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.
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.