By Charles T. Clark
Chef Arturo Franco-Camacho and his wife, Suzette, burst onto the New Haven dining scene over a decade ago with their uber-chic restaurant Roomba, tucked into a brick basement off Chapel Street. The Franco-Camachos introduced what has been called Nuevo Latino cuisine - Latino traditions merged with international influences - to the region.
Franco-Camacho's food was often delicious, and the portions generally huge. He was known for stellar ceviche, succulent meats and fish, and a knockout bar that swiftly became THE place to be seen. Roomba closed earlier this decade, and the Franco-Camachos ramped up the volume at their glowing, lapidary Bespoke, on Church Street, which was reviewed on these pages in May 2007.
As if on cue, the Franco-Camachos sold Bespoke last year and decamped to Branford, where they opened The Suburban (apt name) in the space that formerly housed Brunellos.
The restaurant is situated in a charming old house overlooking Branford's East Main Street. The interior resembles an informal library, with plaid wallpaper, book-lined shelves, banquettes and booths - cozy, informal - and you can easily waltz in in blue jeans without feeling out of place.
The evening's specials were announced on a blackboard, and they included a handful of first and main courses and, one night, a bourbon-milk punch. The daily menu and wine list is printed on two sheets linked by a paper clip, underscoring the informal tone.
Franco-Camacho's recipes have a cosmopolitan flair. Oysters were topped with lemon granita, cucumber-wasabi sauce, and pomegranate mignonette. A winter salad struck a Mediterranean pose, with blood orange, fennel, feta, and dates. And duck confit with lentils and green beans sounded straight from a French bistro.
On my first visit, robust, fragrant mushroom soup was paired with a truffled-pecorino romano grilled cheese wedge … superb, rich, and nearly over-the-top. Pheasant sausage was a special on our second visit, and it didn't disappoint. A dozen or so slices of tender sausage were perched on a bed of pureéd celery root, a bright contrast to the mildly gamey sausage.
Beet lovers won't find a better beet salad along the shoreline. At The Suburban, gold and ruby beets were roasted, diced, and tossed in "pistachio vinaigrette" with julienned pear, asparagus, endive, and chunks of goat cheese. Rosemary and garlic infused potato chips were good but greasy. All these first courses were under $13.
Among the main courses were risotto with freshwater prawns and clams ($27) and pan-roasted organic chicken with white bean and bacon ragout ($22).
I adored papardelle with a lamb sausage/mint/tomato/asparagus ragu ($21) that far surpassed a quotidian Bolognese. It was comfort food raised high, and it arrived topped with a generous spoonful of tart crème fraiche, which seemed almost, but not quite, too much.
I've always liked Franco-Camacho's way with seafood, from the aforementioned ceviche to main courses. His superb sautéed monkfish medallions ($26) were coated with dried porcini and nestled in cauliflower and asparagus purée; the serving was ample, yet the accompanying lobster emulsion was hardly noticeable. Which points to perhaps the kitchen's sole weakness: a tendency toward complex recipes that can border on fussy. Flavors as good as these should be able to sing out.
My dinner guest got halfway through his generous beef filet (a special of the night) cooked perfectly medium-rare and doused with a red wine reduction. The tender meat was topped with a sliver of foie gras and a sautéed cippolini onion, and served on a bed of puréed fennel. The balance was wrapped for lunch the next day. It was a relative bargain at $30. Our meal was accompanied by a crock of brussels sprouts with chunks of smoky bacon and tiny potatoes.
On the night of my second visit, the kitchen offered four desserts, including maple crème brulée and chocolate and peanut butter soufflé cake. These sounded heavy, so we opted for a light, seasonal apple cranberry crisp with a tasty Chai gelato, at $9. A bit more time in the oven would have let the flavors coalesce (the apples remained relatively crisp).
Aside from a handful of predictable standards, The Suburban's menu largely focuses on more innovative dishes that spring from Franco-Camacho's years of experience. It's a worthy, more relaxed, and perhaps more satisfying successor to Roomba and Bespoke, since the hearty, comforting cooking we came to admire seems more fitting in this relaxed environment.
Sleepy at 6 p.m., The Suburban comes to life after 7:30. By the time we left after a second visit, the place was going full-tilt, the air suffused with the scent of truffle. It's comforting to know that the Franco-Camachos' suburban venture has captured an audience - their distinctive voice enriches our culinary world. Life would be a little duller without it.