French polish needed

Cafe Rouge Meadowhall.  Cafe Rouge Meadowhall staff  Tracey License,Isabella Wilczynska (duty manager) and Olga Zinkowska
Cafe Rouge Meadowhall. Cafe Rouge Meadowhall staff Tracey License,Isabella Wilczynska (duty manager) and Olga Zinkowska

THE trouble with shopping centres is that they’re full of shops… Which is all very well if you’re looking for a new wardrobe or a spot of retail therapy, but it’s not the most obvious haunt for a dedicated foodie.

However, our local centre is pulling out all the stops to attract people through its doors this month as it stages Meadowhall Live: four weeks of ‘fashion, beauty, food and fun’.

And that includes stepping up its culinary credentials with a series of events such as demonstrations by TV chef Gino D’Acampo, a live cook-along with Sheffield’s award-winning Milestone team, cookie decorating and cupcake workshops and kids’ cookery sessions.

Meadowhall’s eating offer too is set for a boost over the coming weeks, with a £7m revamp already under way to transform the old food court into the Oasis Dining Quarter.

The Oasis – which has had only one minor refurb since it opened 20 years ago – was originally themed on Marbella’s Orange Square. Its new look, due for completion in October, will include upgraded frontages, more seating, improved access and new restaurants.

The demise of the Out of Town Leisure Group last year had already opened the door for a crop of new arrivals. Among the latest are TGI Friday, Café Rouge and Wagamama, while several others are lined up for the coming months.

Directors say they want to make the place a destination for diners and are planning a fresh image and a cosier feel. We went along to explore this work in progress.

Our destination on this occasion was Café Rouge, one of the most recent additions to the Oasis.

Shopping centres attract large chains, so there’s little to discern Meadowhall from its rivals. Likewise, there’s nothing about this Café Rouge to distinguish it from the branches in St Paul’s Place, Ecclesall Road or Gatwick airport, come to that.

It is on the site of what used to be Ma Potters but the open kitchen and raised area have gone. In their place are the stereotypical yellow walls, adorned with framed prints and a dado border of food names: baguette, vin rouge, moules… you get the picture.

A dark wood, bottle-lined bar dominates one wall, while bare floorboards, classic chandeliers and cheesy French background music complete the picture.

However, those who welcome an independent touch will be pleased to note that ‘project boulangerie’ is in the pipeline, bringing a bread oven into the main restaurant so customers can watch their pain rustique being baked. The company is also about to launch its biggest menu revamp in ten years.

“We’re all really excited about it,” says manager Claire Bradshaw. “We did a lot of market research, then chucked out the menu and started from scratch. The new menu aims to show that food doesn’t have to be heavy and creamy.”

It includes six dishes under 600 calories. But for now we make do with the standard fare.

Customers can drop in for anything from just a glass of wine or a cup of coffee to a full-blown three-course meal. There are appetisers and sandwiches along with grillades (steaks) and plats rapides (fast food).

Prices are mid-range, or there’s a prix fixée – one course for £6.50, two for £8.50 – six days a week until 5pm.

Wines are predominantly French, priced from £13 a bottle. But beware of the sneaky menu that offers bottles in price order – apart from the cheapest which is hidden half way down the list. Oblivious to this chicanery, we order a merlot Pays D’Oc (£14.75) which is pleasant enough, but not a test of the house wine.

French onion soup seems an obvious starting point. It’s thick, slightly sweet and has a good flavour, with a mega-crouton and melted Gruyère in the bottom.

Daughter Number One is with us and we share a platter of hors d’oeuvres: smokey mini sausages, waxy Serrano ham, some excellent chicken liver parfait and creamy Camembert with gherkins, decent bread and not-so-decent celeriac remoulade that was actually soggy and quite unpleasant.

The trouble with chain restaurants is that some dishes come from a central kitchen and you can never be sure which they are.

On to main courses: penne pasta for me, sautéed with leeks in a creamy mushroom sauce.

Would I like chicken too, inquires our waitress (who is clearly having a bad day, judging by her stony countenance and the way our food is delivered)? Yes; why not. But she neglects to say that it will cost £1 extra – nor does it mention this on the menu.

My companion is pleasantly surprised by his Poulet Breton: nicely cooked chicken breast in a herb and white wine sauce which is fine, if bland.

Daughter, meanwhile, applauds her half-kilo pot of moules Thailandaise (coconut milk, chilli, lemongrass, lime and coriander) – until she discovers a gloopy lump of unmixed paste in one of the shells and then realises the grumpy waitress has forgotten a finger bowl.

We finish our meal with excellent coffee, leaving our companion to test the desserts: a nicely executed tarte tatin with a good caramel flavour.

Dinner for three, excluding drinks, is £48.80.

lVerdict: As chain restaurants go, this one is pleasant enough, but service with a smile would make a big difference.

lOpen: 9am-11pm Monday-Saturday, 10am-10pm Sunday.

lCafé Rouge, The Oasis, Meadowhall, Sheffield. (0114) 256 8867.