Le Relais de Venise L’Entrecote
590 Lexington Ave, New York NY 10022; map); (212) 758-3989; relaisdevenise.com
Service: Charmingly continental, handled exclusively by women in black uniforms accented with white.
Setting: Casual room: tiled floor, brightly colored table cloths, and murals of Venice pay homage to the restaurant's origins.
Compare to: Pretty unique (for now) but the most obvious choices might be Balthazar, Pastis, Artisanal, and Steak Frites
Must Haves: Not much choice here since there is only one option. For dessert try the vacherin du relais
Cost:$24 for salad, fries, and steak. Dessert $6.50
In 1959, Paul Gineste de Saurs purchased an Italian restaurant in Paris's 17th arrondissement near Porte Maillot and converted it into what would become an iconic chain of bistros patterned after Cafe de Paris in Geneva. He kept the name of the former restaurant, Le Relais de Venise, appending "Son Entrecôte" to better describe the menu which offers but a single dish: steak frites. The single location soon became two, and by the late 1960s, it splintered into three distinct chains based on the same formula, serving the same menu and run by de Saurs son and two daughters.
The concept is wildly popular in London and Paris, where long lines form outside of the various outposts. I am not sure you will see the same thing happening in the newly opened New York branch. Certainly if the restaurant was situated in Soho or the Meatpacking District it might garner that type of reaction, but in Midtown, located on a rather non-descript block amongst hotels and office buildings, I am not sure it's in quite the right neighborhood.
The lack of choice might also be a strike against the place, at least until New Yorkers can grasp the concept. It is not the only restriction that might be a cause for concern. The steak is offered blue, rare, medium or well—no medium rare, which is probably the most popular steak order. I am a black-and-blue man and found the blue order to be perfectly executed, but a couple next to me was somewhat perturbed. The steak comes slathered in a special sauce that is a closely guarded secret. Heavy on the butter, it reportedly incorporates blanched chicken livers, mustard, and thyme.
The steak arrives at the table, doused in the sauce, with French fries spilling out over the edge of the plate. If you are like me and used to eating enormous chops in steakhouses, you will find the serving to be quite small. It's probably the amount that nutritionists would recommend we eat, but it's not going to satisfy New Yorkers, at least not this one. Still, between the steak, salad, and fries you are getting a fair amount for $24. But as famed TV pitchman Billy Mays might say "wait, there's more."
Once you finish off your plate the server will appear with a tray bearing another equal portion of steak and the offer of more fries. The $24 looks like more of a deal when that happens.
The cut served is called L'Entrecôte. It was traditionally taken from the rib section, but is also refers to what is essentially a strip steak. Indeed the portion I sampled looked like a traditional strip with that distinct rectangular shape. As stated earlier, the steak was delivered perfectly blue with some pronounced hash marks, but despite the claim by the waitress that the beef is very marbled, it won't compare to USDA Prime. In fact, unless sliced very thin, it tends to be a bit tough as was the case with mine.
The beef is not especially flavorful; it is most assuredly not dry-aged, but the sauce compensates for this to a degree adding buttery, herbaceous notes. The fries are decent, although not amazing as one might hope. The salad that starts things off is merely adequate. I would be remiss if I did not mention the house wine, which was, in fact, the raison d'etre of the restaurant in the first place. The de Saurs family owns vineyards and the restaurant was originally acquired to provide an outlet for the wine that flows from their estate. To this day, that same wine is produced exclusively for the chain. It is a decent red, well-priced at $20 per bottle, and pairs perfectly with the restaurant's lone entree.
Service is handled by an exclusively female staff, dressed in what Americans might recognize as French maid outfits. They are efficient in a charmingly continental way, but with a little bit of local flavor. Almost any item on the menu will be the waitress's "favorite," which, when it comes to the main course, is obviously a moot point.
But with the myriad of dessert options, almost a tyranny of choice, you will see that they must have very sweet teeth indeed, for almost anything you ask about will be deemed a must-have. Trust me, they're not. Profiteroles come with such a dense blanketing of chocolate, to the exclusion of all other ingredients. A phallic-looking vacherin du relais comes similarly drenched in chocolate. Fortunately the meringue and hazelnut ice cream manage to assert themselves through the deluge.
I don't think that Balthazar or Artisinal or the legions of traditional steakhouses will have much to worry about the arrival of Le Relais de Venise. The steak here does not strive for the lofty heights of the cost-no-object prime beef around the city, but what it does offer is a decent steak at a very good price in a quaintly continental setting. I'm not sure it will necessarily succeed in its current location, but I would not be surprised to see the restaurant serve as inspiration for a similar concern in a neighborhood with a more bustling nightlife.