I had the distinct pleasure today of having lunch with two of my old friends. We were in Tenterden and chose to eat at Café Rouge, a French-styled restaurant which is part of a chain. The restaurant chain was immortalised in print and on the silver screen by Bridget Jones' Diary, and even though they have received some recent bad press about wage practices, tipping, threatening people with the sack if they didn't get customers to tip on their credit cards so they could use them to subsidise wages because they were only paying £2.50 an hour, and even though they were started as a small chain, were bought by brewer Whitbread and subsequently sold to Tragus, a part of the Blackstone Group, whose chairman was once a fat cat at Lehman Brothers (i.e. evil empire), I am not here to talk politics. I am here to talk food.
This was my first experience of Café Rouge. They are housed in the building that once was the Eight Bells, a pub where I spent many a happy evening in the late '80s both alone and with friends supping Fremlins Bitter (now sadly gone the way of the dodo). The building itself is a 15th Century frame with an 18th century frontage. The interior is so different from how I remember it - it's almost as if the bar was picked up and turned 90 degrees. Everything inside is made to look like a French bistro, down to the walls being painted so that they are reminiscent of whitewashed walls yellowed with the smoke of a million Gauloises. One can almost imagine a knuckle-dragging Jean-Paul Belmondo type slumped in a corner chair regarding everyone with disdain the way only a Frenchman can. The red velvet-cushioned high-backed booths only add to the air of shabby elegance.
Lunch was a Prix Fixe menu, which is just as well, as the dinner menu's prices were a bit steep, to say the least. Here were the Prix Fixe prices: 1 Course £6.50, 2 courses £8.50. I didn't look any higher. My companions and I ordered our drinks first. I had a Caffe Latte, which came in a lovely tall glass mug with a long spoon. I ordered a 2-course option, but my friends only had the 1-course. Girls, eh? (Just kidding, ladies). They both ordered the Steak Haché, a chargrilled burger which came sans bun, and appeared to have some lovely garlicky butter on it, which according to the menu was Beurre Maison, which means House Butter, so I'm still none the wiser. This came with a ton of French fries also. I ordered the Salade Paysanne, which consisted of rocket (arugula) and other baby greens with New Potatoes and green beans with what the menu describes as French dressing, but since I've been in the States for 18 years, and the Yanks tend to think of French dressing as a red substance, I should clarify that this was more like a homemade light vinaigrette that was anything but red, and probably more like an actual "French" dressing than anything found in US supermarkets. It was a great salad, actually. Very tasty. My main course was Omelette au Tomate, a perfectly cooked omelette topped with a mound of crushed tomatoes and a sprig of parsley, accompanied by another enormous mound of fries. After we'd all eaten, we reminisced and gabbed on for a while and decided on another beverage before we left, this time three hot chocolates, which came in huge cups, of a size not seen since the opening sequence of "So I Married An Axe Murderer". Delicious, and a great way to round off the afternoon.
All in all, I would probably return to Café Rouge, although it likely wouldn't be my first choice, due to the controversial issues surrounding the chain. Bottom line, if this was a stand-alone mom-and-pop operation rather than some greedy corporation, it'd be fabulous. But it isn't and to make matters worse, it stands on the site of my favourite pub. It's pricey too, unless you go for the Prix Fixe menu.
3.5 yums out of a possible 5 yums (losing points for controversy).