If city slickers ever head to First Street in downtown Sanford, it’s probably to dine on schnitzel and ale at Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Café. But the gemütlichkeit isn’t confined to the long-standing German restaurant alone, at least not anymore. Just a few doors down, a little of that feel-good warmth and hospitality is being dished out by Sam Walsh and Amine “Sam” Samhaoui, a delightful couple who manage and operate Café Rouge. Samhaoui’s a brawny chap, a gregarious Moroccan-born gourmand who’s as deft a schmoozer as he is a culinarian. When he spoke of one day serving poutine in his establishment, I developed an immediate respect for the man, but finding a steaming plate of french fries, gravy and cheese curds will have to wait (fresh cheese curds are a hard find in Florida). In the meantime, our attention turned to Café Rouge’s focused and ever-changing menu of French- and English-inspired bistro fare.
On one temperate evening, we dined outside and enjoyed a hearty hamburger soup ($5), which the British-born Walsh described as chili without the spice or beans. True enough. After seeing a plate of tiny buttered prawns ($10) make their way to another table, we opted to sample the chicken tikka flatbread ($8), a special for the evening, instead. The long piece of doughy naan held up, even under the weight of wonderfully seasoned chicken morsels intermingled with crunchy onions and sour cream. Of the bistro mains, the flavorless, sinewy New York strip ($19) was a real disappointment, though the hand-cut fries and garlic green beans had us nodding in approval. As unfulfilling as the steak was, the beer-battered fish and chips ($15) were truly inspired. Even a Budweiser-based batter (using Boddingtons would practically double the price) couldn’t ruin our enjoyment of this enormous, and splendidly crisp, haddock fillet. Hand-cut chips, snappy peas and caramelized lemons had us marveling that this was quite possibly the best fish and chips we’ve enjoyed in the greater Orlando area. Tart olives, cherry tomatoes and a balsamic glaze may have obscured the flavor of the pan-seared swordfish ($19) somewhat, but the main was well-executed. And the side of crackling potato croquettes was good enough to order as an appetizer ($6) on a future visit. A liberal brushing of sweet-minted shallot butter made the eight-chop New Zealand rack of lamb ($23), cooked to a perfect medium-rare, wholly satisfying. Once again, the side (this time chunky mashed potatoes) was impressive.
The only glaring de-ficiency here is the absence of espresso, though that didn’t really spoil our enjoyment of the homemade bread pudding ($6) drizzled with a thin English cream.
While the food may be upscale, the vibe is anything but. Café Rouge is a community-focused bistro attracting a down-to-earth clientele. Photos of London streetscapes and fez-cap lighting nod to Walsh and Samhaoui’s respective homelands, and the two have grand ambitions to expand their culinary empire across the globe. In fact, the legend “London, Manchester, Paris, Toulouse and Dublin” already appears on the storefront window – whether that’s presumptuous or not is yet to be seen. One thing’s for sure – I plan to hold Samhaoui to his poutine promise.
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