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They say that our sense of smell is one of the strongest triggers of memories. Of course, our sense of smell is integral to our sense of taste so it is no surprise then that in a life full of moving and traveling, food has always been a source of familiar comfort for me. In particular, one meal from one restaurant stands out above the rest and still stirs precious memories whenever I think about it.
When I was young, Paris was a frequent summer destination for my family, and while I don’t get there very often anymore, whenever I land at Charles DeGaulle airport my mouth starts to water at the very thought that I am only a few miles away from my own personal culinary heaven.
Now, one might expect that such adulation would be reserved for the Grand Dames of the French culinary tradition, Parisian restaurants like La Tour D’Argent, Taillevent, or Jules Verne, but not so for us. Our epicurean mecca is a small restaurant in a region of Paris called Porte Maillot, not far from the Champs Elysee. Here stands a restaurant that takes no reservations and only serves one dish - steak and frites or French fries as they are known elsewhere.
Indeed, that is the nickname we gave this restaurant when we were little, ‘steak frites’ which was easier to say than its formal name Le Relais de Venise son Entrecôte (entrecôte is the cut of beef known as rib-eye in the United States). They are open for lunch and dinner every night of the year except a few holidays and the month of July. And yes, that is all they serve, steak and frites - at least for the main course. Dessert features a full menu headlined by their famous and delicious profiteroles, as well as cheese plates, tarts, fresh fruit and more.
It was founded in 1959 by a Frenchmen who had little experience in restaurants. He purchased an Italian restaurant called Le Relais de Venise, left the name and the Italian décor as it was, added the word Entrecôte and decided to keep the meal simple and straightforward.
Steak frites takes no reservations, and is packed every night, thus there is always a line, but it’s one everyone is willing to tolerate. Standing under the faded red awning is like the beginning of a ritual and only adds to the experience. After about 10-20 minutes a table comes available and upon being seated at the table, the waitress asks simply “how would you like your meat cooked?”
That’s it, no choice of cut or sauce or anything, just the same perfect steak and frites they have been serving for over 50 years. The decoration, the chairs, the uniforms - everything is as it always has been. We always order the house wine and then wait for a simple green salad followed by the most heavenly, melt-in-your-mouth, steak and crispy-perfect fries in the world.
Now the key to the whole deal is the sauce; a secret for decades that many have tried to replicate but none have been able to. Impossible to do justice to in words, there is most certainly a dash of mustard, some herbs, butter, cream and more that combines into a perfect sauce.
I admit this is lofty praise and no doubt much of this adoration is linked to my happy memories of dinners with friends and family; sitting with my mother, sister and grandfather under the faded paintings of venetian canals that adorn the walls, talking about life, my grandfather’s countless adventures, our mutual love of wine (when I got older) and of course global conservation.
There is some irony I will admit that one of the conservation actions I now advocate is to limit the consumption of meat. I, for one, strive to be a weekday vegetarian and avoid meat most of the time; however, my French heritage encourages the occasional indulgence as well as a blissful stroll down memory lane.