Wednesday, July 17, 2024

A roasted eggplant dish at Frank, a restaurant in Somerville’s Assembly Row complex. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The recent opening of FRANK in Assembly Row got me thinking about the author Richard Ford and his acutely reflective, somewhat tragic alter ego, Frank Bascombe, featured in such great modern American fables as “The Lay of the Land” and “The Sports Writer” – though I’m triggered more by the cagey 2014 confessional, “Let Me Be Frank With You.” That’s what I was thinking when I walked in to FRANK (all caps, and make sure you get that right – even though we will not from this point onward) a gorgeously spare, cosmopolitan space in the urban but suburban-style mall we know as Assembly Row. You may take it to task for its tony alleyways of conspicuous consumption, but Assembly Row is a sparkling reboot of a litter-strewn patch of tarmac that had long been a den of despair and a late-night destination for dubious deeds.

Frank is the creation of Frank McClelland, who ran the chichi white-tablecloth L’Espalier in Back Bay when Assembly Row was still dingy and dangerous. Frank has a more relaxed vibe than the legendary French bistro across the Charles, but it’s no less inventive and chance-taking with its dishes. It’s billed as a restaurant and market, the concept being morning cafe offerings including egg sandwiches and bakery goods and midday, dinner and bar menus as well as a weekend brunch. The “market” part of prepared meals and produce to go is still to come. As of now, in the early stage of opening, the eatery is running with just one mealtime listing (essentially dinner) that will change based on seasons, local sourcing and other factors.

The menu is a playful nouvelle spin with a focus on seaside New England fruits. To get you started there’s a raw bar and charcuterie selections and soup offerings that are more of a blend of the eatery’s missions: a spiced pumpkin soup made with sumac, apple and crème fraîche; and a “fin and haddy” chowder, which comes across as a smoked haddock take on the local classic. For appetizers there are chicken wings with a gorgonzola dressing (who doesn’t like gorgonzola?), a neat spin on fried cauliflower with labneh (the Middle Eastern yogurt cheese), apricot and smoked-almond gremolata (a parsley and garlic green sauce), sticky ribs and duck two ways – one your classic confit, the other something a little more out there. Billed as tea-smoked duck, you’d be dead wrong to think about it in the traditional Chinese sense, which is how I came at it. The best way to describe the dish would be as tea-smoked duck crostini à la Reuben. Yup: two generous rye toast points including slaw, a bit of a light, mustard infused Russian-esque dressing and a melted slice of mild cheddar atop – an open-faced duck Reuben. It’s unique, flavorful and light, with an ingredient ratio that was mostly spot on. (I felt the duck got lost a bit in the mix.)

Frank in Somerville’s Assembly Row. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Of bigger plates, there’s pasta, a grilled “young swordfish” (a menu listing that will pull me back to try), an autumn-roasted chicken with duck fat potatoes and a New England bouillabaisse that shouts of being from the dock to your bowl. On a whim, I went for a roasted eggplant that, like the tea-smoked duck, was a bit of a pleasant fake out: long, roasted strips of tender eggplant that came skin on with delicately sautéed spinach, a mushroom ragout and a smooth pomme purée (the French way to say mashed potato). The overall dressed accent to the eggplant had a smoky maple flavor that caught me off guard initially with its sweetness but grew on me with each bite; as a mushroom lover, I wished there was more of that ragout. An interesting dish to be sure, and something worth the venture.

The bar has a solid wine list, and you can imagine that on any given Sunday it could make the perfect sports bar surrogate, as the local chain watering holes down the way tend to get packed. (With the Patriots’ lame limp this season, it’s less likely to be needed.) The Frank in Assembly Row is the second for McClelland’s concept; a spot in Beverly is listed as temporarily closed. It’ll be interesting to see how the broader market and cafe vision evolves over the upcoming weeks and months. Meanwhile, there is that “young swordfish” waiting.

Frank, 400 Assembly Row, Assembly Square, Somerville

Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.