“ Address: 14 Cuppin Street Chester CH1 2BN / Tel: 01244 317952 „
~Shopping for a Bargain~
I recently joined Groupon, the site which offers daily 'deals' for cut priced 'experiences' (food, hotels, massage, hairdos, that sort of thing) and one of my bargain buys a few weeks ago was dinner for two at Francs, a popular French restaurant in Chester. We called to book a table to use our voucher last week and this was our first experience of using one of these deals so we weren't entirely sure what to expect.
I called on Sunday, explained I had a voucher and asked if they could fit us in for 7.00 on Tuesday evening. After some negotiation, we got a table for 7.15 instead. When I arrived and realized how small the restaurant is and that they had a party of more than 20 people upstairs, I could understand why they'd tried to delay us.
~A Very British-Looking French Restaurant~
Francs is housed in a classic tall, narrow, 'black and white' building typical of Chester town centre. It dates back to the 17th century and is a bit of a tardis - it's hard to imagine from the small frontage that there's a lot behind. The restaurant is laid out over three floors so if you have any mobility issues it might be worth telling them that you need a ground floor table when you book. On the day of our visit, only the ground floor was in use for regular bookings with the top floor empty and the first floor being used for some kind of company party. The main dining area is not very large and I would guess there was space for around 40 people. The set up is very 'French café' in style with small tables for 2 or 4 people, bentwood chairs, and a parquet floor that seemed rather out of keeping with the age of the building. There are lots of mirrors on the walls, many of them in a strange slightly gothic arched format. Close to our table was a panel of stained glass which was rather pretty. Down one wall there was a long blue upholstered banquette where diners sat facing their companions who were perched on bentwood chairs.
The deal we had bought offered us each two courses from the menu and a glass of wine for a bargain price of £22 and almost everything - with the exception of the biggest of the steaks - fell within the deal. Any side dishes would be extra but the manager pointed out that almost all the dishes came with accompaniments and we probably wouldn't need anything extra. Whilst we looked at the menu he went in search of a jug of iced water and some glasses. I really appreciated that we didn't have to ask - the jug of water was automatically offered and there was no pressure to buy bottled water.
The main menu is quite long but not too big or too complicated so I wasn't concerned about the freshness of the ingredients. I also appreciated that they'd gone to the trouble of marking all the dishes that were vegetarian or gluten free which I always thinks shows a level of consideration that would be hard to find in France itself (where as a fishitarian I've traditionally been treated to something only fractionally better than derision in some restaurants). The list of starters is rather long though and could perhaps benefit from being broken up or grouped together a little more. The options range from marinated olives or garlic bread for a very reasonable £2.50, through soup and a couple of salads, a goat cheese tart (which I'd been pre-warned to avoid by a friend who went to Francs a week before me), asparagus with Hollandaise, mussels, scallop and (oh how gross) frogs legs. The most expensive starter was £7.95 with the majority of options under £5. The main course list includes two vegetarian dishes - a tagine with couscous and a creamy mushroom pasta - four seafood dishes (two fish and two mussels), four meat dishes (chicken, duck, lamb or wild boar) and four steaks.
I will shamelessly admit I picked the most expensive starter - the Coquille St Jacques - which was "seared scallops served in a bisque and topped with melted gruyere". My very lovely and down to earth husband went for the soup of the day, despite being a wonderful maker of his own soups. I love mussels and so the hard decision of the night had been whether to have them as a starter or a main course and in the absence of another main which really grabbed me, I opted for the larger portion as my main course whilst my husband had the sea bass. We each had a glass of the house white which was included in our Groupon 'deal'.
The food arrived piping hot - so much so that the server warned us to take care. My scallops were served on the shell and were delicious but not terribly filling. I would guess there were two or three roe-free scallops on the shell, sitting in a tasty broth and covered in melted cheese. It was lovely but left me with the challenge of how to get the 'bisque' without a spoon. A little bit of bread might have made all the difference since the bisque was too good to waste but I wasn't quite sure how it would look if I picked up the shell and gave a good slurp. My husband kindly sacrificed a small piece of his bread. I liked the dish a lot but I'm not sure that if I had paid £7.95 I'd have been so impressed.
I chose the mussels in a cream and white wine sauce, the traditional mariniere style. My mussels were delivered in a large dish accompanied by a metal bucket which contained a sealed wet wipe for post-eating fingers and a spoon for all the lovely slurpy sauce. The bucket was perfect for all the shells. I ripped open the top of the towelette before starting, mentioning to the manager that this was a tip I'd picked up from a French friend who used to take me out for mussels regularly. He told us he comes from Stoke-on-Trent where there's less attention to such sophisticated techniques. I follow the 'use one shell to get the 'meat' out of the others' method of mussel eating which is quick and effective but does get you covered in sauce if you aren't careful. The mussels were served with a side plate of thin French fries which my husband kindly helped me with once he'd finished his sea bass. I was so intent on the mechanics of shelling my mussels that I forgot to sneak a forkful of his dinner but it can't have been bad because there was nothing left on the plate. I do recall him prodding some white stuff that was sitting between the fried fillet of sea bass and the top of the mashed potato and asking what it was (crab flakes if memory serves me right) but I missed out on a taste.
I did stop to (briefly) wonder if I really ought to be eating mussels in July. I thought they were out of season and should follow the 'R in the month' rule like oysters and other seafood. I had expected that they might be very small and underdeveloped but my mussels, whilst not exactly giants, were big enough to do the job. I've since done a bit of googling on the matter of the mussel season and learned that most UK mussels are 'farmed' and so it doesn't make too much difference when you eat them as they aren't following a normal reproductive calendar like wild ones. Don't get too upset at the poor little critters losing their freedom - all a mussel does whether wild or farmed is fix itself on something solid and wave around. It's hardly like a battery farmed chicken.
The great thing about mussels if you are hungry is you always get a ton of them because they are so cheap. The sauce was rich and creamy with lots of onion and garlic and I enjoyed it a lot. I was so full I didn't resort to the technique of spooning up all the sauce because it was too rich and a bit on the salty side.
You don't need a 'deal' to get a good deal
We had a chat with the manager about the Groupon deal since it was the first time we'd used a voucher and he told us that they'd been overwhelmed by the response to the offer and had sold 450 vouchers, each for two diners and he believed that 95% of the sales were to people who'd never been in before. Whilst it was a great offer (up to £55 worth of food for £22), you can get a great deal at Francs every night just by turning up before 6.30 pm when their Early Bird menu ends. This offers two courses and a glass of wine for just a tenner. The lunch menu is £8.95 every day with 'lunch' stretching to 5 pm on Saturday and Sunday and they run other great promotions such as free top ups on your wine on Wednesdays and Bring Your Own wine on Sundays. It's really quite inspiring to see a restaurant that's working so hard to keep their offer well priced in order to ensure plenty of 'bums on seats'. Francs has been running for 24 years and that alone speaks volumes for their ability to judge the market and keep people coming back again and again.
When our plates had been cleared and we'd agreed there was no space for pudding, we checked with the manager that we didn't own anything more, left a tip (let's be fair - just because you got a bargain, you still should reward good service) and then we left, vowing that we'd be sure to go back again.
For those arriving by car, there's a small outdoor car park nearby on Black Friars which charges something like £1.50 for the evening. In the spirit of true bargain hunters (who don't know their way around town) we parked 5 minutes walk away in the multi-storey car park near the market which is free in the evenings.
Opening Hours - Monday to Friday 12.00 noon - 3.00pm, 5.00pm - 10.00pm
Saturday 12 noon - 10.00pm
Sunday 12 noon - 9.00pm
14 Cuppin Street,
Chester CH1 2BN
T: +44 (0) 1244 317952