French cuisine reminds me a bit of Bob Dylan. I’m a fan, I realise it has been hugely influential, but I can’t quite understand why it has been elevated to such stratospheric levels of worship. I suspect the hero worship (of the cuisine, not the poetic singer/songwriter) is a leftover from the Anglo Saxon inferiority complex that has persisted since the Conqueror’s invasion meant our entire aristocracy spoke French, rather than English, the language of peasants.
Take Francs Restaurant in Chester city centre, for instance. We had not been there for some years, possibly because we always found it a little hit-and-miss.
It has recently celebrated its 20th anniversary and I suspect its new management’s accurate description of it as a much-loved institution has more to do with a dearth of rivals in those far-off days. That is certainly not the case in 21st Century Chester.
Indeed, not only does Francs have new management, it has also been given a makeover. To be frank, is it really Francs any more? There’s only one way to find out.
Our arrival on a busy and buzzy Friday night was greeted by a charming team of waitresses with not a French accent to be heard. Indeed, the new boss is called Mike Skinner – not the most French of names, more Lancashire than Languedoc.
But the old Francs always did have a whiff of the artificial about it – at least the new Francs is honest.
The decor is a definite improvement, neat and welcoming.
I had forgotten how small Francs is: Two rows of tables on either side of a narrow room, with a couple of small tables dropped into the middle as an afterthought.
We were directed to one of said tables and it soon became apparent this could be a problem – it wasn’t just small, it was miniscule, perhaps the tiniest table I have ever sat down to in a restaurant. We spent much of the evening swapping apologies with the busy waitresses as the inevitable nudges accumulated.
But, hey, the atmosphere was great and we’ve been around, let’s order drinks and get on with it.
A £3.15 glass of Peroni and a £2.95 dry house white delivered, we were perusing the menus.
After a false start, thanks to a slightly confusing lay-out, we stopped studying the lunch-time section – and I have to say the menu made for impressive and informative reading, with none of that 1980s nonsense of not supplying translations so you have to ask the sneering waiter.
All the favourites are there, together with some lesser-known dishes – an attractive mix of meat, seafood and veggie options, not too large a selection but with plenty of choice.
Steak and chips – or should I say frites – were being delivered to a neighbouring table and although beauty may only be skin deep, with a medium rare ribeye that is probably deep enough.
But we resisted the temptation – this was going to be yet another seafood night for the Brennans.
But first things first. Despite a wine selection that traversed the planet, from Spain to Chile to Australia, we decided against a very persuasive Rioja in favour of another red, a French Chateaux de Pennautier – at £16, about mid-range for the establishment.
Red? Seafood? Who cares anymore? These are liberated times and it proved a fine choice.
Beverley’s starter was cromesquis du saumon (£5.25), flaky smoked salmon fishcake with spring onions and gruyere, served with salad garnish and aioli.
Now I love this woman dearly and respect her judgment in food, drink, even men – but it is worth taking her to a French restaurant just to hear her mangle the language. This was no exception – she could have been the inspiration behind that Allo Allo policeman.
But her fishcake still somehow arrived – and Beverley was duly shocked.
‘Look how big it is – you’ll have to help me out.’ How can a man refuse?
Overfaced she may have been but she appreciated the quality of the dish – my later sampling concurred. Excellent.
I chose champignons gratines (£4.95) – roasted field mushrooms with wilted spinach, garlic and herb boursin cream cheese.
Now, despite what my O-level result might have suggested, my French pronunciation is peerless, so it was slightly surprising that the waitress asked me to repeat in English. Never mind, I’m sure she had her reasons.
Again, the starter was excellent – not as belly-busting as Beverley’s but just right for me, an excellent amalgam of tastes.
To the mains – and I decided to put into place a cunning plan. Years of experience have taught me that Beverley will inevitably order the wrong thing, so this is where psychology comes in.
The trick is to edge her to something on the menu that I know I will like and let her think she has chosen it for herself.
Then I choose something I know she will like... and voila, as they used to say in Francs.
So, after a little debate, I managed to steer her towards cocquilles St Jacques a la mode (£13.95), bizarrely described as vegetarian for a meal containing pan-fried scallops and king prawns.
I went for an old favourite – bouillabaise served with rustic bread (£12.95).
My choice was excellent and satisfyingly messy. The size of our table negated any possibility of a fingerbowl but we were soon on our second helping of handwipes as we wrestled the delicious prawns into submission.
The sauce, the mussels, everything sitting in my dish was excellent. But something was not quite right at the other side of the table.
‘Want to try a dip of bread?’ I asked, innocently.
Beverley took a taste and her face lit up.
‘That sauce is beautiful.’
‘Don’t you like yours?’
‘It’s fine – it’s just not right for me.’
I smiled to myself: ‘Want to swap?’
Of course she did – after a little persuasion.
It was definitely right for me.
Unsurprisingly a lot drier than the bouillabaise, the dish was served with puy lentils and a tomato and herb de Provence dressing that accentuated rather than drowned the subtle taste of the scallops.
So our latter-day Jack Sprat and his wife had yet again licked the platter clean between them – much to everybody’s satisfaction.
Desserts (all £4.45) would have to wait, we needed recovery time.
Eventually, I chose crêpe au chocolat – stuffed to bursting with bananas. I tried, reader how I tried, but it defeated me. A combination of the crêpe’s richness and what had gone before meant I managed to eat about two thirds – but a hugely enjoyable two thirds it was.
Beverley’s assiette de fromages, a platter of French cheeses with rustic bread, came with a fine selection of apple, grapes, raw carrot, celery and chutney and immediately picked up bonus points because it had not come from the fridge.
She enthused about the blue, which she reckoned was Roquefort. I am a stilton man myself – could it really be that good? It was.
We asked a passing waitress, the youngest of the team, to confirm our diagnosis.
‘Excuse me, can you tell me what type of cheese this is?’ I asked.
‘Blue,’ she replied, not altogether helpfully.
‘What type of blue?’
‘I don’t know.’ She stood and smiled.
‘Do you think you could find out?’
She did, and it was – Roquefort that is.
Two excellent strong coffees (£1.85 each) and we were strolling contentedly through the Chester night, reflecting on the changes to Francs. We both reckoned the new-look establishment is an improvement.
It deserves to do well – and judging by the happy crowd in on Friday, it probably will.
Francs Restaurant, 14, Cuppin Street, Chester. 01244 317952.
Price: £71.80 for drinks, three courses, wine and coffees.
Best thing: Good food, good service, good atmosphere.
Worst thing: Try to avoid those tiny middle tables.
Would suit: Small parties looking for a decent dining experience at a reasonable price.
Wouldn’t suit: Romantic couples looking for a totally French experience.