At Frankie's in Burlington, Hen of the Wood Alums Throw a Party | First Bite | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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At Frankie's in Burlington, Hen of the Wood Alums Throw a Party


Published May 21, 2024 at 1:23 p.m.
Updated May 22, 2024 at 10:08 a.m.

Agnolotti, scallop crudo and littleneck clams - BEAR CIERI
  • Bear Cieri
  • Agnolotti, scallop crudo and littleneck clams

There's a celebratory energy bubbling in the Burlington food scene right now. After a tough few years, this spring and summer will usher in a wave of new restaurants, bringing the town Roman-style pizza, biscuits, Middle Eastern-inspired vegetarian fare, an oyster bar and small plates in a former car rental spot.

Among the most anticipated newcomers is Frankie's, which opened in April. Its owners, chef Jordan Ware and general manager Cindi Kozak, struck out on their own after long tenures at Hen of the Wood. They've revamped the home of beloved Penny Cluse Café at the corner of Cherry Street and South Winooski Avenue. It's a serious spot, but it's also seriously fun.

I rarely spend my first meal at a new restaurant with a large group or in a private dining room. When a gaggle of gals asked if I'd like to tag along for dinner at Frankie's in early May, though, I instantly agreed. Certain places inspire confidence before you even set foot inside, and I knew we were in for a treat.

Walking into Frankie's feels like walking into Penny Cluse: The layout is roughly the same, and the space is lively, warm and welcoming. But the vibe has shifted: Think Penny's younger sister who went away to live in the big city and came back with a black-and-white capsule wardrobe. The place is cool, and I dare you not to drool over the bold new bar, with its graphic swirls of white, gray and black marbled through its stone top. Kozak traveled to New Jersey to pick it out.

"It's fancy, I guess," she said. "But there's something about it that reminds me of the lake when it's frozen."

Frankie's - BEAR CIERI
  • Bear Cieri
  • Frankie's

With the addition of a new lounge area where the server's station at Penny Cluse used to be, Frankie's has room for 70 people. When you walk in, you can steal a glimpse into the kitchen downstairs. My party of eight was destined for the private dining room upstairs, which seats up to 12. A few of my friends were already discussing bar manager Max Pogacar's cocktail menu when I arrived, and a round of drinks was our first move.

Clarified milk punches are everywhere right now, in accordance with the usual three to five years it takes for beverage trends to migrate to Burlington from New York and other cities. A headline in digital media brand Punch described the drink as having "lost its mind" in 2021, when bars started serving clear versions of White Russians and caprese-inspired cocktails. But I hadn't seen a creemee punch until Frankie's.

Pogacar's take, with Earl Grey-infused Old Grand-Dad bourbon, lemon, vanilla, Italicus bergamot liqueur and a housemade creemee wash ($16), was tart and as silky smooth as the best of them. The crystal-clear drink didn't look or taste like a creemee; the dairy is curdled and strained out of the finished drink, taking its cloudiness with it. But it got me excited for dessert before I'd even looked at the food menu.

Cindi Kozak - BEAR CIERI
  • Bear Cieri
  • Cindi Kozak

Kozak described the cocktail menu as "classic without being stuffy." Elsewhere around the long wooden table, friends had ordered proper gin martinis ($16) — served with a sidecar on ice and all the garnishes — and a stunning zero-proof drink made with Prince of Thieves oxymel from Morrisville-based Wolfpeach.

Early on, we surveyed the wine list, which one restaurant-industry friend described as having "a personality that's unique for Burlington," leaning toward sustainably produced bottles ($40-165). I let her take the reins, and she ordered a Crémant du Jura and a Corsican rosé.

Both wines were chosen to go with Frankie's seafood-heavy, ever-changing menu. The kitchen team, led by Ware and sous chef Johnny Capitanelli, works closely with Ethan Wood of Wood Mountain Fish. When I visited, they were playing with the last of the winter's storage crops and the first spring ingredients, including baby gem lettuce, rhubarb, wild leeks and asparagus.

Frankie's isn't just farm-to-table, but farmer-at-table. In its first month, the restaurant has hosted a who's who of area chefs and many of the folks who grew the produce on its plates. Days after early asparagus from Grand Isle's Pomykala Farm hit the menu — with blue crab, green-garlic vinaigrette and crème fraîche — Ben Pomykala and his family came to dine.

"It was so special to have them in here," Ware said. "It's not just about the product. It's about the farmers."

The menu has featured repeat dishes in the restaurant's first month but nothing Ware would describe as a staple. Those will come, the chef said. I'd tend to avoid repeats, though, because Frankie's is the kind of place that encourages adventurous eating.

One thing I would get every time: the littleneck clams ($18). The mountain of mollusks boasts crème fraîche and pickled carrots that perfectly echo their brininess, all served with wild leek focaccia that we used to sop up every drop of broth from the bowl. These clams have prompted me to send several texts and emails that simply say, "the clams!!"

"They slap," one friend said at the meal.

Jordan Ware plating little neck clams - BEAR CIERI
  • Bear Cieri
  • Jordan Ware plating little neck clams

Really, though, it all slapped. We dined on hunks of rye brioche swiped in fluffy whipped butter ($7); pork croquettes with a pickled rhubarb sauce that I'd like to drink ($17); electric-green scallop crudo with delicate cucumbers and fermented fennel ($18); and a crunchy endive "hand salad" (our table's term for the grabbable boats, not the menu's; $15) with pistachio gremolata, citrus vinaigrette and housemade ricotta.

For larger plates, we ordered black bass with wild leek soubise, red Russian kale and claytonia ($35); and a New York strip steak special ($45), along with two each of the veggie sides: baby bok choy with anchovy butter ($8) and creamed spinach with Dijon breadcrumbs ($8). The only thing lacking was starch. We all left satisfied, but had we been hungrier, the filled pasta or potato side sometimes featured on the menu would have gone a long way.

The food at Frankie's tends to be light, and the whole experience feels almost feminine compared with the industrial, farmhouse-inspired spaces and chef-bro attitude that still dominate the restaurant industry. Kozak said that easy elegance is intentional.

So was the redesign. In a very Penny Cluse way, all the art on the walls is by local artists — including Brooke Monte, the contractor who renovated the restaurant. The space needed certain changes to transform it from a day spot into a night one, Kozak said — for instance, the upstairs carpet had to go. She and Ware wanted to respect the building's 19th-century quirks, she said, "taking care of it and bring[ing] it into its next life." (The floors upstairs are still slightly sloped.)

The dessert menu nods to a pre-Penny Cluse chapter of the building's history, when it was a Ben & Jerry's scoop shop. Pastry chef Jackie Freeman makes creemees in-house from scratch, using Monument Farms Dairy. Besides the cocktail wash, the creemee base goes into a sundae ($12) — topped with elderberry compote and lemon shortbread the night we dined — and a dessert I'm stealing for my own dinner parties: affogato all'Amaro ($12). A mug of the luscious vanilla creemee arrived at the table with a carafe of bittersweet orange-and-vanilla Amaro Montenegro, which we promptly poured over the creemee and devoured.

In the near future, Kozak hopes to add an amaro cart so that diners can choose from an array of liqueurs. (Sign me up.) The team is also working on a chef's choice party menu for the private dining room. (Ditto.)

Something Fun cocktail - BEAR CIERI
  • Bear Cieri
  • Something Fun cocktail

The owners encourage servers to be playful, Ware said, which we appreciated. Our server patiently put up with our group chatter and taught us to say "whiskey" instead of "cheese" to capture better smiles when we cheers'ed for a photo.

"Take the ego out of all this," Ware said of the pair's approach. "Let's just have fun."

The chef acknowledged that the menu is fairly pricey, citing the cost of ingredients. To keep Frankie's approachable, the team has included touches such as a $10 Negroni, and they encourage folks to walk in for a drink and a snack at the bar.

As I dined with my industry friends, we got on the subject of next-generation restaurants. One described Ware and Kozak's leap from Hen of the Wood as "a very city moment." Longtime employees stepping out on their own feels like something that happens more often in bigger, busier places than it does here.

When I discussed that phenomenon with Ware, he pointed to the team at Montréal's Mon Lapin as an inspiration. Coming from one of their city's best-known restaurant groups, Joe Beef, they opened a restaurant that has been named the best in Canada two years in a row.

With Frankie's, Ware and Kozak are building on what they learned a few blocks away. That's clear in every aspect of the business, from their treatment of employees — tips are pooled between front and back of house to ensure fair compensation — to a hospitality model that bridges casual and fine dining.

Toward the end of our evening in the upstairs dining room, after tons of food and a final round of digestifs, a silver, octopus-shaped punch bowl may or may not have ended up on someone's head. When I reached out to Kozak and Ware to schedule an interview, I somewhat ruefully wrote, "I hope we weren't too rowdy up there."

"I don't think you guys were rowdy enough," Ware replied. "We want friends in and partying."

Heard, chef.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Flying the Coop | Hen of the Wood alums throw a party at Frankie's in Burlington"

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