Chef Matt Franklin trades fusion for Farro, his wonderfully weird take on strip-mall Italian
I met Matt Franklin through his cuisine — screwjack Californian with a heavy dose of Colorado pride and a squirrelly streak of fusion that should have made me want to throw something at his head but instead kept his style fresh and surprising. Under the neon, tile and blue Miami Vice lights at 240 Union in Lakewood, he made me amazing lobster corn dogs, served in a plastic basket with homemade coleslaw and a bag of Fritos. He also did cigars made out of duck meat and Camembert touched with sriracha; Colorado lamb brushed with apricot mustard on a mesquite grill in a one-off riff on California Cuisine transported across twenty years and a thousand miles; cioppino and roasted chicken and duck breast with sour-cherry sauce; and a goat-cheese-stuffed French toast that was one of the best things I ate in all of 2005.
Another favorite from another year: a simple, peasant plate of littleneck clams, chorizo and potatoes in a broth of garlic, lemon and fresh thyme. It was a hot summer night in Denver in June 2008, and the room was full of rich men in golf shirts drinking hundred-dollar bottles of wine, but I might as well have been on the Côte d'Azur. I ordered three plates of bread just to mop up all the broth. By then, Franklin was cooking on the other side of town, at the Wine Experience Cafe out in the boonies of the Southlands development. Another time at that restaurant, he served me steak frites on a night when I really needed some steak frites, putting the simple plate together with his own hands — with a professional's calm rigor and veteran restraint even though his dining room, on this particular day, was dead empty.
Franklin soon moved on, bailing out of the Wine Experience and throwing in with another serious industry veteran — John Richard, late of the Palm, Gallagher's, Starfish and Las Vegas before that — to open Farro last November in a different suburb (Centennial this time), in a different setting (straight-up strip mall) with a different focus. Franklin had done Californian and he'd done fusion, he'd done Mediterranean and a sort of Froggish but borderless nouvelle. He'd done goofy and he'd done gimmicky, and he'd done a lot of what could've been called New American. And now? Italian. Strip-mall, suburban Italian.
I've never met Franklin in person, maybe talked to him once. But he's always been there, a real working chef, directing operations from the front lines, in the middle of the heat and the crush and the craziness. Standing in the pass, making me dinner. And as I walked into Farro a few weeks ago, thinking about the stretch of plates I've gotten from Franklin's hands, I realized that he'd provided three of the most memorable single bites I'd had in Denver: lobster corn dog, goat toast, clams-and-potatoes. That's no small accomplishment. And soon, I was adding a fourth plate to that list.
Despite Farro's Italian accent, the dish that got me this time wasn't Italian at all. It was Franklin's meatloaf (called a "Tuscan meatloaf" on the menu, but really just plain old meatloaf with mushroom gravy and garlic-spiked mashed potatoes). I've eaten it three times in four days and will probably have it again when I'm done writing this.
Franklin's meatloaf (like Franklin's fusion and Franklin's not-quite-French/Mediterranean) should never have worked. He did everything I dislike about meatloaf — adding chopped bell pepper and carrot and celery to the mix, not wrapping it in bacon, giving me an end piece the first time I ordered it — but as with everything else I've seen him create that should've been a carnival of awfulness, Franklin made his meatloaf work through sheer dint of technique and rigid classicism. True, the standard meatloaf recipe calls for a kind of mirepoix of bulking vegetables, but most cooks then make the mistake of undercooking the loaf, leaving it like a meaty fruitcake studded with tough and inedible chunks of carrot or onion or pepper. Not Franklin. And while most cooks have learned that a great meatloaf can only be made with a three-way mix of beef, pork and veal, they often fail to take into consideration the variations in cooking times lent by the amalgamation of three different meats or the loaf's propensity to desiccate in the heat of the oven (a problem generally repaired by the splinting measure of additional bacon laid atop the cooking loaf). But not Franklin.
What he makes at Farro is a hyper-classical meatloaf: excellent quality meats, handled with the care of a French forcemeat, spiked with an Italian mirepoix and then bulked out with the addition of faro, the restaurant's namesake grain. Cooked perfectly (low and slow and, I would guess, with the addition of pork fat to the initial mix), even the end piece I was served on my first night in the dining room was lovely: solid and heavy in texture, topped with just a light nap of scratch porcini mushroom gravy, absolutely delicious. So good, in fact, that I refused to share any of it with Laura, promising we'd come back the next night and get another order that she could taste.
Which we did.
And then I didn't give her any of the second one, either.
Still, it wasn't like there wasn't enough to eat at Farro. Franklin's take on Italian is as worldly and weird and occasionally inspired as his takes on everything else, in every restaurant where we've crossed paths. When I first walked into Farro, I spotted him through the swinging doors of the kitchen (no open line here) working in front of the ovens, surrounded by his crew, laboring to handle the full-book Saturday night already descending on his dark and comfortable main floor. In addition to the meatloaf, that night we also had a Caprese salad that was less than inspiring (tomatoes aren't yet in season, and the ones on our plate were glassy and tasteless), but this was followed by a beautifully rustic minestrone (three beans, full of vegetables and chunks of prosciutto, which was a nice touch), mussels with garlic and pancetta, and a shallow bowl of handmade strozzapreti with big chunks of chicken, bits of thick-cut prosciutto (Franklin is generous with his pork products, knowing full well that cured pig can be the difference between a merely good plate and a great one), ideally ripe and nutty asparagus with a thick Tellagio cream sauce that had the velvet texture of a perfect French supreme and all the strong flavor of a chef's long-held secret weapon.
We ordered pizzas from the kitchen's brick oven — a simple and hand-thrown four-cheese on a misshapen and cracker-thin crust that was good but not great, then a Gorgonzola-and-fig version with arugula and preserved figs that tasted exactly like a Fig Newton covered in cheese. It would've made a nice appetizer but was a bit combative for a main, a bit more powerful than I would've liked. And the house's single example of a calzone wasn't good at all: chicken and portabella mushrooms and spinach and caramelized onions and chunks of Yukon Gold potatoes all swimming in a thickened cheese béchamel. It was like a pot pie baked in a mailing envelope of too-crisp dough, and the whole thing bled out like a murder victim the minute I plunged in my knife.
So thank God, then, for that meatloaf. And Farro has other good mains. On another night, Franklin cooked a beautiful piece of salmon, perfectly browned, set over a spinach risotto, topped with halved cherry tomatoes, more pancetta (which Franklin uses like Bac-Os) and a sprinkling of pine nuts. There was his signature lasagna, everything handmade, employing both a French béchamel and an Italian Bolognese. The pork loin was delicious, simple, almost naked on the plate — grill-marked accurately to the micron, touched with only a bit of balsamic vinegar and plated with a few roasted vegetables for color. And the chicken (boned-out, roasted in the skin, with nothing more than some rosemary, some garlic) reminded me of both 240 Union and the Wine Experience — a classic that Franklin has carried with him, a staple of any working chef's repertoire. Under the wrinkled skin, the meat was tender and the fat like liquid gold, running down to wet the golden roasted potatoes.
I have spent years eating Franklin's food, enjoying it at address after address but never really thinking of Franklin as much more than another journeyman chef making a living cooking other people's dinners. But then I sat down in Farro, looked back, charted his slow progress (and my own) through the kitchens and dining rooms of Denver — and finally realized just how talented this man is, how expert in his trade. He's had decades behind the grills to practice, short stints and long ones in which to hone and sharpen his best plates into an elegant clutter of cuisines, techniques and cultural references. His is a style born of long associations and thousands of nights before the stoves — a refined but modern classicism currently being employed in an Italian direction, but always aimed toward excellence.
And even if he doesn't always hit his mark, he does so an amazing amount of the time. I have, by my own rough estimation, eaten about 3,000 meals at restaurants in and around Denver. Of those, perhaps two or three dozen have been truly memorable — the kind I will carry with me forever. And of those, four have been cooked for me by Matt Franklin.
His is not a name I will overlook again.
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