There are solid reasons why I’ve never been that interested in Cote, the French chain bistro that opened an outlet in Shrewsbury three years hence.
It’s a chain, so you know what you’re likely to get, the prices are generally fair and the eating experience can be uninspiring.
You can be assured that the food will have been prepared off site – usually – and that you could be almost anywhere in the world, rather than your home town. Staff don’t seem to last that long and it’s all usually a bit too anonymous and androgynous.
In a town full of independents that try hard and aspire to high standards, why waste time on something that’s got little to do with local food?
Cote moved into Shrewsbury and spent £1 million converting a large outlet in the Square into a haven of French chic in 2017, offering all-day dining for all comers. I’ve never been – until now.
The change of heart came during lockdown.
There were winners and losers, though mostly losers, as the pandemic caused the closure of all our restaurants. The smartest operators created click and collect services, home delivery and more. Cote was among them and it’s online service was utterly sensational.
The truest form of recommendation isn’t flowery words, it’s whether a person returns. And, in the case of Cote online, we did.
A review for the pages of this newspaper was followed by substantial orders as a home freezer suddenly filled with pre-prepared dishes that were restaurant standard.
Forget M&S or Waitrose ready meals, Cote had absolutely nailed it.
And so it was time to teach myself a lesson and finally visit the established haven of French chic in Shrewsbury.
If the takeaway was good, surely the eat-in experience would be better? After all, there’d be no need to reheat the ingredients, the chef would do that. There’d be no need to set a table, the waiters would do that. And there’d be no need to wash up after. Right? Wrong.
Unfortunately, the Cote in-restaurant experience was all of the things I’d anticipated it being. Characterless, rushed and with mistakes from staff – that’s front of house but kitchen too – it was entirely underwhelming, although some of the food was very good.
I visited on a Thursday lunchtime and they’d run out of lamb, pork and beef sirloin, after a busy spell brought about by Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out To Help Out.
That left fish or fowl and I wasn’t the only one thinking that a restaurant can’t really call itself a restaurant if it’s missing its three main meats.
Independents would simply pop to the market where a number of great butchers have plenty of quality products in stock.
Cote, however, is tied to an internal supply chain and would need to wait until the following day’s delivery.
And that lack of flexibility, that infuriating inability to simply walk an eighth of a mile to an award-winning market, is all that’s wrong with it. It’s here but not here, if you get my drift. It exists in its own orbit, rather than that of the town.
There were other mistakes, too.
A lobster dish was overcooked so that the meat was chewy and rubbery.
A neighbouring table ordered a rare steak, being really, really explicit that the meat should come rare – they’d found a rib eye, rather than the no-longer-available sirloin.
When the steak came, the customer took one bite and sent it back. It was medium well done.
Staff also confused dishes, failing to notice when plates needed clearing or when orders were ready to be taken. It was inconsistent and hectic.
There were, however, plenty of features to enjoy.
Booking was easy.
A brilliantly-designed online system allows you to choose a table and time with ease. So, within 20 minutes of booking, I was seated inside, ready to eat.
The starter was great. A plate of breadcrumbed squid was pleasingly cooked and served with garlic, lemon, parsley and tartare sauce.
The sauce was rich and a little bit decadent, the lemon juice cut through the fried calamari.
So far so funky. At £6.95, it was generously proportioned and a delightful way to start.
In the absence of steak frites – ‘I’m sorry, sir, the sirloin is off’ – and with neither lamb nor pork available, I upgraded to lobster frites.
A 1lb whole lobster had been sliced along it’s middle and was served with a delightful watercress salad and a dill Hollandaise.
Like the tartare with the calamari, it was excellent. The lobster, however, was not.
When Cote goes to the trouble of creating its own internal supply chain you’d imagine the chef would have the simplest of jobs – just cook the stuff for the right length of time.
Regrettably, the lobster spent too long in the pan. It died twice before reaching the table. And so a dish that ought to have been succulent was cotton wool-like. Chewed for long enough – like a piece of Wrigley’s Gum – it eventually yielded some of its natural sweet flavour, but, boy, what a waste of a lobster.
The frites were reasonable; a little soft by the time they reached the table – I’m guessing too long under a heat lamp and too long out of the fryer.
Dessert was great; notably, a dish that required no cooking. A crème caramel comprised a traditional set vanilla pod custard with dark caramel and cream. With more wobble than Weightwatchers and a fabulously dreamy texture, it was pretty much spot on.
Service was off-and-on. A restaurant manager tried manfully to stay on top of things, though the sheer volume of customers meant she was rushed off her feet.
Pleasant and engaging, she spent service fighting fires rather than spreading joy.
Other staff were pretty helpful and there was no lack of engagement, but it was all a little rushed, there wasn’t time for them to take orders or focus on the tables that they should have been assigned to.
The food at Cote can be fabulous – they are the only restaurant I’ve found whose cottage pie rivals that of The Ivy – but the dining experience adds little.
Uniquely, Cote at Home is better than the in-restaurant experience.
For once, I’d rather do the washing up myself and avoid all of the fuss.
Tomates Breton, £6.50
Crab mayonnaise, £8.75
Salmon ratatouille, £13.75
Lobster frites, £27.50
Lamb loin chops, £16.95
Chocolate fondant, £6.10
Ice creams and sorbets, £4.85
Praline crepe, £6.35
14-16 The Square