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Dining out

Neighborhood character

Affordable comfort food makes Franklin Southie a welcome newcomer

Steamed shrimp coated in Old Bay are a spicy delight. Steamed shrimp coated in Old Bay are a spicy delight. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / March 4, 2009
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The Franklin Cafe is a longtime favorite in the South End, not only because of its stepped-up comfort food (house-made duck pot pie, turkey meatloaf with fig gravy), but because it serves it till 1:30 a.m. Its reasonable prices - nothing over $20 - don't hurt. It's funny to say that such a not-new-fangled formula was ahead of its time, but the Franklin has been operating for more than a decade as the restaurant so many other local restaurants are now struggling to become in this economy - the neighborhood place that succeeds in bringing customers back, and back again.

So it wasn't really a surprise that when a new Franklin opened in November, it hit the ground running. Franklin Southie is the third location for owners David Dubois and Maureen McLaughlin, who also own the Franklin Cape Ann in Gloucester. At the intersection of Dot Ave. and West Broadway, right by both the Allele and Macallen condo buildings, it quickly filled with patrons starved for a grown-up hangout. The space is sleeker and bigger than its South End sibling, with hanging red lights, wood floors, and black booths and tables. (It also serves brunch.) On weekends, though, it can get so crowded you barely see your surroundings.

There are men in pink button-downs and bow ties and women wearing glittery tops, as well as a more casual contingent. There's a long wait for tables, a squeeze at the bar, and a neighborhood having a party. It's not till after midnight that the place quiets enough to realize music is playing over the speakers.

During the week, it's much mellower; a baby sleeps in a stroller as her parents tuck into a bowl of mussels and visibly relax. A woman at the bar talks novels with the bartender as she drinks a Ward 8 and demolishes a basket of peel-and-eat shrimp.

The food is sometimes better on these slow nights, when there's more breathing room for the kitchen staff, headed by chef Brian Reyelt. It's plated with a bit more care, seasoned with a bit more finesse. Even on the craziest night, though, what you'll eat will be very tasty. And the tradeoff is the chance to watch real servers in action. The feats they perform are heroic, guiding towering stacks of plates seamlessly through a crowd that's barely navigable without precarious, weighty armloads. Somehow they still manage to be friendly, interactive, and solicitous. Servers of Franklin Southie, I salute you.

Particularly when you bring me my own basket of shrimp. Cooked and served in a little steamer, coated generously in Old Bay, and with a green, tomatillo-based cocktail sauce for dipping, they are an addictive snack. (Messy, too, as peeling the shrimp soon leaves your hands coated generously in Old Bay as well.) If I lived in the neighborhood, I'd be here frequently to eat these with a goblet of the lovely Chimay Cinq Cents - a beer I prefer to many of the by-the-glass wines, though a Robert Foley charbono is pleasing. With wine, bottles are the way to go, as they're all priced at $15 over wholesale. This makes for a very reasonably priced wine list, with most whites in the $20s and reds in the $30s. Cocktails are an easy-to-swallow $9 each, a mix of well-made classics and originals. In addition to the Old Bay shrimp, Franklin Southie offers raw bar selections - oysters, littlenecks, and jumbo cocktail shrimp by the piece.

Mussels are smoked in an ultra-hot skillet; they taste of campfire and the sea, and then the melted butter you've dipped them in. They're delicious. Vitello tonnato is a sort of deconstructed version of this dish - rather than veal in a tuna sauce, you've got veal, and then tuna. Perfectly grilled slices of meat are laid on the plate beside a mound of tuna tartare, lemon aioli and capers lending punch. The fish on its own is slightly pallid in flavor, but the components work well together.

Calamari is crusted in cornmeal, the crunch playing up the tenderness of the squid. The plate is a disaster, though. Rather than serve the seafood on the plate, with the accompanying fennel and celery remoulade in a bowl for dipping, the positions are reversed. The remoulade blurted all over the plate looks, well, let's stop at "unappetizing."

Celeriac, salsify, sunchokes - roots rule this season's menu. An appetizer of short rib, braised into submission, is served with salsify puree and Bing cherries. The meat satisfies, and the tart fruit and vaguely artichoke-like puree make the dish interesting.

Ravioli, an entree, are filled with sunchoke puree. There's a bit too much filling, overwhelming the pasta texturally. The ravioli are topped with wilted greens, lemon, and lots of cheese - the effect is retro, a bit like spinach dip. It's a big dish, in flavor and portion size, and probably makes the kind of person who never gets full very happy.

Even delicious grilled steak comes with celery root Tater Tots, a cute conceit that also tastes good. A merlot reduction keeps this from being an adult version of a kiddie meal. Duck confit appears in a white bean cassoulet with smoked fennel sausage, the culinary equivalent of a hot water bottle. On a cold night, you kind of want to snuggle with it.

Some dishes should be as comforting, but aren't. A roasted half-chicken with frites and tarragon jus is just what you think you want to eat at a place like this, only the chicken is sometimes dry and the frites are always unsatisfying, fried too dark, mealy on the inside, and nearly flavorless. Pan-seared cod is a nice piece of fish served with a strange pilaf of green wheat and beets; it tastes a bit like kasha, but the texture is too dry, the wheat a bit undercooked.

And the spice-grilled tofu steak, an adapted bibimbap, is a total curveball. The tofu is as orange as lobster from the sweet spice rub; it's served on Indonesian fried rice with bits of pineapple, chopped scallions, and fried shallots, the whole thing topped by a little blob of Korean chili paste and a beautiful fried egg with a perfect golden center. I've eaten it several times and can't quite decide whether I love it or just like it, but it's a nice option for vegetarians to have.

Like the Franklin Cafe, Franklin Southie doesn't serve dessert. It ties up the coveted tables. And like the Franklin Cafe, Franklin Southie squarely hits its neighborhood's sweet spot. It doesn't try anything crazy, simply serves food and a scene that are satisfying and just exciting enough. Plenty of restaurants are cooking up comfort food these days. But comfort can get dull - if that's what you wanted, you would have stayed home on your couch in your Snuggie. Franklin Southie's dishes might be better termed "fun food," and affordable fun is something we could all use more of these days.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.

FRANKLIN SOUTHIE

152 Dorchester Ave., South Boston. 617-269-1003. www.franklincafe.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Appetizers $2-$11. Entrees $16-$20.

Hours Daily 5:30 p.m.-1:30 a.m. (bar 5 p.m.-2 a.m.). Brunch Sat-Sun 10 a.m.-3 p.m.

Noise level VERY LOUD on weekends. Conversation easy on weeknights.

May we suggest Slow-braised beef short rib, Old Bay shrimp, mussels, grilled prime sirloin steak, crispy duck confit.

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