ahh! Bistro

PUBLISHED: 17:23 15 June 2009 | UPDATED: 15:08 20 February 2013

Eating at Café St Jacques

Eating at Café St Jacques

Warwickshire Life editor Colin Clark discovers a hidden gem in Leamington Spa.

Warwickshire Life editor Colin Clark discovers a hidden gem in Leamington Spa.

Nick Challons has something of an identity crisis. Well it's not actually Nick, it's his bistro in Leamington Spa. People keep mistaking it for a coffee shop and patisserie.

The main problem is that that's what it used to be - a delightful coffee shop serving lovely cakes in Leamington's trendy Regent Court. But that's all in the past.

What was once Frere Jacques, where people would pop in for a coffee and an indulgent cake or pastry, is now Caf Saint Jacques, a bistro, serving bistro meals in very pleasant, bistro surroundings. Please listen, for to quote the French Resistance character out of 'Allo 'Allo, "I will say this only once." Caf Saint Jacques is now a bistro - and a good one at that!

"I've been operating as a bistro since the end of last year but it is difficult to get the message out there. Many people are still looking at us as a coffee shop. That's okay during the day, footfall is good and when people realise we have changed they are quite happy to try out our new menu.

"The problem is in the evenings. People don't realise we are open. Footfall obviously drops dramatically once the stores have closed for the day and, because no-one realises we have changed, people aren't seeking us out. It's a bit of a Catch 22 situation, if we could get them here I'm sure they would come back and spread the word amongst their friends, but first we have to get them here," explains a slightly frustrated Nick.

It was easy to see his point. On the night we dined at Caf Saint Jacques there was just one other couple in as we arrived and we left the place empty.

Things have changed slightly for the better and since the clocks went forward to provide lighter evenings, Nick extended opening from three nights a week to five, closing only on Sunday and Monday.

The saddest thing about all this is that Leamington diners are missing a bit of a treat. Nick is actually running a very nice bistro, the menu is well put together, the food is good and the dcor (although Nick is planning some more refurbishments) was pleasing and unobtrusive - reds and golds for warmth - pictures, mirrors and uncluttered seating space for an airy, informal feel.

The only thing missing was atmosphere and I'm afraid Nick can't do too much about that without your help.

We nibbled at garlic bread and olives while we waited for our starters. Sue, my dining partner and very dear wife, went for carrot and coriander soup. Thick and wholesome with a good dose of coriander and a big swirl of fresh cream, it was a good start, bistro quality and, at £4.95, bistro priced.

I went for goat cheese and Parma ham salad and my only complaint was that there was too much! Good salad, tasty dressing and a huge portion of cheese. With my mind on what was to come I didn't finish it and would have been just as happy with a little more than half that portion - still you can't blame Nick for serving up good helpings.

Nick, with more than 25 years in the food service industry supplying hotels and restaurants, took over Frere Jacques just over two years ago. The business was part of a nationwide franchise but there were problems and last summer the franchise closed and Nick was left to think what he would do next.

At first he thought of maintaining the French theme and re-opening as a creperie, but his heart was in a bistro and so, in proper French fashion, he followed his heart.

Now, from morning to night, the caf has a French feel with free range scrambled eggs with artisan toasts, croissant with smoked salmon and cream cheese and croissant and baguette with jam, fruit juice and coffee all appearing on the breakfast selection.

A selection of baguettes all look interesting, you're even invited to come up with your own combinations, while French country pate, gallettes with various savoury fillings and crepes for the sweet-toothed amongst you, means Caf Saint Jacques has most options covered.

For our mains Sue went to the gallettes and chose one well stuffed with prawns, salmon and smoked haddock in a leek and garlic sauce. Very tasty, very filling and at 7.95 very good value for money. Once again the size of the portion was impressive and Sue struggled to finish it, though finish she eventually did - with a bit of help from yours truly.

I contemplated spicy lamb meatballs and beef bourguignon before opting for Aubrey Allen pork forerib in orange sauce with a hint of cinnamon, served on a bed of red cabbage with mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables.

The pork was perfect. Juicy, tender and flavoursome. The sauce was also good but I think Nick was once again guilty of being too generous. It didn't spoil the meal at all, you're not forced to eat it all, but I just think, with a sauce as sweet, about half as much, maybe a dash more, would have been perfect.

I finished the evening with crepes while Sue opted for a passion fruit delicacy that was lined up with many other pastries at the front counter. Nick has them specially made and Sue agreed they were certainly special.

A cup of coffee and a chat with Nick was all that was left to end a very enjoyable evening.

"I'm chefing at the moment and enjoying it, but I intend to get another chef in as soon as it is viable," says Nick. "I know it is just a case of being patient and working hard. If I keep the quality up the customers will come but, I admit, it is a tough job."

Well Nick, I don't know how many people actually take my advice but if anyone asks me where they can get a tasty meal in nice surroundings for a very reasonable price I shall certainly point them in your direction. I don't suggest you'll have to take on extra staff on account of my recommendations but every little helps and, for a bistro like this, I'm always happy to help.

For further details call 01926 832651

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