Nothing Toulouse by going Rouge

For the Tragus Group, the company that owns the 117 branches of Café Rouge scattered across our green and francophile land, the map is emphatically not the territory. According to their website, "There's bound to be one near you." But this is arrant horseshit, because there's nary
a Café Rouge north of Edinburgh, nor west of Plymouth. Imagine finding yourself in Penzance or Ullapool with a compelling urge for some boeuf bourguignon served up in reasonably authentic French café surroundings - brass, banquettes, smoked glass, mirrors, you know the form - then logging on to the site, only to discover that you faced a two- or three-hour drive.

Confirming Korzybski's dictum goes further for the Café Rouge web designers, who on their map have located Edinburgh north of the Firth of Forth, and Bristol somewhere in the Welsh borders. This is strange enough, yet stranger still are the branches of Café Rouge located in a couple of Center Parcs in the Midlands; surely the last thing you want to do when you holiday in a "safe" simulacrum of the real world is walk into a simulacrum of a French café. After all, if you're in a French café there's bound to be a rioting banlieue or a mass deportation of Roma going on near you.

Chain reaction

All of this makes it sound as if I dislike Café Rouge, and really I don't. In fact, I'd say that over the years it's the chain I've probably eaten at most consistently (saving Pizza Express, see Real Meals passim). The other evening, when I was either in Cheshire or Solihull - does it matter? - I repaired to a Café Rouge and was immediately enfolded in Marianne's generous bosom. Ah! the lettering stencilled on to the windows reading Vins de Pays, Champagne and Bières. Ooh! the menu illustrated with a Toulouse-Lautrecian lovely and bearing the exhortation, "Célébrer avec nous." La-la! the polished bar gleaming in the light from a score of electroliers.

I was given a table in the window and awaited my companion sipping a Virgin Mary, a drinks order the waiter had seemed confused about until
I translated it into Latvian. I sat there sipping and admiring the charming faux-naïf illustrations that swarmed across the lemony-umber rag-rolled walls: a pot of honey with bees buzzing about it and captioned "miel"; a stick of bread captioned "baguette"; and a minister receiving an envelope stuffed with cash from the bagman of a cosmetics magnate and labelled - no, I made that last one up.

Snails place

Julien Sorel finally pitched up - but then it's a long way from Verrières to the nearest Café Rouge. He professed ignorance of such sophisticated fare and ordered a cup of black coffee, the terrine maison and a steak bavette.

I laughed as haughtily as an abbé, and commanded the waiter to bring me a soupe à l'oignon and some escargots, followed by the légumes breton. I was going to have the saucisse de Toulouse until I realised that my choices were already as heavily freighted with onions as a man riding a bicycle while wearing a beret.

Julien pronounced his terrine to be “a bit like real pâté", but managed to choke it down. I observed that escargots were basically an excuse for mopping up garlic butter with bread, a practice Café Rouge had thoughtfully assisted by dispensing with their shells. Julien was persuaded to try an escargot - he'd never had one before, they aren't eaten in the Franche-Comté - and said that it tasted "nothingy". My soupe à l'oignon was a bit oily, while the puck of cheesy goo floating on it bore a sinister resemblance to my late mother's dental plate.

Actually, the maternal recall was apt, because while Sorel chewed his way through a bavette marinaded in his fellow herbs, rosemary and thyme ("It's basically a steak," he remarked prosaically), I experienced a full-blown madeleine moment courtesy of the légumes breton. This dish of mushrooms, courgettes, French beans, carrots, rice and chicken (an optional extra for a quid), had been "sautéed" - always a worrying menu claim; but in fact it was just like the tasty leftovers my mum used to fry up on autumn evenings. So, overall, a very real meal for both of us - and at 50 quid, inclusive of coffee and a bottle of mineral water, not too steep either as long as you aren't on benefits or a provincial median income.

Will Self's latest novel, "Walking to Hollywood", is published by Bloomsbury (£17.99)

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Licence to cut