  (Because we actually know.)  We explain why we chose the cooking methods we did, and the chemistry and physics behind the procedures for the meal.  And our diners just love it.

Image by Christian Eggers

The courses begin coming out.  First is a soup inspired by a classic Italian combination: hazelnuts and chocolate.  Ever had Nutella?  Well, this is the savory version of that.  It’s not sweet at all.  POUNDS of hazelnuts get simmered in vegetable broth with shallots and then pureed into a thick base that gets flavored with a bit of cinnamon, and then enriched with bittersweet chocolate and some cream.  On top are toasted hazelnuts and basil chiffonade, and the thing that brings it all together is the intense raw-milk gorgonzola on the crostini.  As I mentioned before, if you’ve never had chocolate and bleu cheese together, you’re in for the surprise of your life.  People were literally screaming at the combination…it’s that good.  And that surprising.

Image by Christian Eggers

Next comes the pasta course.  That giant sea scallop is seared at very high temperature in cocoa butter to get a nice crust, then it is rolled in cacao nibs that were also toasted in cocoa butter for a great earthy crunch to balance the scallop’s sweetness.  It’s sitting on a bed of chocolate spaghetti…dark, earthy, and bitter, which was tossed in a VERY light citrus cream sauce to brighten the dark flavors with acid and echo the sweetness of the scallop.  This was a favorite course among many diners.  And we passed around our homemade rosemary sourdough bread, made with whey leftover from the cheese we’re making for a future FRANK.  (Rosemary and chocolate is another fabulous pairing.)  Our diners spread homemade sweet cream butter onto the bread, and many of them tell us that the bread is so good they’d eat it exclusively for a meal if they could.

Image by Christian Eggers

Then it’s time for a sorbet palate cleanser before the bold flavors of the main course take over.  Our sorbet tonight is cabernet shallot…a nice young cab reduced and sweetened, with candied shallots dotted throughout.  There’s definitely an unmistakeable onion flavor to the sorbet, but the acidity and boldness of the wine (also customarily a savory flavor) contrasts with the sweetness to make a very complex and refreshing bite or two, helping the palate relax after several courses of dark, bitter chocolate.  We served it with a frozen chocolate covered Champagne grape.  A couple of our diners across 3 evenings told us, “It’s interesting, but I wouldn’t want to eat a whole bowl of it.”  (Luckily, we only gave them 3 bites.)  However, just as many told us it was their FAVORITE course of the entire night, and some actually wanted to eat a whole bowl!

Image by Christian Eggers

Now comes the main attraction…a play on a main course we’ve served in several unique incarnations at previous FRANKs: a crispy polenta cake topped with some type of braised meat.  Sometimes it’s short rib braised in coffee and cocoa.  Sometimes it’s chicken breast braised in red wine and rosemary.  But tonight, it’s chicken thigh braised in a dark Oaxacan mole sauce.  If you’ve never had mole, you haven’t lived.  If you’ve had mole and didn’t like it, it wasn’t prepared properly.  Mole is one of the most complex and delicious sauces of any culture on the planet.  This mole has avocado leaves, baby bananas, tortillas, raisins, coffee, wine, 3 types of chocolate, 6 types of chilies…the ingredients list adds up to more than 50.  Poor Michael Chen spent 12 hours straight just working on the mole to get it ready for the thigh meat to be braised, ever so slowly, at 200 degrees overnight, resulting in succulent perfection.  The mole is dark, rich, with a satisfying heat, and a depth of complex flavor you’d be hard pressed to find in any other culture’s food spectrum.  The chicken is nestled on top of a crispy polenta cake…decidedly NOT Mexican…but we finished the polenta with cotija, a dry Mexican cheese with a flavor similar to Romano.  And a sunny side quail egg rests on top of it all.  Accompanying the main course is cauliflower toasted in the oven with cocoa, cinnamon, and paprika.  And people go nuts.  One young lady, born in Mexico, called me over and said, embarassingly, “I’ve hated mole my whole life.  I can’t stand it.  Not even my mother’s or my grandmother’s.  When I saw it on the menu, I got really nervous, but my husband made me promise to try one bite.  I ate it all.  Is there any more?”

Image by Christian Eggers

Our guests have been eating for 2 and a half hours, but they’re not done.  Dessert is always a favorite course at FRANK, and this one will be no different.  It’s a flourless chocolate cake made with that unbelievably good Agostoni chocolate from Italy, served with a scoop of goat cheese ice cream.  It tastes like frozen cheesecake…a wee bit salty from the goat cheese, but incredibly rich and silky.  Draped across everything is a warm salted caramel sauce, traditionally made with butter, but we’ve made it with cocoa butter, which gives it a white-chocolate flavor.  And on top of the ice cream is a Ruffles potato chip (the only commercial ingredient of the night) dipped in Valrhona chocolate.  The interplay between sweet and salty, rich and bitter, is the perfect ending.  But it’s not alone.

Image by Christian Eggers

The dessert is served with something we call Aztec hot chocolate.  Before European explorers were introduced to chocolate by the Aztecs, all the chocolate in the world was consumed in the form of a drink by the native peoples of Central and South America.  And it wasn’t sweet.  It was combined with chiles and water and served as a ceremonial drink, reserved for chiefs, priests, gods, and warriors.  Our hot chocolate is a nod to chocolate’s origin, with flavors from Latin America’s most coveted ingredients…cinnamon, chiles, vanilla, and coffee.  It is thick and rich, but not very sweet.  A perfect balance to the dessert.  And so good that one guest (a gifted chef himself) asked to take home the leftovers to serve at his own Valentine’s dinner the following weekend.

And now, after 3 hours of indulging by our guests, and 3 hours of cooking and serving by us, it’s time to relax with our guests and chat about what they thought, and share a toast with our crew.

We may look full of life!  But we’ve been busting our humps for days, and we’re exhausted.  Service is a VERY hectic time as we try to plate 18 servings of each course and get them out quickly enough that everyone can start while the food is still warm.  (Or frozen.)

We relax with our guests for a bit, and then pass out their parting gifts…in this case, the truffles we made a few nights before.

Our guests pay whatever they feel is appropriate for the meal, either in cash or by credit card.  We give a suggested donation amount for each event, based on the menu and the occasion (generally between $100 and $150), but the final amount (if any) is up to our guests.  They universally tell us it’s worth far more than we charge for it.  (Though I admit, I’ve only spent that much on dinner a precious few times in my life.)  They’ve been eating the finest hand-crafted food, all of which has a story behind it, and drinking superbly paired wines, all night long.  They are leaving with new friends who they actually plan on seeing again.  And they are all prodding us for more info about how they can get a guaranteed seat at the next FRANK, since our invitation list is so long.

When the final guests leave, it’s often approaching midnight.  But our evening isn’t finished.  We have to wash all the dishes, put up any leftovers, and get the place back into order before we can sleep.  And the next day we’re up early, cooking again for Sunday night’s FRANK!  As you can imagine…the week following a FRANK demands quite a bit of taking-it-easy.  (Though…who really has time for that?!?)

I applaud those of you who made it all the way to the end of this blog.  At 5,500+ words, I know it wasn’t easy.  But FRANK isn’t something that is easily explained in a few words.  Maybe some day you’ll find yourself around our table, and we can chat about what FRANK was like for you!

Feel free to comment below, especially if you’ve dined at FRANK before.  And visit our new website, which we built ourselves, with some help from our amazing photographer friend Lauren Logan, and my techie wizard Ozzie Bock.  Thanks to EVERYONE who makes FRANK work.  Thanks to everyone who patiently waits through lottery after lottery to dine with us.  And most of all, thanks to Jennie Kelley, who conceived of FRANK long before she met me, but who welcomed me into this magical project.  FRANK has been one of the greatest adventures of my life, and I can’t wait for many more years to come!

To read more about FRANK, click here for a list of blog posts about our more interesting menus!