“ Address: 1 avenue Stade / 77400 Lagny sur Marne / France „
~The Power of Good Food~
The French understand food and know the power of a good meal to raise the spirits or a bad one to set you in a foul mood. When my colleague Phil and I arrived at the factory we'd gone to visit in Chanteloup-en-Brie, our local colleague asked how our hotel had been. We weren't sure where to start. Should we tell him about how we'd been completely ignored by the staff, how the restaurant refused to serve us or how we'd been shouted at by over-friendly drunk Danes? Recognising that he'd recommended a hotel he'd never been in himself, he was clearly feeling guilty. He took one look at the sandwich menus from the local takeaway that someone had given us so we could choose our lunch and went off to see the owner of the factory, returning a few minutes later to tell us that he felt bad about the lousy hotel and had asked Pierre to take us for a nice lunch. In France all things can be put right with good food - it's not a bad philosophy.
And so it came to pass that three of us were taken to the favourite restaurant of the gentleman concerned, a fellow who had recently sold his business to our company for several million and was enjoying being able to expense some nice lunches in the last few weeks of his tenure. He picked Le Relais Fleuri in Lagny sur Marne, just a few miles away. You can be forgiven for not having the slightest idea where that is and I hope I can be forgiven for as vague a description as 'about 15 minutes from Disneyland Paris'.
We went on a Wednesday lunch time at around one o'clock. The car park is a good size and we didn't struggle to find a space. We noticed a large outdoor area where the inevitable smokers were gathered, drinking and smoking but that area was far enough from the entrance to not get the smell of the smoke. This isn't a small restaurant and there are several large dining areas and there was a very lively vibe about the place. I've recently had a few restaurant visits where places have been half empty or in one case completely empty so it was clear that it will take more than recession to force the French to take a packed lunch to work.
The restaurant is attractively decorated with lots of synthetic flowers in vases, thick table clothes and sparkling cutlery and glasses. We were presented with large, bound menus and I don't think anyone was too sure where to start. Our host said we could choose whatever we fancied but he planned to go for one of the lunch menus - not the cheapest which was around 15 euros, but the next at around double that. Did we want wine whilst we decided?, he asked. Well it would be rude not to, wouldn't it. So he ordered three glasses of white and one glass of red wine and a large bottle of water.
We chose our dishes from the menu. I think we all chose the same starter - a crab tartar - and split on the main courses with two of us going for 'gambas' and two for some kind of meat. I was surprised to be asked for a pudding order at the same time as ordering the first two courses since it's hard to judge whether you'd actually want pudding before you've even started. I doubted I'd want much and for no good reason other than curiosity, I opted for the Isle Flotante.
With the orders placed, the waitress bought four little amuse bouches of some kind of foie gras mousse. I passed but the other three said it was very good. We were brought crusty fresh white rolls and my Belgian colleague asked if she could be terribly un-French and ask for some butter. Apparently dry bread just doesn't cut it in Belgium. Although the bread was lovely, it was even better with a little dab of unsalted French butter. As soon as I finished my roll a waitress swooped to replace it.
The starters consisted of two mounds - one of finely shredded crab meat and the other of a sort of fine coleslaw in a light mayonnaise. The plate was decorated with dainty little dots of coloured sauce with a very fine bread stick perched on top. The flavour of the crab wasn't very strong but I wasn't disappointed.
For my main course I wasn't too sure what to expect. When a dish arrived with six giant prawns with their heads and tails but the carapaces of their 'meaty bits' removed by the kitchen, I was pretty impressed. The prawns were piled up, leaning against a small mound of white rice with a dab of yellow creamy sauce on the side. Eating prawns can be deceptive - you feel like you had a lot but actually only about a quarter of the total volume is edible. Because you have to play with the skeletons, they slow you right down when you're eating and it's easy to fail to spot that actually you didn't eat that much at all. The quality was excellent although I'd maybe have preferred a sauce that was a bit less bland.
For pudding my Isle Flotante (floating island) looked like a large, wobbly, opaque breast implant. It wasn't very obviously floating as the bowl was quite small and the sauce was somewhat squished by the island. The top was sprinkled with strawberry powder. It had been a panic choice - I'm really not sure why I chose it - and I left about two thirds. However, I knew that it was a classic French pudding and one of the few that I had never tried so Isle Flotante can now be ticked off my 'I wonder what that tastes like' list. It tastes like a wobbly, gloopy uncooked meringue-like blob. The sauce was lovely but it was all a bit too much.
We ordered coffees, Pierre paid the bill (which I didn't manage to glimpse) and we all felt at peace with the world and very happy to be in a land where a proper three course lunch with wine is less of a treat and more of a national tradition. It certainly beat the sandwich menu. With the cheapest of the menus starting at 15 euros, even if you don't want to push the boat out, you can have a very good meal without spending over the odds.
Le Relais Fleuri
1 Ave. Stade