Sometimes lucky little things happen that change everything for the better. Things like meeting a life partner at a party that you weren’t planning to go to but got dragged to anyway; or having an errant bullet stopped by the bible you always carry in your breast pocket; or, better yet, discovering a spectacular new secret sauce that changes the way you think about steak frites forever.
But even really good things have their downsides: Life partners snore and chew with their mouths open (not you L, you’re perfect in all ways. Just saying that I’ve heard that can happen sometimes… to other people); a ruined Bible is no use to your everlasting soul; and, secret sauces are just that… secret.
Except that, in the internet age, there are no secrets. Cures for snoring, multiple versions of the good book and everybody’s secret sauces are just a google away.
When I walked into the Manhattan branch of the Relais de Venise L’Entrecote on the recommendation of a New York acquaintance, I was not really sure what I was in for. The front of the house is run entirely by women dressed as French maids, the walls are covered with poorly executed murals of Venice (remember, it’s a French restaurant) and the menu is limited to one item. It felt more like the set of a low-budget foreign film than midtown at lunch.
It turns out there are good reasons for the Venetian theme and the menu. You can read about them here. I am yet to hear a good reason for the maid outfits, but c’est la vie.
When the New York version of this Paris institution opened last year it was greeted with good reviews despite the fact there’s only one main dish on the menu. The New York Times gave it a coveted star in its review and added it to its year-end list of 2009’s top new restaurants. But, when I went there in October, I was the accidental tourist: I only knew that I was getting a green salad followed by steak frites, whether I liked it or not.
But what an accident.
The green salad with walnuts is simply dressed with a mustard vinaigrette and is pleasant but not exceptional, the strip steak is cooked to your specifications and the golden fries would make any Frenchman proud. The service is good except for the French maid who refused to bring my New York friend ketchup for his fries (let’s see how long that lasts in America). But the thing that saves the day at this restaurant is the secret sauce. Without it the Relais de Venise would be nothing more than a humorous interlude – a gimmick – and a foreign one at that.
I admit to having real difficulty determining what flavoured the sauce beyond the obvious bite of tarragon, which I think ought to be paired with beef more often. I could tell there was a vinegar and some garlic, but beyond that I was stumped. But I was so entranced with the sauce that I joked that even that other bit of French humour, the metric system, would have caught on in the United States if it had a sauce like this.
I left the restaurant determined to solve the mystery of the secret sauce.
Like all great detectives, I turned immediately to the web. I found online forums, French newspaper articles and even a facebook page devoted to uncovering the recipe for the secret sauce. But, one concoction after another was debunked by others – too much butter, there’s bone marrow, there’s not, so on and so on. I was close to giving up hope when I stumbled across this recipe on the blog of a former The Next Food Network Star contestant Jeffrey Saad. The ingredients seemed about right and the headline, I may have discovered the secret to L’entrecote’s famous sauce! held promise. With my life partner offering encouragement, I followed it to the letter, humming La Marseillaise the entire time for luck.
But luck wasn’t on my side. The colour was right, but the taste was harsh with tarragon and, overall, the sauce was flat and the flavours didn’t blend like they did in New York. I wanted to tell Mr. Saad to pack his knives and go home.
That night it hit me. What kind of French sauce has no wine and no butter? A few short days later I looked up from my tasting spoon triumphant and feeling very French. The butter finished the sauce nicely and tempered the tarragon. I don’t know exactly what the wine did, but there was lots left for me.
I pan fried a couple steaks (the preferred French method), cut some simple fries with my mandolin and sat down with my life partner to a little taste of Paris/Venice/Manhattan. And just because I keep no secrets…..
My secret sauce, adapted from a version by Jeffrey Saad
1 tbsp olive oil
2 large shallots, sliced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 cups chicken stock
1 tsp pepper
2 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 bunch tarragon, leaves removed and chopped
1/4 cup white wine
4 tbsp unsalted butter
3 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tsp anchovy paste
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon salt
Heat olive oil in a small pot over medium heat. Sauté the garlic and shallots until soft. Add the stock and simmer for a few minutes. Add the remaining ingredients, except the butter and transfer to a food processor or blender. Puree until smooth, return to the pot on low heat and reduce for several minutes if the sauce is too thin. Stir in butter to finish.
Makes enough sauce for six to eight servings of steak.