Nestled away at the top of Milsom Street lies a familiar shop front you will see up and down the country. I’m not talking about T.M. Lewin, the gentleman’s shirtmaker, or fish restaurant Loch Fyne. A dash of Parisian red and gold alongside the otherwise homologous shopfronts in that part of town lies the subject of this review: Café Rouge. We were invited to sample the newly released food and drink menu, while not forgetting the old classics that make Café Rouge such a popular choice for their customers.
This particular visit was sprung on the staff at the restaurant, and I was given the caveat that they were a little understaffed, but you couldn’t have noticed. From the moment my foot stepped through the door until we left three hours later and stuffed full of French (and Central American?!) food, the service was impeccable. We were treated not only as guests when we wanted to be, but as people too, which can sometimes be an issue in chain restaurants.
We started with some apéritifs including a Rouge Royal (think Kir Royal, but with Chambord instead of the more traditional Crème de Cassis) and a French 89 (the delicious interplay of Champagne, gin, lemon juice and sugar syrup). In much the same vein, we also sampled the Citron Pressé. This was an exciting concoction where you are brought half a glass of lemon juice, a bottle of sugar syrup and some water and you can make your own strength and sweetness. Not only can you tailor it to your taste, but research has actually been done that suggests that rituals enhance food consumption (Vohs et al., 2013), meaning this is the perfect refreshing drink on a hot day.
While we had to wait a short while for the starters, they were certainly worth the wait. We started with the ‘Potage au Cresson’ (watercress, spinach and blue cheese soup from the “Menu Rapide” – aimed at businessmen looking for a decent lunch). This soup, though a little under-salted, was very tasty, and the caraway flavoured bread served with it was some of the nicest I’ve tried. The prawns and olives were, admittedly, a little disappointing. Though well-cooked, the sauce for the prawns was not particularly exciting. In the dish of olives, the gherkins and olives tasted surprisingly similar. What saved these, however were the marinaded Pimenta Biquinho, which provided an occasional burst of sweet warmth that subsided after a few seconds.
We also tried the ‘Ragoût d’Escargots’, or snail stew. The unfamiliar French cuisine was a must, especially as it’s new on the menu. The sauce was rich and tasted strongly of mushrooms, and the pie topping was crisp. This would be a good introduction into eating snails for someone who has never experienced it before.
Even better than the Escargots was the artisanal garlic bread. This sharing loaf came with a pot of melted garlic butter so you can choose how garlicky you want it. The highlight from our starters was, however, the traditional Latin-American dish, ‘Ceviche’. Raw fish marinaded in lime juice and dressed with red onion, fresh coriander and red chilli makes a dish that could double up as a refreshing light lunch on a sunny day, or a hearty starter for something more wholesome.
After such an amazing array of starters, I was beginning to wonder how we could fit another morsel in, but when the mains arrived I certainly regained my appetite. Fish with a homemade Leffe beer batter, a burger stacked high and the French classic ‘Croque Monsieur’ all looked fantastic and were served with a generous portion of chips. Unfortunately, appearances can be deceiving. The burger was dry, the fish too greasy and the bread in the ‘Croque Monsieur’ was unexciting. That said, the chips managed to make up for some of the disparity between expectation and reality.
The remainder of this gap was more than filled by the other mains we had the pleasure of dining on. While the skin on the confit duck was crispy, the meat on this classic remained flavourful and succulent. The sharp cherry sauce contrasted nicely with the fatty flesh to provide a wonderful interplay of flavours. On the side the green beans seemed freshly steamed and the potato gratin was cooked to perfection. Boef Bourgignon is a hard dish to get wrong and the chefs at Café Rouge certainly pulled it off with aplomb. The sauce was thick and flavourful while the meat remained tender, if a little dry after chewing. The mash was also delicious, but the steamed vegetables seemed more like an afterthought. We were served a glass of Malbec, which paired nicely with the meat, though might be a touch rough around the edges for drinking unaccompanied.
It is rare that the highlight of a meal for me is a salad, but on this occasion my highest praise goes to the vegetarian ‘Super Salad’. Don’t let the name fool you. If you imagine taking all of the best parts of being vegetarian and put them on a plate, this must be the result. Once you’ve got through the goat’s cheese, beetroot, artichokes, butternut squash, watercress, peas and several different lettuce leaves, you think this salad cannot get any better. Until you find the burst of hot sweetness provided by the aforementioned Pimenta Biquinho. If you are a vegetarian, you will not be disappointed. If you are a carnivore you will not be disappointed. So long as you have taste buds, you will not be disappointed.
Puddings provided us with yet further enjoyment. We had the trio of desserts (‘Tarte Tatin’, chocolate fondant and the ‘Tarte au Citron’), the chocolate ganache and the cheeseboard. If you are someone who enjoys a variety of different experiences, then the trio of desserts is right for you. While the chocolate fondant was warm and gooey and contrasted nicely against the freeze-dried strawberry pieces, the two tarts provided a good palate cleanser for the end of the meal. The fillings of both of these slices were tangy and sweet, with some texture still to the apples in the ‘Tarte Tatin’. The pastry, however, let the fillings down somewhat and was bland and soft.
For something more chilled, the chocolate ganache was competently prepared, but the highlight for this dish was the dark chocolate, chilli and lime sorbet. If you’re feeling decadent there is also the option of ordering a glass of the dessert wine; this enhances the experience of any of the aforementioned desserts.
We finished with the cheese board. While these can sometimes be disappointing, the variety of cheeses available was pleasing – there will be something for every cheese lover on this plate. This was also served with slices of apple and candied figs. While nibbling on these slices of joy, we started contemplating the experience. There had been some disappointments (olives, burgers, fish and chips…) but where the high street regular had shone wasn’t on these standard meals, but on the food where they had a chance to show off a little. The creativity in the assembly of the super salad, the finesse used on the confit duck and richness of flavour in the ‘Boef Bourgignon’ pared with a strong wine list means that if you give the chefs a chance, and are willing to pay a little extra, you won’t be disappointed by your next visit to Café Rouge.
Beating the expectations of 'high-street restaurants', Cafe Rouge offered a fine variety of wines and French classics. Expect to pay a good price, however, for the best items on the menu.