Frank’s, My Dear

Sarah and Felix Penn pay homage to dear old granddad in Ravenna’s retro steakhouse.

By Kathryn Robinson March 16, 2009 Published in the April 2009 issue of Seattle Met

LEST ANYONE DOUBT that restaurants are among a city’s most vivid characters, let them try to argue that Metropolitan Grill isn’t an aging football hero with a desk job in finance, or Tilth a winsome fine-arts major with a collection of vintage garden trowels and a Pomeranian in her purse.

Seen this way, the brand new Frank’s Oyster House and Champagne Parlor is a sexy ’40s starlet with an endearing quirky streak. There she is now, a gorgeous blonde Carole Lombard with an unexpectedly wicked wit, gliding into Frank’s bar on the arm of some swain and alighting at one of the white tufted-leather bar stools or velvet settees. He would order her a flute of Nicolas Feuillatte rosé, perhaps, or a Spanish cava or extra-dry Italian prosecco—this is a Champagne parlor—and there she’d tipple all evening, between elegant slurps of Kumamoto oyster with gin and Lillet mignonette, her offbeat ripostes ricocheting nicely off the strange plywood—yes, plywood—walls.

The work of designers Jacob and Lucas Mihoulides, the gentlemen responsible for the interiors at Tavolàta and How to Cook a Wolf, the walls were meant to convey the warmth and pedigree of wood paneling, except with the cachet that these days can only come from reclaimed materials.

From the swiller’s-eye view, the walls lend the right oddball levity to a lounge that might have otherwise seemed too swish to be in a neighborhood—in this case, Ravenna. Up the street a block or two is Pair, the other enterprise of Frank’s impresarios Felix and Sarah Penn. Pair also trades on its looks, spinning a country French fantasy out of rustic farmhouse decor, but it’s awfully earnest. Frank’s, by contrast, with its throwbacky menu of underpriced nostalgia food, winks broadly at every turn.

All around us were fresh-out-of-college professionals seeking swank date venues with comforting food, comfortable prices, and come-hither cocktails.

And so we settled in a private booth, surveying the menu by the light of groovy retro globe sconces and glimmering votives, going back and forth between the deviled eggs overstuffed with goat cheese and drizzled with paprika oil (sinfully creamy) and the mini Maine lobster rolls (starring thick, toasted, butter-drenched breading) and Parker House rolls (Really! Served warm and sweet in parchment paper!) and Dungeness crab Louie lettuce cups. This last turned out to be a fanciful DIY way to wrap the ingredients of the midcentury-era staple in a lettuce leaf; a sort of homage to all-American cookbook queen Fannie Farmer by way of Ho Chi Minh.

“Didn’t grandma used to make a salad dressing like this?” asked Carole Lombard, forking a hunk out of her Bibb lettuce salad with roasted tomatoes and thick chunks of fine bacon lavished with a feisty green goddess. All right, it was my niece. And I’m no swain, but she’s a gorgeous Generation Y blonde with a wicked wit who was becoming more of a ringer for a screwball comedienne the emptier our cocktail glasses became. Hers, the Air Mail, was a flute of sparkling wine, golden rum, lime, and honey. “Now this,” she pronounced sagely, “is a party in my mouth.”

My niece represents one of Frank’s most natural constituencies: fresh-out-of-college professionals seeking swank date venues with comforting food, comfortable prices, and come-hither cocktails. All around us such types sat dredging delicate housemade potato chips through schmears of herb feta dip and crunching exquisite thin-strip onion rings and popping chili-fired peanuts and slurping oysters on the half-shell—three kinds per night served with granitas and mignonettes, just $2 a pop and $1.50 at happy hour. “It’s like these people just rolled out of the Duchess”—the sporty-fratty bar up the street—“once they got real jobs,” my niece observed, glancing down at her empty flute. “So…what does a girl have to do to get another one of these?”

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Steak with a kick of horseradish and parsley butter.

The cocktails are destination makers (one, the pear and cardamom sidecar, explored the subtlest interplays of bursting fruit and dark spices) with appropriately crowd-pleasing supporting munchies. But make no mistake: There is substance coming out of the kitchen. Frank’s was named for Sarah Penn’s maternal grandfather, an old-school newspaperman at The Boston Globe in the ’40s who relished his steaks and double Manhattans. The Penns honor him with a trio of cuts, served à la carte and with a sauce of choice. Our New York was a righteous tribute, especially with a Frank’s Manhattan and a spectacularly unhealthy side of cheddar potato gratin. There is also a burger—naturally raised Niman ranch beef, natch, to match the sustainably correct walls—and it’s a stunner, all decked with Beecher’s cheddar and pickled onions, and served with what may be Seattle’s most perfect French fries. The kitchen takes them directly from freezer to fryer, which accounts for their resounding crunch and nonmealy interior.

And Frank’s more intriguing forays bested even the meat and potatoes. I appreciated the nongloppiness of the milky smoked-fish chowder, brisk with brine and loaded with finely diced fresh vegetables. My companion demolished her thick pork chop, succulent clean through and intelligently offset with a little pear-and-golden-raisin number and a peppery celery root puree. The sole clunker was a hunk of poached salmon on a quinoa-farro brick—uncharacteristically virtuous, deadly dull—and served with a carrot sauce that lent nothing but color. “Frank wouldn’t have touched this,” cracked the cheeky mademoiselle.

But Frank’s Oyster House and Champagne Parlor—that he’d have eaten right up. We were at that moment failing to find words to describe our desserts: a lemon tart, where lemon curd and a cloud of meringue brûlée were making passionate love; and a banana split, an extravagance of housemade ice creams and lush sauces and caramelly bananas that’s bound for status as a Seattle classic.

“Isn’t it perfect that the desserts are this good in a Champagne parlor?” sighed Ms. Lombard with a winning smile. “This is the best place ever for a date.”

I think I know a very nice city that would love to take her there.