My last rather unfortunate experience of a mussel bar – or an establishment that claims to be one – was Bromley’s branch of Belgo’s. Belgo’s is a rather insipid chain of restaurants which are so far removed from their original venue (Belgo Centraal) in Covent Garden that one can only wonder if your memory of steaming bowls of mussels, mountains of crispy French fries and freshly baked bread is some sort of misplaced mussel nostalgia – surely I didn’t consume that much Belgium beer back in 2010? God it was depressing, an experience not to be repeated.
Step forward West Malling in Kent – probably one of the last places you would think I would find a mussel bar to restore my love of mussel and Belgium beer serving environments. But step up to the plate Franks did and delivered not only some fantastic food but a really rather wonderful dining experience in general. The restaurant does not try to be achingly cool. It is a very kitsch styled, welcoming joint that is serving some of the best mussels I have ever tasted. Unlike the aforementioned they know exactly what they are doing.
The layout of the dining areas are what I would call “cosy”. There are a lot of covers in the place but it didn’t feel intrusive and they seem to have a good system of spacing customers out. It was a Saturday night when we visited and the place was packed with a really great buzz.
A really extensive and accomplished menu of Belgium and other exotic beers was tempting, especially a coconut beer, however, we chose/ played it safe and stuck to a wine on this visit. The wine list is small but adequate but we enjoyed a very palatable Sauvignon Blanc, a steal at £19.00. They could do with adding a few more varieties to the list – a great Chablis would be perfect with the food selections they have but I feel like that is me nit-picking somewhat.
Starters were a promising start. I had Cajun courgette fritters which whilst weren’t exactly what I had pictured (in my head a cross between a hash brown and a fish cake?!), what they turned out to be was bloody delicious. Lattices of thinly sliced courgettes with the most delicate dusting of lightly spiced batter; crunchy down to the last morsel they were fantastic and would have been expertly paired with a coconut beer no doubt – next time, next time! The fritters were served with a garlic mayonnaise which was my only criticism of the dish as it tasted very shop bought and is there anything more lovely than a homemade garlicky aioli? Mr A went for the scallops which he enjoyed very much and were cooked to pearly perfection, lightly caramelised around the seared edges. Served with raw ribbons of courgette, samphire and thinly sliced slivers of chorizo; the couple of mouthfuls I managed to steal from his plate were thoroughly enjoyable.
Thankfully Frank’s is somewhere where the food just seems to get better as you go through the courses. Despite a very good selection of mains, especially fish dishes, we went with the “when in Rome” theory and ordered mussels. The menu has no less than 22 different types of mussels to choose from (including some served half-shelled on platters), for example, A night in India (curry style) and New Orleans (sweet Cajun with honey, wine and cream). Mr A went for Thai red and after much deliberation and some great direction from our lovely waitress, Sophie, I went for fennel, chorizo, cider and cream.
We were not disappointed as two huge cauldrons of mussels were laid out before us. Huge mussels, juicy and cooked to absolute perfection! I don’t think I’ve ever seen such handsome specimens! I’m not going to lie Mr A was slightly disappointed with his red Thai version. Having tasted the sauce it felt much too thick and they would do well to omit the cream and just use stock, coconut milk, fresh curry paste and lots of lime. It just lacked the kick you want from Thai food.
However, all was forgiven with one taste of my mussels. I am not sure I can quite put into words the surprisingly exquisite combination of the aniseed from the fennel, sweetness of cider and smokiness of the chorizo. The use of both fresh fennel and fennel seed helped with the many layers of flavours of the dish which was just so unique and so very, very sublime. It’s Monday as I write this and I think Mr A and I have had at least four conversations about how amazing they were since. I would return for another bowl of them alone.
But to do that would be do miss the crowning glory that was Crepe Suzette served by Chef Frank himself. Seeing them on the menu I just could not resist the retro dessert flambéed at the tableside! I’m rubbish at taking photos and missed capturing the flambé but it was lovely, like Chef Frank himself! The dessert was a heady, rich, boozy, sickly-sweet affair that I should not have had room for but somehow managed. I’m still thinking about that now too if I’m honest. It was so good.
Our meal for two, with a bottle of wine, additional glass of wine and a port came to a very reasonable £85.70 – I would have happily paid more given the quality of our experience.
You’ve probably by now ascertained that we loved Franks and we really did. There are a few minor improvements I think they could make that would take them into solid 9/9.5 territory (the sauce for Thai mussels, homemade garlic mayo, and butter served in dishes etc.) but I cannot recommend this place enough. A special mention to the staff who were professional, knowledgeable and friendly – faultless.
Frank’s is a rare find where I’m not just excited to return to, I’m excited to introduce the place to family and friends. And if you are lucky enough to get there before I next return, please do let me know how the elusive coconut beer tastes!
Franks Restaurant and Mussel Bar, West Malling ME19 6QH