Imagine going into a restaurant, it’s beautiful, old timey, heavy and light all at the same time, and the server says to you… "Have you dined with us before? We only have one thing on the menu. Is that ok?”
I guess it has to be ok… I had already touched the silverware and unfolded the napkin. And it was ok. I knew what I was in for before I even walked through the door.
My foodie friend was in town and we planned a lunch; to indulge in one of our favorite pastimes and it was the perfect time for him to meet my boyfriend. He and I chatted back and forth, brainstorming where to eat our lunch, somewhere we could talk and be satisfied. We finally decided on one of the places he put out, a place he had already been and really enjoyed, Le Relais de Venise -L’Entrecote. He prefaced the suggestion with “You wanna do steak frites?” and I followed with affirmation and then he continued “They only do steak frites…” And upon checking the website, the fact was confirmed, and I decided it would be an excellent foodie (ad)venture.
Of course, even with the single option, (well, the choices only lay in how you want your meat cooked, what kind of wine would accompany your meal, and what dessert would tempt you most) there are so many other things to consider when defining a food adventure…Ambiance, service, quality…
We went for lunch, so there was a lot of chatter and clatter, but we hit the tail end, they stop serving lunch at about 2:30. Even then it was busy until the last few bites of our desserts, some people rushing, while others lingered with wine and pommes frites. There were a lot of people but it was not overwhelming and unruly, just jovial.
Like the website mentions, the restaurant was decorated to mimic the original restaurant in Paris, with the feeling of a French brasserie; close tables, booths and chairs, tablecloths topped with white butcher paper; refinement and familiarity at the same time. The walls were lined with colorful paintings as well as mirrors. There was a heavy brassy elegance to the place, just nonchalant enough to be lunch. The white paper becomes a note pad for the server, a way to organize and set the scene for when the steak comes out.
It almost felt like a different place and time.
The staff was efficient and fast paced without being brusque or rude. Our server kindly explained the “menu,” like it was something new and exciting to her, not like she had said it 50 times in the last hour. She really wanted us to understand, like our experience there depended on it.
She was super sweet, and friendly, and by the end of the meal when the crowd was thinning out, we even got to know her a little bit. There was no stuffiness about her and nor some of the other staff we encountered, which I was afraid of, especially with a strong brand like that of Relais de Venise.
Everything was perfect.
The starter salad was simple and green, nothing lavish or even too exciting. The dressing however gave it an extreme kick, spicy with mustard. It was hot and opened up the airways like spice tends to do, preparing us for the delicious steak frites to come.
Unfortunately there are so many ways to ruin a good piece of meat and obliterate a steak, but the 50 years of science and consistency has really paid off for Relais de Venise. The meat was cooked exactly to order, a rarity. It was tender, and the quality was obvious. As they note, importantly, half of your steak is brought out at first, piping hot and ready to be demolished (politely). The other portion (about a third they say) is kept warm and waiting. Magically enough this other part was still in fact warm when we received it and it was not over cooked either, absolutely consistent to the first shift.
The pommes frites are never ending, each batch as warm and crisp as the one before. Each fry is also uniform, conforming to the original requisites of the pommes frites in the Paris location, in measure and cooking style. As usual golden fries compliment red meat perfectly, creating a casual meat and potato meal.
And what throws the meal in a different direction, is the secret sauce that tops the perfect meat. It is some mysterious amalgamation of herbs, spices, condiments and fats. The sauce is not like an herbed butter that comes as a garnish on so many steaks, nor is it like a thin, transparent dipping sauce. It is thick, lively, decadent and a bright green. Though the sauce came on the entire steak the meal was not monotonous, each bite brought different notes and complexities out in the secret topping.
And the solo main item raised many questions for me. How is it beneficial if the restaurant has one single option? What does it say about the restaurant or the people that go there?
Even before we got there, even before the day planned for lunch, and I had studied the restaurant website, I knew that this was something highly specialized and time tested. Relais de Venise is a brand not just a restaurant. It is a high-end chain, in France, the UK, and New York City. The original restaurant was opened in Paris more than 50 years ago, by Paul Gineste de Saurs, a way for a vineyard to showcase its wine. It was initially, not about the food or the grand experience of cuisine, but the restaurant featured a dish that would appeal to all kinds of French people. It was all set up to advertise and spread the family’s brand of wine. Creating a restaurant was just a base point, another way to bring people together to enjoy the wine. With limited knowledge of restaurant operation and business, M de Saurs kept the interior decoration if the Italian restaurant he had bought, to create his platform, and also added a sign with “L’Entrecote.”
Despite only offering its guests one sole main course option, the restaurant flourished and thrived in Paris, and has become an enterprise, spreading. It is a brand and people who go to the restaurant can expect amazing quality and a great meal every time; there are no questions and seldom inconsistencies. There is a certain level of quality and standards that are connected to the name, so it is not only necessarily about options and being avant garde. This is something I greatly appreciate. There are far too many times that I have gone to the same restaurant, and experienced varied experience and performance. Sometimes surprise and mystery are great and cherished in a meal, but there is some comfort in knowing what to expect.
This restaurant seems like it is from a different time, as it is. It has remained in tact and unmoved by transient trends and a foodie desire to challenge what is comfortable. Le Relais de Venise-L’Entrecote has subsisted and survived on its static characteristic and charm, something that will truly last through the ages.