We'd seen people queuing for this place before and the usual thoughts come to mind: wow, it must be really good, but we had never fancied queuing because it's no fun and we can only imagine disappointment at the end. Tonight, with snow falling, we thought that we had the best chance to find the restaurant empty and it seemed like a good idea. Most of the tables inside are tables for two and if you are a party of four, they push two tables together. If you're not a party of four, the table next to you is merely three inches away so it feels like you're a party of four, or rather six because the table on the other side is also just three inches away. In this sense at least, it was genuinely Parisian.
We hadn't been there before so we didn't entirely know what to expect but we had checked the odd blog post so had some idea at least. We were quite surprised though when after just one minute of being seated we were asked if we were ready to order. Errr, what's the offering? Walnut salad with mustard vinaigrette and steak and fries, no choice. Okay, we guess we're ready to order. Actually, ready to order means: how would you like your steak? Medium rare please. Medium or rare, they don't do medium rare. One question only and we even got that wrong.
Within another minute of actually placing the order, the salad arrives (how did they know we we're going to order salad? oh yeah, it's the only thing on the menu). The salad is okay, but it's just a walnut salad with dressing, the ingredients of which can be easily bought at the Waitrose down the road and as equally assembled. Looking now at a blog review dated April 2009 the starter is still walnut salad with mustard dressing - has this ever changed? I'm pretty sure if I looked back further the answer would be no. I'm still perplexed, the steak must be really good.
The sliced baguette I have to say was warm and fresh and well enjoyed. When I finished the salad, they removed the knife and fork from my plate for me to reuse with the main course which seemed slightly penny pinching.
But what's then slightly odd with regard to the main course is that it's brought out of the kitchen on two 'silver' trays (one tray of steak and one of fries) with the fries tray resting on the steak. Then in one of three separate plating areas in the restaurant itself, they plate the food before bringing it to you. Since the plating is not done at the table for show or indeed in any broader theatre, it seems somewhat quirky to go to this extra effort but I guess that's how it was in the original and that's how it has to be here. Maybe it's to stop the waitresses becoming thoroughly bored (strangely, there are no waiters, only waitresses).
Credit where credit's due, the fries were really good, thin, crispy and quintessentially French frites. What to make of the steak though? It's swimming in their secret sauce which is by web consensus a herb butter sauce. The restaurant wont let on though because it's secret. It's not like they've just invented champagne or something, it's a sauce, it's not that special, it's like going round to a friends for dinner and being polite and asking how they made the sauce only to be told it's a secret: we don't really care that much and realistically, we're not rushing home to start cooking batches of it because bernaise on the side is better. Oh, and that's another three words they don't understand, on the side. If it's not poured all over, it wouldn't be so much fun right? It took the waitress several journeys with the spoon to ensure that all the sauce from the silver tray made it to my plate. Steak flavours are completely drowned out.
I guess I have to say it's us who don't get it because by now, the restaurant is 90% full and in the next 15 minutes, it is highly likely that a queue will form in the snowy outdoors of people wanting to eat steak smothered in secret sauce. We feel lost, we just don't get it, like grandparents don't get Twitter.
Strangely there's about 18 choices for dessert though opting for none is probably best. I had a peach melba that could also have been better purchased at Waitrose (in fact, I wish it had been). The peaches looked as though they'd come straight out of a Del Monte can of tinned fruit.
We didn't take our camera because we were not intending to blog it (mid market steak and chips right?), but we came away thinking Le Relais de Venice is too strange not to. Mind you, you'd need a better camera than the one we have to make the food look good here, smothered as it is by a dirty pea green sauce.
This is not in fact a restaurant, this is a production line with three courses dispensed in less than an hour. I would have loved to see the kitchen because I wonder if it has any chefs in at all, really. All you need is a timer. The salad doesn't need a chef, the fries don't need a chef and since they only do steaks (rare/medium/well), you don't really need a chef for that either. Desserts are presumably bought in en masse.
The waitress didn't ask if everything was okay with our meals because there's really no need to. The restaurant seats around 120 people, and let's say it turns tables three times a night (in fact it's probably a lot more), it's serving the same meal over 2,000 times a week, the very same meal 100,000 times a year. There's no need to enquire if the food is okay, if there's something wrong, it's you because everyone else is happy, it's not the food because there's nothing that can go wrong in serving identical production line meals.
It's a genius idea from the owner: no temperamental chefs to deal with, no lost table time as people 'um and ah' over the menu and no food waste. No time wasted in menu development either. The waitresses don't even have to try to sell yesterday's left overs as today's special, it's genius. I can only imagine that the restaurant owner was hospitalised with laughter when he realised that not only would people pay for this but they'd even queue for an hour in the cold to eat there. This is essentially an upmarket MacDonalds but with a more limited menu. At MacDonalds, you can at least ask for a burger without sauce on and they'll oblige. Here, you feel that no one is authorised to withhold the sauce; the answer would almost certainly be no.
My mind boggles that in the Marylebone area where restaurants themselves are elbow to elbow, people choose to come to a place with no choice. Are people just so overwhelmed with constant stimulus that they simply want the prospect of choice taken away? There is a queue, clearly it's us.
I've eaten two meals this year that I just couldn't get my head around, one was El Bulli, the other is here at Le Relais de Venise, but unfortunately, for two very different reasons.
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