The pairing of wine and food largely has been marooned at the dinner table. But throw in a bar, and the concept gets more casual and often, more fun.
In recent years, chef-driven wine bars where the food vies for the spotlight have emerged as a popular alternative to more formal dining. The newly opened Bar Frances takes a hybrid approach, where diners can sit down for a full meal or cozy up to the bar for a snack and a glass of wine or two. P.J. Rosenberg, who worked at Martin Wine Cellar, and Mark Latter, owner of Tujague's and co-owner of Bin 428, assembled an impressively long wine list that outnumbers the food options.
The restaurant occupies a sleek modern space on Freret Street. The menu favors light and delicate dishes, and microgreens and edible flowers decorate many plates. Every wine bar seems to offer a plate of deliciously thick-cut french fries served with aioli, and there is a version here too. Castelvetrano olives are warmed and speckled with orange zest. Blistered shishito peppers, the now ubiquitous wine bar hit, are roasted until barely charred, their skins bubbling, glistening with olive oil and flecked with fat crystals of sea salt.
The menu includes many vegetarian dishes, which is a nice touch, given that vegetarian-driven restaurants are too rare in this town. One dish mimics tartare, swapping beets for beef, and the perfectly uniform squares are stacked in the classic cylindrical shape. Topped with a dollop of grainy pickled mustard seed and served with a side of orange sweet potato chips, the dish is a fun, colorful mix of sweet and earthy flavors, with a touch of salt, crunch and brine. Heirloom tomatoes are tossed with cucumbers and fermented fennel, which adds a good bit of zing to an otherwise straightforward salad, and the mix tops a creamy spread of goat cheese. Mushroom toast features a mix of grilled shiitakes and pickled honshimejis, piled high on a thick and crusty slice of Bellegarde Bakery bread.
Not everything on the menu succeeds. I was excited at the prospect of an endive salad topped with walnut puree, but the gray, pasty spread was bitter. The dish was partially salvaged by sweet plump candy cane beets. And although the Southwestern flavors of a charred pork belly and succotash dish worked well, the large wedges of pork were overwhelmingly fatty.
Though the menu is more focused on small plates, there are some entrees, including Provencal-style roasted chicken, which arrives with crisp, golden-brown skin and juicy white meat. The chicken is sprinkled with bacon and served with smashed potatoes and haricots verts speckled with herbs.
Though wine is the cornerstone of Bar Frances, its
raison d'etre also rests on the kitchen. There is room for growth on the menu, but the creative and increasingly expansive array of dishes — the restaurant recently added brunch service — make a strong case for its cuisine. Bar Frances makes it possible to enjoy both in a casual and plea- sant setting.