Gourmet Society Featured Restaurant: Cafe Rouge – Sheffield
Have you ever tried finding somewhere in a busy city centre to eat? The streets are clogged, venues can be far and few between, and most of the time people have enigmatically managed to find the place well before you. It’s a hellish affair, isn’t it? What with the jostling of callous pedestrians, the bellowing cacophony of the crowds, and the insistent whining of those in your group imploring for your search to finally cease. Okay, normally I’m the one adamantly begging for a compromise, but you get my point. It’s a situation that’s only exacerbated when it’s some form of festive time of year, with no occasion ushering in chaotic crowds more than Christmas.
But fear not, as there’s somewhere that even the hectic hustle and bustle of a busy city can’t reach you; a haven for exhausted shoppers, picky eaters, optimistic foodies and everyone in between. I’m talking about the enchanting, unassuming and utterly delightful chain known as Café Rouge, a group of restaurants that honour the Gourmet Society discount throughout the year and share the same classy bistro style ambience, the same exemplary level of service and the same irresistible, diverse, wondrous and captivating menu of French cuisine. I wager that the only thing you thought of then were escargots, or snails, and although they certainly serve them you can stretch your scope of thinking a little further as even those not in the mood for ‘trying something new’ will find a reliable array of delectable dishes on offer.
But I’ve laid the groundwork enough, as I’m here to talk about my experience with Café Rouge. I should begin with a confession though; I may potentially be seen as a little biased with this review, as my visit to Sheffield’s Café Rouge was not my first. My first visit took place about a fortnight earlier to one of the many London branches where within the first mouthful I was in love with the chain. Trust me, any of my colleagues could back this up, as I didn’t stop singing their praises for quite some time. I’m still singing them to this day, so much so that I almost have an album’s worth of tributes. I tried to keep a level head as I weaved through the throngs of the Christmas Market shoppers last month, guiding my brother and father in the same way a puppy on a leash guides its owner to the local park.
Despite the city centre resembling an energetic ant’s nest, and the fact that an impromptu mead hall had been erected a stone’s throw from the entrance, Café Rouge was fairly quiet. Personally, I preferred it this way; less time waiting for food to arrive and a starker contrast to the perpetual orchestra of commerce and calamity outside. I know some people often complain about restaurants being virtually empty, somehow considering a lack of other diners as synonymous to a lack of atmosphere, yet those people had clearly never been to a true French bistro. I, and my family, had been, and although it was not a complete mirror of some of the quaint spots we’d visited in Lyon, the feeling of the room was, in my opinion, perfect. The interior was pleasantly decorated with ornaments and features one would find in coffee houses (ergo, Café) and almost everything was clad in a dark, crimson red (ergo, Rouge), while the staff were all dressed in formal attire and, as they gracefully went from table to table, gave the impression that their customers were VIPs that required, nay, deserved the perfect amount of service.
This held true throughout the entire meal, as we never found ourselves glancing around for an idle waiter, our glasses were never empty, and the time spent between courses were ideally allocated to allowing the previous dishes to settle in our stomachs. Beginning with our drinks, the waitress quickly retrieved a fantastic bottle of Crozes Hermitage, a red wine that kept my more pampered father happy, as well as a Cerise Fizz for myself, a rum based and fruity cocktail that ticked all the right boxes for me. As we savoured our glasses of wine, and I switched between my two drinks like the alcoholic glutton I am, our starters arrived and the feast began.
Now, at this point I plead with you not to simply take this review as an appraisal of the dining experience but as a straight up command; order the Crevettes. Giant, juicy king prawns swimming in a garlic and smoked chilli butter, the Crevettes were so good that both my brother and I ordered them, with a gigantic Fougasse À L’ail, an artisan garlic sharing bread complete with a warm garlic butter, acting as the perfect means of mopping up the sauce. And mop we did, as I could have easily drunk that garlic and smoked chilli butter. Although we had to deshell the king prawns ourselves, which were piping hot may I add, we didn’t care. Both supplied with lemon scented water, we were more than happy to get our fingers dirty (and slightly singed) as the prawns were truly divine. I would have happily eaten them for the entire meal, from starter to dessert, yet my professional integrity (and lust for my main course) halted any requests for several more orders of the appetiser. My father opted for the Escargots, which were oven baked in pots and enhanced with smoked lardons, Roquefort butter and a lemon paprika crumble. They weren’t what any of us were accustomed to when it came to snails, as each time we’d encountered them in the past they’d been drowned in garlic (I always suspected that was a fairly literal description of the cooking process) and left in their shells. After stealing one from my father’s platter, I discovered that the lemon paprika crumble was quite a prominent part of the starter, perhaps due to our English mentality of natural disgust towards snails, but it was still an intriguing experience. The snail was fairly tasty, while the rest of the pot provided a tantalising taste that prepared my palate quite well for the main course to come.
Deciding, for once in my life, not to choose the fillet steak, I opted for one of my favourite dishes of all time; the Bouillabaisse. A rich, seafaring ensemble of mussels, king prawns and sea bream in a tomato and saffron broth, the Bouillabaisse was a heavenly meal in itself that offered exquisite tastes with each element. After swiftly de-shelling the mussels my first spoonful was a generous helping of the broth, a king prawn and a single mussel, and it was as smooth as it was opulent. The sea bream submitted to my spoon without a hint of resistance and split into flakes, making it easy to mix with the rest of the wondrous dish. When I had devastated most of the Bouillabaisse I ripped off a chunk of what was left of the Fougasse À L’ail and proceeded to clean my bowl in bliss.
Although I resisted the call of the steak frites my brother wasn’t as strong and he indulged himself with a tender 7oz fillet steak, paired with a creamy peppercorn sauce, and he was gracious enough to allow me a single bite. I didn’t know what I was expecting, other than succulent bliss, and that’s exactly what I experienced. The peppercorn sauce perfectly complemented the ideally cooked meat, which had a flawlessly chargrilled exterior and beyond that it was heavenly, with plasma oozing out at the slightest touch. My father chose something a little different, something that, among the several tantalising choices, would have been my third or fourth pick, yet after one taste it jumped straight to the top. The Confit de Canard, a slow cooked Brittany duck leg, was accompanied by dauphinoise potatoes, French beans and an orange sauce, which much like the Crevettes butter, I could have happily eaten for days on end. A concise dish, it had plenty going for it with the duck being simply delicious, the potatoes fairly hearty, the French beans fresh and the orange sauce acting as an incredible adornment. I had to fight the urge to simply take my father’s plate and ravage the remains, but I swiftly made a mental note to order the duck when I next visited.
With our plates barren and our stomachs thoroughly satisfied, we each took our time sipping at our wine glasses as we let everything settle. The wonderful waitress arrived shortly after, clearing up the devastation we had left in our wake, and asked whether we wished to end the meal on a sweet note with dessert. Once again shouldering the burden of assessing food I threw caution, and any pleas from my full gut, to the wind and said that yes, yes I would very much like a seraphic conclusion, while my brother decided to wrap things up in a savoury style and my father chose a Jameson infused Irish Coffee. The Selection de Fromages consisted of such treats as Brie, baby figs and goats cheese and both my brother and father seemed to enjoy it (I loathe cheese in virtually all its forms so I saw no point in taking some from them) while I sized up my concise delight. Opting to end with a classic, I had ordered the Crème Brûlée, which came partnered with a zesty strawberry and black pepper sorbet. For lack of a better way of describing it, the dessert was divine, with a velvety texture and a perfectly potent vanilla taste lying beneath the crisp caramelised layer on top. It contrasted brilliantly with the sorbet, and even though I had reservations about the strawberry/black pepper combo I had to admit the flavour was pleasantly curious; the kind that elicits another taste, and then another, and then another, until there isn’t a trace left.
Upon payment, the Gourmet Society discount had slashed a good part of the bill straight off, wine and all, which made our opulent feast for three incredibly good value, and an excellent time all the more enjoyable. When we finally polished off our second bottle of red we readied ourselves to disembark with full stomachs and wide grins on our faces, though we knew that we were bound to go back out into the cold, among the scrambling masses and bitter, frost speckled winds, and that made me a little glum. If I could have I would have stayed at Café Rouge and basked in the ambience for a little while longer, yet all good things must end. Well, until I came back the next week, that is.
Have you been to a Cafe Rouge lately? How was your experience? Did you brave the snails or play it safe with a steak? And my god, did you try those prawns? Let us know all about it via Facebook or twitter! And of course, be sure to check out the rest of the Spirited Away series, as well as the rest of the gourmet goodness on the Gourmet Society blog!
By Tom Simpkins