Future French bistro la Franquette has opened shop in Westmount

Three Pastel alumni push forward with their dream restaurant despite a second lockdown.

I first spoke to Franquette principles Louie Deligianis and Renée Deschenes about their new restaurant in late September. At the time we were coming off an optimistic summer for restaurants — terrasses and properly plexiglass-ed indoor dining were a promising sign for restaurateurs after suffering a costly spring lockdown. We spoke about the looming second wave but agreed we were grateful to have proven restaurants could operate safely if they followed the rules.

Oh, how things have changed — less than a week after we spoke, a second lockdown was announced — for bars and restaurants. Back in September, Louie talked about Franquette like this: “I like to make pâté en croûte, [Blake] Hickerson — he’s really good at baking bread, that’s his wheelhouse. So, we [wanted to] build a restaurant around things we don’t mind making over and over and over again.” The project was always meant to be a true-to-form restaurant — an updated (and not in a tacky-fusion way) take on the classic French bistro.

Chicken terrine (Bistro la Franquette)

Of course, as is now painfully evident, we’re still a ways off from being able to sit down to eat at a restaurant. In November, I wrote about Pichai, a restaurant that decided to postpone its opening until dining-in, or at least some form of dining-in, was a realistic possibility. This article is about Franquette, a restaurant that pushed ahead despite a second lockdown. 

You might remember Louie, Renée and their other partner Blake Hickerson from an ephemeral series of pop-ups that operated under the moniker Baby Duck. The former Fantôme and Pastel alumni used the pop-ups as a way to test out potential restaurant concepts and to build a name for themselves that was detached from the Morris and Kapoor restaurants they were most associated with. It was during Baby Duck’s penultimate pop-up at September Café in Little Burgundy that the vision for Franquette began to fully materialize.

Gravlax with pumpernickel bread

That pop-up introduced Montrealers to Hickerson’s bread — for many, it was a revelation. One person in particular, an influential neighbour of September, stopped by the pop-up and asked if they could make him a jambon-beurre. That neighbour was Joe Beef’s Dave McMillan. In a conversation I had with McMillan back in May, he remarked that as sour-dough has become that mainstay of artisanal baking in town, Blake’s Baguette, a yeasted white bread, was among the best bread in the city. Within weeks, McMillan would call the trio up to announce he had found them a permanent location in which to open a restaurant. 

Summer, peculiar as it was, was bliss. Baby Duck announced its final pop-up and the trio dove head-first into opening a restaurant. From the beginning, there were no illusions that normalcy would be returned in time for the grand opening, but there was an expectation that the restaurant could, in fact, operate as a restaurant. Today, a few weeks into Franquette’s official opening, it’s primarily a shop. I have to say, as a shop, it’s quite attractive. It’s even got a sort of WANT Apothecary vibe to it, which situates Franquette well in its polished Westmount location. But a restaurant, in the traditional sense of the word, it is not. The room is beautifully lit by enormous bay windows, which cast a particularly flattering light on some blushing flemish pears and the adjacent baskets and crates filled with other lush fruits and vegetables. Above the cash, where orders are taken and picked up, is a small handwritten menu of take-out dishes. At the centre of the room is a neat cluster of tables on which homemade jams mingle with specialty vinegars and Benedetto Cavalieri dried pasta. On the back wall is a display fridge stocked with bottled water, pots of truffled mousse de foie de volaille, generous slices of pork rillettes and litre containers of soup. It is, by all measures, a very good fine-foods grocer. A jambon-beurre is a fixture on the take-out menu, as is a selection of loaves baked by Hickerson. In the evening there’s a classic bistro menu for takeaway that includes dishes like a Cornish hen served with a cabbage roll and glazed carrots, or salmon with Brussel sprouts and coco blanco beans.

It’s a menu that works and to me even sounds nice, but it’s not at all what Louie had in mind. “I would have never made any of this food had we not [opened as a shop]. It’s all reactionary.” It strikes me that Louie’s statement sums up how it feels to run a restaurant in 2020. 

Radicchio Salad

That feeling of not being able to do what you want and instead having to do a truncated version of your idea extends to the front of house, too. “It wasn’t the opening we had imagined over the years we spent talking about opening something together,” reflects Renée. “Doing less than a grand in sales on the opening day of your restaurant and being home by 9:30 p.m. is not how you envision it usually.” It’s a disappointment that’s easy to relate to. 

Despite being the shop version of the restaurant they set out to open, the trio is still very busy — although not in the way you might imagine. “Right now, we’re running the shop that has a display fridge, a dinner menu and a bread program — and we’re only three people,” says Louie. Keeping up with demand while adapting to regulations and maintaining rigorous standards is a demanding gig. “I’ve opened a lot of restaurants and never once have they had three different aspects with this amount of people running it.” When asked why they chose to take on so much, it came down to simple economics. “The only reason [we do it this way] is because we don’t qualify for any of the government subsidies.”

So why push ahead? Why not do like Pichai and wait until the spring? That has both a simple and complicated answer. The simple answer: unlike Pichai, Franquette has no Pumpui to help pay the bills. These are first-time restaurant owners and they’ve already spent a ton of money to set this restaurant up — they need revenue to even consider having a future. The complicated answer is: they have a role to play in supporting the restaurant ecosystem. I’ve talked about this concept a bunch throughout the pandemic, but it remains vitally important. Louie works with one produce supplier, Anthony Evans, who essentially lives out of his van while driving around the country searching for the best possible produce. Louie told me about his supplier finding a rare variety of fingerling potato grown by a helicopter pilot in North Bay and about the flemish pears that came from trees on a micro parcel of land in an illustrious orchard. These people rely on businesses like Franquette and, in most cases, they don’t have the luxury of waiting until things get better.

But it’s not all downsides, Louie explains. “We’re getting to shake off some of the rust we developed from March to now, which is low-key amazing. We may not be doing 50 people a night, but Renée gets facetime with 20 regulars throughout the week — they’re going to be there when we reopen.” 

Ginger Snaps

Renée likens the experience of opening now to the waiting room scene in Beetlejuice. I like to think about it as the “This is fine” meme. Either way, it speaks to the idea of being surrounded by the worst case scenario — impending doom — while carrying on as though there were hardly a care in the world. Back in September, I was overjoyed to hear that Baby Duck had found a permanent home. I was thrilled that cooks and servers as talented as these would focus their attention on reviving the beloved, and frankly depreciated, French Bistro concept. Today, I wish the trio luck— but they’ll hardly need it. Even in tasting the adapted, take-out version of their concept, it’s clear that these are immensely talented individuals. So whether it’s pâté en croûte to-go or an elaborate and refined menu enjoyed in the buzzy din of a future Friday night service, at Franquette, a good meal is guaranteed. ■

For more information about take-out or delivery from Bistro la Franquette (374 Victoria), please visit their website. (Note that they’re closed for the holidays on Dec. 26 and Jan. 1 through 5.)

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