Life is full of the unexpected, particularly when traveling. Sometimes it is nice then, to fall back on the familiar, the predictable, on the oh-so-reliable that – regardless of the frazzle of jet lag, long lines at passport control or rainy weather – you can rediscover your own spot of sunshine with a fine meal.
Such is Relais de l’Entrecote in Paris for me. This restaurant is so predictable that all the angst-producing variables of dining have been removed – there is no menu. They serve only one dish – steak-frites. (And it is the best in Paris, if not the world.)
You are greeted by the hospitable women-only staff all wearing identical black dresses with starched white aprons. Once seated, they pose the only worthy question: how do you want your steak cooked – rare, medium or (gasp!) well? She records your choice on the table cloth. You can select wine from their house inventory, but the list is not extensive nor confusing and nearly all the wines offered came from the family’s Château de Saurs winery. Bold but not overwhelming reds perfectly compliment the meal.
And the culinary formula never varies. A lettuce and walnut salad appears as if conjured by a sorcerer, lightly dressed with a mustard vinaigrette. Ample French bread and butter likewise appear. Its choreographed, automatic and well-rehearsed. No giant pepper mills, no ‘hi-I’m-your-server-tonight’ intrusions. Just when the last walnut is forked off your plate the main dish, the entrecote, arrives with a pile of hot crusty frites. No fussing over creamed spinach or shared, over-priced side dishes common in American steak houses.
The secret, as always, is in the sauce which is spooned liberally over the steak. While undeniably a butter sauce, the true recipe is, well, a secret. Reports over the years suggest blanched chicken livers, thyme, white Dijon mustard are combined with the butter; but denials have also been forthcoming.
In the background, the ballet of black dresses goes on as platters of steak and frites fly around the room. The motion is ceaseless, and in an instant the platters stop at your tableside and a second helping is presented to you – your only interaction is to say ‘when’ on the ladling of more sauce.
In French, the word entrecôte denotes a premium cut of beef from the rib area, the sirloin. Americans might call it a strip steak or, if left on the bone with the filet, a Porterhouse or, if sufficiently snooty, a Delmonico. Regardless of nomenclature, it is a tender cut of meat providing a reliable focal point for this fare.
Relais de l’Entrecôte is actually a small group of restaurants with three locations in Paris and satellite operations in a few international cities. I believe that are all owned by members of the same family that honors the traditions established in Paris.
The one we favor is the Saint-Germain location at 20, rue Saint-Benoît (6th arrondissement). It has all the markings of a French restaurant with both sidewalk and indoor seating. The tables are tightly packed, but the atmosphere is friendly and down-to-earth – people come here to enjoy the food, not linger away an entire evening.
After a transatlantic flight or even a full day of walking around Paris, knowing that a great meal awaits you is a lovely creature comfort.
Of course, there is a dessert menu and the choice-inducing dilemmas attendant with it. I find that the second helping of frites and the balance of the red wine satisfyingly puts such decision beyond my caloric limit so I can walk out and face the adventure, and yes uncertainty, of the rest of my night in Paris.