Shropshire Star

Food review: Côte Brasserie, Shrewsbury

Chain food has a reputation for being mediocre and anonymous. But Côte makes a break from the norm as Sharon Walters finds out . . .

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Catch of the day – the Breton fish stew was packed with mussels, clams, huge prawns and squid and topped with fillet of seabream Pictures by Russell Davies

I’ve always said there’s nothing wrong with ‘chain’ food. You know what you’re getting, you generally won’t be overcharged but . . . the eating experience may not be terribly exciting.

For instance, you may get a perfectly decent pizza or plate of tasty pasta but let’s face it in the majority of places you could be sitting in any anonymous androgenous eaterie. It could be just about anywhere in the world without a hint of the country the cuisine originates from.

Now I like a hint of the culture of the food. A traditional country house hotel with starched tablecloths and shining cutlery and glassware is perfectly married with a roast of topside with a giant Yorkshire pudding followed by a deep and luscious apple pie. British and British. Excellent.

And while I don’t want Italian flags adorning tables, I would like a hint of the Latin influence as I tuck into my ossobucco.

And now we come to one of the reasons why I have been a fan of Côte almost since the French-inspired brasserie opened its first restaurant 10 years ago.

Apart from the very much Gallic influenced menu, it looks like a brasserie you’d find in any French town or city. From the decor and furnishings to the uniforms of the waiting staff. To be honest I almost lapse into the Gallic language on the meet and greet whenever I cross the threshold. And when I come to the menu my brain flips into holiday mode à la Français.

My first experience of Côte was in the branch just off Covent Garden towards Aldwych for a breakfast. My train delivered me an hour before a meeting and after wandering around the beautiful Royal Opera House, I chanced down a couple of streets and discovered Côte. Perfect for a reviving coffee and a croissant before work. And it was perfect, for me. Friendly staff, nothing too much trouble and very relaxed. It instantly became first choice when in the area after that, at whatever time of day I passed by.

Then I visited the restaurant in Birmingham just outside the Mailbox and that too became a favourite after shopping trips.

So it was with some delight that I discovered Côte was to open in Shrewsbury in The Square. The former retail space has been transformed, via a £1 million makeover, into a little haven of French chic offering all-day relaxed dining to cover every need – from the breakfast of my experience to great value lunches, romantic dinners and family meals.

And now to my second reason for liking Côte so much – the food. Quality ingredients, cooked relatively simply but so well. Brasserie favourites such as French onion soup, steak frites and moule frites are always on the menu. Côte also specialises in ‘poulet’ – sorry chicken, there I go again.And then there are the excellent value daily specials plus, during lunch and early evening, two courses for £10.95 and three for £12.95, which might include pork rilletes as a starter followed by coq au vin with pomme purée. Oh, and I almost forgot between noon and 6pm on Saturdays and noon and 10.30pm on Sundays, offers include steak frites for £10.95 or half of a Breton chicken for the same price.

On our visit we wanted a little nibble while selecting and I ordered one of my Côte favourites, a fougasse – leaf-shaped garlic bread with parsley and sea salt. Sadly they were out of it and instead we had a pissaladière, warm flat bread with caramelised onions an anchovies. You can also opt for reblochon cheese rather than the fish. Moist and delicious topping but it was followed almost immediately by our starters! The pissaladière took just a little too long to arrive and perhaps the starters arrived a little too quickly, but that was the only problem with the meal.

And now to the starters. This time of year is one of my favourites, because it is the British asparagus season. Yes I may I have been waxing lyrical about French-inspiration but I couldn’t resist it. After all the season is so short. Perfectly cooked and just crisp enough and gleaming moist green with plenty of freshly-made hollandaise sauce. Across the table arrived what at first looked like a lunch dish. Crab mayonnaise with avocado, cucumber, capers and tarragon and healthy slices of toasted sourdough bread. I just about managed a forkful of the zinging crab before the plate had been emptied. Top quality fish and top quality preparation.

The man has a thing about mussels and would probably eat them for his breakfast if he could. However, he avoided the traditional moules frites (which he does cook very well himself) and went for the heavily moules-charged Breton fish stew. Food envy now stepped in on my part as the steaming dish arrived. This traditional Breton dish was brimful of plump mussels, clams, huge prawns and squid and topped with a delicately flavoured fillet of seabream. All lying in a white wine, tomato and chilli broth. What a dish for £13.95. As the healthy fish disappeared, the sauce was mopped up by some very good bread.

I decided to try the poulet Breton – corn-fed chicken with frites, of course. Three sauces are also offered with the dish and I went for a simple garlic with lemon and parsley butter. Half a chicken arrived with crispy skin – food police don’t shout, skin helps keeps the chicken moist while cooking and a little of what you fancy does no harm whatsoever. And this chicken was very moist and flavoursome with crisp frites. The sauce arrived in its own little dish, just as I like it, and was not overpowering at all. In fact I could perhaps have enjoyed a little more garlic in it.

The ‘full’ signs were definitely showing in our eyes but puddings acted like a magnet as we saw some arriving at other tables. After a little rest the man had one of my favourites, a tarte au citron – traditional French lemon tart with Normandy crème fraiche and raspberries. A sharp lemon hit, with light pastry and the sweetness of the crème fraîche and raspberries. I didn’t get a chance to sneak any of that.

I was tempted away from the tart by a special and another favourite, crêpe with strawberries and chantilly cream. My oh my, which of my favourite bistros was I in down in Cancale?

An espresso to finish and delay the food coma followed.

Carafes of freshly filtered water were brought to the table without having to be requested – and replaced when empty. And if that’s all you want to drink there are no sneers from the waiting staff – as another couple sitting close by commented on. Wine starts at a reasonable £16.50 a bottle. A picpoul de pinet was our choice at £23.50 and also a good match with the fish stew and chicken.

A walk around Shrewsbury finished off an excellent lunch and throughly enjoyable experience with top service and also welcome. So glad the man was not disappointed in Côte after all I extolled its virtues. “It’s a bit of a chain, isn’t it?” he said when I told him where we were heading. He can be a little snooty about food sometimes as he is such a good cook. Now he’s a convert. And that says it all.

PS After being told off for not mentioning special diets before . . . Accredited by Coeliac UK, Côte has a comprehensive and delicious gluten-free menu, which has received high praise from diners and Coeliac UK itself. Côte maintains high standards in gluten-free food preparation and staff training and understands how important it is to be able to offer people who follow a gluten-free diet, reliable and safe dining.

And as part of its commitment to all diners, Côte also offers a varied vegetarian menu. Including French onion soup, and warm beetroot salad among its starters and braised puy lentils with roasted vegetables and poached egg among the mains, the menu is also accompanied by a veggie wine list.

It’s a real Côte of charms!