I can’t go for too long without a visit to my favourite place: Manhattan.
There’s something about the buzz, hubbub and hum that permeates it both night and day – not to mention the food aromas emanating from food carts and eateries at every corner – that make that place feel like home.
No doubt the feeling is made even stronger by the fact that much of its population seems decidedly Jewish – and, of course, many of its lively citizens are, as am I.
So Ross and I recently decided to make the trip – his first time, my umpteenth – before the bone-chilling weather that is New York winter closed in.
We travelled by car to Ithaca, another of my most beloved spots south of the border, then took the Cornell campus bus to mid-Manhattan. (On the way home a few days later, we stayed overnight at the super Statler hotel in Ithaca and re-visited the excellent restaurant in that burg called Fine Line bistro where the goat cheese/spinach crostini are alone worth the trip.)
Anyhoo, eschewing the more well-known, trendy dining haunts of NYC – Momofuku, Locanda Verde, Jean-Georges and their ilk, all of which I’ve frequented on other occasions – we found ourselves at Le Relais de Venise located near our hotel on Lexington near 51st St.
This was serendipitous for several reasons: I adore steak frites, the restaurant’s specialty; the price is right ($26 a person for that delicious dish), and the ambience is unassuming, welcoming and comfortable with excellent service.
But best of all, the concept is sweet, simple and truly brilliant. The Relais (its odd name comes from the original, still-existing sister restaurant in Paris by that name where the former inhabitant of the establishment had this name) has no menu. They serve steak frites and that’s it. (Read on for an exception to this rule: a dessert selection that is decidedly memorable).
The only decision here is how rare or well-done you’d like your steak: a good-sized piece of sirloin bathed in a delectable creamy, mustardy, herb-laced sauce accompanied by those mandatory frites. The latter are skinny, perfectly cooked and downright divine. The steak and frites are served in two portions so that, explained our lovely server, “they don’t get cold.”
As I wondered where this place has been all my life, we were handed the dessert menu. “I recommend the “tower of power” advised the aforementioned server referring to a dessert officially listed as Le Vacherin de Relais.
Wow, what a thing of beauty and a taste sensation! Rounds of home-made meringue piled high between chocolate and vanilla ice cream and chunks of hazelnut, all doused in a dark, velvety, bittersweet chocolate sauce.
When we returned to Toronto, I suggested to a couple of chef friends that someone open a restaurant with this streamlined steak-frites theme here. So far, no takers.
A few days later, still nostalgic for New York, I encouraged Ross to watch one of my favourite movies with me in our cozy TV room: The Sweet Smell of Success starring Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster. This magnificently dark and edgy film evokes NYC, albeit several decades ago, like nothing else.
Not bad until I can savour the real thing. Come spring, it’ll be “Big Apple, here I come!”