Our Gourmet: Oysters are just part of the attraction at The Franklin

January 23. 2018 9:39PM
The Rabbit Cassoulet at The Franklin in Portsmouth was a spicy, substantial stew perfect for a winter's night. 
The Franklin
148 Fleet St., Portsmouth 373-8500; franklinrestaurant.com

Cuisine: Eclectic, small plates, oyster bar.

Hours: Sunday-Thursday, 4-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday until 10 p.m.

Pricing: Oysters on the half shell $3 each (select oysters $1.25 from 4-6 p.m.); hot oyster dishes $9-$12; small plates and sandwiches $9-15; main dishes $24-$27; desserts $7.

The scores for The Franklin
Atmosphere: 18/20
Menu: 19/20
Food: 19/20
Service: 18/20
Value: 16/20
TOTAL: 90/100

Yes, that's a beater from a hand mixer loaded up with Peanut Butter Brownie Batter at The Franklin in Portsmouth.

It took us the longest time to visit The Franklin.

This small Portsmouth eatery just off Congress street has been on my list since it opened as the Franklin Oyster House in 2015. I thought the idea of an oyster bar in the heart of the Seacoast was a great concept.

But it took a while for other members of my dining household to warm up to a visit. In fact, when I mentioned it to our son The Bottomless Pit, who spent many hours doing firsthand research on the Portsmouth restaurant and bar scene during his days just up the road at old State U, he said, “Nah, I’ve never been there. Not really an oyster guy.”

That kind of reaction could be, in part, why The Franklin dropped the “Oyster House” from its name. As Mrs. Gourmet and I discovered when we finally visited on a recent Saturday night, the oyster bar may still be front and center, but oysters are only part of the attraction of this terrific little place.

Located in the beautifully renovated Franklin Block, which many years ago housed the Arcadia Theatre and W.T. Grant’s department store, the restaurant space is a great mix of modern and vintage. There’s cool lighting and contemporary decor around the bar at the front of the house, while the dining room in back features modernized prints of old oystering scenes and cool wire chandeliers under what must be a 12-foot-high coffered copper ceiling supported by gleaming mahogany beams.

Despite the name change, oysters are still a feature at the Franklin, whether you’re seated at the bar or, as we were, in the dining room. There are six to eight varieties offered nightly, available individually (around $3 each) or by the dozen.

We arrived just before the end of the nightly happy hour (4-6 p.m.), and three of the oysters were available for $1.25 each, so we ordered four of each for a dozen. Mrs. G and I don’t pretend to have sufficiently refined oyster palates to be able to describe the difference between the three varieties, but even if we could, the brine was so salty that we suspect it would have been difficult for an expert to discern the differences. Even so, after the first one or two we poured off the excess brine and happily slurped down the fresh, sweet meats.

The Franklin is a sister restaurant to Moxy, operated by James Beard Award semifinalist Matt Louis. Like Moxy, small plates and locally sourced ingredients are features of The Franklin’s imaginative menu. Available online, the menu changes frequently, and there are nightly specials on top of that. The small plates highlight meats, fish and vegetables, and there are four full-size entrees as well.

I decided on Rabbit Cassoulet ($14) as my entree, and couldn’t have been happier with my first experience with rabbit. This generous dish was a stew brimming with shreds of meat (yes, it tastes like chicken) and dark green, al dente lentils, in a rich curry broth with bits of carrots and potatoes (and maybe parsnips — they were slightly sweet). Topped with crispy fried onions, it was spicy on the tongue and warming on the insides; just a wonderful winter dish.

We are flounder lovers, and Mrs. G took advantage of a rare flounder sighting on a restaurant menu and chose one of the full-size entrees, Pan Seared Flounder ($24).

Two flounder fillets, lightly floured and barely browned, sat beside a similarly sized portion of roasted root veggies, all resting on a bright beet soubise sauce and topped with a gremolata, a finely chopped salad of parsley and lemon. It was a simple dish at heart, but beautifully presented with just the right mix of flavors from mildly fishy to tangy to earthy.

There were two desserts on the menu the night we visited (both $7), and had we decided not to order them, we would have missed one of the highlights of the night. Mrs. G’s Snickerdoodle Creme Brulee was a nice, cinnamonny take on the typical version, but for flavor, texture and downright whimsy, my Peanut Butter Brownie Batter might be the best dessert we’ve ever encountered. It looked and tasted exactly like a light brownie batter, and it was served over a beater from an old electric hand mixer — just as though Grandma had popped it off and handed it to me to lick. I resisted the temptation, and used my spoon to clean the beater and the plate, dunking occasionally in the accompanying frothed milk for another homey dessert throwback.

As at any small-plate restaurant, diners are well advised to order strategically to avoid running up a huge bill. With oysters in the mix, the temptation to order another dozen makes the potential triple-digit tab even more within reach. Our bill totaled just under $82 for oysters, entrees and desserts with one beer.

But don’t let that dissuade you from visiting The Franklin. If you go in with your eyes wide open, you’ll avoid a shocking bill, and the food, atmosphere and service will make you very glad you got there.

Our GourmetPortsmouth

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