There was a time in my life when I was in France every weekend, taking the Ryanair flight to Bergerac with such regularity that I felt like I was taking a bus.
I was not alone as the attractions of the journeys between France and London were not lost on the many other passengers I recognized on the flight.
I was doing a few hours of work in my office in central London, arriving in Stansted, taking the fast lane and a few hours later sipping a glass of fresh rose in my beautiful formal garden. It was a good life and sometimes it felt like The Weekend forever.
However, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, I sold my share of my beautiful French mill house, along with 18 acres of land and the most bucolic outdoor swimming pool overlooking the River Lède, which ran through our garden, feeding the mill while he gently tinkled by.
Even as I type this, I remember the utter bliss of lying by that pool feeling like I’ve stopped the world for a few days.
Selling in France when Brexit and Covid-19 stole our lives was not my smartest decision and I still often dream of this house because I never dreamed of being French/European/otherwise that British more than I do right now.
My France was that of the generous pantry of the South West – walnuts and truffles, honey, white asparagus, sweet wine from Monbazillac, goose fat and garlic. It was Sunday food markets so vibrantly fresh that going back to the UK and walking through Tesco felt like stepping back in 1953 with a ration card.
France was joy and much of that joy came from the food and wine available in even the smallest local shops – in fact the nearest grocery store to us was dark and always seemed to be closed, but the bell was ringing at entrance and Mrs. Debiard came limping out of the back room and told you what was good to buy that day.
My France was not the France of nouvelle cuisine or healthy slimming cuisine, the style of “slimming cuisine” pioneered by French chef Michel Guérard, although I seemed to spend long hot summer days eating tomatoes picked from our garden and cherries from our trees.
My France, and the style of cooking I most associate with it, is the France of duck, goose and pork, which I would cook on our fantastic Lacanche cooker – the Rolls Royce of cooking and such a good piece of kit as any budding Francophile could wish.
Now back in Scotland, trying to replicate the French experience on Tayside is not as simple as one might think.
Dundee’s only French restaurant, Café Monmartre, finally made the switch to bohemian a few years ago, before I had the chance to visit it.
It’s such a shame and I’m sure regulars must miss it a lot as the food there seemed quite authentic. A quick glance at their Instagram page shows a restaurant filling a real gap in Dundee’s market. I don’t think any place has come to replace it.
Salvation came with a visit to Perth to the closest thing to a Parisian brasserie we could find in Courier Country.
Café Tabou is well located in this beautiful city, which seems increasingly filled with empty buildings just waiting to be reopened or refurbished.
Hopeful ‘Leave it alone’ signs dominate some streets, including those around Perth’s so-called Cafe Quarter. The magnificent building housing the Beales department store (formerly the iconic McEwans) has stood empty and unloved since the store closed in March 2020, after a history in the town dating back to 1868.
The sight of these large buildings left empty induces in me such a state of melancholy that the opening of the doors of Café Tabou gives me a moment, and very welcome, a burst of warm familiarity.
This place is welcoming and ticks many design boxes of an ersatz style once popularized by Cafe Rouge, a chain that looked incredibly glamorous when it first appeared.
Here we have everything you need to feel just French enough; the red woodwork, the bustling bar, the empty wine bottles covered in candle wax, the wicker basket filled with baguettes, the red tablecloths and the polished glasses of a traditional French brasserie.
The staff wear red aprons and the walls are painted that specific type of yellow that seems to replicate 100 years of Gitanes smoke from a few licks of Dulux.
Closer inspection reveals that the wood and stone of the floor could be linoleum more suitable for cafes and the tablecloths are plastic – but to be fair this is entirely consistent with many such places I’ve have visited in the Lot et Garonne.
Café Tabou feels good and it feels happy and it cheers up.
We hadn’t booked and the place was packed with what seemed like regulars – always a good sign.
I can see why this place is popular, although I had some doubts about the food we ate.
First of all, the service is excellent, especially from the waitress who greeted us with the widest smile and friendliest attitude. She was just one of those people who make you feel so welcome that your shoulders instantly drop, knowing you’re going to have a great time.
The menu is long and completed by a list of four specialties written in chalk on a blackboard. The Sunday we visited the roasts seemed to be very popular and they looked excellent. There is a “terrace menu” which is served daily from midday until late, with
the reminder that the kitchen closes at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. on Sunday and Monday).
Try as I might, I couldn’t really see any specific stylistic differences between this menu and the a la carte main course, although I guess you could say the terrace menu has simpler dishes like the croque monsieur ( £13.90) and the chef’s salad (£8.90 starter, £12.90 main).
A set menu is also available for £21.90 (one course), £23.90 (two courses) and £25.90 for three courses.
I chose a fish and seafood bisque (£8.90) from a list of starters including grilled snails (£12.90) and scallops (£12.90).
So far so French, even though the scallops came with bacon ash, vanilla cauliflower mash, sous vide apples and lemon caviar, whatever.
A £10.90 avocado creme brulee was a bit too exotic even for my exploratory tastes, the avocado brulee, ginger tuille, charred blood orange, beet jelly and pickled walnuts seemed like a chef who maybe went a little off the tracks too.
My bisque was good, with a nice depth of flavor, possibly from the “unique Café Tabou seasoning”, although a real bisque is a rich, thick, heavily seasoned soup anyway.
Here, I quote Julia Child’s classic book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking – Volume Two: “Without a doubt, bisque came about because it is a simple and elegant way to eat small shellfish with complicated constructions like crayfish and crabs… a la bisque is not complicated to make, it is just long”.
I really enjoyed this version here; although some prefer a little more fish in the dish, I was very happy with the rich bisque emulsion and the few mussels and bits of fish in it.
The bisque came with too little Gruyere, garlic croutons and saffron rouille for my taste – it was a good starter, though.
David’s starter of a simple salad (£3.90) was good, but he only ordered it due to a lack of vegetarian options, something Cafe Tabou also shares with many restaurants in France (although this is rapidly changing as even French supermarkets now stock more ‘organic’ to meet the needs of vegetarians and vegans).
My lamb duo main course (£24.90) was excellent, including rump and neck of lamb, wild mushrooms, apricot, asparagus, heirloom potato steak, marinated daikon and black butter.
The lamb was perfectly cooked and the accompaniments were harmonious and pleasant, although I didn’t really taste the apricot.
While the dish was really, really good, I have to wonder if some of the ingredients actually added much to the deeply resonant flavors of the three main elements – lamb, mushrooms and asparagus – and, looking through the menu, I think this addition of extraneous elements is something that needs to be tamed a bit to allow the main ingredients to shine.
David’s Beet and Goats Cheese Soufflé (£21.90) suffered from the basic problem that it just wasn’t very enjoyable. Served with celeriac duchess potatoes, pearl barley pops and ginger jelly, it was definitely an example of the Emperor’s new clothes. The problem was that the soufflé, bright pink from the beetroot, was so overcooked that it felt crumbly and just weird, with none of the wobbling associated with a classic example of this wonderful dish.
Here it looked like a broken meringue and, although it looked like a colorful and attractive dessert – with the added problem that it simply had no taste.
Once again I longed for the exemplary classic soufflé prepared by Craig Millar in his charming restaurant in St Monans. The saying here at Café Tabou would definitely be – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
My cherry petit gateau dessert (£9.90) was just brilliant – a chocolate mousse with a morello cherry insert, pistachio and crunchy coconut base. David’s Crepes Suzette (£8.40) was quite classic and I never tire of seeing good flambés at the table.
The service was quick and friendly and I particularly appreciated that one of the waiters admitted to reinforcing his French accent to improve the customer experience, which was particularly gratifying when we found out they were Polish.
Café Tabou is a place I really liked, but maybe for the wrong reasons. I would go there for the classic French cuisine, and there are enough examples of that on the menu to make return visits a pleasure.
I would go there for a pleasantly Gallic vibe in the middle of Perth. I would go there to investigate their Tuesday and Wednesday steak deal for two (£68.90 including a bottle of house wine, which is pretty good for Chateaubriand).
What wouldn’t freak me out are some of the craziest inventions of a chef who obviously can cook well but who, in my opinion, could sometimes better remember that less is more.
Nevertheless, Café Tabou is to be recommended.
Address: Café Tabou, 4 St John’s Place, Perth, PH1 5SW
P: 01378 446698
Prices: Starters from £5.20; main from £13.90 and dessert from £6.90.
- Food: 4/5
- Performance: 5/5
- Surroundings: 5/5
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[Restaurant review: Cafe Tabou in Perth]