Little did we know that when we dined at the corner restaurant near our hotel in Paris that we were eating at a place where for years there’s been a fight over the secret sauce that’s served with their steaks.
Maybe it’s a French thing.
For some background, my husband and I were on our honeymoon and had booked a Viking River Cruise on the Seine and then added some before and after stays in Amsterdam where it is more easy to get run over by a bicyclist then a car and Paris where we stayed at a little hotel near the metro in the 17th arrondissement so we could visit other parts of the city without spending a fortune on cabs. Though we didn’t plan it this way, Hotel 10 Le Bis, our hotel was near numerous little cafes and a little grocery store where we could easily—and cheaply eat or buy food for quick meals and snacks.
One intriguing café was Le Relais de Venise where every night we would see long lines of people waiting to eat either in their dining room or on their outdoor patio. Though the interior of the restaurant looked so French bistro with its polished dark wood, tiny tables with crisp white table cloths, and servers dressed in black uniforms, the outdoor section was right on a busy corner filled with traffic and pedestrians, noise, and the rumbled of trucks and sounds of horns honking.
What could be so great about lining up to eat there, we wondered. But one evening, after climbing up from the metro station and seeing there was no line, we decided to give it a try. The only tables available were outdoors and so we sat at a very small table next to another small table where a single woman sat, smoking a cigarette. That turned out to be a very lucky thing.
When our server arrived I asked to see a menu and she (we would find out later her name was Gertrude) abruptly told us she was the menu. Well, what could we order? Steak frites, she replied—either “bloody or well done.”
We told her “bloody”, and she gave us an approving look. But we were a little baffled. Was there really only one dish on the menu? It turns out that at this restaurant which opened in 1959, there was only one entrée and steak with French fries was it. When our waitress returned with a salad topped with walnuts (no one inquired whether we had a nut allergy—which fortunately we don’t) and a crusty French baguette, I saw there wasn’t butter on our table and asked for some. Oops, one would think I had tried to order a Big Mac.
“No butter,” Gertrude told us.
“There’s no butter?” I asked.
“No butter,” she replied.
“How about olive oil?”
“No olive oil,” she told us.
Now, I knew that in a French restaurant there had to be both in the kitchen, but I guess neither butter nor olive oil was allowed to be carried into the dining area, so we ate the bread—which was very good—without either.
This is when the woman at the table next to us decided to intervene. She lived in Paris she told us but had spent years in the United States working as a publicist for musicians in New York. Le Relais de Venise was unique, she continued, because they only served one dish—steak with French fries served with Le Venice’s Sauce de Entrecote. I guess that makes decided what to order for dinner super easy.
Since the creation of the sauce, its exact ingredients have been kept secret and that probably worked until the invention of the internet. After some type of family squabble and a going of separate ways, the sauce itself became a battleground so complex and full of intrigue that the Wall Street Journal did a lengthy article about it all six years ago. I guess when you serve only one dish and the sauce is a necessary part of it, feelings about who owns the recipe loom large.
Anyway, after we ate our salad (no choice of dressing as it already was dressed with a vinaigrette which was very good), our steak with fries arrived—with the sauce spooned over the meat. It was delicious.
What’s in it? I asked the woman next to us.
“It’s a secret,” she said. “But I’ve been eating here for decades so I know it. But it’s really better to come here.”
She promised to give me the recipe, but I think she changed her mind because she never sent it. She may have been afraid that Gertrude would get mad at her or maybe the restaurant owners wouldn’t allow her back in. Neither would surprise me.
I noticed, as we were eating, that the servers were moving through the crowded café with platters of meat and piles of French fries. And almost as soon as I had cleared my plate, Gertrude showed up again, heaped—without asking but that was okay—more French fries and slices of the sliced steak and sauce on my plate. At no charge.
“They’ll do that until you say you don’t want anymore,” the woman told us.
“Is there a charge?”
“No, it’s all part of the meal.”
Which was a deal as the tab wasn’t very high even with the addition of a glass of the house wine which is made at the family owned vineyard Chateau de Saurs in Lisle-sur-Tarn, 30 miles northeast of Toulouse. Indeed, the restaurant was opened by Paul Gineste de Saurs as a way to help market the wines but now there are at least three—the one in Paris and then another in New York and London. As for the sauce there are several stories. A rival restaurant said to serve a similar sauce says that it is not new but instead was one of the classic sauces said to be the backbone of French cuisine.
Another has it that the restaurant where we ate was modeled after Cafe de Paris bistro in Geneva which has served this dish since the 1940s. The sauce, according “The History and the Development of the L’Entrecote Secret Sauce,” a Facebook page devoted to the subject, was developed by the owner’s father-in-law.
I told you it was complicated.
Of course, as soon as we got back to our room, I Googled the restaurant and the sauce. It took some digging, but I found recipes for both the secret sauce and the salad. Or so I think. I’m planning on trying them soon along with a French baguette or two from Bit of Swiss Bakery which I will be serving with butter.
Le Relais de Venise-Style Salad Dijon Vinaigrette
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
Kosher salt to taste (nutritional info based on 1/4 tsp)
Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (or walnut oil)
Whisk or shake in a mason jar until mixture is homogenous.
Serve on a bed of mixed salad leaves topped with some chopped walnuts and shaved Parmesan.
Serving Size: 4
Le Relais de Venise’s Steak Sauce
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 large shallots
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 1 teaspoon pepper
- 2 tablespoons mustard
- 1 bunch tarragon
- 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1 teaspoon anchovy paste
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
Peel and slice the shallots.
Peel and roughly chop the garlic.
Add the olive oil to a small pot over medium heat.
Add the garlic and shallots and cook until soft and slightly colored.
Add the chicken stock. Simmer for three minutes.
Pull the tarragon leaves off of the stems and put them in a blender.
Add the remaining ingredients to the blender.
Carefully pour the chicken stock mixture into the blender.
Puree until completely smooth.
Pour back into the pan and bring to a boil. Cook for one minute. If the sauce is too thin simmer for a few more minutes.
Pour over slices of rare or as Gertrude calls it “bloody” or however you like your steak. Serve with potatoes or French fries.