Glamour is back on the menu for Murray Chalmers with a trip to a stylish new restaurant serving up some tasty dishes.
I’ve been thinking a lot about glamour recently and how little there has been of it over the past 18 months, a time when the plea “no more attacks ‘til we’ve buried the dead” will surely foreshadow a huge mental health crisis among those of us lucky to be left alive.
Trying to recover from the ravages of a pandemic that has killed 127,000 people in the UK – a crisis which should have been largely preventable – has meant that many things which used to inspire us and give shape to the day have fallen by the wayside.
Dressing up, wearing proper shoes and putting on perfume before leaving the house for a night out all became actions which were not only unnecessary but suddenly seemed the height of frivolity.
I looked at so many clothes in my wardrobe, things which would normally embolden and delight, and realised that my new armour to face the day was Adidas, an Aldi T-shirt and a mask which didn’t get washed often enough – a bit like myself, funnily enough.
Dressing for dinner
As we emerge to face the world and hug each other I realised that dressing for dinner by yourself is no fun, and I’ve had quite enough of my own company to know that I need and want people – albeit from a few metres away and not blowing their nose or coughing anywhere close.
For comfort during the most restrictive periods of lockdown I mentally retreated to my 1970s adolescence where the only things to worry about were the height of your platform shoes, the width of your flares and the number of stripes on your tank top – because we 70s kids could blot out the IRA bombings, the three-day week, power cuts and national unrest in favour of bouncing down the path on an orange Spacehopper, our equally orange Bowie feather haircuts defiantly rigid in the breeze.
Attending the David Bowie school of errant cool – headmistress Siouxsie Sioux – from 1972-78 has truly served me well. Never has the transformative power of music, art, literature and good food been more powerful than in the last 18 months, when escapism has been vital to mental health.
This is a time when a great chicken burger could lift the spirits like the Koh-i-Noor diamond and the ping of a microwave could raise Liz Taylor from the dead; closer to home the first strawberry from the shed at West Friarton seemed like a gift from the gods while the discovery of the creamiest, most luxurious tasting cottage cheese from Yester Farm Dairies was a delight that brought lasciviousness to the unlikely confines of a plastic tub of curd.
Glamour from the gutter
Mavericks inspired me to face the day, just as they had when I was 16 and faced a life of no future on the dole, depressed yet still remarkably dressed and relentlessly invoking glamour from the gutter.
Soon, things like clothes and the environment will matter again, even if it’s just choosing the best gear to march in or to protect us as we lie in solidarity between the wheels of a Home Office immigration van. Meantime we can dress for dinner in a restaurant.
Discussing the emergence of the seminal Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry remembered: “The clothes we were wearing at the time would have put off quite a large chunk of people.
“What I liked about the American bands, the Stax label and Motown, is that they were into presentation and showbusiness, mohair suits, quite slick. And the cover art, I thought of all the American pop culture icons like Marilyn Monroe selling cigarettes or beer with a glamorous image.
“But it was all a bit off-kilter as well; there was something a bit strange about it, futuristic as well as retro. All that instead of a picture of a band in a dreary street looking rather sullen, which was the norm.”
History is on our side here, albeit often frivolously. “Only a fool will not judge by appearance” wrote Oscar Wilde, while Yves Saint Laurent said that “Fashions fade, style is eternal”. Years later Lady Gaga revealed she was just trying to change the world, one sequin at a time. How I long to think about nonsense like this again!
Franks is a new and glamorous restaurant in Dundee, situated on quite a dreary stretch of the Nethergate, this new addition shining like a well-polished beacon amidst much of the surrounding blandness.
It looks great, featuring a quietly harmonious combination of design elements including an adaptation of Patrick Blanc’s idea of a hanging, living vertical garden, first seen in Paris at the Pershing Hall hotel in 2001 and now here in Dundee using fake greenery and some Bentwood chairs hanging amidst.
Coupled with good lighting, exposed, industrial metal beams, and simple bistro-type furniture, to enter Franks is to feel cossetted and immediately at home –only with better food, lighting and strangers to talk to.
In a way it reminded me of the first time I entered a brasserie in the 1980s and felt that sense of familiarity that everything had been chosen for visual delight and function.
I loved Franks and it proved quite the place to celebrate the end of lockdown, the recent emphatic triumph of Nicola Sturgeon and the fact that I found a mint copy of the Rolling Stones’ LP Sticky Fingers round the corner in Thirteen Records for a bargain £20.
It’s actually impossible to walk into any venue created by Londoner/adopted Scot Phil Donaldson without thinking about glamour and feeling instantly more glamorous yourself.
His venues are so precisely evocative that they make you feel like a flaming beacon escaping a drab world outside. Much as I love a minimalist, brutal aesthetic, I don’t want it right now. What we need is exuberance, celebration and joy, and Franks gives this in diamond dust-covered spades.#
I first encountered Phil’s genius for design when visiting Draffens, the “secret” speakeasy bar situated in the basement of Dundee’s much-missed legendary, ultra-glamorous department store of the same name. To enter Draffens cocktail bar is to escape reality, an especially acute feeling given that the hidden door is down an alleyway that is both historic and – let’s be honest – quite scuzzy. But that’s the whole point.
In his most successfully realised venues (and his strike rate is remarkably high – this is a man who doesn’t countenance failure) Phil retains enough of the character and fabric of the building so you get a real sense of being in an original characterful environment with much of the integrity preserved.
Descending to the basement that is Draffens is to enter a magical environment where each step propels you to a time when there were no credit cards and flapping was a sign of decadent, exuberant revolt and not panic. It’s a perfectly realised environment that has been created with care and love.
Within the same building as Draffens and Franks is the Blue Room which feels a bit like having an Aperol Spritz in a remote part of Capri but with the bonus of being able to get home without a speedboat while being able to buy a T-shirt from Primark on the way.
Just around the corner on Union Street is my favourite of all Phil’s venues, the tiny yet totally brilliant King of Islington rum bar, the coolest of them all and the only bar in Dundee that has ever compelled me to get so drunk that I left my credit card on the counter and didn’t even realise until the hangover wore off two days later.
While most of Phil’s venues excel at drinks it’s really only the Bird and Bear on Whitehall Crescent that has made much of an attempt at food; Bubu, the previous incarnation of Franks was a pretty blatant rip-off of the Leon concept of fast healthy food which I liked but which always felt a little unwieldy and imprecisely defined.
Franks is really the first foray into a proper food offering of all the three venues within this one playground of a building and I’m so happy to report that it’s great. Hue Nguyen, my friend, tattoo artist and MTV star, was my companion for our opening day visit because, apart from being a beautiful spirit, Hue is one of the most glamorous women in Dundee.
Everything was great, especially given they had opened only five hours earlier.
Service was notably good – friendly, knowledgeable and efficient – while everything Hue and I ate was delicious. We ate a lot.
The menu is concise and features a series of well-priced small plate dishes that are perfect for sharing. Hue and I had fantastic, warm homemade focaccia and oils (£3.75), excellent burrata with a pungent rocket pesto (£4.75), a selection of good cheese (£5.25) and some flavoursome marinated olives, artichokes, roast peppers and sun-blushed tomatoes (£4.25).
To follow I had tagliolini with n’duja, roasted peppers and preserved lemon (£9.50) while vegetarian Hue had tagliatelle with roasted celeriac, sage brown butter and pecorino (£9.50). It was a perfect late lunch and was so sustaining that I ate nothing else that day. A Galliano and Borghetti expresso liqueur tiramisu (£6) instantly redefined this much-maligned Italian cliché, using the classic 1860 coffee liqueur to ramp up the flavour brilliantly.
I loved Franks so much that I went back the next day with my friend David and we ate through the menu again, this time with the addition of a highly recommended pappardelle with beef feather blade ragu (£10), a dish that could bring respite from the dreichest of days.
Franks is a fantastic addition to Dundee. No ifs, no buts – it’s a complete triumph and brings excellent, affordable food and wine to the centre of town, in an environment that is hugely pleasing. A joy.
Franks Wine and Pasta Bar, 36-38 Nethergate, Dundee, DD1 4ET.