With our last snowfall a month behind us and spring furiously squeezing green through every one of the Earth’s pores, it’s no surprise that people seem to have magic on their minds.

Appalachian Trail hikers beginning their 2,200 mile journey are just now starting to pop up on social media, hashtagging gratefully about “trail magic,” unexpected generosity that causes dry socks, cans of cold soda and cupcakes to appear out of nowhere. It’s heartening to read about, even if you’re not blistered from trekking through the woods.

During my recent meal at Francine Bistro in Camden, one of the two retired couples at the next table was equally bewitched, but in this case, by the idea of uprooting to create a new life near their grandchildren. “Our time with them is so magical, and if we move closer, we won’t miss out on it,” the grandmother said. Sadly, their dining companions weren’t quite so enchanted. “Are you kidding?” the man sitting across from her barked back. “Just read AARP [magazine] and you’ll see stories about people who moved to be with their kids, and they get screwed! They’re screwed!” Voices carry at the otherwise peaceful, 44-seat restaurant, so when neighboring tables turned towards the fuss, the man’s friend glanced around sheepishly and hurried him outside for a cigarette.

Even before the fracas, as I nursed an herbal, citrusy St. GerMaine cocktail ($10), Francine also had me thinking about magic: in particular, dining room magic. It starts the instant you cross the threshold and step through the door, side-by-side with the antique, marble-topped sideboard that holds menus, cut flowers and an ever-expanding collection of James Beard Foundation memorabilia. Chef and owner Brian Hill has been a semifinalist for the Best Chef: Northeast award a jaw-dropping eight times. “The nomination process starts in March, so when we’re broke, shoveling snow and wondering why we’re doing this out in the middle of nowhere, it’s a nice reward,” he said. “Last year, I got to share a suckling pig with (acclaimed New York chef) Daniel Boulud at two o’clock in the morning, and I thought, ‘OK, I’ll shovel snow for another year.'”

Part of Hill’s success comes down to his dedication to a primarily French menu that is constantly in flux, sometimes varying daily, based on what he calls the “extreme seasonality” of his ingredients. Repeat trips to Francine are a little like wading into Heraclitus’s river: You might be in the same physical space, but what you eat is never exactly the same from visit to visit. One exception, and the only dish that links today’s menu with the one our former critic tasted for her five-star review in 2009, is the steak frites ($29). “At the beginning, I’d rip up the entire menu and start from scratch every day. Now, I just keep tweaking things until I figure out I shouldn’t be tweaking; I should just change it. After 14 years of running the place, it can be a battle, but keeping the place exciting is my job,” Hill said.

Constant innovation sounds exhausting, but it seems to energize the kitchen at Francine. Here, even a bowl of spinach soup ($12) becomes something magical: a brilliant green supernova of chlorophyll, interrupted only by a tiny island of black chili-seared Gulf shrimp and cream. Every spoonful made me feel as if I suddenly understood spinach in a new, more essential way. That clarity of expression owes quite a bit to Hill’s omission of half-and-half from his vegetable soups, turning instead to a turnip, parsnip and rutabaga purée that he uses as a backdrop for spicy shrimp and vivid, mineral greens.


When flavors demand, Hill is not afraid to deviate significantly from Francine’s loose, “free-spirited country French” theme, sometimes abandoning it completely, as with his ridiculously sticky pork ribs ($19). Smoked over maple and apple wood, the ribs are bathed in mustard and apricot jam, rubbed with spices and spritzed with apple juice, all over the course of the seven hours leading up to service. And that’s just the prep. Perhaps the most extraordinary elements of this dish come last: smoked peanuts, fried garlic and a salted caramel sauce made from bubbling hot sugar, fish sauce and pork broth – an umami powder keg that Hill cribbed from a Cambodian market in Boston during his years as a struggling rock star. “There was a woman who cooked little dishes. When I saw her make the sauce, I knew that one day, I’d completely steal that idea,” he said.

Thankfully for diners, Hill’s culinary borrowing doesn’t stop there. After a trip to Italy where he tasted gelato flavored with Strega liqueur, he decided to bring the idea to his menu, adding a scoop of saffron-scented Strega ice cream to his dense dark chocolate torte ($10). It’s an absolute delight with a tiny glass of the potent housemade amaro ($9) that Hill concocted from grain alcohol, caramelized sugar, and his own fennel fronds and bay leaves – a time capsule left behind by last year’s growing season.

The cozy interior of Francine Bistro in Camden.

Not every aspect of my visit to Francine received an equal sprinkling of magic dust. An appetizer of julienned tender lettuces dressed with a lemony, fines herbes vinaigrette ($8) was extremely salty and tasted mostly of mustard. Just as off-kilter were the seared scallops ($29), gorgeously blanketed by a layer of thin, translucent slices of charred cauliflower florets stamping pale asterisks across the plate. But because the dish was seasoned with spiced honey poached with preserved Persian citrus fruit, every bite was overwhelmingly sweet – even with the rich, funky contrast from porcini purée.

Service was also slow, sometimes painfully so. After placing drink orders a full 20 minutes after we were seated, my guest and I sat for nearly 45 minutes more before appetizers arrived. Later, when our glasses were empty, our frantic server did not notice, and we eventually had to ask about refreshing the drinks we had finished half an hour earlier. As much as I genuinely enjoy a leisurely meal, I don’t want to be forced into one.

Fortunately, we had a basket of Francine’s superb homemade bread on the table to tide us over. Every day, Hill and his team bake two varieties: one golden, springy focaccia – on our visit stuffed with Gruyère cheese and caramelized pears – and a malty rye that Hill models after the legendary French sourdough bread from the Poilâne bakery: “The outside is almost burnt and smells like good coffee, and the inside has so much fermented flavor,” he said.

It’s simple, but exceedingly good. Very much like his local, skillet-roasted chicken ($25), braised with in-season artichokes, leeks and Fiana wine, then basted with butter and thyme. Served with a crunchy slice of lemon ricotta-brushed toast, it’s classic French comfort food executed perfectly – the kind of plate that highlights Hill’s talents and reminds you how even a modest dish can manage to conjure a little springtime magic.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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