The successful chain of French bistros has retained its familiar decor and whilst many of the staples on the menu remain unchanged, some new regional dishes have been added in case you have had your fill of moules and steak frites over the years.
The Marina, tucked away as it is on the outskirts of Brighton is a functional enclave and a far cry from the beautiful colonial architecture of the city. Nevertheless, there’s plenty to keep you occupied whether you are a resident with a Sunseeker moored next to your penthouse, a gym bunny who enjoys feeling the burn or simply there to do your weekly supermarket shop. Cafe Rouge is located on the boardwalk overlooking the boats and has a generous outside area from which to watch the world sail by in summer whilst sipping your cafe au lait.
Walking into Cafe Rouge is a familiar experience. The interior decorator for the original ‘Cafe’ must have retired on the royalties by now. It’s exactly the same as every other Cafe Rouge and the typical Parisian bistro styling is clearly a recipe that works. Retro posters adorn each glass window looking out over the boats, the polished dark wood floor is glossy and matching tables take over most of the large main room, broken up by the wicker red and pine chairs that make up the cafe section at the front.
A vast dark wooden bar takes over one side wall whilst on the opposite wall there’s a high red velvet banquette running the length of the room. So far, so similar. Where the Cafe Rouge in Brighton Marina stands out from other branches is in the sheer size of the room. It is far too big to masquerade as a cafe and has none of the cosier touches that the smaller restaurants have retained.
Despite most tables being occupied inside at night, the large room lacks some of the ambience of their smaller restaurants so if you’re after a romantic meal a deux you’d be better off looking elsewhere. However, it’s popular with the sailing fraternity who have worked up a hearty appetite during a day out at sea and larger groups for whom the sheer size of the restaurant is a positive rather than a negative aspect.
The menu announces each dish in French with a brief translation underneath of what to expect. The Hors D’Oeuvres are a selection of stereotypical French starters ranging from Terrine Maison (£4.95) to Moules de Cafe Rouge (£5.95). The Soupe a l’Oignon (£4.95) is served at the perfect temperature, a dark beefy broth thickened by softened onions crowned with an encompassing gruyere cheese crouton. The bread of the crouton is a little hard which makes cutting into it with the soup spoon a little precarious if you’re hungry and can’t wait for the soup to soften it but the overall flavour is deliciously strong and the onions are as beautifully caramelised as they need to be to make the soup a success. The Crevettes du Cafe Rouge (£5.50) are served in small terracotta pots on a rustic bread board beside a warm sliced baguette. The prawns are moist and swimming in an indulgent garlic parsley butter that enhanced and harmonises with the delicate flavour of their flesh and the elegant simplicity of the dish really needs no accompaniment. As a result, the cherry tomato and chilli dip provided is rendered redundant unless you want to mask the robust French flavours. It’s an English afterthought of a garnish that has no place with this dish.
The main courses are divided into Regional Plates, the Grill and Fish. You can sample some Gallic cuisine such as Boeuf Bourguignon (£12.95) or Saucissons de Toulouse (£9.95) or play it safe with some classic fish and meat dishes such as entrecote and loup du mer, that you would expect to find on most menus in France. The Confit du Canard (£12.95) is a leg of slow cooked duck with a crispy skin that’s served with French green beans, dauphinoise potatoes and a reduced orange jus. The neat parcel of potato is well browned and looks decadent however unfortunately, the prolific use of garlic robs the potato and cream in the dish of their flavour as they are overpowered by the strong taste. The duck meat is well cooked and although it lacks some of the moistness in the flesh that confit cooking normally provides, the jus is viscously jammy and sweet, completing the traditional dish with a refreshing tang.
The Demi Poulet (£10.95) is a huge medieval feast of a portion, with half a well roasted chicken lightly infused with garlic and thyme and served with a generous basket of thin cut French fries. The chicken is browned, hearty and comforting and the French fries piping hot and crunchy. You are offered the choice of sauces for grilled items such as bearnaise or peppercorn sauce but a simple French Dijon mayonnaise will also provide the perfect condiment for dipping your pommes frites.
Dessert is a wide selection of standardised French fair including Tarte au Citron (£4.95), Creme Brulee (£4.50) and Tarte Tatin (£4.95). The Tarte au Chocolat (£4.95) is a creamy, dark chocolate ganache - abundantly rich and indulgent, topped off with Chantilly cream. As for the Tarte Tatin, it’s slightly anaemic looking and not as golden in colouring as you’d expect but it tastes just as it should with the delicately sweet flavour of the stewed apples working well with the buttery pastry.
The wine list is not long but it is split cleverly into brief punchy descriptions of their flavours such as ‘soft and fruity’, ‘big and bold’ and ‘smooth and distinctive’. It is an excellent way of simplifying the wines for every customer. The list is good value with every bottle coming in at under £20 except for the Sancerre at £24.95 and the Champagne, the most expensive being the Perrier Jouet at a still very acceptable £35. The house red, a 2008 vin de pays (£12.95) is palatable and easy to drink although there are cocktails and beer available too if you’re not a fan of wine.
The Last Word
Cafe Rouge restaurants were once all typified by their cosy bistro-style atmosphere and affordable easy French classics. The sheer scale of the Brighton Marina branch means that it has had to sacrifice some of the charm of a smaller restaurant and that is a shame. However, the staff are superb and the restaurant’s swathe of outside seating and its backdrop of ripping sails and rattling masts lends to the atmosphere in a way that the monolithic building does not. Ok, it isn’t St Tropez but the sights and sounds of Brighton Marina lend Cafe Rouge a little je ne sais quoi that makes the entire experience that bit sweeter.