My introduction to the Cafe Rouge chain of restaurants was in Chichester, and I still prefer its atmosphere to the larger one at Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth. However, since I moved back to Southsea, it does make more sense for me to visit the Cafe Rouge in Gunwharf.
I’d arranged to meet up with one of my sons late one Friday afternoon after we both finished work, and we decided to go for an early evening meal but didn’t want to spend a fortune. Gunwharf Quays was within walking distance, and as it was around 5p.m., we found Cafe Rouge to be almost empty and had plenty of choice of tables. The tables are, however, pretty close together and at peak times it would be difficult to have a private conversation. My son had been there with his partner a couple of weeks earlier following a firework display, and as it had been so crowded they had had to sit very near the entrance in an area which I think is normally reserved for those just having a drink.
Having picked our table, up a few steps and by the back wall, we were brought menus and informed that the two main courses on the ‘Specials’ board were no longer available: these were rack of lamb and a fish dish of some description. They were soon erased and replaced by a starter of snails and an apricot tart, but no new main courses perhaps these were being held back for a later time in the evening.
I noticed that along with the a la carte menu I had been given a ‘Prix Fixe’ menu which neither myself nor my son could remember having seen on previous occasions. With this set menu you could have two courses and a drink for GBP9.95, which seemed like very good value considering the drink alone would be around GBP2.00. On leaving the restaurant, I noticed a board stating that before 5p.m. you could have two courses for GBP7.95 or three for GBP9.95, but we had arrived just too late. I was a little surprised that of the three main courses offered on the set menu one was pancakes and another omelette a little too eggy – but I suppose for the price you would not expect steak or fillet of fish. The third choice was Flammenkuche, a pastry base topped with bacon, onions and creme fraiche. We both liked the sound of that and decided we would have main course and dessert from the set menu with a starter to share from the a la carte menu. Two courses would have been fine for me, but my son had hardly had anything to eat all day, or so he said!
The waitress soon came to take our order and explained that with the set menu we could have either a soft drink, a glass of house red or white wine, or half a pint of beer/lager. We both chose fruit juice and then ordered the bread sticks with dips as a starter to share from the a la carte menu. When we asked for the Flammenkuche as our main course, the waitress seemed very surprised that we had not been told that this was no longer available, and I did think it a little strange that they had run out of three main courses by 5p.m. However, we had another look at our set menus and decided to go for vegetarian pancakes with courgettes, peppers and creme fraiche accompanied by chips and salad, rather than the gruyere cheese omelette with salad. For dessert the choice was between Normandy apple tart with custard and vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce, and we both decided to order the tart there and then perhaps in case they ran out of it in the meantime!
Drinks and the starter were very soon served, and I was certainly glad that we had ordered just one starter between us. There were six breadsticks, warm and very soft, served on a wooden board with three dips: houmous, tomato salsa and creme fraiche. A small portion of salad finished it off. The breadsticks were like tiny baguettes and I was only able to manage two of them. The price for this starter is GBP4.45, but it is ideal for sharing. We weren’t in a particular hurry and had plenty to talk about, but we were a little surprised that for some time after we had obviously finished nobody came to remove the board. The place was still by no means busy, but I began to wonder if I was going to have to catch the eye of one of the waiting staff to let them know that we were ready for our main course.
Eventually, however, a waitress emerged from the kitchen with our pancakes and was probably a little taken aback that our table had not been cleared. She asked if we would like any sauces or black pepper, and I requested some tomato ketchup which I always like to have with chips. The pancakes turned out to be a very good choice: they were soft in the middle and crisp at the edges. Although the chips were just the kind I like small, thin and crisp I didn’t eat too many as I was saving room for dessert.
There was no delay in clearing away our plates this time; my son ordered another fruit juice and we said we were ready for dessert. The tart came on a large white plate with the custard poured around the outside rather than on top of the tart, which is a nice way of doing things if you like to savour the taste of the apples on their own. We certainly both enjoyed this.
We decided not to have coffee on this occasion, although I must say, as an ardent lover of coffee, that this is the one place where I always find it has a wonderful taste. Our bill was brought promptly and came to just over GBP26, which I think is excellent value considering we had three courses each and my son had an extra drink.
Before leaving I visited the ladies which I always find to be very clean my one gripe is that in Chichester you have to climb a steep flight of stairs. There is, however, a toilet for the disabled as well as baby-changing facilities.
I know the set menu wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but for me it was fine and I think it serves very well as a lunch menu. We have in the past enjoyed a variety of main courses at Cafe Rouge, including seafood casserole with salmon, dory and mussels, saucisses de Toulouse, steak with Calvados sauce, pasta and poulet breton. I can also recommend their heavenly lemon sorbet if you want a light dessert.
It does help if you are an Edith Piaf fan, as her music is almost always playing at Cafe Rouge. Personally I also enjoy the naive works of art and the assortment of wall lamps that are dotted around. A former French colleague of mine, however, was not impressed by spelling and grammatical mistakes in the excerpts from the menu that are painted on the walls!
One comment I feel I should include is that I have in the past used Tesco Clubcard vouchers at Cafe Rouge. In Chichester, they were very happy to accept them, and even took them as payment for drinks whereas strictly speaking they should only be exchanged for food. One evening at the Gunwharf Cafe Rouge, however, the manager complained to me that he lost out on them and was obviously not keen to accept them. I did feel that he should have taken this up with Tesco themselves rather than voicing his opinion to his clients. I seldom shop at Tesco nowadays, so I am unlikely to find myself in this situation again.
I know that some people feel that Cafe Rouge is not authentic French cuisine and as such is disappointing, but I think for a chain restaurant that calls itself a cafe it serves good food in a pleasant atmosphere. I am sure I shall return many times, and I would recommend others do so too.
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