Style secrets of the French by Casilda Grigg
There is one steak restaurant in the capital that just about every French person gets misty-eyed about. It isn’t Argentine, British or American. There is no santa or pampa, no chop or shack in the title. And it has nothing to do with Gordon Ramsay, Mark Hix or Jamie Oliver.
It’s a French chain called Le Relais de Venise ‘L‘Entrecôte’ which was the brainchild (back in 1959) of a Frenchman called Paul Ginest de Saurs. Finding himself unable to shift the wine from his family château near Toulouse, he decided to open a restaurant in Paris. His idea was simple. There would be Venetian décor, waitresses dressed in maids’ outfits and no menu at all. Everybody would drink his unsold wine and eat the same thing: salad followed by steak frites.
In other words vegetarians would be screwed.
The concept proved to be a brainwave, not least because Paul hit on the idea of serving the steak with a secret sauce whose recipe would be as closely guarded as Coca Cola. Soon the cash registers were singing and people were queuing at the door (no bookings are taken) at his restaurant near Porte Maillot.
Confusingly Paul’s three children, Hélène, Henri and Marie-Paule, have carried on his formula unilaterally, setting up their own separate groups of restaurants (with subtly different names) all over the world. Hélène still runs the original one near Porte Maillot, and oversees three London operations in Marylebone, Canary Wharf and the City, and one in New York.
British restaurant critics have failed to fall in love with the concept, but the French in London rate L‘Entrecôte (as it’s widely known) highly, having met the same formula in Paris, Bordeaux and Geneva. ‘You know what you’re getting and the steak frites is good quality,’ says one woman. ‘I could happily drink the sauce on its own through a straw,’ says another.
They frequent the branch at the top of Marylebone Lane, which is in an area so jam-packed with French shops and cafés it could almost be Paris.
I went on a Thursday evening at 7.30pm.
Here’s what I made of it
*It’s very relaxing going to a restaurant where the only question is ‘How would you like your steak done?’
*My (rare) steak was well-flavoured, tender and perfectly cooked by French standards, underdone by British
*The fries were divine – thin, crisp, golden, slightly curly and served (like the steak) in two rounds
*The sauce didn’t quite live up to its mythical status but I still would have paid good money for the recipe
*A shared Vacherin du Relais (pictured left) from a 1970s-style dessert menu scored nuls points for looks but proved wickedly delicious (layers of meringue and ice cream topped with Chantilly cream doused in chocolate sauce)
*The polite (non-French) service though secretly we’d been hoping for a tussle with a rude French waiter
*The varied clientele. Behind us was a group of vicars on a night out, next to us a breathtakingly beautiful Pakistani couple (with American accents), opposite a woman with a fluorescent yellow stripe in her hair dining alone and reading The Spectator
*The fair pricing. We paid just under £90 (with cheese and a very drinkable bottle of Bordeaux Supérieur) which is probably good for the area. But it needn’t cost this much – salad + steak work out at £23 a head
The not so good
*Tables are barely a hand’s width apart
*The no-bookings policy. (We got off lightly and queued for just five minutes – but there was a tube strike that evening)
*The no-choice menu. What if your other half is veggie?
*The green salad is a little dreary despite its rather good (and very French) mustardy dressing
*The decor is that of a worn out Italian restaurant that’s had its heyday but perhaps that’s part of its charm
*After all that cheese, butter, wine and red meat (not to mention pudding) we worried we’d never sleep that night – we did but then we walked most of the way home
*The incongruous Italian décor is inspired by Venice, which means that even the lampshades have gondolas on them
*Waitresses are dressed in black and white maids’ outfits with undersized pinnies and skirts often hitched high. Think Lyons Corner House meets the Benny Hill Show
*The frites are taken so seriously, they’re served with silver salad servers
What’s in the secret sauce?
For what it’s worth we detected:
Butter – lots of it
Green herbs – possibly tarragon
Lemon – the waitress gave this one away
Wine vinegar – maybe just a hint
Salt and pepper
A further salty kick – possibly anchovy, possibly a condiment of some kind (Worcestershire sauce?)
Does L‘Entrecôte serve the best steak frites in London? I’ve had better elsewhere. But would I go again? Absolutely.
Le Relais de Venise ‘L‘Entrecôte’, 120 Marylebone Lane, London W1 (020 7486 0878). Meal for two, including a bottle of Bordeaux Supérieur, just under £90.