The comforting smells of garlic and seafood are the first things that greet you as you step into Café Rouge at Brighton Marina.
In the last three decades the likeable chain of contemporary French-styled restaurants has carved a nice little niche for itself on the high street.
Brighton has a couple of these unpretentious little joints, and across Sussex there are others in Haywards Heath and Chichester.
The marina branch is a darn good size, as you’d expect from the beefy units along the boardwalk of the seemingly ever-expanding site.
On a fairly bleak August Sunday we were lucky enough to check out the Café Rouge summer set menu - three courses for less than the price of your average underwhelming British picnic under ominous grey skies.
It was still nominally the summer, so we did what you should and plumped for a gin and tonic livener.
The gin blooms were beauts, served in huge continental-style balloon glasses, with double the fun of London gin and signature flavoured tonics.
I glugged down a gorgeous citrussy number, while the fairer member of our duo chose the suitably delicate elderflower gin bloom. So far, so summery.
Our starters were terrine de poulet and mackerel rillettes, respectively. The terrine was a fat slab of rustic fun. It bristled with intent, herbs and chunks of smoked chicken, with a shallot and raisin chutney further raising the stakes.
The rillettes (a traditional French preparation of meat or fish similar to pâté) saw the sustainably-sourced smoked fish marvellously mixed with crème fraîche and horseradish, and enlivened by a lightly cucumber pickle, which itself was pepped up by fresh dill.
Café Rouge has a justifiably great rep for its steak frites and I exercised admirable restraint in not choosing that old favourite again, despite the fact it was included in the summer set menu and practically winking coquettishly at me.
The ever-present carnivore cravings were instead sated by a great golden fillet of pork schnitzel which provided a superb porcine substitute for the absent sunshine. This breaded wonder was backed by a creamy but crunchy celeriac and white cabbage slaw, baby water and familiar crispy Café Rouge fries.
My partner is less of a slave to things bloody and meaty and was able to make the wise decision and enjoy another bistro fave - Moules frites.
But this was a crustacean classic with a twist, served in a basil and nut pesto sauce. The fresh half-kilo of sustainably grown mussels were fabulous and tasted as it they’d not long said goodbye to the sea.
The summer-inspired broth was screaming with seafood flavour and sensibly chose not to forsake the more traditional ingredients of shallots and white wine.
Post-gin blooms we supped a few glasses of Comte Alexandre, a perfectly serviceable light French red wine which is currently Café Rouge’s house red.
The puddings were pretty super too. A zingy lemon posset came with a surprisingly thick and tasty almond tuile, while the chocolate torte was as rich as Croesus.
Coming in at £12.95 for two courses and £3 more for the additional pudding, the summer set menu is obviously a spiffing dealand is available all day, not just at lunchtime.
On the subject of time, Café Rouge has also introduced a welcome initiative at all of its 80-plus restaurants across the UK, if you book after 7.30pm the table is yours for the whole evening. A nice touch.
To check out some of the options we almost chose (sautéed chestnut mushrooms served in a vol-au-vent anyone?) take a look at their summer set menu.
By Steve Holloway