On first appearances it might seem that Menuwatch has gone a bit postmodern. Over the past 25 years we've covered menus with vast choice, menus with multi-continental choice, menus in museums, menus in airports, menus in art studios and even a menu in someone's front room (the Michelin-starred Harry's Place in Grantham). Now, for the first time, we're covering a menu that isn't really a menu. Well, not in the proper sense, because Le Relais de Venise doesn't offer diners a main-course choice. Ever.
Based on the famous Parisian counterpart, its only main course is entrecôte steak, chips and secret sauce, with a green salad with walnuts and mustard vinaigrette for starter, priced at £19. Before the dessert course a customer won't even see a menu.
The simplicity of the concept is misleading. As Mourad Dine, managing director of the two London Le Relais de Venise sites (the first opened in Marylebone in 2005) points out: "Lots of restaurants have tried this concept over the years but have closed after six months because they haven't got it right." Le Relais de Venise, however, now totals five sites - the original 50-year-old site in Paris, two franchises in London, plus a franchise in Barcelona and one in New York. Despite the bad reviews from the critics when the Marylebone site opened - many predicting it wouldn't last a year - it now does about 2,500 covers a week.
The offering is very well sourced. Meat is entrecôte cut - sirloin, if you will - and comes from Donald Russell in Scotland, beef supplier to the Queen. Potatoes are hand-chipped on site using Bintje potatoes from France, as per the Parisian restaurant. The sauce recipe is as closely guarded a secret as Coca-Cola, with only Hélène Godillot, owner of the original Le Relais, and a handful of others privy to the actual ingredients and quantities.
Dine says there is no margin for error. "There are no other dishes to hide behind. It is the same menu meal-in, meal-out. If that is not right once, then those diners won't come back for it again. Every day we are tasting, looking at the chips and the quality, looking at the quality of the meat and the grilling," he says. "It might be very easy for a guy on a grill to lose focus, so we train and look after our staff to make sure that won't happen."
The whole dining experience is meticulously choreographed. Once diners are seated, one of the 15 waitresses on the floor will explain the menu, ask how customers would like their steak cooked, take a wine order from the limited, good-value list, and reappear moments later with the lettuce and walnut salad with mustard vinaigrette. Ten minutes later the first helping of perfectly cooked steak - "There can be no compromise ever, or we lose the customer" says Dine - arrives.
When this diminishes, the second helping arrives. The reasoning behind two helpings? "Often when you have steak frites, by the time you are halfway through the meat is cold and the chips soggy," says Dine. "This way the second half of the meal is as enjoyable as the first." It also means that if you don't actually listen to the waitress at the start, you get a cracking surprise as you polish off what you assume is your lot for the main course.
The whole meal takes no more than 45 minutes, making it ideal for a lunch break or hassle-free dinner. It also means the restaurant can turn tables with remarkable speed, explaining how the 170-seat City restaurant is currently doing 1,200 covers a week.
The brasserie vibe, with bright coloured tablecloths and paper table covers, a minimum of hassle from waitresses - who leave you to pour your own wine - and the packed space all add to the atmosphere of a quick, good-value Parisian eaterie.
The effort put into dessert is indicative of the attention Le Relais de Venise puts into its offering. The 18 dishes on the menu - the profiteroles (£4.95), the sorbets (£4.50), the semifreddo (£4.95) - are all prepared from scratch by the four-strong kitchen team.
It's only when you delve into the heart of the operation at Le Relais that you realise the concentrated focus and attention to detail front and back of house needed to turn such a high number of tables with such a limited offering.
The lazy restaurateur might see speed as the main draw of a steak restaurant, compromising quality in a bid to get everything out in a rush. The fussy might lose sight of the time frame in a bid to get everything spot-on. Le Relais manages both these demands, turning out 170 steaks every 50 minutes of a busy lunch.
Also on the menu
â- Vegetarian option of green salad with mustard vinaigrette topped with walnuts, frites, a selection of cheeses and dessert, £19
â- Le sorbet Á la framboise, £4.50
â- Le sorbet au cassis, £4.50
â- Le sorbet au marc de Champagne, £4.50
â- Le sorbet Á la mangue, £4.50
â- La glace au chocolat ou vanille, £4.50
Le Relais de Venise 2002, bottle £13.95/glass £3.95
Blend 55 - Bordeaux 2003, £16.95/£4.50
Haut-Sarpe Vintage 2002, £45
Sauvignon Blanc 2003, £16.95/£4.50
By Tom Vaughan