Imagine, if you will, a high school reunion. A seemingly ordinary reunion, perhaps 25 years after you graduated and left town for new challenges. You return, eager to see old friends again. Hey, Jack hasn’t changed a bit! Trent and Joanie got married, gained a few pounds as they slouched into middle age. Ronnie is bald!
And then, across the room, a tall, slender form appears. It’s Lizzie! The cheerleader you had a crush on. She must be a beauty still. You walk over to say hello. She turns, smiles and … oh.
Damn! Lizzie is getting older, too, and not in a good way. Her hair is frizzy, her face is lined — she was always a smoker, affecting that French mademoiselle style that made her mysterious. Now, not so much. She smiles again … there’s lipstick on her teeth.
You enjoy the rest of the evening, but the encounter leaves you feeling nostalgic and sad. And this little story brings us around to my recent encounter with Bistro Le Relais.
It’s about 25 years old, too, having landed in the historic Art Deco administration building at Bowman Field in the mid-1980s. It has long been a favorite — you could call it a crush. I’ve loved its commitment to quality, authentic French fare. I’ve loved its thoughtful, intimate Art Deco decor, its period posters, birds-eye maple walls and white-draped tables. All this plus an elegant beverage program and careful, skilled service have come together to rank Le Relais among the city’s top restaurants. I’ve consistently rated it in the upper-90s.
About three and a half years ago, Le Relais seemed to skate right through the recession and the loss of longtime Chef Daniel Stage to Louisville Country Club. It switched over from high-end French to a more casual bistro model, but it continued to earn my top ratings, garnering a 93 in August 2009.
Lately, though, I’ve been hearing disquieting reports from trusted informants about serious slippage in service and quality. These were hard words to hear about such a longtime favorite, and I needed to check it out for myself. So I assembled a group of friends and, somewhat sneakily, did not inform them of these reported issues, preferring to see what they would think without prompting.
Sadly, based on that experience, with food and service ranging from “pretty good” down to “uninspired,” I’ll place Le Relais now in the middle 80s. This is not a bad rating. It keeps good company with a lot of other popular local spots at this level. But I can’t honestly place it in the top tier for now.
The seasonal menu includes about a dozen hors d’oeuvres and salads ranging in price from $9 to $15. Plats Principaux (main courses) are $25 (for bouillabaise seafood stew or scallops Saint-Jacques) to $38 (for cotelettes d’agneau, grilled lamb chops). A four-course prix fixe dinner is $32.50 per person, but portions were surprisingly small. The wine list is international with many French choices, many in the $30s and $40s, with by-the-glass prices mostly around $8 to $12.
After an opening round of Blue Dog baguettes and butter, Mary’s watermelon salad didn’t come. She waited and waited. “It’s coming,” our server said. Still nothing. Eventually proprietor Anthony Dike came by and asked how things were going. “I’m still waiting on my salad,” Mary said. It arrived about 45 seconds later but proved a disappointment, a large plate bearing a puny portion of lettuce leaves, cubes of cucumber and two tiny chunks of watermelon in a creamy dressing. For $11.50, it tasted of failure.
Salade de Provence ($13) was a bit larger and more interesting. A colorful stack of grilled eggplant rounds, tomato slices and mild goat cheese was layered with tapenade and dressed with balsamic. It had potential, but the tapenade was strongly redolent of anchovies that dominated the dish.
Sides ($6) of spinach and potatoes Gratin Dauphinois were excellent but tiny.
Dike said the steak au poivre ($31) came from SYSCO, a national food-service distribution firm. “It’s not grass-fed,” he volunteered. I do admire high-end restaurants that make the commitment to go natural, local and grass-fed, but to its credit, this was a good dish, cooked medium-rare to order and delicious, as were the fries.
The assiete de fromages ($14) featured four French cheeses, utterly unadorned, with no munchies or even bread offered, although my plea garnered four or five slices of Blue Dog baguette.
Crème caramel ($6.50) was fine, a serving the size of a silver dollar, and I had no complaints about a single espresso ($2.75).
Dinner for two was $123.23, which might be pushing it a bit for bistro fare. Service seemed well intentioned but was not quite Michelin-star quality, and I couldn’t justify trimming a standard 20 percent tip.
Bistro Le Relais
2817 Taylorsville Road