In a Relais de Paris restaurant, serving steak and chips is supposed to be an exact science. It's a pity that the new London branch doesn't know the formula

They are not doing it according to the manual! On the website of the global Relais de Paris franchise, you will find detailed instructions on how to serve the signature sirloin steak with its secret-recipe "sauce originale" and all-you-can-eat frites.

They are not doing it according to the manual! On the website of the global Relais de Paris franchise, you will find detailed instructions on how to serve the signature sirloin steak with its secret-recipe "sauce originale" and all-you-can-eat frites.

One must arrange the slices of meat in a fan pattern on the plate, serving only 70 per cent of the meat and leaving the remainder in the service dish. After covering the meat with sauce, one should then serve the fries on the food warmer with the cutlery in "reverse tongs" position and arrange the warmers on either side of the plate.

I am sorry if I'm the only one around here who has read the manual, but this ain't what happens. Instead, a very charming young girl comes to the table with two fully plated main courses. "Who is having the steak?" she sweetly enquires, and promptly gives the steak-orderer the duck with vegetables, and the duck-orderer the steak with frites. There is no serving at the table, no offer of extra frites, and sadly, no reverse-tonged cutlery.

The concept is a simple one, bordering on mindless. Everything revolves around a protein-and-chips formula, with a choice of steak, chicken breast, duck breast, tuna or mushroom feuillete, all served with the aforementioned special sauce.

The Relais de Paris website also contains information for potential franchisees that stipulates prices should not exceed the psychological threshold of €15 (£10.36), although most main courses here are £16.95, or slightly more than a psychologically challenging €24. A small starter salad is included in the cost, and a selection of French dessert clichés is available for £5.45 a pop.

According to the website, "managing such a concept is easy, and simple computer equipment is all that is needed to control the business concern and optimise profits". Ah, so that's how you run a restaurant.

The entrecôte premise is generally credited to Geneva's famous Café de Paris, which has been serving nothing but entrecôte steak with a secret special sauce, unlimited chips and a salad, since 1942. The first Relais de Paris (often simply called Entrecôte) opened in Paris in 1972, followed by Marbella, Beirut, Dallas, Montreux, and now, South Kensington.

So it is an Identikit, "replica-catering" concept, born fully formed in Walton Street under a cherry-red awning. Inside, a sleek bar with a video screen runs down the right-hand side, and a smart banquette and white-clothed tables down the left. The chairs are strange hybrids of wood, steel and upholstery; lighting is warm; and there are plenty of coat-hooks ready for the season's tweeds and animal prints. It's part brasserie, part sports bar - in a Pizza Express kind of way.

The service brigade consists of slim, black-clad, pony-tailed, dark-haired girls who have obviously arrived in a job lot from a land that has heard about restaurants but has no current experience of them. So sweet are they that you feel like applauding when one successfully carries a tray of drinks to a table, opens a bottle, or pours a glass of wine without mishap.

The menu, as you can imagine, is short, so that ordering a meal taxes neither the staff nor the diner. Starter salads come quickly - small plates of soft leaves in a likeable dressing, with interchangeable spare parts (tomato and basil, walnuts, croutons and bacon).

It is the steak that is the problem. Fanned out on the plate in medium-rare slices, it has visible black grill marks, but no other sense of the grill - no sizzle, no smokiness and no steaky juices. It is about as interesting as a pre-grilled steak reheated in a microwave.

The butter-based, lightly spicy sauce is split. I cannot believe it is meant to be like this, separated into a clear golden grease spotted with anchovy-coloured globules. It is quite dreadful, and taints everything it touches. I ask instead for some un-secret Dijon mustard, and things start to look up. It is well-balanced, smooth, creamy, integrated, lively and fresh, by far the best thing in the house. A bottle of Pugliese Allora Primitivo red (£27.50) does a workmanlike job, and the chips are fine - lightly golden, crisp, and salted.

The duck breast (£16.95) is also fanned out (so 1970s, darling), but feels more recently cooked and has a vaguely smoky flavour while "vegetables of the day" turn out to be boring old steamed mange tout.

Desserts, like the steak, feel done-ahead and lifeless; a wedge of tarte tatin (£5.45) is dull and stolid, while profiteroles (£5.45) are dank and squishy under a weak and overly sweet chocolate sauce.

Yet the place is packed by 9.30pm, and several diners are on return visits. What am I missing here? All I get is a steakhouse scene, without the steakhouse sizzle. It feels mean (thin bread, small servings on small plates, small wine glasses) and poor value.

Relais de Paris is a formula restaurant, certainly, but in recent years Cipriani, Nobu and Brasserie Roux have proved that formula restaurants can work their socks off. So this is either a poor formula, or they are just not doing it according to the manual.

9 Relais de Paris 103-105 Walton Street, London SW3, tel: 020 7052 9333. Open every day for lunch and dinner. Around £80 for two, including wine and service.

Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets

Second helpings: More places for good steak and chips

Champany Inn Linlithgow, West Lothian, Scotland, tel: 01506 834 532 This superior country inn, a short drive from Edinburgh, is made up of a number of historic buildings, housing 16 luxury bedrooms and two restaurants. You can muck around with the local oysters, salmon and lobsters if you like, but I advise you to take the bull by the horns and order the Angus steak cooked on the chef's specially designed grill.

Popeseye 108 Blythe Road, London W14, tel: 020 7610 4578 White wine lovers, stay home. Fish fanciers, go away. All that this popular, unfussy neighbourhood restaurant does is steak, steak or steak, served with chips - and a side salad for wimps. The meat is grass-fed Aberdeen Angus, which is hung for at least a fortnight. At least there is a good choice of reds.

Swan Inn Craven Road, Lower Green, Inkpen, Berkshire, tel: 01488 668 326 Owned by local organic beef farmers Mary and Bernard Harris, this 17th-century village pub on the North Wessex Downs is understandably fussy about its steaks. On the menu is sirloin steak with red wine Bordelaise and beef fillet en croute with Madeira sauce, but if all you want is a decent grilled steak with chips and salad, it's yours.

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