"Frisco's first 4-star restaurant with a 3-star rating."
Chris Gangi says that's a jab at The Dallas Morning News and its new restaurant rating system, which recently dispensed with awarding restaurants fractions of stars in favor of whole stars. The line appears on his Web site. Gangi thinks more of his Josephine's than do the star dishers at the DMN. This is understandable, but is it self-deceptive?
Frisco's first four-star restaurant with a four-star rating was the late, great 9 Fish, which closed in the middle of last year, most likely because its sushi robata bar concept was ahead of its time in Frisco. So Josephine's is potentially in good company. It just has to keep toiling like the devil for that fourth star. Hark, there's work to do.
You could say the bedrock of Josephine's Wine Bar & Bistro hangs on the wall just aft of the dining room. It's a big, colorful and crude map of Sicily. Gangi says it's a reproduction of a 14th-century map that hangs in the Vatican. The map is upside down in Josephine's, just as it is in the Vatican. No one knows why.
But Gangi says it encapsulates the essence of Josephine's. Posted prominently on the map is the village of Gangi. Just below that is the village of Geraci Siculo, home of Josephine Giordano Gangi. Josephine is Gangi's grandmother. Josephine's the wine bar/bistro is about food and family and heritage and so on.
Gangi tries to steep his Frisco strip mall bistro in that familial whiff. There are old photographs on the walls. Two huge, wooden, chateau-style doors mark the entrance. Stone arches copied from ancient buildings in Sicilian villages brow the wine room, the open kitchen and the restroom enclave. The low-ceilinged wine room—a couple of battered tables embedded with wine labels from producers such as Banfi and Antinori—is a replica of a room from an Antinori home. Josephine's has 44 wines by the glass and 138 by the bottle.
Does it work? Sometimes, though it could use a lot more Italian and a lot less California on the wine list. The staff? Green (the common complaint among operators who sink their restaurants in northern suburban dirt) but eager. Wine orders tend to languish on the bar. Menus are sometimes snatched before entrees can be examined. Presentation has no consistency. Sometimes a Pinot Noir is appropriately served in a Burgundy glass, on other occasions it is poured in a Bordeaux glass. Chianti is likewise served with interchangeable glassware—an odd lapse in ritual for what is billed as a wine bar. Still, Josephine's has flights composed of three 2-ounce pours of Chardonnay, California Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sicilian reds, Chiantis, Merlots and Cabernets and so on delivered in a silver carrier.
The food? Josephine's doesn't have a chef. Opening chef Chris Peters is gone. No one was elected to replace him, so left in his wake is a pair of chefs: Daryell Hatcher and Jason Ward, whom one manager referred to as kitchen managers and Gangi designates as sous chefs. The kitchen doesn't seem to suffer from this rudder wobble. Much.
Peters left behind some residues. Cheesecake is one: a crumbly, nearly crustless slice with grape compote. Gangi says Peters wanted to compose a non-traditional rendition, so he throttled back the crust, relegating it to a blade-thin foundation softened with sour cream. But this blunts the most compelling elements of cheesecake without offering anything to take up the slack. The allurement of cheesecake is its creamy texture offset by a substantial, brittle under-layer of packed crumbs; its soft sweet-sour is abruptly stiffened by a lick of salt. Here the brittleness and creaminess are transposed while the flavor contrasts wither into vapor.
Peters' other composition of note is sausage bread, an ingenious take on biscuits and gravy. "It's like a sausage McMuffin," our server offers. Yes, but not so much. Italian sausage, cheese and spices are swaddled in biscuit batter that almost flakes. This is delicious rusticity, a near-perfect bistro brunch staple.
Josephine's has many things you'd expect: an antipasto platter loaded with salami, pepperoni, cheese cubes, cornichons and portobello mushroom (a collage marred by cold garlic toast); calamari with aioli; and mussels. But within those expectations lurk the unexpected. The fluffy Caesar arrives with two fat anchovies striped across the romaine mound, though the Reggiano-Parmigiana cheese was grated instead of shaved as promised on the menu.
Gangi is a battled-hardened restaurant veteran. He ran the restaurant operations on the east coast for Neiman Marcus. He did some Sfuzzi time. He's opened restaurants with Alberto Lombardi. He's gone to Patrick Colombo of Ferre and Cru Wine Bar for strategic advice. Steve Hartnett, founder of Fox & Hound English Pub & Grille and co-founder with Gene Street and Tristan Simon of the original Cool River Café, is a Josephine's investor. There's a froth of institutional and creative force behind this concept founded on a Sicilian grandmother.
It shows up in the shrimp risotto with vine-ripened, sun-dried tomatoes. Three plump shrimp with perfect grill scars crown a creamy hillock of rice thickened with butter, cream and Reggiano-Parmigiana. A few tiny frozen shrimp are stirred in—a touch of extraneousness.
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The tuna tartare is a glorious piece of theoretical kitchen work clogged by missteps, or more accurately a single misstep. It rises from the plate like a conical haystack sewn with rich green tint from a cherry pepper relish and a fluff of celery leaf salad deployed as a headdress. It's ringed with dribbles of chive oil. Long pieces of tuna cut into irregular pizza triangles spoke out from the stack, filling the corners of the square plate. Instead of chopped, the tuna is cut into pieces. Instead of cool, the tuna is warm. Instead of tender and silken, the tuna is sinewy. The cherry pepper relish dominates the flavor profile, perhaps for a reason.
Entrees thrive in a sort of ringing adequacy. Lemon sole, sautéed in olive oil, butter and fish stock, is moist with a wisp of surface crust. It rests on a bed of leeks, garbanzo beans and artichokes, that latter two plumbed from a can.
Linguine chicken rollatini is chicken lozenges stuffed with spinach and prosciutto settled on a heap of perfect pasta in a pesto cream sauce pebbled with roasted pine nuts. But the chicken is unnervingly dry. It should be more like the balsamic-glazed roasted pork, which is plump and bleeds dribbles of juice despite the absence of pink in the center. It's served with creamy polenta and shrieking fresh green spears of asparagus.
Josephine's is a bit of crisp urban faux rusticity posing with a toe in old country dirt. It has appeal and gobs of potential. But that coveted fourth star won't come until the points are sharpened. Until then, revel in Gangi's perceived deficit. 6959 Lebanon Road, Frisco. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday. $$-$$$