Franchia made us feel like the dumplings they serve. This Asian-inflected, vegan restaurant offers serenity with a side of placidity. From where we sat on the second floor, we could see drapery billowing below and hear the slight tinkling of metal chopsticks against ceramic bowls above. Just looking at the ceiling, interlocking squares in blue, green, and pink, a series of presences and absences, calmed us. Enveloped and protected, we awaited the opportunity to nourish our bodies with pure ingredients. Like its sister restaurant, Hangawi, Franchia promises to turn Type As into Type Bs.
The evening's single miss came first. Crispy tofu sticks ($7.95) were a tasteless take on mozzarella sticks, bar food without a sense of humor. Even the ginger wasabi dipping sauce couldn't turn dry sogginess into goodness. And, no, "dry sogginess" isn't an oxymoron: the tofu was dry, the breading soggy.
No matter. We listened to the woodwinds over the stereo and sipped our Korean pear fantasy ($6), a mixture of green tea and pear juice, a double dose of bitter, served with a frothy head like beer. Our second beverage, snow dew tea ($5), would, according to the menu, cleanse the palate with natural sweeteners. "Perfectly clear water instills honesty; sublimely fine tea instills faith" was inscribed on our cup.
The tea worked, and we happily ate the assorted dumplings ($12.95). Steamed rather than fried, they came dusted in a fiesta herb mix, mostly parsley, and refused to reveal their secrets. To discern the four separate types, we had to take a bite. Acceptable were the mixed vegetable and tofu watercress versions, understandably watery from the steaming. Better was the punchy kimchi, and best was the soy and grain 'meat.' It could have passed for chicken, with its energetic burst of 'protein.'
The vegetarian stone bowl with mountain greens ($16.95), a big ol' pot of undoctored goodness, stayed hot for what seemed like hours, cackling its own song and reminding us that patience is a key component of relaxation. We waited and waited, then finally tore into the multicolored shreds of mushroom, cabbage, carrots, and others, burned palate be damned. At the bowl's bottom, the rice had gone wonderfully crispy.
To make the spicy Franchia noodles ($14.95), whole wheat noodles had been dragged through an oil slick, then tossed with asparagus, zucchini, broccoli, peanuts, and scallions. These thin strings had possibility, like the geeky guy in junior high who grew up to know all the cool bands. We wish there had been more.
The meal ends, the bill comes, the breath quickens in anticipation of returning to the mean streets of Murray Hill. If you're good at math, you can see how the noodles and dumplings and teas might add up. Franchia has a prix fixe at lunch ($26.95) and dinner ($29.95), including soup of the day or salad of the week, two appetizers, an entree, and dessert with tea. Perhaps the prices help bestir slowed hearts, one way of re-establishing balance: get too relaxed, and you might never leave. Franchia is best for: a low pressure date.