Monday, 28 June 2010

Le Relais de Venise, Marylebone


To say my hopes were not high for my meal at Le Relais de Venise would be an understatement. Every single person I knew who had been there before, to a man, warned me against it. Every blog post I read traumatised with lurid tales of appalling service, poor food and a depressing rush to franchise. The consensus appeared to be overwhelming - only bad things will happen at Le Relais de Venise, and I would be well advised to stay away.



But here I was in the Marylebone branch, being ushered past rows of empty seats to a corner of the restaurant so cramped that it necessitated the removal of the entire table every time anyone needed to go to the loo. The seating arrangements, the paper tablecloths and, of course, the menu itself were (I was told) stubbornly "authentic" facsimiles of the original Parisian restaurant, which is apparently so popular people queue around the block. I'm not quite sure I subscribe to the belief that if a restaurant works somewhere once it will work many times anywhere else - certainly some concepts travel well but for every Nando's there's a Palm Steakhouse, and you ignore local preferences and ingredients at your peril - but in fairness to Le Relais, it did feel genuinely Parisian inside if you ignored the accents of the customers and the friendliness of the waitresses.



You start at Le Relais with a green salad with walnuts. You have to - there's no choice; it comes as part of the set menu, so you'd better like walnuts in your salad as your only alternative is not to eat it at all. It's another "feature" of the Paris original which is either charmingly unpretentious or authentic at the expense of practicality, depending on your point of view. Personally, I thought it was pretty good, well seasoned and generously dressed and with nicely bruised lettuce. I know there are plenty of people that prefer pristine crispy lettuce in their salad, and this is perfectly fine as well, but bashing the leaves about a bit just generates a bit more flavour and allows the dressing to do its work more easily. I wish more places would do it.


The main event is the sliced sirloin (sorry, entrecôte) steak in "famous" sauce (the French must have a very low threshold on things they regard as famous) with fries. The fries, first of all, were excellent - crispy and piping hot and golden brown, second only to those that came with my burger at Bar Boulud as the best I've had in London. I have no idea what the beef was like as it was smothered in the famous sauce; I'm guessing it wasn't particularly top-quality but then I wasn't expecting Hawksmoor steak from a £20 set menu. But at the risk of blowing what tiny scraps of foodie credibility I ever possessed and being ridiculed by fellow beef lovers, do you know what? I actually liked it. Although the protein did little more than provide texture to the sauce, it did this pretty well, and the sauce itself had an interesting, herby, meaty flavour that lifted the dish if not into anything extraordinary then at least something worth coming back to. After the (pretty tiny) initial portion had been devoured, our waitress showed up again with seconds - a confidence trick perhaps to make you believe you were eating more than you were, but I can only tell you it worked. I felt like I'd had enough food, and even refused an offered third portion of fries.


Desserts continued in a similar vein, nothing exceptional but tasty enough. Two little lemon tarts had a thin pastry and smooth citrusy curd, and a friend's crème brûlée was vanilla-y and rich and topped with a delicate sugar crust. As good as you could expect really for £4.50 a pop, especially the brûlée which so few of even the top places ever get right.



I shouldn't really have to apologise for enjoying a meal, but such is the strength of feeling about Relais that I had to double check everything that happened last Friday evening just in case I was missing something. It's not a world-class restaurant by any means, and it's not quite the budget choice that it pretends to be either - the total bill, once a nice bottle of £25 Corbière and those desserts had been added on, came to over £40 each - but you'd have to be made of stone not to enjoy sliced tender steak and crispy fries soaked in a herb butter sauce, and far from the Parisien-style sullen service I had every right to expect (mainly thanks to Oliver Thring's brilliant review), our waitress was efficient and charming. So I'm terribly sorry everyone, but I enjoyed my meal at Le Relais de Venise l'Entrecôte, and I'd quite happily go back. So there.

7/10

I was invited to review Le Relais de Venise, but as the staff didn't know I was coming and I only "came out" after we'd finished our meal, I think this experience is representative so I've scored it anyway.

Le Relais de Venise on Urbanspoon

19 comments:

catty said...

I actually really like the food at Le Relais de Venise.. I just found the portion size too small even after two serves but that could just be that I'm a huge pig :) The snotty green sauce looks odd but tastes great and the beef is delicious too!

Lizzie said...

Well I sat on the other end of the spectrum; I thought it was a rip-off. Ok, it may have been £20 set menu but they sliced the steak thinly, fanned it out on the plate so that it looked like more, and turbo-loaded us on fries (which were admittedly great) so it felt like you're getting a great deal.

As for holding the other half of the steak back (ooh! Four whole slices!) I bet if it was all one lump it would be smaller than the size of my fist.

At around £50 a head including wien I didn't think it was especially good value.

Andy K said...

The one near Bank provides a similar experience. Reliable, maybe slightly dull but a consistent and pleasant experience.

There seem to be a few places that get panned by critics but end up with their own fan club later down the line. Bob Bob Ricard, Roast and that Torode place in Spitalfields spring to mind in addition to Le Relais de Venise.

I guess such places need to withstand the initial critical onslaught long enough to establish a reputation via word-of-mouth, at which point they'll be fine. I guess you just have to hope that the good places that get maligned in this way manage to survive that long.

Marina said...

Didn't know this place was so controversial! It was recommended to me by several people, and I really liked the concept - it takes all that decision-making time out of the equation and lets you focus on the company you're eating with. The sauce and the fries are terrific and I appreciate the meat isn't the best, but it is a 20 quid set meal after all.

Gregory said...

A good review against a tide of critical comment.

I love the concept and whilst I am yet to darken the door here, I have enjoyed the same menu at l'entrecote in Toulouse and Nantes.

An American in London said...

I didn't have the impression that Le Relais gets trashed for serving bad food. I went in January because the New York Times's Sam Sifton had given the Manhattan location a rave review - and those don't come along very often.

My issue - like Lizzie - was that there wasn't enough steak! And we also paid just over 40 quid a person, all in, so on the whole, not good value for what amounted to a lot of fries and special sauce.

Ollie said...

Nice review and thanks for the link. But yes, I don't agree at all. Complete rip-off, rubbish service, pisspoor concept and horrible product. Perhaps the one in Paris is different, but what began as a little charming idea is now a garish, greedy international brand. You get better and cheaper steak elsewhere.

Eva Lai said...

by the way, what's the 'to a man' thing about?

Chris said...

Lizzie/Ollie: I agree it's not great value, but I couldn't help enjoying it. Maybe it was just the chips.

Eva: It just means 'every one of them'. Bit of a sexist phrase perhaps but that's the English language for you...

Hugh Wright said...

I was wondering, right up to the very end, what on earth had compelled you to visit a restaurant which you'd been so roundly advised against! No need at all to apologise for liking it, but absolutely nothing you've said makes me feel at all minded to try it. I have to agree with Lizzie that this sounds like a dreadful rip-off and an egregiously arrogant premise for a restaurant.

You say in their defense '...but this is a £20 set menu' - well, so's Bar Boulud, and as I recall you were *genuinely* enthusiastic about that experience; I didn't detect any real love for this one!

Krista said...

I'm pretty okay with La Relais de Venise. It does what it says on the tin. Who are all the downers online rallying against it? Is it my first port of call when I want some steak? No. But do I send tourists there every so often when they're looking for something a bit "different"? Yes.

Regarding the price...it is all you can eat. They're not going to charge peanuts for that.

Mark said...

The beef is from Donald Russell, who aren't bad. I have two ribeyes from them in the fridge for tonight that exhibit awesome marbling. But at £20 and real choices it really is a place to get your chat on, and like Marina says, focus on the company you are with. This is a great place to take non foodie friends I think.

Lizzie - In terms of actual healthy eating and portions, a fist sized portion of protein is actually considered perfect. However, the amount of fries they tend to push is not.

Chris said...

Hugh: Sure it's not brilliant, and it's not Bar Boulud, but it's.... alright. I didn't have any major issues with it, and hence 7/10. You can do worse, basically.

Lizzie said...

Mark - with all due respect, I don't go to restaurants to eat healthily. I go to eat well.

dasilvajums said...

ok no apologies from me, when i want a cheap faceful of fries and steak this is a no brainer for me. I really like it, yes the steak isnt amazing quality- at £20 for the meal it was never going to be, but there is loads of meat, and loads of chips, i can never finish mine!
This isn't to say I dont love the better steak joints in town, but this has its place- at the end of a very drunken evening, when all i want to do is eat and talk to my friends!

Alex said...

Heated debate - how interesting.

I think I agree with both sides, it was a bit bogus but fun like some bogus things are. Regarding price, there are better deals (if you get there before the dinner rush you can spend less on the 3 course set supper at Galvin a block away) but the chips are truly excellent (as we all know, hard to find) and the profiteroles I had to follow were fresh and crispy and stuffed with excellent Vanilla ice-cream.

Is it possible to enjoy being disappointed? There must be a German word for it. I had that feeling when, promised "all you can eat, they bring you a second portion", instead they present you with a little plate so that it looks full and you feel like Gulliver. I was narked but amused, and applauded the energetic capitalism of the salesmen.

Anonymous said...
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Chris said...

Anonymous (aren't they always?): Thanks for letting me know. I'm sure your hair is lovely.

Miss Eva Lai said...

waaaaaahhhhhh I miss home ma! It's nice to walk around and here it's a whole load of chaos... 'hot fuss'... oh we're moving offices in a week so I get to decorate my new workplace, why don't I put you next to Earl of Home to cheer myself up,, on my board and add some Lords to the picture? Haha! Once pictures go out on the net you can't do much about how they're used... ruthless! Oh what's the strange talk on hairstyles... no matter what it looks like, along with the Earl it helps the 950 years of grief upon my 2 shouders (ancient rights, my ancient rights...)

Sorry Chris, totally irrelevant. But really, I miss home