341 Franklin St., Buffalo, NY 14202
Web: Rue Franklin
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Buffalo Favorites Fine Dining French
"Rue Franklin is refined and nichey in a way that we appreciate, with a menu that will please those with discerning palates and the right occasion to indulge them."
Strictly speaking, the word sublime means "awe-inspiring excellence," but we often say it to denote the sort of greatness that sneaks up on you - delicacy that increases in impressiveness as you consider it further. In that sense of the word, Buffalo's Rue Franklin is sublime: translated from French, its name refers to its Franklin Street location, where its entrance is recessed and its dining room evokes the sort of legitimate classy exclusivity that is all but absent elsewhere in Western New York these days. Patrons are advised rather than required to wear jackets or similarly formal attire - most follow the advice - and are presented with short French menus that change seasonally. Clearly, this isn't a place for the masses; rather, it's something close to a fancy supper club, with dishes designed to be as interesting as they are tasty.
Before proceeding with the rest of this review, we will note up front that we are not impressed by unnecessary formality, and do not extend high ratings to restaurants on the basis of pretension. To the contrary, we're generally put off by places that use decor or dress to justify expensive but sub-par meals, so it takes more than just nice appearances to win us over: the food, and generally the service, have to be great. So when we say that we've visited many supposedly three- or four-star Western New York restaurants and found them to be wildly overhyped, it should say something that Rue Franklin is one of only a few exceptions: a place where dishes are rich in cream and eye-catching ingredients, but gently flavored and simply charming.
Start as we did with the Lamb Carpaccio ($11), for example, and you'll be treated to a plate with ten small but utterly fresh and tender slices of meat, arrayed in a circle around a matchstick-sliced cucumber salad, all set inside a ring of lightly creamy olive sauce. Rue Franklin describes the carpaccio as raw, but it's closer to seared rare, and possesses a sashimi-like vitality: between the capers on top and the sauce, light hints of pepper and olive accentuate the meat's clean, natural flavor, with the cucumber serving as a palate-cleanser between bites. It's a fun dish that may prove a little challenging conceptually for those who fear pink meat, but the flavor pays dividends.
Another appetizer, Soy Glazed Veal Sweetbreads ($11, not shown), would be a palate-challenger for many - an oversized crab-shaped lump of soft, highly prized brown meat taken from the thymus gland, with an almost spongy texture and a lightly sweet flavor, served in a shallow bath of lemon broth. The member of our group who grew up eating sweetbreads literally oohed and aahed with every bite, proclaiming the dish as good as her favorite memories from childhood; those unfamiliar with the delicacy would have been less enthusiastic. Two of us opted for the more conservative Spinach Salad ($10), which arrived fresh in a bowl with a petit souffle of broiled Roquefort cheese at the center, light and dark cubed beets at the edges, and a mild sherry vinaigrette mixed in. Parts of this salad were exercises in restrained wonder, the colorful beet pieces and spinach tasting utterly fresh rather than soggy or watery, and the circle of cheese browned so ideally that it could have been served alone. But the vinaigrette was barely evident, and walnuts mentioned on the menu were nowhere to be found. They weren't necessary to the salad, but should have been included.
Our four entrees were individually more impressive than we had expected they would be. A Veal Rib Chop ($33) arrived attractively enough, dripping with a perfectly balanced red wine sauce that masked the presence of sliced chanterelle mushrooms on the plate; in the restaurant's dim lighting, they initially looked like pieces of meat that had fallen off the curved, roasted bone. This was possible - probable even - as every slice of the veal was so succulent and tender, balancing marbled fat and meat, that it was almost surprising that the chop was able to stay together on the plate. We were so taken with the chop that we could barely taste the sliced pile of Swiss chard hidden beneath it, but loved the chanterelles that lingered on the plate after we finished the meat. This was one of the best entrees we've had in the area, without question: perfectly cooked and rich in every way.
There was more discussion at our table over the nature of the Capon Breast ($22) - essentially a glorified chicken breast, taken from a castrated rooster - than its flavor or texture, which could simply be described as moist and tender inside in the way that especially well-prepared chicken should be, rather than especially distinct in any other way. A creamy riesling sauce and sparing nodules of cheese gnocchi and grapes were collectively deemed a little underwhelming by the person who ordered the dish, but it struck another of us as an unusually elegant, expertly prepared piece of poultry - an item for those who truly value quality and subtlety over portion size and intensity of flavor. An American preference for a little something extra, risotto perhaps, would be forced to defer here to the French tendency towards minimalism.
To the extent that we went into our other entrees with moderate expectations, we were very pleased by what arrived. One was described as Sole With Shrimp ($24), but what actually appeared was a plate that was visually dominated by large prawns, once again expertly prepared to as crisp and fresh a texture as is possible from proper cooking of seafood, plus two oversized scallop-shaped circles of sole, all in a shrimp-flavored cream sauce. Once again, the delicate balance of flavors really impressed us, as the prawns, sole, and an adjacent pile of spinach all retained their natural essence and freshness while benefitting from the mild yet richly creamy sauce. By contrast, a Poached Duck Breast entree ($24, not shown) looked almost like sushi, with three large leaf-wrapped cylindrical chunks of nearly rare duck meat standing tall atop a pool of light orange sauce and a chopped vegetable medley, garnished with fennel and dates. Unlike the other dishes, which mandated that you enjoy the sauce and meat together, this one revealed the natural tenderness and lightly gamey flavor of duck, accenting it only modestly unless the orange sauce was desired as an accompaniment. We wouldn't have changed it a bit.
At $8 each, Rue Franklin's desserts were somewhat less impressive, though there was a star in the group. As bread pudding connoisseurs, we'd call the Raisin and Banana Bread Pudding a 6.5 out of 10, benefitting more from the two fruits than the plain, moist bread or the generous but light rum sauce it sat in. A Flourless Chocolate Cake arrived looking as black as night, its ganache topping indistinguishable from its dense body except in gloss. While almond slivers on its top were a really nice complement to the chocolate flavor, there was nothing special in the cake itself save for deliberately uneven integrated chocolate bits. Two small balls of caramel ice cream on the side were excellent, however, and drizzled with just enough real caramel to accentuate both the cake and the ice cream. Overall, we'd call it good, not great.
What we wound up loving was the dessert that sounded least aggressive on the menu: a Lemon Parfait. Served with sliced strawberries that played the role of sweetener, the triangular piece of lightly sour lemon ice cream might have looked somewhat plain, but every bite contained tiny flecks of lemon peel that punched up the flavor and added to the dessert's apparent freshness. If this wasn't homemade, it certainly tasted as if it was, and quite nearly justified its otherwise steep asking price.
We opted to hold our comments on the service for last, as we found it to be generally good, though too inconsistent given Rue Franklin's trappings and pricing. Our primary server was close to exemplary: well-dressed, offering wise counsel on menu items as requested, and even appearing for a brief post-entree crumb sweep. Tempo's servers have struck us as more attentive and impressive, but Rue comes close. The problem lies in its secondary staff and follow-up; there was a little too much reaching over the table, too few beverage refills throughout the meal, and the sort of brief 'who ordered what' confusion that feels out of place at a restaurant of this caliber. Additionally, twenty-five minutes passed before the check arrived after our initial request. A little extra attention and polish could help.
Between its dress code, its prices, and the sophisticated slant of its entrees, Rue Franklin is clearly not trying to be all things to all people, and we're quite glad that such is the case: it is refined and nichey in a way that we appreciate, with a menu that will please those with discerning palates and the right occasion to indulge them. While its patrons appear to skew older than some of the area's other top fine dining establishments - the hipper Tempo and The Left Bank come to mind - we would be inclined to attribute this more to Rue Franklin's choice of cuisines than anything else. Our post-meal discussion focused not on whether it was great, but how great it was. A three and a half star rating was on the higher end of our range of opinions, and with only minor caveats, entirely deserved.