Au Comptoir du Relais – Great food, if you don’t mind rude waiters and dirty plates

When researching Paris restaurants before our trip, we came across French MasterChef TV judge Yves Camdeborde’s legendary bistro Au Comptoir du Relais, which translates into ‘the bar area of the hotel Relais’. This tiny and bustling art deco restaurant belonging to the well-regarded 4-star Hotel Paris Relais Saint Germain (Camdeborde owns the whole hotel) sits in a beautiful 16th Century building just off Boulevard Saint-Germain (Metro station Odeon) and has been celebrated as unmissable for many years. It seems that the hype about it grew even stronger over time.

We particularly remember a number of reviews along the lines “they know they simply cannot go wrong” and thought, that’s never a good sign. The best chefs and restaurant owners of this planet do not expose this kind of attitude. On the other hand, what were our options, miss out on this much talked about ‘gem of the gastronomic universe’, run by the guy who re-invented modern French bistro cuisine? We could not allow this to happen.

We were too late to book the five-course haute-cuisine weekday dinner for a very reasonable €65. They are usually booked out two to three months in advance. On weekdays from noon to 6pm and weekends until 10pm, a no-frills brasserie menu is served, for which no reservations are accepted. We arrived on a Saturday and joined the queue of 10, 12 people at around 11:50am, ten minutes before opening. By 12:02 we were seated at one of the outside tables, a great spot for people-watching and to enjoy the sun, even though there seems to be even less space outside than inside, and I regularly felt my neighbour’s elbows on my sides.

We ordered 2 small glasses of their lowest price house wine (€5.50 each), 6 escargots to share (€9), bouillon de poisson, served nicely with the (intentionally) lukewarm liquid part added from a glass bottle at the table (€22), Cochon de Lait (suckling pig with lentils, €26), and 2 cafes (€3 each).

We felt that the waiters were very boss’ish, abrupt and outright rude, making it clear from the beginning that you are an uninvited guest in their house and should do as you’re told or else. When clearing dishes from our table, the waitress took the cutlery from one of the plates and dripped plenty of oil over the table and my shirt without even apologising. But it really started with the wine, which was served with one dead fruit fly in it and one very much alive one accompanying it mid-air. Most of the cutlery and crockery was severely stained, clearly with residue from previous meals, 1mm to 2mm thick crusts in many cases. Not particularly elegant.

That aside, we did enjoy everything we were served. The house wine was lovely. The escargots were among the best we’ve had in recent years, great texture, large (don’t like the tiny ones), very strong taste, and perfectly prepared, maybe only surpassed by the ones we had had at Bistro Allard, before it was taken over by Alain Ducasse.

My wife found the fish soup maybe slightly too earthy and bitter and too bland, I personally thought it was just fine (even though not exceptional by any standard), with an unusual mix of small bits of grapefruit, lychee, chestnut, black pasta, lemon cress, broccoli and cauliflower added in addition to the usual suspects. The soup itself had a strong (in my mind at least) tomatoey taste and just the right texture. Not too thick, not too thin, and not too oily.

The roasted suckling pig, served in a thick bed of lentils, was truly divine. Both mains were very large for lunch portions, which is a very good thing in our book. Finally, we enjoyed our coffees. My wife had her usual café noisette, I was a bit more adventurous and tried their superb Ethopian espresso.

Despite the enjoyable food we certainly won’t be back, though, and no tip from us. More reviews of Paris restaurants here, here, and here.

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