Thursday, December 13, 2007

Dish on Dining: Franklin Square Wine Bar --CLOSED

Cozy Spot Livens Up Oakland’s Uptown Neighborhood
UPDATE (2/24/10): This place closed in February 2010 for unknown reasons. Sister Luka's Taproom still open
2212 Broadway (at 22nd Street south of Grand Avenue), Oakland
Uptown neighborhood
PH: 510.251.0100
Open 11:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m., Monday–Friday, from 5:30 p.m. on Saturday
No reservations, major credit cards accepted

AC Transit introduced me to the new Franklin Square Wine Bar.

Let me break it down:

I work out at the gym three times a week after work, catching the No. 12 AC Transit bus from my office in Oakland’s Lake Merritt area to the Grand Lake neighborhood. The AC Transit bus is notorious for being off schedule, and often you’ll see them bunched up one after the other. But the No. 12 bus is pretty consistent so if I leave my office at the right time, I only have to wait a couple of minutes before my bus arrives.

Unless it’s Friday. For some reason, Friday’s like the beginning of the weekend for AC Transit and the schedules get tossed out the window. So after a long week, all I want to do is do my little routine at the gym and go home. What actually happens is I end up waiting for the bus and my mind goes through the internal debate about whether I should wait some more or go home already.

On a recent Friday night, going home won out. So as I headed to another bus stop to catch the AC Transit bus that takes me home, I see the Franklin Square Wine Bar, which opened just a month ago. I decided to check it out.

Franklin Square Wine Bar is by the same owners of Luka’s Taproom and Lounge at the corner of Broadway and Grand Avenue. In fact, the new wine bar is just across the street from Luka’s next to a place selling Louisiana-style fried chicken.

Franklin Square Wine Bar is like the mature, older brother to Luka’s, which is more like the rage-against-the-man younger sibling in college. Instead of stark art work, beer on tap and a lot of fried foods that you’d find at Luka’s, you get a sophisticated wine list and California-Mediterranean-inspired small plates.

The restaurant isn’t very big. You walk in and find several stools at the bar on the right and a row of small tables (more suited for two) lined up against the wall on the left. Off in the back you can see the small kitchen where Chef Jack Alioto can be seen overseeing the preparations. (On most nights you can also see Chef Alioto walking back and forth between Franklin Square and Luka’s.)

I grabbed a stool at the bar, tucked my bulky gym bag underneath and proceeded to decide on a wine for the evening. The wine list has a wide variety of offerings, including several by the half glass. The bartender/server was friendly and helpful in describing the wine and helping me select something of medium strength. I ended up with the 2003 Miramar Pinot Noir from California’s Russian River region ($7 for a half glass). It was a nice, medium-body red that gave me a lot of flexibility in matching my food choices.

For the food, the menu starts off with several cheese plates and soup and salads. Then there’s a section of sandwiches (and one tartine) that seem to be more geared toward the lunch crowd. Then there are 9 options under small plates. (Prices range from $6 to $15 but mostly hover around the $6-$7 point.)

At the top of the small plates list was the cauliflower risotto ($7), which I order immediately because I love risotto and cauliflower. For that night, the chef added the option of truffle shavings for $5. Having never tried truffles, I decided to splurge and ordered my risotto with truffles.

But first to arrive was my order of marinated squid sitting on a white bean puree spread over toasted baguettes ($6). I have to say, the squid had a pinkish-purple color that didn’t seem very appetizing. It reminded me of liver. When I ate it, the squid was tender and easy to eat, and I liked the white bean puree. But overall I felt the dish needed more seasoning.

Then came the cauliflower risotto with truffles on top. I expected to see thinly shaved truffle slices but instead saw gratings of brown over the canvas of creamy white risotto. Soon after the dish arrived and I snapped my photo, Chef Alioto came up to chat about the risotto since it was the first night offering it with the risotto. (He probably also noticed me snapping away with my camera. Busted!)

The chef asked me what I thought about the truffles, and to be honest, I could barely get any essence of truffle. All I tasted was the wonderfully comforting and extremely creamy risotto with cauliflower florets. The cauliflower flavor sang out strongly and probably overpowered the grated truffles. I told this to the chef and suggested that maybe shavings would have allowed the truffles to hold up against the risotto base. He said that his girlfriend works at the French Laundry and she told him Chef Thomas Keller grates his truffles, so he thought why question a master? Smart thinking. But either the truffles he got weren’t as powerful in aroma or the grating minimized its strength. (I noticed on a second visit that the cauliflower risotto was still offered but no longer with the truffle option.)

I actually feel that the risotto is so good on its own that it’s fine without the truffles. What’s distinguishing about the risotto (which actually didn’t have a lot of rice kernels) is the cream base that held together nicely with the risotto rice. It’s definitely my favorite dish of the night and I hope Chef Alioto makes this his signature dish for the restaurant.

OK, beyond the risotto, I also ordered the house-cured bresaola ($5), which is thinly sliced cured beef. The plate came with marinated artichoke hearts salad with parmesan. The slices of bresaola was very pretty on the plate and I loved the rich red color. The beef is mostly on the leaner side, which I prefer, but it lacked any strong flavoring, except for the freshly ground pepper on top. Still, it was enjoyable and a very nice attempt at house-cured meats.

I ended the night with the chevre cheesecake with caramel sauce and fleur de sel sprinkles ($6). (Everyone is getting into the caramel and salt trend, which is just one month away from becoming overdone, if not already.) The cheesecake had an excellent texture. (I like mines fluffy and dense at the same time like on the East Coast, as opposed to creamy and light.) While the cheesecake was nice, the fleur de sel didn’t add anything to the cheesecake. It just made my cheesecake seem more salty. I think because the fleur de sel used that evening were more fine than chunky. I think having bigger chunks of this specialty salt may have made the difference.

After a satisfying dinner that was pretty reasonably priced given all that I ate, I decided to come back to Franklin Square Wine Bar for lunch. This time I brought along my friend Lisa, who works in the same building as I.

When we arrived, the place was nearly empty except for a table of four in the back. After work and around dinner time, this place has been pretty packed.

We skipped wine and stuck with water since we both had to go back to work. But started our lunch with the baked brandade, which is like a cheese soufflé made with salted cod and cream. When it came out, it looked like another comforting dish. It was just too pretty to break into. But we did and spread the brandade on the accompanying crostinis. (The server was also nice enough to bring an extra plate of crostinis without us asking because there was just a lot of brandade in that little ramekin.)

Overall I give high points on appearance, but just a lukewarm vote of confidence for the brandade’s taste. It still had a slight fishy-ness to it that wasn’t very appetizing. Not having tried brandade in the past, I can’t say if traditional brandade is supposed to have that fishy taste and texture. But it’s not something I would try very often based on what was served for lunch.

Lisa and I each ordered a sandwich for our lunch. She settled on the tuna confit with sliced egg and black olive pesto and I got the chicken salad with tarragon and apples. Both were served in a toasted baguette and with a side of wax bean salad.

I really loved the baguette, which was nicely toasted to provide a contrast to the tender chunks of chicken. The chicken was filling and I liked the apple chunks, but the overall taste was average and didn’t create any new flavors in my mouth. Lisa was just as lukewarm about her tuna, which she said was good, but she didn’t make any ooh and ahh sounds. We both were mixed about the side bean salad. Lisa says it left an odd metallic aftertaste in her mouth and I thought it needed to be more aggressively dressed with something other than the simple vinaigrette.

Lunch was not as inspiring as dinner, and I joked with Lisa that having wine with your meal at a wine bar probably makes a difference. But given the crowds at night, Franklin Square Wine Bar definitely looks like a place people in this area are hungering for.

And it’s smart timing for owner Rick Mitchell. The wine bar provides another pre-show dinner option for those attending concerts at the Paramount Theatre (two blocks away) and for all the luxury condominiums being built on Grand Avenue in this area that the city is promoting as “Uptown.” With the addition of Franklin Square Wine Bar, things are looking up for the neighborhood.

Single guy rating: 3 stars (Did I mention the cauliflower risotto?)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner


foodhoe said...

ooh I'm hungry now, everything looks delicious even the fishy stuff! I've had mixed experiences with the shaved truffles on dishes, mostly my palate has not been able to appreciate the extra cost. $5 is very reasonable though!

Anonymous said...

Only $5 for truffles? Crazy. -- David

Eric said...

Thanks for the review, looks like there was room for improvement, but some tasty stuff.

Growing up, I always thought that the Uptown area was on the brink of greatness, but just needed someone to discover its potential. So it's been refreshing to see this area pick up speed in the past few years. A wine bar... in downtown Oakland? That would've been unheard of a decade ago.

P.S. I noticed we can now do a sign-in, if we have a Word Press blog, but want to leave comments here? Do you know if Blogger has that running? For some reason I couldn't sign in.

Chef Ben said...

Hi Eric,

I'm not sure how Blogger has the sign in working out with Word Press. I did notice it's listed under the drag down menu as an option. But not sure how it works technically. I find that it works if you sign into your Word Press first and then come visit another blog site. So maybe if you signed into Word Press and then come visit the site, then you can make comments without having to sign in again. All your comments are always welcomed! :)