Café Rouge is a French themed restaurant chain from the UK, made famous by the 1996 novel Bridget Jones’s Diary, as Bridget’s favourite watering hole.
Café Rouge in Souk Madinat sits in the space where the ever empty, doomed Dome Café used to be. The space that you always glanced at, probably on your way to The Meat Company or Trader Vic’s. Well, they have spruced it up a little, added a much coveted alcohol license and stuffed as much French themed interior décor items as they could find within its four walls.
Café Rouge’s interior is typical of a homogenised, branded restaurant chain. Overly heavy, artificial, and lacking in atmosphere & substance. Edison bulbs, (lots of them, casting a yellow, tobacco stained hue over the room) mosaic tiles, those mirrors with French writing on them, and I’m pretty sure I could find the Chat Noir poster that was a mandatory ‘back of the toilet door’ adornment in the 90’s. If the waiter had been wearing a black and white striped top with a beret and a necklace of garlic I wouldn’t have been surprised. I even wouldn’t have been surprised if the manager had ridden past on a bicycle with a basket of baguettes, followed by a band of twenty accordion playing Frenchmen.
Anyway, you’ll be happy (or disappointed) to hear that none of that happened; the waiter was very “un-themed” and polite, and greeted us with an enthusiastic smile. We were shown to the world’s smallest table, where the salt and pepper shakers had to be moved so our waiter could find space to put the specials card down.
The menu starts with a small paragraph from Chef Duncan McEwan welcoming us to Cafe Rouge, telling us how excited he is to share his menu with us. It always concerns me when the Chef is three thousand miles away from the kitchen that is about to serve your food. It’s a bit like your lawyer providing you with a note to give to the judge. Doesn’t fill you with much confidence.
However, the restaurant was busier than it would have been under the Dome name, and there were a couple of large tables of young parents taking advantage of a few cheeky glasses of wine while their babies gurgled happily next to them in their prams.
Café Rouge’s menu is safe, French inspired brasserie food. Croque monsieur, steak frites, baguettes, burgers and salads, with the odd duck dish thrown in for good measure. Everything you would probably never find on a real French menu.
I ordered the Super Salad, which turned out to be the most ironically named dish I have ever come across. A spattering of bitter red endive leaves that were dehydrated, soft at the ends and had seen better days, with some beetroot, squash, peas and a few seeds. It arrived with no dressing or seasoning, and left me feeling rather ambivalent about life in general. There was really nothing super about it, unfortunately. I ordered a side of fries as well, that were immediately sent back to the kitchen as they were cold. What kind of kitchen makes that sort of mistake these days? The same sort of kitchen that charges you for bread, i presume.
The Serb, unsurprisingly, ordered a burger, with raclette cheese. Raclette cheese is a particularly smelly cheese, with a rather mild, balanced flavour. It is an excellent cheese to melt and one of my favourites. The burger was well constructed, with good seasoning and size. However, according to our waiter, the burger was only allowed to be cooked well done, as per a bizarre Dubai Municipality requirement. It therefore arrived rather dry and grey and my point is this; if you know you can’t produce a quality product due to some alleged restriction, then remove the dish and get a little inventive with its replacement. Don’t accept that you are going to have to serve sub-standard dishes. That’s what happens when your chef is 3000 miles away.
The coffee to follow was also burnt and prepared without care and the service, although enthusiastic and genuine, was without direction and leadership.
Café Rouge hit the height of their popularity in the 90’s and unfortunately haven’t really moved on since then. There is no relevancy or passion behind the brand and if you can’t be relevant, then you have to at least be passionate.
According to recent reports, Café Rouge owners back in the UK have employed Alain Ducasse to help them with the brand. I suggest the local franchise operator to hold fire on their expansion until the concept is freshened up. It’s not that Cafe Rouge is so terrible, it’s just that the other choices are considerably better in my opinion. When you consider the other choices on the market these days, you have to be bringing something very special to the table.
Café Rouge will be good for the Souk Madinat tourists, pre-theater diners and the odd expat family that want an unpretentious place for a meal with wine.
Having said that, Cafe Rouge is a down to earth, unpretentious, high street themed french brasserie. As long as you accept that before going in, you will not leave disappointed.
If I happen to be in the area and want a quick sandwich and a top up of all things French, then I’ll be happy to stop by.