Update: I have visited Le Relais many times, but not since it changed hands after this review.
Four years ago I visited Le Relais, perhaps one of Angers’ best-known restaurants, in the company of Jim Budd and others. As our group made our way to the restaurant through the dark and unfamiliar streets of Angers, uphill and downhill, first left, then right, left and right, left-left-right, all the while led by Jim, a song began to pervade my mind.
“Roll up, roll up, for the Magical Mystery Tour, step right this way….”
“That’s an invitation……..to make a reservation…..”
On reflection it is no surprise that I felt although I was embarking on a Lennon-McCartney Magical Mystery Tour; by the time we arrived at the restaurant, on a dimly-lit and foreign street, I was wholeheartedly disorientated. Having failed to leave a paper trail I was unsure of how I would ever find my hotel at the end of the evening. Happily, such concerns soon faded as the dishes began to appear from the kitchen; the meal was clearly worth the trek, and I felt it very likely I would one day return (if indeed I survived the late-night search for my hotel).
It seems that I did survive, and in early 2012 a return visit was scheduled, this time with Jim Budd again, together with most of his Les 5 du Vin colleagues. It seemed clear to me that there was no hope of me ever finding the restaurant alone, but happily Jim agreed to meet up at my hotel, and we would walk there together. Less happily, when I arrived at my hotel I found a message explaining that due to unforeseen circumstances he would have to meet me at the restaurant. Uh-oh. I had better find this place on Google Maps, I realised, and plot out a route, through the forbidding streets of this mean town (sorry, I have been watching Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective recently). I fired up the smart-phone and searched. I quickly found Le Relais, on the rue de la Gare. Which, of course, has to be the easiest street to find in just about any French town.
“It’s right next to the gare, you idiot,” I told myself.
You know, the gare that I arrive at every year for the Salon. Yes, that’s right, the gare right next to the Brasserie de la Gare where I had dined only the night before. It’s the gare where I hired a car in 2010 to drive to Paris Charles de Gaulle when the national rail strike suddenly ruined all my plans to return home after the Salon des Vins de Loire that year. You’re getting the idea aren’t you? It’s the gare where I usually pick up my train – when they’re running. Hey, guess what?! It’s the only gare in town!
A ten minute stroll later, I was sinking into my chair at Le Relais.
What followed was a very fine meal. Quite a few of the bottles we brought along ourselves, and perhaps shouldn’t receive too much comment, especially an extraordinarily weird blend of a Belgian lambic beer with Pineau d’Aunis called Zwanze. Was it wine? Was it beer? Even having tasted it, I’m still not sure. After a lightly curried mouth-pleaser served with tiny slivers of baguette, dinner kicked off with noix de Saint-Jacques, with a winter salad and truffe fraîche. This was really fine, the scallops lightly cooked, the flavours of truffle applied in a subtle rather than heavy-handed manner, accentuating and complementing the rest of this dish rather than overpowering it, allowing the flavours of the delicate winter leaves, with their balsamic-hinted dressing, to shine through. In terms of sheer quality, this was the highlight of the evening for me.
Proprietor at Le Relais Gérard Pelletier fussed and flapped over us in a quite attentive fashion, although that is not to say the service picked up any pace when he did so. Despite meeting at the restaurant at 8:15pm it was midnight when we left, and so it was a little while before my main course arrived. The concept of a foie gras hamburger sounded appealing although appeared less so on the plate, so I was glad to have opted for the entrecôte from the specials board. This was ‘proper’ entrecôte, with a good flavour, although it was less saignant and more bien cuit than I would have really liked. Solid fare rather than anything exciting, but certainly nothing that wasn’t enjoyable.
The real surprise of the evening came with desserts, La Spécialité du Relais turning out to be a fromage blanc, dressed with slivers of apple, cherry, cherry coulis and crunchy biscuit-like nuggets; think deconstructed cheesecake and you’ve got it. My past experiences with fromage blanc have been dreadful; I recall one half-eaten twenty years ago in a restaurant in Fleurie that was so vile I have avoided it ever since. But when a dish is la spécialité it seemed petty not to give it another chance, especially after two decades of determined avoidance. As it happens, it was a fabulous surprise, creamy and delicious, fresh and lively, and certainly an option I would choose again.
Naturally there were a few bottles with dinner. Here are two from the list at Le Relais:
Philippe Delesvaux Anjou Blanc Feuille d’Or 2008: Looking back at my notes I see I last tasted this two yeas ago although it is certainly showing a different character now. It shows a rich, lightly golden hue, with quite oxidative aromatics; there are nutty caramel tinges scented with lime leaves. A robust palate follows, rich, dense and rather grippy, and the oxidative character here is less firm than expected. There is good definition to the flesh of the wine, and in the finish it is more grippy and quite long. The general consensus around the table is that this is oxidised, but for me it isn’t quite there yet, as it sits more in the oxidative rather than oxidised camps at present. To my surprise, I find I rather like it. 15.5/20 (February 2012)
Château Pierre-Bise Coteaux du Layon Rochefort Les Rayelles 2005: There is little doubt that this is the Pierre-Bise cuvée that I have tasted more than any other; it seems to crop up everywhere, at dinner with Claude Papin, with René Papin in London, at the domaine, on merchant’s lists, now at Le Relais. It shows quite typically this evening. A rather relaxed tasting note reminds me that it has a burnished golden hue, and an intensely characterful palate, richly flavoured, deep, marked by honeycomb and caramel complexities over the apricot fruit. The more I taste this the more it grows on me. 17.5/20 (February 2012)
And here are two we brought to the restaurant ourselves:
Vincent Laroppe Côtes du Toul La Chaponière 2009: Sometimes you have to hold up your hands in surrender; this is not an appellation I’m familiar with. The bottle has a rather kitsch faux-silver label which doesn’t engender much hope. The wine itself has a vibrant hue, with a paradox of sweet yet gamey fruit on the nose. It is bright, characterful and otherwise seems softly defined. It certainly provides some interest, although it has not imbued me with any desire to explore the Côtes du Toul any further at present. 14/20 (February 2012)
Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf du Pape 1980: Well, well, fancy finding this old friend here in Angers. I don’t buy Beaucastel any more, but I continue to enjoy vintages from my cellar, mostly from the 1990s though, so it is fun to look a little further back in time. This has a classic nose, with leather, spice and liquorice tinged with violets and a chalky edge suggesting advancing maturity. A touch of volatility which doesn’t detract seems quite appropriate, and there is a certain elegance here. Nevertheless, it has a good backbone and some substance, even if that oyster-shell maturity comes across on the palate as well as the nose. It’s hard not to like this one though, all complex yet fresh. 17/20 (February 2012)
And so my Magical Mystery Tour drew to an end. Happily this was a tour that didn’t require mind-altering psychedelic substances in order to enjoy the ride, and it was one for which I would happily make another reservation. Take it away, Paul.
Price: typically €30-50 per head, excluding wine. (24/2/12)