review: a tale of two tasting menus
My recent lunch at the 1 Michelin-starred Fleur de Sel was a tale of two tasting menus. my guest and I both ordered the five-course lunch prixe fixe. With the exception of the canape and cheese course, each course came with a choice of two offerings.
We divvied up the choices so that between the two of us, we could try everything. I admit that I was a little greedy, or my friend was too kind, but I ended up getting the dishes we both preferred based off the menu descriptions. He took the “leftovers.”
I was paid in kind. My dishes were, uniformly, weaker than his. Perhaps my friend and I have the same taste sensibilities, but we both agreed that mine just didn’t work as well as his did.
The lunch prixe-fixe is an affordable $28 for three courses or $46 for five courses. The selections are different between the two, and the five course comes with the addition of a canape and a cheese course.
All of the food was certainly well-executed and plated. There were highs and lows. Admittedly, the lows for me might have been more due to personal preference than ill-conception or unthoughtfulness (my jury’s still out on whether the sweet truffle mayonnaise with the lobster was a crime against u.e. or a crime against humanity – more on this later).
1st Course: Goat Cheese and Artichoke Raviolo.
The canape for our lunch was a goat cheese and artichoke raviolo in beet broth. It was a pretty straightforward presentation, although my memory of it was that it was neither hot nor cold.
2nd Course: Lobster Salad or Foie Gras Raviolo?
Isn’t it shocking how something can read so well on a menu and turn out so differently than what you expect? My friend and I haggled over who would get the Lobster Salad. We both wanted to avoid the foie gras raviolo because we had both been eating so much in the days before. He “took a bullet” for us and ordered the foie leaving me to enjoy “Lobster Salad,” which turned out to be a disappointing choice.
The tiny dime-sized nuggets of lobster sat on a piping of shockingly *sweet* truffle mayonnaise. I was so distracted by the sweetness that I didn’t taste or smell or get any sense of the truffle at all. I don’t like mayonnaise, in general, to begin with. *Sweet* mayonnaise is absolutely disgusting. It ruined what otherwise could have been a light and refreshing start.
On the positive side, the lobster was perfectly cooked, and the garnish of Asian pear slices and celery leaves were extremely fresh and crisp. I think the flavors would have all worked well without the mayonnaise (or without the sweet component).
In the end, I had to practically beg him to take some of my lobster in exchange for some of his excellent Foie Gras & Artichoke Raviolo. I only got a taste of this raviolo (my friend was very reluctant to share anything but the tiniest corner – it really was that good), but what I did taste was divine. I’m still not sure if the foie gras was in the raviolo or on top, or both. Also, I’m not quite sure how the artichoke figured into this dish. I’m quite certain that it wasn’t the chunk sitting atop the raviolo. This was an excellent dish.
3rd Course: Mediterranean Dorade or Sugar Cane and Coffee Marinated Pork Chop?
Neither my friend nor I was interested in the Sugar Cane & Coffee Marinated Pork Chop, and he was (again) kind enought to let me have my first choice, the Dorade, so he requested braised veal breast from the 3-course menu.
Again, he won. My dorade wasn’t bad, but his veal was better.
This square of meat was unbelievably succulent and fork-tender. I guess I would be too if I were braised for hours in a rich broth and doused with beurre noisette. This dish was a lot more savory than I had expected from the look – it looked tomato-based sweet to me. The carrot foam added the only real sweetness to the dish, which ended up being a fine compliment to the otherwise rich and beefy gravy. I’m surpised that such a comforting dish would be on the restaurant’s Spring Menu.
Dorade is a fish that I’ve rarely seen in the U.S. It seems to more esteemed in France and Europe, especially the Royal Dorade variety (there are four types: Pink, Gray, and Marbled being are the three others). (See here and here for other versions I’ve had.)
The fish was nicely cooked, although the skin wasn’t quite as crispy as I would have liked. In fact, it was a little wet in some parts and I had to peel it off. The fish meat, itself, was not very flavorful, but, the “Mediterranean”-influenced flavors of the accompaniments were.
The cous cous clung to little morsels of rehydrated sun-dried tomatoes. Together with the finely diced shallots and lime zest on top, the sun-dried tomatoes made a very tasty and full-flavored combination. Strangely, some bites tasted almost as if there was Vietnamese fish sauce in the dish, and I liked it.
However, the restaurant confirmed that there was no fish sauce. I realized that the taste must have been due to the sun-dried tomatoes together with the other ingredients – I’ve found that sun-dried tomatoes often have a strong pungency not unlike fermented things. I enjoyed the honey sherry gastrique, which added a nice sweet-tanginess to the otherwise savory course.
The biggest downer about this course was that it wasn’t as piping hot as I would have liked. It was, in fact, lukewarm.
Cheese Course: You really can’t botch this one up.
One of my *pet peeves* is when a cheese course is dropped off with as much explanation as if it were a cup of coffee (same thing with ice cream tastings).
When I asked what cheeses were offered, the back-server did his best to name them, and bless his heart, he truly knew them, but his English was so poor that I was just happy understanding that two were from Wisconsin (one was Crave Brothers Les Freres), one was from Vermont, and one from California (Point Reyes blue). Regardless, our waiter should have done her job and explained them to us.
I’m not such a cheese snob as to snub my nose at domestic cheeses, but I do find it odd that this Brittany-themed restaurant, home to many great cheeses, choses to serve only American cheeses.
I was happy with the cheese selection, although, when I go to a nice restaurant, I usually expect cheeses that I won’t commonly encounter in mainstream dining. The Point Reyes on this plate was rather ordinary..
Dessert: Gaufrette au chocolat or Banana Mousse?
I rarely enjoy bananas and banana-involved dishes, so I did not want the Banana Mousse. My pal, once again, saved me. And, again, he was rewarded. I admit, the banana mousse-filled tart was outstanding. The generous dollop of creme de cafe on top was ethereally light and the flavor truly complimented the banana. I’m still not sure how the laced white chocolate (description on the menu) figured in. I don’t care. It all tasted great.
As with all the plates at Fleur de Sel, my gaufrette was elegantly presented. And, as with most fine-dining lunch tasting menus, this dessert was rather unremarkable.
Fleur de Sel gives these French snack an up-scale coat of chocolate and a dusting of coconut. Two chocolate gaufrettes sandwich a chocolate mousse filling and is topped with a nice quenelle of chocolate ice cream.
Service was a little less than disappointing, which is a shame, because the food, overall, was quite compelling and deserved a more thoughtful delivery.
It was clear that other parties were favored over ours. We had been the first party to arrive for lunch. A few minutes later, two elderly ladies followed. They were seated, toward the back of the restaurant. They were waiting on a third guest. When the server passed by our table, I asked if we could move to the cozy window table (which was open – actually the restaurant was empty save the two ladies and my friend ane me). The server said she needed to check if it was reserved, which was the right thing to do. The wrong thing for her to do was to greet and seat the last member of the elderly lady party (a gentleman in a nice tailored suit) when he arrived a few minutes later, immediately accommodate his on-the-moment request to be re-seated at the cozy window table, and never circle back to address or respond to my request for that table.
While our server doted on the other tables throughout the steadily increasing luncheons, all of our dishes came out from the back waitstaff (which was not a problem, but it indicates a lack of care on the server’s part). She never once stopped by after taking the orders – until she dropped off the check. Lastly, on a minor side-note, I never ask for special treatment, but, one can’t help but wonder when all of the other tables (that I noticed – and I counted five) were comp’ed a free dessert (yes, on top of their tasting menus).
It’s rare that I leave a restaurant indifferent to my experience. But, I guess that’s how I would sum up my lunch. I left neither frowning or smiling.
I’m not sure what is so appealing about this restaurant. Why had and has it gripped my curiosity for the last few years?
To me, the food isn’t the key to ”getting” this restaurant. After some reflection, I think it’s just the idea of the restaurant itself which is so darling… the quaintness of it, the personality, if you will – the quiet world which Executive Chef Cyril Renaud created among the concrete jungle of New York. Being there, in that space, might have been the most memorable thing about my meal.
Fleur de Sel
5 East 20th Street
New York, New York 10003
* Michelin Star