Cafe Review: Francine Puts A Fresh Spin on Old French

Whole branzino cooked in a salt crust.EXPAND
Whole branzino cooked in a salt crust.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Recently, I ate inside a restaurant. The tables were distanced, the ceilings were high, and every observable precaution was seemingly in place. The food was mostly good. The room had the  air of nostalgia and vanished summers, of escapism.

In an ordinary year, I would say, “Hey, reader, if you’re ever up for a fancy dinner, try here.” I would write about how the concept of the restaurant, Francine, anchored in the French Riviera, also bleeds into Spain (olive oil and romesco) and Italy (pizza and pasta).

I would write about the fresh pasta program and focus on the crab ravioli, slippery pillows that tightrope through delicate flavors like fennel, saffron, and celery leaf.

I would write about the whole branzino forked out from a salt crust scented with star anise and pink peppercorn, and about a charred yet tender octopus. About many fortes and a few foibles. About how Chef Brian Archibald (a veteran of restaurants like St. Francis and the eateries at Boulders Resort & Spa) negotiates the vision of owner Laurent Halasz, who founded and later sold the New York City restaurant Fig & Olive (where I ate once in my early 20s), a spot made for a see-and-be-seen downtown crowd, and who draws inspiration for his spacious new Scottsdale restaurant from his mother’s cooking and youth in Mougins, France, right by the sea.

But this isn’t an ordinary year. So, this will be a different kind of review.

In early May, I wrote that I wouldn’t be eating in restaurants for the foreseeable future. It was a hard choice, but also an easy one. It was motivated by concern for restaurant workers — the cooks, waitstaff, bartenders, bussers, dishwashers, food purveyors, and all the people who make eating out possible. It was also out of concern for my family and the people I come into contact with (not many, these days). The pandemic still lingers, and not in a mightily diminished way. Eating inside creates risk. Then and now, we need to minimize risk.

Many restaurant owners have been working hard to do just that — to sanitize, to distance, and to promote wearing a damn mask, to lessen the potential of virus transmission so they can more responsibly serve customers and, though financially battered, stay afloat. They have been put in an impossible position. Who has put them there? Government.

The utter lack of a competent government response to the pandemic and the utter lack of a proper financial lifeline to restaurants as they’ve bled money has put restaurants in a place where they need, need, need indoor dining, despite science telling us that indoor dining is, at best, unwise.

I don’t blame restaurant owners for opening indoor dining. I don’t blame waitstaff for serving food inside, or dishwashers for showing up to work. I don’t blame people who, going stir crazy, head to their favorite dining rooms to eat a meal and provide support.

I blame government for fucking up so colossally, for politicizing what should be an apolitical issue (that a deadly virus is deadly), for the endless failures that, still snowballing, give fresh depth to the word “catastrophe” every day.

With these thoughts lodged in my head for months now, I decided one day to eat at Francine, noticing  beforehand that they were taking precautions and had cavernous ceilings, permitting airflow. In an effort to avoid a crowd, I ate right when the restaurant opened. Maybe this would change my mind, I thought, or maybe it would help me see differently.

But under the ceiling arches and pastels meant to evoke breezy French coastal towns, eating duck and focaccia as if the pandemic hadn’t gripped 2020 by the throat, I felt cold guilt steal into every pleasant sensation I had, stifling them. If there were even the tiniest chance that I was furthering spread, how could I enjoy my meal?

Francine's ceiling arches and pastels meant to evoke breezy French coastal towns.EXPAND
Francine's ceiling arches and pastels meant to evoke breezy French coastal towns.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Following it, my feelings about eating out remain the same. Actually, they have changed — they’ve deepened.

Still, we have ways to support old favorite restaurants and check out new spots like Francine. Sure, you can’t bask in the tonic vibes of its bar through ordering takeout. You can’t peep the lofty arches, feel the lush flickers of seaside France conveyed through brassy accents and white-washed walls, or behold a fish filleted tableside when that table is the one in your kitchen. But you can glean some of a restaurant’s vital spirit through flavors tasted at home. And in tasting them, you can help restaurants keep cooking.

With all this in mind, I believe that, though we’re marooned in an odd takeout phase, Francine is a notable opening.

In a burgeoning Scottsdale Fashion Square restaurant district with too many sleepy restaurants, Francine brings energy and new wrinkles. We don’t have a wealth of French food in the Valley, and here’s a place doing French with a refreshingly different point of view. It channels the south of France at a moment in time: the ‘70s and after, when a progressive, vegetable-forward cooking style emerged, departing from the primacy of mother sauces and heft of classical French cuisine. Francine centers around olive oil, plenty of seafood, lightness, a wood-fired oven, and Archibald’s erudite, modern touches.

I think about the eggplant spread meant to be knifed on a plank of house-made flatbread. For it, Archibald blazes eggplant in the restaurant’s Italian pizza oven, chars the skin, scrapes out the meat, and turns it into a paste with anchovy, capers, and Aleppo pepper. Finished with garlic, parsley, and more, it packs salinity and umami, whisking the fatty vegetable near the sea.

Though you’ll pay for it, the crab ravioli is the best bite I tasted at Francine. Archibald has been honing the dish for years. Its thin robe of fresh pasta gets a shade of bite from coarse semolina flour mixed with fluid-smooth 00. The filling of crab and mascarpone is delicate and nuanced with lightly sweet, lightly rooty accents, and its base sauce, as invisible as a bass player, a spiced reduction of white verjus.

Octopus is smartly cooked, partly braised (for tenderness), partly grilled (for char). Panisse, the beige chickpea cake, contains the heady fragrance of the legume and lushness from an heirloom tomato sauce. Many bright spots appear on the menu, which has range and intrigue. There are also a few shortcomings. Many of these are preparations that lean classical, like a so-so ratatouille and duck that didn’t quite punch at its price tag.

My recommended approach to Francine would be to steer toward the dishes that steer away from tradition. I would consider sitting with your takeout along the Arizona canal, just down the street, with your legs in the grass and water reflected in your retinas. Sure, it won’t be coastal France, and it won’t be the kinetic dining room of a new restaurant, but it’s about as good as you can hope for right now.

4710 North Goldwater Boulevard, Scottsdale
Hours: 11 a.m. 9 p.m. Monday to Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday

Grilled octopus $18
Eggplant mezza $14
Crab ravioli $29

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