Disclosure: I was invited to dine as a guest of Franco Choo's
Franco Choo's is one of those places that has been on my radar forever, but just hasn't been high enough up on the list for me to actually make to.
Which really, is a huge mistake on my part, because what a gem I've been missing out on!
Caryn seems to be my go-to girl when it comes to Italian restaurants, although it's always a pretty good fit as I don't know many other people who love shellfish and pasta as much as she does. I'm serious.
It was a cold and nippy night out, and stepping into Franco Choo's at 6pm, with my coat tightly clutched around me, was such a relief as the warmth rushed out and quickly ushered me in.
The space was tiny, but adorable, probably fitting a maximum of 15 people or so and reminded me quite a lot of the sweet little French bistro I had my 20th birthday dinner in Paris (gosh that was a little while ago now), with crates for shelves, and a few quirky little touches, giving it a personality all it's own.
No written menus here, turn your head instead to look at the blackboard menu, with a small selection of Italian entrees, mains and desserts neatly written up. The menu changes once every three weeks, with the chef and owner, Steven Choo keeping it seasonal and market relevant.
Despite the fact that Steven had already chosen our menu for us, our waiter carefully took us through what was on the board and explained what all the foreign terminology was and how everything was cooked, which meant Caryn and I had rather rumbly tummies by the end of it because everything simply sounded delicious!
A spot of bread and a dash of red wine started us off, Caryn happily downing two pieces of it, which I assume means it's quite tasty (I held off to keep space for the rest of the meal).
Our first entree was a ricotta gnocchi with cauliflower, brown butter and sage. There's usually pine nuts too but Caryn's allergic to those, so we kept them out.
Oh my goodness, the ricotta gnocchi was generously sized, which meant it was just beautifully light with a lovely fluffy texture to them. The ricotta, with cauliflower topped with brown butter (happy sighs!) was just heavenly. Comfort food, but not the overly heavy sort. And really, brown butter anything is instantly pretty top tier.
The orecchiette with free range aylesbury duck ragu, red wine, tomato and porcini was also just delightful. Caryn and I kind of loved the chunky, hand-made feel to the orecchiette, gives it a rather rustic quality. Having a slightly thicker pasta went nicely with the duck and ragu, just absorbing all that delicious red wine jus.
I admit to not having many girlfriends, as I was a bit of a tomboy throughout school, which has sort of stayed with me (despite 5 inch heels existing in my life now), but the few girlfriends I do have, I'm able to ramble on with for hours, as was the case with Caryn. And since we were so busy chit chatting about shopping, America and potential birthday dinner locations, it was a surprisingly quick transition to mains (although, as said, we were busily gossiping away).
Slow cooked lamb shoulder with anchovy and garlic marinade with roasted potatoes and a lemon and egg sauce. Again, this just smelt like heaven and grandma's warm hugs in the kitchen. The lamb had been cooked for 3 to 4 hours, making it incredibly tender and so aromatic, with a healthy punch of salt from the anchovy to cut through the richness. The lemon and egg sauce was a curious addition, but definitely added a lightness to the palate.
And god. Potatoes. Why are you so golden and so good? Why are you so good but so evil on my hips? Why?
I could see Caryn completely eyeballing the seafood brodetto placed in front of me (as mentioned she's sort of a fiend for anything shellfish), with barramundi, king prawns, mussels and fregola (a pasta that's kind of shaped like bigger couscous) in a saffron and tomato broth. Ah, that broth, it smelt so good, gently wafting up with the scent of the ocean…and a touch of tomato, keeping it tangy and bright. The mussels were sweet, and I loved the texture that the fregola added. Not a heavy dish, but still quite hearty. Reminded me a bit of a bouillabaisse in terms of flavour.
On the side a warm beetroot and pumpkin salad with goat's cheese and walnuts, did not go unappreciated. Simple, but so lovely.
For dessert we were served up an almond cake with chocolate ganascia (I think that's how it was spelt…), salted caramel popcorn and blood orange. To be honest, whilst the cake should have been the star (or so I assume) with it's roughly cut charm, it was all about that scoop of chocolate next to it, dense and glistening in all it's smooth chocolatey richness. I wanted a bowl of it, even if I wouldn't be able to finish it. Goodness. Whilst I don't normally like orange and chocolate (one of the few chocolate combinations I dislike), the blood orange definitely was a nice little aid to cut through the richness.
Between the two of us, we couldn't finish this. Isn't that tragic? It always breaks my heart when a dessert defeats me with it's richness…surely I've trained better than this!
But then again we also had the budino (there was another word before it but I can't read what it is in my photo of the menu...) with quince macarelleta, pistachios and mascarpone to contend with as well…which also surprised me in being the dessert that I picked at more towards the end of the night, when tummy space was precious. Warm desserts aren't usually my thing, but this baked custard goodness, warmed my heart with it's pillowy and light texture, but distinctly sweet and eggy flavour. The light touch of mascarpone and the zesty quince were lovely additions as well.
Caryn and I could have talked at Franco Choo's all night. Although it was quiet when we first started dinner, as we arrived at 6pm precisely, we were the only table for a while, but by 7:30pm it was almost a full house with a mix of walk-ins and bookings. I was hoping to have an opportunity to meet Steven himself, but I imagine he was kept quite busy in the kitchen there!
And busy kitchen, means tables needed to be freed up, so we were very, very gently and apologetically asked if we could wind things up, which Caryn and I were only more than happy to, having received incredibly friendly service all night (and plenty of well timed wine top ups) and with our full bellies of delicious food.
Franco Choo's is such a gorgeous little spot off the main strip of Chapel Street. I would like to say it's hidden, but it's clear the locals know it and love it, as the full house indicated on a Saturday. I love that the menu is mixed up every 3 weeks, and on a whole very much has that homely Italian essence, but with just a slightly dressy edge.
When I worked as a waitress, I was always told that the customer should feel like they are in your home.
At Mr Choo's, it certainly felt like that.
179a High Street
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