The Suburban, Branford
Food that is uniquely “Franco” is the big draw. But the captivating ambience of The Suburban is also hard to resist, and while the burgeoning crop of self-styled restaurant critics includes some who maintain that decor is irrelevant (it’s the food, stupid!), great chefs, being artists, often think otherwise.
Chef Arturo Franco-Camacho is an artist. He can cook fabulous food anywhere and for years he did. But when he got a chance to open a restaurant of his own (Roomba in New Haven), he and his wife, Suzette, turned a dingy basement into a mystical, magical candlelit grotto that set the scene for his creative take on Nuevo Latino cuisine. The closing of Roomba prompted the opening of Bespoke, a hip urban restaurant nearby with a cutting-edge vibe. Now Franco-Camacho is again cooking ahead of the crowd in a restaurant of his own, The Suburban in Branford. Here “farm fresh” (which has become a bit of a cliché) is an invitation to a surprise party in a country cottage.
Genius is in the details. Beautifully grained, polished plank tables are made from locally grown walnut wood. Mirror-backed shelves hold cookbooks—for reading and borrowing. Freshly baked popovers are the house bread. Heirloom tomato soup comes in a tall glass cylinder to show off its ruby-red color. It tastes like tomatoes picked and eaten in the field—with a surprise afterkick of chili. Alongside are tiny crab-and-grilled-cheese sandwiches. Designer diner fare. This chef finds inspiration everywhere.
Remember deviled eggs? He reinvents them—two ways. One egg half boasts a creamy filling flavored with Romesco, a classic Spanish sauce that even in Tarragona where it originated is made half a dozen different ways—typically with almonds, pine nuts and/or hazelnuts, red bell peppers and roasted garlic but sometimes with tomatoes, paprika, fennel—ah, sweet mystery of Romesco. Another egg is filled with a subtly spiced olive tapenade.
We order a cheese plate for the table, choosing three varieties from a list of five: A creamy Point Reyes blue from California; Oma, a raw cow’s milk cheese from Vermont; and Manchego, the tangy, earthy sheep’s-milk cheese of Spain. A treasure barge arrives laden with cheese, grapes, house-made preserves, artisanal breads, a few marcona almonds, honey in the comb. The artful arrangement is simple but beautiful, as is everything that follows.
Case in point: Fresh sardines, a special, are displayed side by side, like polished silver catching the light. Kate, who adores them, chomps happily away on the bones. Sardine bones are edible, nutritious, an excellent calcium source, but I’m not a sardine fan and find them daunting. I also tend to agree with Judy, who says her fish tastes fishy, but Jeb, polishing off his portion, says it’s supposed to—it’s a sardine, right? Right.
The Snacks and Small Plates section of the menu is so intriguing we continue to explore and come up with delicious surprises. An ethereally light chicken liver mousse hides a scintillating layer of raspberry parsley gastrique, and a small plate of grilled asparagus is topped with a blue Araucana egg. Pure-bred Araucana chickens, originally from Chile, do lay eggs with pretty Tiffany-blue shells. Inside they are not blue, but because they have been highly prized for centuries, the breed is carefully nurtured. How like Franco-Camacho to give us little insider treats like this.
Entrées here are called Bigger Plates and live up to the name. Steak and Frites features an iron-seared rib-eye that fairly covers the plate. Topped with truffled watercress and red wine sauce, it was too much to eat and too good not to take home, so we did take it home, in a foil-wrapped package resembling a swan. The steak is flavorful and the swan package brings back memories. Who says everything has to be new?
But Two-Way Duck Breast is. Light and dark meat, perfectly cooked, are laved with tart plum sauce and served with wonderful Armagnac duck sausage and goat-cheese grits. This dish is the essence of duck flavor—dark, deep, intense and complex.
Can grilled salmon compete? Swimmingly. With fresh ocean flavor, a silky texture and a splash of citronelle, a classic sauce elusively tasty because in this instance it includes preserved lemon. This salmon creation includes celery fingerling potatoes and a lovely fava-bean purée. One vegetable and starch for all? Not here, where creative compositions add up to more than the sum of their parts. Judy says she could make a meal of the truffle-scented white bean-bacon ragout that comes with her herb-roasted poussin. So could I.
Portions are generous but not overwhelming at The Suburban so we enthusiastically order a sampling of desserts. Peach-blueberry crisp served hot in a tiny baking dish is a gem—fresh fruit, tasting like fresh fruit, with a few streusel crumbs and a topping of crème fraîche gelato. Crème brûlée sparkles with ginger and rosy-red plum conserve. A tiny pistachio loaf on the same plate lacks luster in this rich, sweet company, and as for peanut butter chocolate soufflé . . . well, I’m not a peanut butter fan. A Chocolate Trio, however, does chocolate proud with a heady pot de crème, chocolate soufflé and a banana chocolate semifreddo in a martini glass.
Stroll to the back to the plate-glass window and watch Arturo Franco-Camacho in the kitchen. Unlike some celebrity chefs, he’s almost always there, always in motion, with no sign of haste, just an expression of delight on his face. He’s where he wants to be. And so are we.
2 East Main St., Branford (203/481-1414; thesuburbanrestaurant.com)
Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 8:30, Friday and Saturday 5 to 9. Late night menu (charcuterie, cheese, dessert) Thursday till 9:30, Friday and Saturday till 10. Price range: Small Plates $11 to $14, Bigger Plates $13 to $27, desserts $9 to $11.