Why some restaurants succeed and others fail is an enduring mystery. That place with the great management, chef, location and concept: How did it flop? Would you have bet on that grilled-cheese truck becoming a brick-and-mortar? Me neither, and it’s up to four locations. Peak French Bistro may have hit Boston 10 years ago, but Frenchie, a new Gallic bistro/wine bar from co-owners Sandrine Rossi and Loïc Le Garrec, just landed in the South End, sitting within a few blocks of four other French (or half-French) joints, including Le Garrec’s Petit Robert Bistro, and two nearby wine bars. How does it expect to thrive in the thick of all that?
Judging from the locals that packed the place during a recent blizzard, Frenchie is doing a few things right. Number one, its mostly French wines—three sparklers, 14 whites and 19 reds—are nearly as interesting but much less dramatically marked up than at the celeb-chef wine bar next door. Prices by the glass ($8-$27, most under $14) and bottle ($30-$105, most under $55) stand out as a welcome nod to weeknight affordability. The bar program also includes short, serviceable assortments of vermouths, amari, pastis, traditionally served absinthe, a few eaux de vie and fortified wines, some flavored spirits, a few modest beers and some fruity, lightweight cocktails.
Number two is the food of chef Alex Falconer (ex-Joséphine), which emphasizes smaller plates, many of them witty updates on hallowed bistro classics. Here, try escargot toast ($11), a generous pile of plump snails in herb/garlic butter on chewy, crusty bread, or a few bites of foie gras ($17) on brioche with tart gooseberries and sweet muscat grapes; maybe pair the latter with a 2013 Château Coutet La Chartreuse de Coutet Sauternes (a gentle $14 by the glass). Aperitivo ($8) presents two piquant spreads—anchoïade, the intensely briny anchovy/garlic dip of Provence, and onion-flecked Boursin cheese—with skinny breadsticks. Worthy vegetable sides include leafy fried Brussels sprouts ($9) with currants and funky black-garlic aioli as well as excellent herb-dusted french fries ($8), slightly larger than typical frites, with Meyer lemon aioli for dipping.
Charcuterie ($5 each, $18 for a board of four) includes fine versions of ruby-red duck salami and creamy duck-liver mousse served with good mustards. Cheeses ($5 each, $18 for four) offer similarly elemental accompaniments to bread and wine, like the buttery, runny, bloomy-rind cow’s-milk Coulommiers and the tangy, herb-rind goat’s-milk Julianna. Falconer reveals a deft hand with salads, like his crispy serrano salad ($12) that tops loose-leaf lettuce with wafer-thin slices of fried serrano ham plus a few pickled shallots and snap peas in a buttermilk crème fraîche dressing. Then there’s his gorgeous, bracing version of rainbow beans ($9), an artfully plated mix of sunny yellow beans, snap peas, chickpeas, fresh favas, teensy radish slices and bursting-open green beans in a tart/fruity sorrel vinaigrette: wonderful.
On the meatier side, steak tartare ($14) is a trifle overdressed, tarted up with pickled mushrooms, capers, lots of grated Parmesan cheese and blobs of egg-yolk aioli, but underneath all that is nicely seasoned raw beef with a lovely hand-cut texture. Scaled-down versions of hearty classics—coq au vin ($14) of two small drumsticks with a handful of farro subbing for noodles, deep-flavored beef bourguignon ($16) boasting the fine-grained tenderness of long-simmered chuck flap steak—serve as useful centerpieces to lighter meals. Octopus ($12) is pretty to look at with its crown of fried baby artichokes, baby fennel, vivid-green spring-garlic puree and flaming red watercress, but the thick chunks of tentacle are ruinously tough.
Shareable entree-size plates include two terrific treatments of fowl. One is a generously sized duck magret ($27), roasted rosy-pink with a luscious layer of fat under crisp skin, sitting in a pool of thin, vaguely nutty parsley-root puree with mandarin-glazed multicolored carrots and some tender buckwheat. The other is a flattened boneless half chicken ($25), similarly crisp-skinned, underpinned by lemony ricotta gnocchi and verdant peas, snap peas, asparagus and fresh favas. Desserts are fine if a little rote: Hello again, crème brûlée ($8). Lemon meringue pie ($10) makes a bigger impression in its petite pastry shell and swirl of singed meringue.
A third factor in Frenchie’s favor: The front-of-house staff is heavy on French ex-pats, and it’s not just their accents that add a certain real-deal quality to the ambiance. They also embody a sturdy professional seriousness I fondly associate with service in France—more sober, less ingratiating than their American counterparts. The subterranean 36-seat dining room is dominated by one long banquette fronted by an open kitchen and a comfortable 12-seat bar. “In vino veritas” glows in white neon along one wall. The narrow space, tin ceilings and white brick contribute to challenging noise levels at peak weekend hours. The prettily papered 16-seat greenhouse room in the back is quieter, and a sidewalk patio is in the offing. In a city bursting at the seams with new eateries, no restaurant’s success is ever guaranteed, but given Frenchie’s many assets—affordable wines, a novel small-plates approach to French cuisine, mais-oui service and a button-cute South End perch—I’d lay odds on it sticking around a while.
-Crispy serrano salad
-Drumstick coq au vin
Frenchie 560 Tremont St., Boston (857-233-5941) frenchieboston.com
Hours: Lunch, Mon.-Fri., 11 am-3 pm; dinner, Sun.-Wed., 4-10 pm, Thu.-Sat., 4-11 pm; brunch, Sat.-Sun., 10 am-3 pm
Parking: Metered street spaces, nearby private garage
Liquor: Beer, wine and cordials