‘You can’t sit down until your whole party is here,’ declares the manageress, legs splayed like a pair of compasses. The dining room is a forest of unoccupied tables, but I’ve been backed against the wall with eight other people who dared to turn up one diner short. That’s how they do it in the original au 17ème, so that’s how they do it here, and in Marylebone and presently – God help us – in Bahrain. Paul Gineste de Saurs, who might have been French, opened the first Relais in 1959. Food to him being less important than wine, he opted to serve everyone the same meal: green salad with walnuts, followed by entrecôte with frites and a ‘secret’ sauce. Puddings were manageable and brief: ice cream, crème brûlée, cheese. The Parisians loved it, and still queue round the block.
The quirks of the original evolved by dint of circumstance. I find it hard to imagine that on that first day half a century ago, people were prevented from sitting down until all their friends had shown up, or that they weren’t allowed to book. Such rules can only be imposed when there are customers to justify them. It’s wildly irritating to have to stand before a load of sullen, empty seats. In fact, I won’t stand for it at all - and certainly not here, in the purported financial district. To reach this restaurant, you practically wade through slaughtered bankers; the area has suffered tens of thousands of job losses in recent months, with more likely. ‘You’re losing business!’ roars a fat City grandee at the maîtresse d’ when she refuses him a drink. He’s right. Give us a glass of wine, let us sit down: you’ll add to your margins and we won’t feel so unwelcome.
It all leaves a bad taste, this slavish devotion to the original. We’re not in Burger King, and they should feel able to tweak things. When de Saurs bought the first site, he couldn’t afford to change the street sign or the décor, so the name and interior stuck. The walls here are therefore smeared with preordained, garish scenes from the Carnevale. To me, they look jarring and bogus. There’s something almost Amish about this relentless, reactionary adherence to custom. I see some value in a menu of austere brevity, but a restaurant shouldn’t behave as if it had a huge customer base when it palpably doesn’t.
So much for context. Now to food. It stands to reason that if you’re only serving salad and steak, both have to be damn near faultless, and these aren’t. A slick dressing drowns and overpowers the leaves, which are garnished with a pinch of walnut dispensed with such scant generosity it might have been beluga. The lettuce is shapely and clean, though, the vinaigrette well emulsified with that quintessential French mingling of sharp and sweet. The chips are just about OK, hot and bronzed, though with more than a trace of greasiness. Steak is perfectly rare – and it’s good to be offered it blue – salted long ago, puckishly animal, and tender as a lover. But it wasn’t hung long enough, and lacks the deep, drawled savour of beef at its best. Passable, too, is that famous sauce, with an unusual, chameleon flavour. It’s hard to be sure what lies in its murk: a backdrop of herbs definitely including tarragon, some garlic and mustard, perhaps some anchovies, and without question, loads of butter. In all, it’s marginally better than the average steak in London. House red comes with Relais-branded labels and is a sound, oaky claret, not at all greedily priced at £14.
Purely for this review, I finish with a squidgy heap of standard profiteroles: dainty puffs of choux, squirted with soft, thick vanilla, and slathered in chocolate. Lucy has two very short tarts: a decent and not-oversweet lemon and a disappointing ‘cherry’, the grey, morbid little balls a pallid insult to the fruit. Perhaps it’s her fault for ordering them in February, but I don’t think they belong anywhere near a menu at this time of year.
I waddle home swollen and not quite satisfied. It’s good-ish steak, I suppose, which more or less lives up to the gimmicky one-trick menu. Finding better and cheaper, though, is easy enough in this town. There’s a 20 percent discount during the opening months, and without it, the bill would have topped 70 quid - a long way from reasonable. Such greed, though, rankles much less than something else: throughout the meal, more than half the tables remain resolutely empty.
Le Relais de Venise, 5 Throgmorton Street, London EC2N
Tel. +44 (0)20 7638 6325
See on the TFYS Map
Three-course lunch for two, excluding drinks and service, normally costs £47.90; £56.14 all-in including a bottle of house red, a 20% opening month discount and 10% service.