Monday, 13 July 2009

Le Relais de Venise

Years ago, in my days on the other side of the kitchen door, I worked with the most remarkable man. Scott had been running top-flight restaurants since the age of seventeen, and – at any given moment – he could tell you everything about every diner in a hundred-seater restaurant. Scott would know, to the millilitre, how much soup Grandma on table 13 had left in her bowl: when calculated over her average speed of eating (estimated to the nearest decimal point from fifty yards), this would give an estimated time of completion so precise that he could warn the chef, glide out to the table as Grandma set down her spoon, top up her wine and glide back to collect the main courses as they hit the pass.

The chefs loved Scott: no longer would they have incompetents like us calling for main courses only to leave them sitting, cooling, while the mothers’ meeting on table 12 picked at their Caesar salads. Grandma – and the mothers’ meeting – loved him too: whenever they needed something he would magically appear at their elbow. Almost single-handedly he transformed our restaurant from a provincial hotel dining room to a whizz-bang operation: I have never before or since felt the adrenalin buzz of a busy restaurant on a Saturday night running with surgical precision.

The quality of the service is crucial to a successful restaurant: from the simple delivery of plates and cutlery at the appropriate time to the obsequious attentions of the finest Michelin maitre d’, the skill and charm of the staff is what sets apart the joy of restaurant dining from even the finest of home cooking. Or so I thought.

The Relais de Venise, off Old Broad Street in the heart of the City, is the London incarnation of a Parisian institution. The original Relais de Venise, near Porte Maillot in the 17th arrondissement, was established in the late fifties as a traditional bistro offering a no-choice menu of salad and steak frites; the London Relais follows an identical model, offering only entrecote in their own ‘secret sauce’. So far, so good: a simple formula built on the foundations of steak and chips.

I have written before on these pages of the perils of simplicity: at its best, the guiding principles of simple craft can produce the finest possible results, but if badly handled the lack of ostentation can expose weaknesses that might otherwise be obscured. The Relais largely avoids the potential pitfalls of its formula: the steak is superb, fries decent – although our late lunchtime may have rendered the oil older than might have been desirable – and the house wine excellent. What could possibly upset such a blueprint for success? Two words (predictable, now): the staff.

The staff at the Relais looked as if they had been drafted en masse from central casting. Our table was served by at least ten different waitresses over the course of our meal, although as they all looked exactly the same it may have been many more: I suspect there is a revolving door on the way to the kitchen that simply spits out the next on the production line when there is a plate to be cleared. Each order – whether for wine or simply more bread – had to be communicated through at least two waitresses and confirmed by a third, and ordering our desserts (the only point at which the understandably complicating factor of a menu was introduced) was a communications minefield rendered impassable by a certain lack of Polish on our side.

Strangely, though, it didn’t matter: there’s something about a fine steak that will render a man, for a moment, uncritical. So, for perhaps the first time in my life – and probably, if reason reasserts itself, the last – my criticisms were shelved in favour of an amused appreciation of the triumph of a dead cow over every inadequacy that we can throw at it: vegetarians would hate the place.

Le Relais de Venise
5 Throgmorton St, London, EC2N 2AD
020 7638 6325

Food: 8
Drink: 7
Service: 3
Atmosphere: 6
Total: 24