Here we go again. I sometimes wonder why I do this to myself. Another Coventry branch of a chain restaurant, another mediocre vegetarian meal. I should have expected it; in fact I did expect it – but only because I’ve been here before. Wonder of European civilization French cuisine may be, but it’s still a cuisine that holds vegetarians in (to put it politely) low esteem and for that reason, I never enter a French-inspired restaurant with much hope in my heart. If I’m honest, I’m only here now because Coventry has a food culture that goes one better even than the French, and manages to hold just about everyone in low esteem. I’m running out of places to review, in other words.
Superficially, there’s nothing much to object to at Café Rouge. Its entrance – double height and filled with plunging sprays of lighting that hang above your head like arrested summer showers – promises glamour, but leads only to a bland interior of stereotypically Gallic bentwood chairs and eponymous red banquettes. The two areas – grand entrance, humdrum café proper – seem ill-matched; their link, perhaps, being gormless Brits like me, who are apt to credit anything remotely French with automatic bragging-rights when it comes to elegance and sophistication.
I’m led to a seat near the bi-fold doors, tight shut today against the chilly wind. Across the wastes of two in the afternoon, where the only other customer is an elderly gent who, from his familiar banter with staff, I’m casting as an habitué, gusts of perky music blare: more incongruity. The waiter meanwhile, fumbling with the menus, suggests the chicken. Not for me, I say.
I’ve written before about how French restaurants like to subcontract their vegetarian offerings to other food cultures as a way of reassuring anxious omnivores that their own cuisine would never commit such outrages. From today’s menu I choose the not-the-first-thing-you-think-of-when-you-think-of-French-cooking ‘risotto vert: courgettes, petits pois, fresh basil, tomatoes and mint with lemon dressed pea shoots’. And actually, it’s not that bad.
Instant reaction, when it’s placed before me, is that take away the tomatoes, the pea shoot dressing and the shavings of cheese on the top, and you could probably fool me into thinking it was a big bowl of rice pudding. It really is one of the creamiest risottos I’ve ever eaten. The ingredients aren’t so shabby either: the cherry tomatoes, left whole and simply skinned, are more than mere supermarket inanities. And the courgettes are crisp and flavoursome.
The problem is the risotto itself – it certainly gives me a big warm hug, but after that its ardour cools considerably; even with a generous sprinkling from the table cruet, it’s underseasoned and doesn’t really taste of anything. The advertised basil, mint and lemon are nowhere to be found and the pea shoots, though they add contrasting texture, lack the peppery kick of say, watercress, that would act as an interesting foil to the rice. It’s all just a bit one-dimensional.
Outside on Belgrade Plaza, someone walks by toting a bag that bears the legend ‘I ♥ Coventry’. ‘Congratulations’ I think – because Coventry is a city that sometimes chooses to make itself very difficult to ♥. Nowhere is that more evident than in its food culture. I’ve got a few more places on my list of local restaurants, including some independents, but come the new year, I think it’s almost inevitable that I will have to explore a bit further afield. I wish it weren’t so. I want to ♥ Coventry too, but at least as far as eating out goes, I’m sad to say my fickle ♥ is up for grabs – and I think there’s a definite risk that Leamington or Kenilworth, with their sophisticated charms, might just steal it.
Cafe Rouge, Belgrade Plaza no.2, Upper Well Street, Coventry CV1 4AJ. Risotto Vert, £10.95