Café Rouge – A Brick to Restore Hope in Chain Staff?

18 Feb
Café Rouge, 67-71a Seamoor Road, Westbourne, B...

Café Rouge, 67-71a Seamoor Road, Westbourne, Bournemouth, Dorset (Photo credit: Alwyn Ladell)

Café Rouge is something of a conundrum. It’s a relatively large chain[1] owned by the umberella company Tragus, who also own other chains such as Strada, Bella Italia and Amalfi.  As such you can expect the same typical standards across a range of outlets around the country and yet Café Rouge seems to stand a league or two above such chains as Wetherspoons or Harvester offering relatively authentic French fare.

Sticky tables were non-existent, the décor was manufactured but eclectically ‘shabby chic’ and mildly pleasing and though there was a post lunch bustle (we arrived for a table at around 2.30pm) it was not overly noisy.  There were none of the kappa clad families who seem to delight in taking their kids to a restaurant to shout at them.

I certainly was not planning a review of Café Rouge in Westbourne when I had lunch there today. We were only using up some Clubcard vouchers and settled for the two course lunch menu for less than £10 each (in fact with the vouchers I only had to pay £2.30 for a coke). The food was what you’d expect for such a price, quite small (I’m currently at home, munching my way through half a left over chocolate cake to fill the deficit in my stomach!) and simply ‘functional’, really not of any quality worth waxing lyrical about. I must add however that my wife disagrees with my ‘functional’ assessment of the food. Her omelette was perfectly cooked, perhaps the most basic of tasks for any self-respecting chef but well executed nonetheless.

What really caught my attention was the quality of the waitress. We were able to choose our own table and as soon as we were comfortable she brought menus. After an apt amount of time she returned to take our order and proceeded without a pad. Additionally, when she returned with our starters she did not enquire as to who was having what and I mused that she would not have been out of place in any London hotel or restaurant. This may seem like lofty praise, after all, surely any imbecilic fool should be able to remember four dishes from two cu

stomers, yet she was also looking after several other tables, serving them all in exactly the same manner.

Her demeanour perfectly represented the poise expected of good wait staff. She was courteous, friendly but not gushing, clean but not overly perfumed, present when needed without hovering with the desperation of someone angling for a tip.

You may still be puzzled due to the fact that this is what you are supposed to get from a waitress but remember this is a chain and staff are often paid minimum wage. Have we come to expect poor service in these establishments? And do we, perhaps, even excuse it in the knowledge that the staff are most likely students trying to earn money for beer books, topped with the fact that we aren’t exactly breaking the bank for the food?

It’s a sad fact that good service causes us to notice and yet poor service is the new normal, but that is where we are and ‘chain’ has become a byword for ‘basically rubbish but able to fill a hole’! Forget that these are chains of the mundane, poor service is inexcusable and good service should be noticed and expected, encouraged and rewarded.

I will be phoning the restaurant to commend the member of staff in question. If all wait staff, no, all service staff took a leaf out of her book we would see a rise in the level of service in this country. For too long we have been the butt of the joke among the service industries in other countries.

In conclusion, as a chain Rouge has a lot going for it. Its food is simple but effective for the masses (perhaps capturing the essence of French Cuisine) but if even half of their staff are as good as our waitress then they are clearly doing something right. Perhaps it was a one off but if not, maybe it’s time Tragus start paying them a more respectable wage in keeping with their level of professionalism.


[1] 120 outlets in the UK – Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caf%C3%A9_Rouge

Alghero Review

11 Feb
Coat of arms of Alghero

Coat of arms of Alghero (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dinner for four (starters, mains and coffee) – £100 (est)

The strongest possible publicity for a local Restaurant is unquestionably ‘word of mouth’. You may be forgiven for passing Alghero by without giving it much thought due to its unassuming front and its geographical location. Nestled amid a plethora of eateries on Ashley Road it does little to proclaim its presence or even, dare I say, localised dominance. Yet Alghero is something of giant among pigmies, a local hero of cuisine, often brought up in conversation among foodies both locally and further afield.

My wife and I had barely moved in to our new house, boxes were still awaiting unpacking when we met our neighbours and were told, on no uncertain terms that we ‘must’, as people who enjoy good food, try Alghero. Other friends had previously also recommended the restaurant which produces good honest Sardinian fare and among its patrons it has been known to include the likes of the Rednap family.

You will also find it difficult to dig up a negative review on review services such as TripAdvisor where the lion share of reviews are set at ‘very good’ or above.

Decor, Ambience and Service

We dined on a Friday evening, a typically busy night for any worthwhile restaurant and I was surprised that only one other table was seated at half past seven. However, customers came in in steady streams throughout the evening until it was near capacity and I would certainly recommend booking a table to avoid disappointment.

The atmosphere inside is relatively intimate with soft lighting, and wooden flooring, modern stylish seating and a smattering of topical artwork hung on the walls. Simple touches give the impression of quality such as the cloth napkins and real roses adorning the tables.

Even with the restaurant filling up we could still talk to one another without raising our voices and the sound of other diners merely added to the already comfortable atmosphere (There is nothing quite worse than being stuck in an empty restaurant with the owner hovering like Norman Bates, trying to capture the essence of your awkward conversation).

We were met promptly, seated without delay and though we pulled out our own chairs and placed our own napkins in our laps we were made to feel completely welcome with a smile and a menu that was clean and completely lacking stickiness (a real bugbear of mine). I was presented with the wine menu as the table was booked in my name; however I deferred the honour to one of our guests who was treating us to the meal. This exchange was not unnoticed by the restaurant manager as when the wine was served (a lovely full bodied Cabernet Sauvignon Del Piave Doc) she followed restaurant etiquette perfectly, serving our companion first with a small amount for his approval followed by serving the ladies and finally serving me. Furthermore, she served the wine from the right, the correct procedure for serving drinks, all but lost in many modern establishments.

The Menu

The menu was extensive and a somewhat bewildering amount of choice was presented to us. The restaurant manager also returned and recited the specials word for word. Choice, it would seem, would be a difficult thing indeed. We did however manage to choose eventually and between us we ordered;

Pate`del casolare – Chicken liver pate with crostini, Insalata baia di Alghero - seafood salad “Alghero style” in a lemon vinaigrette, Avocado cardinal – Fanned avocado with smoked salmon and prawns in a marie rose sauce, and the special of Crevettes in a spicy tomato sauce.

For mains we ordered;

Vitella ai funghi – Veal escalopes with mushrooms, Filetto alla griglia al vino rosso – Fillet of beef with grilled tomato, sweet peppers and red wine sauce, Fracosta al dolcelatte – Sirloin steak with dolcelatte cheese, port wine and cream sauce and a Tagliatelle al ragu` – Tagliatelle with Bolognese sauce

The Food

The food, I would say, was generally of a good standard and I managed to try almost everything ordered.

The starters were generous, delicious, delicately put together, well presented and enjoyed by all. I had ordered the Insalata and found the dressing very pleasant and suitably lemony, the seafood however wasn’t quite as I would have expected as it included, among some lovely mussels and crevettes, the somewhat ‘fake’ seafood sticks that seem very popular on the continent or in an Iceland freezer section. I felt that there was a lot more scope for a wider assortment of preserved seafood within the price range of the dish.

The special looked and smelled absolutely divine but alas, I did not get the chance to taste it! I was, however, reassured that it was quite as lovely as I’d imagined. The pate was proclaimed as homemade on the menu though I was a little suspicious at its appearance as it looked altogether too commercial for such a boast. Regardless, it too was a success in the eyes of its consumer.

The mains followed after a suitable but not extended interval. It was here that I felt the meal hit its only real rocky patch. I had requested my steak to be blue whereas my companion had requested medium rare and I believe that this information was lost in transition between the restaurant and kitchen for when our steaks arrived I found mine to be medium rare and the other to be blue. We stared across the table at each other’s steaks longingly. I was quite happy to continue my consumption as I don’t consider a steak ruined until it is the other side of medium, my companion on the other hand, tried to push on but relinquished to the notion that he’d like slightly less ‘moo’. He summoned the waitress who promptly and politely took the steak back for a little extra cooking. After a short time the steak returned rather more ‘well done’ and on a red hot plate, clearly it had just been posted under the salamander and sadly this took it too far in the other direction. The steak was left like an abandoned kitten on the side of the road.

The only other thing I’d like to mention was the Bolognaise which, while full of flavour, didn’t really shout to announce its authenticity and I muse that perhaps we are too familiar with this dish to be truly surprised by it anymore.

The Verdict

As I have already stated, the food was generally of a good standard but little compromises failed to solidify Alghero as the culinary stalwart that I had been led to expect. Some of the lesser valuations on TripAdvisor had expressed disappointment from customers who had declared themselves to be previously delighted regulars. Perhaps, I ponder, Alghero is going through something of a wilderness. Perhaps the recession has bitten off more than Alghero can chew.

Don’t get me wrong, it is worth a visit, indeed a must if you live locally. It may be that the day of our visit was an ‘off day’ of sorts and I will reserve full judgement until I have visited at least once more and sampled more from its wide ranging menu.

359 Ashley Road, Parkstone, Poole, BH14 0AS

01202 746888

Zeal and Zoolander! – Why chefs have a bad reputation.

2 Feb
English: Gordon Ramsay in 2010.

English: Gordon Ramsay in 2010. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chefs have acquired something of a reputation often propagated by the press for being fierce, not in the Tira Banks or Zoolander characterisations of fierce but rather the ‘thousand decibels throwing pans across the kitchen’ kind of definition.

People often ask me if I have ever come across such characters during my time in the industry and I usually relish the opportunity to shed some light on the issue. Having spent 20 years within the industry in one capacity or another I have met some very interesting characters, some who fit the bill of the stereotypical psycho chef, some who parody Basil Faulty, some who were just weird and yet some who seem altogether too ‘nice’ to be in such a demanding environment.

But why does the catering industry breed, or at least appear to bread a seemingly vast number of nut jobs? Does the industry ‘create’ them or simply ‘attract’ them? And do chefs work better when the pressure is turned up?

In the best of kitchens where perfection is a way of life there are many pressures to contend with;

The heat can be oppressive at the best of times and I clearly remember an occasion when the Head Chef turned off the extraction because he felt that we were not working hard enough. Then you have the pressure of meeting 100 deadlines within a two hour window where every offering has to be identical in quality. Add to that the long, antisocial hours spent on your feet, the six or seven day working weeks, split shifts (that all too often merge) and a Head Chef that, quite rightly, demands excellence at all times.

Furthermore, chefs have a higher divorce rate and lower life expectancy than many other career paths and quite often, a lower chance of being able to reproduce because of the effect of all the heat kicking out at a particular level.

That’s surely enough to make people go ‘a little nutty’ but also I think the environment does draw people to the challenge, either because they are already unhinged, want to prove something to themselves or because they are in some ways, adrenaline junkies. Therefore I think it true that the industry both creates and attracts that certain type of person.

You have to have a particular set of innate character qualities to work in a kitchen with any ambitions of grandeur and though I began in the industry wide eyed and naive to the perils of being part of a kitchen brigade I quickly smartened up and realised that I could really take a pounding, both physically and emotionally. I quickly learned that I could push my body through punishingly long shifts with an equally punishing level of verbal abuse and flourish in spite of it, or perhaps, because of it.

My first real encounter was both fearsomely demanding and rewardingly beneficial. But my second kitchen post was the complete juxtaposition; safely entertaining yet mind-numbingly un-educational. Perhaps, though at times I am quite happy to settle for the easier path, there is something to be said for development when working under extreme pressure.

Chefs, in the truest sense of the word, desire excellence. They are a driven people who have nothing short of complete passion for their craft. They relish the buzz of the kitchen and if away from it for any length of time they will crave sense of achievement that can be felt at the end of a busy night when they know that they nailed it. Take it from me!

So why, I hear you ask, don’t I just return to the kitchen instead of just banging on about it? Well, I love my wife and the life that we have together and so that is where I want to invest my time.

Smokey’s Flame Grilled Review

28 Jan

Burgers and chips for two – £8.90

A sign of quality for almost any food outlet is it’s footfall, how many people are willing to cram themselves in or queue down the street (excluding perhaps the larger fast-food chains, where footfall  is more a sign of our own laziness or our ever growing ‘junk tooth’). Abroad I would forsake the well decorated places that display but a few unaware rucksack clad tourists for the place on the corner that looks like an outbreak of botulism waiting to happen yet is mysteriously filled to the rafters with locals, who all look very healthy (not in any way botulised) and unbelievably happy with their consumptions.

Such could be said about Smokey’s, a popular flame grill burger take away in Poole. I never cease to be impressed at the seemingly constant clientele that it generates for itself. Queues are often out of the doors and I’ve even walked past to hear near monosyllabic conversations of other passers-by along the lines of;

“Mate! Have you ever had a Smokey’s?”

“No, any good?”

“Mate it’s amazing!”

Decor and Ambience

To me Smokey’s reflects the popular Spanish pork and cava bars that can be found in places such as Barcelona. The food is simple, tasty and popular but you don’t really want to look around the premises because your imagination may get the better of you.

In Smokey’s the celling looks as though it could fall at any moment, the ‘kitchen’ area is small, pokey and cluttered, the customer area could use a visit from Kim and Aggie and there appears to be something akin to a urine stain on the corner of the wall inside the door and to the left as you enter. Yet, if you can ignore all that, I would all but promise you that a trip to Smokey’s will not leave you disappointed.

 The Menu

Sure the burgers (the actual meat patties) are not the best that I’ve ever had but the shear range and creativity of filling options will leave you flabbergasted offering a staggering 18 burger combinations from the ‘Plain Jane’ to the ‘Bubba’s Shrimp Burger’, not to mention the chicken, steak and vegetarian options.

The Food

I have sampled the ‘Singing the Blues’ (with melted stilton) and the ‘Smokey Yokey’ (with fried egg and cheese) burgers as well as sampling my wife’s ‘Mediterranean Meltdown’ (vegetable and mozzarella burger) option, and I have to say that I was quite satisfied. Chips have to be purchased as a side order and though not as generous as almost any chippy in the country the portion sizes are acceptable.

The stilton option really demonstrates a classic marriage of flavours that should be sampled by any beef lover. The stilton acts to create a nutty flavour that naturally accompanies properly aged cuts of cow and therefore you cannot go wrong with this option. The ‘Trucker was also a great combination and the egg was cooked with a warm runny yolk that is as it should be but could be problematic if eating on the run. Nothing worse than a yolk stained shirt or tie!

The veggie option was pleasantly flavourful (though celery seemed dominant) and well-seasoned.

 The Verdict

Overall the food lacks aesthetic finesse but in reality you are not paying for artisan service or presentation. Smokey’s is not designed to be a plush epicurean centre of excellence; rather it is a necessity for any late night high street hungry men (not to the exclusion of hungry women!). The smell alone is enough to draw you in like a Gollum to ‘my precious’.

Smokey’s is not really date night material but deliciously fills a gap and would be a welcome addition to any ‘man gathering’. If you live in Poole and haven’t tried Smokey’s yet what are you playing at?!

400 Ashley Road, Parkstone, Poole, BH14 0AA

01202 723101

Mak’s Garden Friday Feast

19 Jan
Rice Wine Chop Sticks

Rice Wine Chop Sticks (Photo credit: Joe Pitz)

Take away for two – £14

My litmus test for any Chinese restaurant is always the Crispy Shredded Chilli Beef. Once I have established the quality I will then venture into other culinary delights but if the test is failed I never darken its far eastern doors again. The best I have found for this dish to date is Goodfellows on Alder Road, Poole

Mak’s Garden is a Chinese restaurant and take away on Ashley Road in Parkstone. If you are a local then you will have probably heard of it, walked past it or tasted its M.S.G free morsels.

The Menu

It offers a comprehensive menu covering everything that you would expect from a Chinese restaurant and also offers an ‘all you can eat’ menu boasting more than 90 dishes. Unfortunately this is not extended to the take away menu; apparently it would be unreasonable to continue plying your address with new dishes, at your beck and call, for the duration of an evening. Shame!

Decor and Ambience

From the outside the restaurant looks typical of its type in any high street area. The door itself is stiffer than a dead horse (I only use that reference so that anyone searching Google for Tesco’s may find their way to my page) and may well serve to dissuade Friday night’s drunken chavs from entering the premises. Mmm, cunning.

Inside the restaurant is fairly dimly lit, perhaps for ambiance and intimacy, or perhaps so that you may not see what it is that you are eating or whom you are eating with (some blind dates need to be just that!). The restaurant area is large enough to dine in comfort without having to brush ears with the table behind. The area set aside for take away customers doubles up as the bar area and is fairly small with none of the newspapers or wall mounted CRT TVs placed in regular take aways and therefore it projects something a little more sophisticated.

Service

We were served as swiftly as possible considering that the food is freshly prepared, and were soon on our way back to the comfort of our own home with lighting that is ambient and yet allows you to view items such as your wife’s face.

The food was still hot when we arrived home (not a great feat – I can practically smell the food from my own home) and it was swiftly divided and almost as swiftly consumed. The portion sizes were good and included complimentaries such as prawn crackers and fortune cookies.

The Food

My wife had ordered a set menu consisting of a Spring Roll, Sweet & Sour Chicken Balls, Beef with Black Bean Sauce and Egg Fried Rice. I had ordered my litmus and opted for chips. Yes, I know that’s not technically Chinese but any self-respecting Chinese restaurant has to get this right also.

The Dry Shredded Chilli Beef (crispy beef) was, well crispy, a good start but at first I felt that it did not have enough kick. I wish to have the kind of chilli punch that causes you to sweat through your nose, not altogether painful but enough to clear any sinus issues ready for a good night’s, snore-less sleep (“if only” I imagine my wife saying). However, as it turns out, this was one of those catch you by surprise chillies that is akin to a bratty kid flicking you behind the ear on a cold day types, and therefore I was quite content (though don’t get any ideas you bratty kids or I will use  the cattle prod!).

Litmus test passed I moved on to sample the rest of our gatherings. The Beef (and Black Bean Sauce) was tender, requiring no more than a couple of chews and was fairly flavoursome yet required perhaps a touch more seasoning, a minor quibble. The Chicken Balls were sizable and generally on the right side of good but a little on the chewy side with one or two being over cooked. They did, thankfully, lack the feared squirt of grease that can often cause offence when the recipient of said squirt is a large version of  the aforementioned  chav (how did he get in?!) who, up until the moment of offense, was happily sitting in the restaurant nursing a Stella in one hand and an idiot’s guide to dining etiquette in the other.

So far so good. On the negative side the chips were soggy, perhaps having been left under the hot lamps for a touch too long and the rice was bland. Ok, so maybe you wouldn’t notice the rice when doused in your preferred sauce but really this is an important component that must be done correctly.

The Verdict

Overall I found Mak’s Garden to be very reasonable both in price and in produce. Would I eat there again? Most certainly! Every restaurant, excluding the very best, will have evenings with minor infractions. The most attractive thing about Mak’s is that they seem to be largely consistent to themselves and offer good value for the standard that they offer.

I therefore recommend Mak’s Garden as a viable option, both for take away and dining in.

349-351 Ashley Rd, Parkstone, Poole Bh14 0AR

01202 732 337

A New View of Restaurant Review!

15 Jan

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Despite our pockets being squeezed to the nth degree and our pennies disappearing like the last few drops being coaxed from half a lime that has sat on your kitchen counter for weeks since it was originally halved for tequila races, it would seem that our appetite for eating has not been dissuaded. More astonishing is the fact that we continue to eat out with a higher frequency than can be heard by bats and that we consume take away produce as if no one can afford a kitchen any longer.

Of course our dining habits less often include the word ‘fine’ as a prefix. Three, two or even one star establishments are out of reach except on the most special of occasions and most of us would now settle for the slightly more humble rosettes; perhaps one, maybe two and, if feeling particularly racy, a stretch to three (perhaps if your ‘eharmony.co.uk’ partner seems a little posh).

Furthermore and entirely down to the ever shrinking disposable income we are more cautious about our chosen location for a little mange. Even on holiday my wife and I have spent hours looking at every menu board in an entire town before settling in to an establishment that can yet turn into utter disappointment and lead to one of us stating (either through sickness or continued painful hunger) “we should have tried the place in the square as I suggested!”

Recommendations are extremely helpful, whether advice from friends or a helpful review in a paper. However, a paper can be very selective about the type of restaurant it recommends within the genre that is great for a special occasion. But what about the everyday, last minute decision restaurants and eateries? What about the Miller and Carters, The Harvesters’ (heaven forbid!), the New Queens and the little deli’s that frequent well-heeled suburbs such as Westbourne in Bournemouth? How would anyone know that, should you order any food from the Alder Hills MacDonald’s it is far safer to park and walk in to place your order rather than to ‘drive through’. If you want to receive everything that you’ve paid for and at a reasonable level of warmth you need to enter the premises yet conversely, if you require a good belly laugh and don’t mind a MacLucky dip, by all means take the drive through; one of the staff regularly brings a smile to my face. On one occasion he seemed unaware as I rolled up to the window and I had to chuckle as he turned around to shout …….(actually I’m not going to repeat it on a family friendly blog) to his colleagues before turning back to me with a smile and no explanation.

The aim of this blog is to review every establishment that I find myself in attendance of, whether a friend’s wedding, birthday celebration or simply the favoured “I cannot be bothered to cook or wash up”. Whether they be in close proximity to my home or in the far-flung reaches of the world (or Dorset, Wiltshire and Hampshire et al). I am not setting out to be scornful, though scorn where scorn is due, and I will not expect duxelles, fine brunoise or molecular gastronomy from Wetherspoons but I will expect such places to live up to their own proclaimed standards.

Sticky tables, wilting salad bars, lip stick glasses, manky cutlery and over doused cheaply perfumed waiters beware, you will be worthy of a mention.

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