THERE is something fantastically, joyously quirky about Café Tabou, in the heart of Perth. This is, after all, a so-Gallic-it-hurts French restaurant with a Polish chef-patron, a Scottish front of house and the most talkative waiter on God’s earth, who turns out to be a native of Cadiz, in southern Spain.
Even our fellow diners were a funny old lot. In one corner there was an ageing and ever-so-slightly-deaf father and his middle-aged son conversing so loudly they could be heard in Dundee. In another corner, a courting pair of pensioners cooed at each other and held hands when they thought no one was watching. Behind us there was a table of half a dozen retired Scots who were visiting the old country, having lived abroad for their whole adult lives, and in Spain for the past two decades. Their hysterically inept, Basil Fawlty-esque attempts to converse with Captain Cadiz in faltering Spanglish were worth travelling for alone, especially when they decided the reason he couldn’t understand them was because they weren’t speaking loudly enough or sufficiently slowly.
If people-watchers would pay good money for a window seat at Café Tabou that night, especially at one of the tables overlooking the impressive floodlit church right outside its doors, my reasons for liking it were more straightforward. Sure, I liked the Paris bistro kitsch, the French film posters, the Gallic sayings painted on the beams, the pictures of the Eiffel Tower on the wall. And yes, I liked the relaxed ambience and the insanely chatty staff.
But most of all I liked the desperate efforts of chefs Eric Cousin and Marek Michalak to be as French as humanly possible. Whether it was the lengthy blackboard of specials in French, the sliced baguette served on arrival, the adverts for the fondue or cuisine Alsacienne evenings, or even the all-French wine list, had the waiters come out wearing berets and onions while singing ‘La Marseillaise’, the place could barely have been any more Frenchified. It was a dedication to the nation of Napoleon and Sarkozy that was at odds with their hiring policy, although the ever-talkative Captain Cadiz explained that they kept trying to hire French chefs and waiters, but that seven in a row had been dismissed for being drunk on duty.
If you’re labouring under any illusions about how Café Tabou sees its place in the world, these are dispelled as soon as you open the new menu, which is emblazoned with the words “cuisine traditionelle recommandée”. The half-dozen starters are littered with Gallic touches, ranging from brie croutons with the roasted red pepper soup to toasted baguette with the game and peppercorn terrine. If the main courses were marginally less obviously French, there’s still the inescapable feeling that this is a menu you could find in any provincial French bistro.
I started with the assiette de poisson, which turned out to be relatively short on Frenchness but very long on invention. This trio of fishy dishes started with fantastic seared king scallops served with a beetroot purée and toasted pumpkin seeds, moved through an interesting but slightly runny cod crème brûlée and ended with a superbly dry and delicate gravadlax of sea trout with cranberries and a hard-boiled quail’s egg. With so many menus dominated by the same ubiquitous starters, this fascinating combination set the senses on fire.
The same was true of Vicky’s starter, which was described as seared foie gras with gingerbread and fried duck egg, but turned out to be something altogether different and more interesting. Instead of being built around the foie gras, the dish was basically a huge egg studded with slivers of foie gras and accompanied by two slices of almost black, unleavened Scandinavian-style bread and a ginger compote. If you were expecting a slab of foie gras, this dish may have been a disappointment; Vicky, however, rated it the best starter she’s had in ages.
If our starters were a real wake-up call to the senses, our main courses followed in the same vein. Vicky’s pot au feu, chosen off the specials board, was basically a fish stew consisting of a couple of smallish chunks of haddock, a few mussels and some potato served in a creamy marinière sauce. She ordered a plate of anaemic-looking French fries and happily dunked them in the remaining sauce, declaring herself more than happy with her choice.
She was certainly happy she had not chosen my main course, which was advertised as mallard, pheasant and guinea fowl slow-cooked with confit shallots, wild mushrooms, red wine and prunes. What I got was three large but unidentifiable chunks of dead game birds coated in a red wine reduction so strong it was the colour of Bovril and had the cloying, viscous texture of molten tar. Indeed, it was so strong it was often difficult to tell which of the meats was which: the duck stood out, and I think I detected that metallic edge that pheasant has, but I honestly couldn’t swear I’d identified all three correctly. Still, on even the most dreich of nights in the new city of Perth, this would warm the coldest of old bones.
We rounded off with a passable brioche bread and butter pudding with Mackie’s vanilla ice-cream and a rather weak toffee sauce, plus Vicky’s usual option of vanilla ice-cream with home-made hot chocolate sauce (which was, in light of my red wine reduction experience, surprisingly subtle). I finished off with an espresso so strong I lay awake until the wee small hours.
The place wasn’t perfect, though. While we were entertained by the eccentric and leisurely service, others may have found it too slow and even over-familiar. And the bottle of Côtes du Rhône we chose was, frankly, not good. But for all that, the meal was outstanding value for money and also one of the most curiously enjoyable of my year – a truth no doubt partly attributable to the fact that, when it comes to matters gastronomique, I’m an unrepentant Francophile.
If that covers you, or if your idea of a good night out is watching different worlds collide, then Café Tabou could be right up your rue.
• Café Tabou 4 Saint John’s Place, Perth (01738 446698, www.cafetabou.com)
• Bill please
Starters £5.20-£7.90 Mains £13.90-£16.90 Puddings £4.90-£6.20 Cheese £7.20 Set menu £15.40 for two courses; £18.90 for three courses (available Tuesday to Thursday, 5.30pm-9.30pm, and Friday to Saturday, 5.30pm-7pm)