Saturday, 14 November 2009

Please Sir, Can I Have Some More?

I am not sure how to define moreishness, or what makes food moreish. Is moreish food good or just moreish? Should you draw dividing lines between food that is pleasurable whilst eating, but unpleasant immediately afterwards, like MSG-loaded Chinese (which I have now turned my back on), or a Big Mac, and food that is perhaps less immediately rewarding but which you don’t have to endure a seizure to enjoy.

And so with this in mind, we went last night for our three-monthly fix of that sweet, sweet horse. Or sauce. Le Relais de Venise, or L'EntrecĂ´te as it is colloquially known, is a group of 5 or 6 French bistros with a true USP: a secret sauce, the recipe for which is the most guarded French item of the 20th Century. There is no menu. Everyone eats the same thing in a kind of upmarket overpriced post-ironic school canteen kind of way. We went to the (London) original, on Marylebone Lane, but they have recently decided to branch out, and have opened in the City also (I hear this one has had a few teething problems so if you are thinking about trying, stick to Marylebone). Also worth noting is the fact that you can’t book, which means there is normally a bit of a wait, however much like Tayyabs a couple of weeks ago, they don’t hang about in here, so the wait is not normally more than 30 minutes.

We ate early last night due to her new hours. By early, I mean most Northerners still hadn’t cranked up the microwave for their tea by the time we sat down. I think there was a group of Spaniards just finishing lunch as we ordered. But fortunately for us, there was no queue.

The only specification you give to the quaintly-dressed French waitresses is how you would like your steak cooked. So once this had been done (a scribbled R next to me and M next to her – Alan Yau nicked the idea), our starters arrived. To start with, they serve a limp green salad with walnuts and mustard vinaigrette, and some defrosted baguette. They must sprinkle a bit of the crack that they put in the steak sauce in the dressing also, as despite the unimaginative leaves, you find yourself licking the plate dry and scraping the average bread around it. This initial feeding frenzy over, they then hurriedly bring you your first helping of steak frites. The steak is thinly sliced, cooked exactly to our order, and is drenched with the secret sauce. The sauce is very good, which it clearly needs to be. It is buttery and herby, with tarragon, shallots and butter the standout flavours. The meat is fine. Nothing more. As it is so thinly sliced, you lose the satisfying juicy cuts that make steak just a staple food, but it done to ensure that every sliver is coated with their million dollar sauce. The chips also are just ok. Fairly greasy and a little bit McDonalds-esque, they satisfy the main credentials of the rest of the meal, that of greedy scoffable moreishness.

They smartly serve you half your steak and chips with your first helping (keeping the canteen feel going) and then as soon as there is enough room on your plate, they come and pile on the remaining half. The chips stay nice and crispy as a result and the portion is so generous that even I struggle to finish it.

So all in all, the meal is a pleasurable and familiar experience. There are a number of frustrations with the place. They definitely take the simplicity thing a little far – there’s no butter for the bread (a constant irritation for me), a few vegetables might add something to the main course and of course, the bill always manages to add to the already ill feeling you have once you’ve finished. Dinner for two normally comes to about 50 or 60 quid, once you have had a glass of wine from their short but classically French wine list, and some nice vanilla ice cream to satisfy any last morsels of remaining greed. But even knowing all this, I will return. They have cracked the formula it seems. Their costs are low, to match their variety, but the dining room is full from 6.30 to 10.30, and with 140-odd covers changing over at least 3 or 4 times over the evening, you don’t have to be a Euro banker (of which there are a fair few present) to work out that these sauce peddlers know a thing or two about making money. 

Le Relais de Venise

120 Marylebone Lane

020 7486 0878 

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