A Year In Food

From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out

Friday, June 10, 2005

Jun. 10.

Lunch -

Fleur de Sel - 5 E. 20th St., Gramercy Park
Spanish Mackerel Tartare, Paddlefish Caviar, Mustard Ganache; Roasted Cod, Tomato Confit and Spring Garlic Coulis; Crème Fraiche and Vanilla Panna Cotta, Confit of Rhubarb, Strawberry Sorbet; a glass of a Merlot-Cabernet blend

What if French restaurants were painters? It’s a question we’ve all asked ourselves but no one’s effectively answered. Well, I propose: If romantic and florid La Grenouille is Renoir and funky, pint-sized Ivo and Lulu is Toulouse-Latrec, Fleur de Sel must be Monet. Its beauty is its delicacy, its attention to intimate detail and its interest in impression and subtlety over gaudy showmanship.

It also doesn’t hurt for the starving artists out there that Fleur de Sel features a daily $25 prix-fixe. Short of kidnapping a chef, Cyril Renaud’s cuisine is among the best lunch values in the city. Each of the three courses only offers two (constantly changing) selections but on the day that Vince and I ventured out to Gramercy Park, everything looked like a winner.

I started with the mackerel tartare, an attractively plated opener that was fresh and light. I appreciated the touches of caviar that pointistically dotted the dish, adding a soft, beady texture to the smoothness of the fish. The red leaves unifying the various stations reminded me of brushstrokes and provided a fragile crunch. The casual precision of the ingredients and the presentation really did call to mind a paintbrush, and combining the tartare, the caviar and the ganache into one forkful revealed the care put into this combination.

Next it was the roasted cod, which also came with a very careful and light preparation. The mildness of the fish was offset with the more potent pairing of tomato and garlic, applied artfully underneath as a base coat. All in all, it was a pleasant entrée, nicely timed for late spring. In keeping with upscale French notions, the portion wasn’t very big, but in another context, it alone could’ve been the price of the entire lunch.

Finally, there was the crème fraiche and vanilla panna cotta, a refreshingly different approach to dessert. It was another effort that favored the artistic, incorporating vivid reds and contrasting shapes. The panna cotta was also soft and sleek, and all of the other elements were similarly delicious. Here though it felt like a little too much. While it could’ve stopped at the sorbet and panna cotta, the dish also had a ribbon of rhubarb and a crunchier base and center that resembled brittle. Instead of meshing, all of the competing flavors clashed.

More troubling though, the one major black stroke across the canvas, was the service. While not incompetent, it certainly verged toward clueless. With only one waitress to serve the whole room, it took Vince and me nearly ten minutes to receive a menu. Another extended wait greeted us when we wanted to order. The lag between entrée and dessert was so long, when we were literally the only people left in the dining room, that we were about to ask if the kitchen had forgotten us. (I thought at first that Fleur de Sel was trying to create a leisurely meal, but everyone else received better and more efficient service.) I was also annoyed when I decided to forgo the $17 three-glass wine pairing and asked if I could just have the middle glass paired with my entrée. The waitress raised her eyebrows in confusion but ultimately agreed. When I got the bill, I noticed that not only was the glass $15 (how about suggesting a $2 upgrade?) but it also wasn’t the wine listed on the menu.

Still, aside from the service faults, Fleur de Sel remains a restaurant I would happily return to. I found chef Renaud’s elegant attention to detail quite charming, and it didn’t surprise me at all when I learned that many of the paintings in the dining room were ones he had done himself. So while we may not have gotten a masterpiece that afternoon, we did see some beautiful shades of one. 7/10


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