Things were going exceptionally well at Francesca’s Wine Bar & Bistro prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The cozy Collinsville restaurant, with acclaimed chef Sean Butler in the kitchen, had a loyal following. He and his father and co-owner, Mike, were about to enjoy profits from the three successful years since buying the business in 2017.
Every Connecticut restaurateur knows what came next during the week of March 16, 2020: an immediate shutdown, a shift to takeout, panic, frustration and uncertainty. Restrictions on indoor dining, when it resumed in June, didn’t give Francesca’s much capacity. Outdoor dining helped, but not enough. “It was awful. It was shocking,” Sean Butler says. “We held on for a little while, but looking forward, we [said], ‘We’ve got to close down. We don’t have enough seats.’ ”
But just a few months later, he and his father seized another opportunity — just across the street. They took over a former bakery’s space at 41 Bridge St., the building housing the Bridge Street Live performance venue, and planned the newest iteration of Francesca’s, now known as Seed 41.
After bidding adieu to the original Main Street restaurant in October, the father-and-son team renovated the Bridge Street space, which came with a larger dining room and an enviable outdoor deck overlooking the Farmington River. They opened Seed 41 for takeout in March, and debuted dine-in service in May. “It was a blessing in disguise,” Butler says.
Francesca’s regulars began to flock to the new spot, which offers New American contemporary fare with some Danish and French influences. As the executive chef, Butler changes the menu about every two weeks, taking advantage of what’s fresh, seasonal and plentiful.
The menu isn’t large, but it gives Butler and his kitchen team room for experimentation. Recently, he felt like adding a shrimp cocktail starter, but he did it his way: poached jumbo U-10 shrimp (under 10 shrimp per pound), served with housemade cocktail sauce, cucumber and radish. His sous chef added fried halloumi cheese to Seed’s take on a classic Waldorf salad.
Midsummer appetizers reflected the area’s bounty and dishes fit for warm temperatures: roasted summer vegetables like cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and cherry tomatoes; burrata with heirloom tomato salad and sourdough croutons, slow-roasted octopus with Greek yogurt, citrus and harissa. The popular cheeseboard features selections from local producers.
Entrée categories, with proteins like chicken, duck, steak and seafood, are also prepared with seasonal ingredients: pan-seared scallops with roasted asparagus, snap peas and white wine beurre blanc; chicken breast pan-roasted with caramelized zucchini, summer squash, Greek yogurt and Aleppo pepper. Pasta dishes, like the restaurant’s signature Bolognese, are enhanced with handmade spaghetti and other fresh pasta shapes.
As temperatures cool, Butler says, guests are often drawn to heavier dishes, like a 10-ounce Piedmontese strip steak with mashed potatoes and a variety of roasted mushrooms with red wine demi-glaze. Duck breast is another popular item, with a recent preparation of wasabi mashed potatoes, sautéed bok choy, black garlic, egg yolk and soy glaze. Butler has also worked with venison and quail dishes.
Desserts also follow a seasonal route, with recent sweets like blueberry cake with lemon mousse and lemon gel, berries and cream with caramelized sugar tuiles and oat crumble, and a chocolate panna cotta with stewed cherries.
Like Francesca’s, Seed 41 features an impressive wine selection, and Butler pointed out a specialized dispenser system that will eventually allow the bar to serve fine bottles like Caymus by the glass or tasting. Cocktails include twists on classics: a cucumber Collins(ville), a Southern mule with bourbon and peach liqueur, a Daisy with strawberry shrub.
Butler is excited about the new space’s possibilities, like special wine dinners and the potential addition of brunch or lunch. He’s also hoping to enclose the 50-seat outdoor deck with protective plastic or sealing to extend the patio season into the cold months.
Collinsville, a picturesque section of Canton known for antiques shopping and outdoorsy activities like biking, canoeing and kayaking, was once named one of America’s “coolest small towns” by Budget Travel magazine. Butler says he’s happy to continue his culinary career there. “There’s definitely a community, and local businesses that want this town to succeed, and have more people come here so the businesses thrive.”
But sometimes the locals would rather the restaurant not fill up every weekend, he adds, preferring to keep it their own little secret.
41 Bridge St., Collinsville
Hours: Dinner Wed.–Sun. Closed Mon. & Tue.