Can a chain do French bistro food justice?
With only a few exceptions, I don’t really like chain restaurants. They may have the best of intentions, bringing consistently reliable food to a large number of people at a reasonable price, but as the number of franchised branches balloons, the quality of the food tends to slowly slip downhill. I therefore approached my business lunch at the Soho branch of Côte with some trepidation.
Côte is a large chain of French restaurants with branches dotted all over England and Wales, but with a large concentration in London. The decor is supposed to be based on those of classic French bistros, but it failed to leave much of an impression on me. The Soho branch was bustling at the time of my weekday lunchtime visit, but despite this the service was friendly and efficient.
I started off with the steak tartare, a classic dish and one of my culinary obsessions. Côte’s version is slightly chewy with an offaly flavour as well as some sweet and peppery hints to it. It’s a surprisingly good rendition of this French classic, although the chopped hanger steak sometimes available at the nearby Duck Soup is an even better raw beef dish.
Sadly, the roasted sea bass wasn’t nearly as accomplished. Although the skin was crispy, the fish flesh was far too soft and flaky. I wasn’t enamoured with the rather bland, creamy sauce or the limp rocket either. This sort of thing might pass muster with the tourists, but it just isn’t good enough for the rest of us.
None of the desserts tickled my fancy, so I opted for the cheese selection to finish my meal. I was unimpressed by the rather bland sample of Reblochon, a soft, unpasteurised cow’s milk cheese. I was positively insulted by the rather shoddy slice of Comté. It was far too immature with a one-dimensional creaminess and none of the layered nuttiness, subtle sweetness or the crunchy saltiness of the very best mature Comté. It was very rubbery too. The only saving grace was the Roquefort which was pungent and strong, although the acidic tang wasn’t quite as pronounced as the best Roquefort I’ve had. Must try harder.
My meal at Côte started out so promisingly with a surprisingly decent steak tartare, but it quickly went downhill from there. The slapdash cooking of the roast sea bass was bad enough, but the poor quality of the cheeses, where no cooking is involved, showed an alarming lack of taste and discretion in the procurement of finished foodstuffs. Côte may have long opening hours and be reasonably priced, but the latter is a false economy and unless you’re really pressed for time or can’t get in anywhere else, you’re better off avoiding Côte. Bringing French bistro food to everyone is a great idea, but not when it’s done like this.
Branch tried: 124-126 Wardour Street, London, W1F 0TY
Phone: 020 7287 9280
Opening Hours: Monday-Wednesday 08.00-23:00, Thursday-Friday 08:00-midnight, Saturday 09.00-midnight and Sunday 09.00-22.30.
Reservations: probably a good idea.
Total cost for one person including coffee: £30 approx.