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October 2005
Franchia: A Midtown Shrine
Restaurant Review by Mia MacDonald

 

William Choi of Franchia. Photo: Kevin Lysaght

Park Avenue in midtown Manhattan is not a likely spot for a Zen-like experience. Traffic flows two ways, skyscrapers cast large shadows and the subway rumbles under the pavement. The Empire State Building and the throngs waiting to enter it are just around the corner. You wouldn’t expect this to be home to Franchia, one of the calmest, quietest restaurants in New York, serving inventive all-vegetarian food—subtle to the palette, intriguing to the senses—and a vast array of teas (black, white, green, fruit brews and more).

Once you close the door behind you, Manhattan will feel very far away. You’ll “hear” quiet (remember what that sounds like?). You’ll see white and green walls and simply set tables. It’s shrine-like, but austerity isn’t on offer. Along with a myriad of teas, Franchia (translated as “free, lavish, generous”) has wine and beer. In the entry-way is a funky-spare bar for sitting, sipping and ordering take-out.

But before you open a menu in the main, two-level dining room, look up. The ceiling is magnificent, and unexpected. It’s a mix of wood beams and brightly painted inset murals. Called “dan chang,” the ceiling is akin to traditional murals depicting utopia that decorate palaces and temples in Korea.

When you do open the menu, you’ll see Korean staples like kimchi, dumplings, rice and tofu. But, like the incomparable Hangawi nearby on East 32nd Street (both have the same owners), Franchia encompasses other East Asian cuisines. There’s a long list of sushi made from mock “meats” and fresh vegetables ($4.95 to $5.95), including a green tea roll ($5.50). Tea is integral to Franchia’s identity (and mission) and many dishes are flavored with it.

Among the appetizers, sweet corn cilantro pancakes ($7.95), sturdy and herby, stand out, as do vermicelli spring rolls ($7.95), crisp and cool and packed with vegetables and tofu. Want more yang (or oil) with your Zen? Try the yam chips ($6.95). Of the many dumpling varieties, the green tea vegetable ($6.95) is one of the most delicious: slightly sticky outside, crunchy inside, the flavors enmeshed in a haze of green tea (no bottom of the cup bitter taste here). Soy and grain “meat” dumplings ($6.95) are savory and slightly heavy—good, but not terrific.

Rice bowls, filling and delicately spiced, are like vertical risotto. The tofu stone bowl rice and the vegetarian stone bowl rice (both $12.95) have an earthy, almost nutty taste and feel: the vegetables and soy blend agilely with the rice. The tofu and roasted kabocha pumpkin in sesame soy sauce ($14.95) is terrific. Neither over-sweet nor over-filling, it’s anchored by the pumpkin, a much more subtle flavor than the average jack o’lantern. Tofu steak ($14.95) is less successful. There’s too much tofu and not enough surrounding it of interest. Franchia vegetarian “meat” balls ($14.95) are better: flavorful and satisfying without the feeling of a stone sinking in your stomach.

Desserts ($5 to $6) are mostly light. Try the cheesecake, which is rich, silky and slightly sweet, or the smooth tofu pudding. They do offer a selection of Danielle Konya’s delectable Vegan Treats cakes. And you must have tea—with your meal, after it, or as a meal itself.

Franchia has far too many teas to describe, but any of the Korean wild green teas are excellent, even if you think you don’t like green tea. The flavor is amazingly fresh—as if you’re in the tea field—but also delicate ($5 to $10). White teas are softer, more petal-like, but retain the kick of caffeine. Also wonderful are the fruit teas, including those made from date or plum pastes ($5). They are sweet (I consider them almost dessert), but they aren’t sweetened. That’s Franchia’s alchemy: make something ordinary extraordinary (or nearly so) and don’t make a fuss about it.

Franchia’s lunch menu, designed with the midtown crowd in mind, features quick healthy food, including vegetable wraps ($8.95), 12 noodle dishes ($6.95 to $8.95), and good value tofu or mushroom lunch boxes ($9.95) with a main dish, a salad and a vegetable side.

The service can be a little on the subtle side (let the servers know if you’re in a rush).

Go to Franchia if you want good-to-excellent, sense-engaging food in a peaceful, arrestingly beautiful space.

Franchia is located at 12 Park Avenue at 34th Street in Manhattan. They are open daily, Monday–Saturday, 11:30am-10:30pm; Sunday, noon-10pm. For information contact (212) 213-1001 or www.franchia.com. Note: Wheelchair accessible; sidewalk dining in summer.

Mia MacDonald is a policy analyst, writer and activist who lives in Brooklyn and drinks several cups and varieties of tea each day.

 

 


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