Not the best, but perfect for me.
Not only was I restricted financially, but not every restaurant accepted walk-ins and table for ones, which was admittedly, frustrating. But this challenge spurred me to search for a whole new breed of restaurants that I’d otherwise never think of looking at. Having said that, I had made a list of French classics that I wanted to sample whilst in the French capital, and I went by it. It wasn’t going to be easy, but I was prepared to search. Prior to writing professionally, I’d never have associated the duo combination of steak and fries as being Parisian. I had preconceptions of French cuisine being an aspiration of refinement and sophistication, and steak frites seemed primitive and rustic… (yes, I was that ignorant, but I am a fast learner) As my taste developed, I became more discerning – at media tastings, I waged a battle with flavors and essences that I might otherwise never flirt with. With that, I started venturing out on my own. I had Les Bouchons back in Singapore and for me, it gave me new meaning to French food. I saw similarities with that and the hawker food we eat – I learn that sometimes, you didn’t need the theatricality or the pretenses. Sometimes, it’s really just about eating. Having said that, I also did have Hippopotamus which I found to be mostly mediocre, but I’m going to attribute this setback on ABR Holdings. You know ’em, they ruined Swensen’s in Singapore for all of us. As I was searching for “affordable steak frites in Paris”, Le Relais de Venise was consistently raved about. However, there were concerns about its service, and the long queues it garnered, but it was close to my first sightseeing destination this evening. It was getting late – restaurants typically reopen for dinner at 6.30pm and the crowds start thronging restaurants across town at 7.30pm – so I confirmed the address, consulted Google Maps, screened shot my directions right down to the last step, and headed out of my apartment in Marais.
The good thing about Paris is that you’re never more than 400 metres from a Paris Metro station, so if you get lost in the city, which you will, just keep walking, find a main street, and before long, you’ll find the Paris Metro. On this (still very bright) first evening, I found myself lost, and when I found the Paris Metro station, I realized I had backtracked two stations from Arts et Metiers to Republique. Changing trains is inevitable, and to get to my destination at Porte Maillot, I had to change to Line 1. Line 1 is an east-west line which straddles much of the city’s main attractions including the Louvre, Champs-Elysees, Charles De Gaulle-Etoile where the Arc du Triomphe stands, the traditional centre of the city, Chatelet and La Defense, the commercial business hub of Paris. It’s the oldest line, but you wouldn’t be able to tell just by looking – the stations look positively state-of-the-art complete with safety features like platform screen doors. The trains run on tires, and inside, the interior’s well-lit, comfortable and colorful, with LCDs and dotted displays announcing the next station and estimated arrivals at subsequent stations. I find my stop, Porte Maillot near the western end of the line. In fact, Porte Maillot sits by the city limit’s western border. The urbanization continues beyond for the next 10 to 20 kilometres or so, but it’s not technically Paris.
Walking through the underground pedestrian network of Porte Maillot station, and this is in the aftermath of my “incident” in Amsterdam (where I was admittedly more paranoid), I felt a little wary. The corridor isn’t well-lit, and there are columns along the walkway. And the station hosts a bus terminus for passengers traveling to and from Paris-Beauvais airport – a demographic which one could describe as the more cost-conscious, “undesirable” types. I spot the restaurant, across a carpark, and make my way in there and am immediately accepted for service.
I never thought I’d use the adjective, but the atmosphere of Le Relais de Venise is indeed, convivial. Everybody’s sat so close to each other, you’re practically dining on the same table, but you’ll find no unhappy faces here. It’s pleasant, it’s mirthful and it’s just such a good setting that you just know you’re gonna have a good meal even before it comes. The restaurant is staffed by a team of matriarchs who keep vigil in the salon, serving fervently all who come through its doors. I’m served by a mature maiden whom I appear to immediately trample on her toes when I ask her, “Bonsoir Madam, parlez-vous anglais?” She’s more than upset, but conscientiously explains in a hushed but perfect non-accented English the setup here and proceeds to take my order. Basically, it’s a one-way street – you just need to specify your doneness (which is medium or rare only… I can’t imagine what they might do to you if you asked for well done); whether you’ll be having the house wine (red, obviously, bottle or glass, which I later find out is only a couple of Euros); still or sparkling water. After that, just sit back and enjoy the show.
Like what I’ve come to expect from Europe, the bread plate comes immediately. It’s once again, cold, but its consistency is like none other I’ve eaten in Singapore. I guess it’s the hallmark of a good bread, isn’t it? If it’s cold, and it’s still crisp, fresh and silky, it’s a testament to the skills. Heat the bread up, and even the worst can taste good. Bread here doesn’t seem to be served with butter, and I don’t see people spreading butter on theirs either, so I have it as it is, and why not? It’s good. The salad is served, just to keep your insides clean, I suppose. Then it arrives.
Perhaps it stems from a space constraint thing, or maybe it’s a signature, but my steak comes, and the iron maiden of earlier who was by now, softened by my countless correctly pronounced and toned “Merci” and smile, had me witness her preparation of my steak, transferring bite-sized portions onto a small plate. She pointed as I looked at a pristine stainless steel plate of a half-cut steak bathing in its own reduction, juices and fat, “All this yours, eat slowly.” Just when I was about to start, she face palmed me, “Non, not yet”, she hushes. Then she turns around, piling on crisp, golden brown fries onto whatever space of the small plate was left. Arranging it with her tongs, satisfied it was presentable, she delivered a firm but polite, “bon appetit, monsieur”.
I had never eaten something that looked so unhealthy in my life, yet I still wanted to go ahead with it. The tender blooded, medium-rare fillet, each judiciously and precisely divided, was a sensory explosion in the mouth. The steak is cooked, and seasoned almost by its own juices and fat, and it really helps create a natural lubricant that seemingly fuses in with the actual flavor of the meat. It’s a joyous dance between meat and gravy that just expounds on each other. It was simply heavenly. The fries too, cooked in the beef’s very own fat, never distracts your palates from the core activity. It’s crisp, it’s never filling or starchy on its own – it always brings you back to the steak, and that sensation was just unbelievable, and wonderful. Asians, like myself, will however, find French food, at least, initially, heavy in flavor, but don’t let this taint your mind of what French food is. Let your taste buds become accustomed to the local flavor – used to the richness and heaviness in emphasis – and you’ll discover a wondrous, sensorial world just waiting to share its secrets with you.
I thought the plate was rather small, but honestly speaking, when my dedicated wait staff, impressed with my progress, topped up the second portion, I was honestly bursting at the belly. But I did want to go on – it was just so good, so homely, so rustic… I felt like something rare occurred when I stepped in. I felt like I was being filled up whole. It was food for the soul, and food like this just envelops and engulfs you in a friendly, warm embrace. It was almost like being touched by the Holy Spirit. To conclude, I ordered a cup of tea, and halfway, I found the strength to order dessert. When the reviews say the “Chocolate Profiteroles” were a “must-try”, I had to. And when it came, the first bite immediately appealed to my soul again. It was like the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle. At that moment, it was just emotionally overwhelming, and I felt so comforted and validated. It brought back a stability in the psyche that I had for a while, lost since my card was stolen. Now, here I was, physically and mentally recharged, ready to see the “good” in Paris.