Fleur de Sel is named after the sea salt that is beloved by French chefs. Owner Cyril Renaud used to bring back bags of it from his native Brittany when he was cooking at Bouley and La Caravelle. Now he’s opened his own smalll restaurant in the Flatiron district, and it’s the antithesis of the huge, trendy feeding halls I have been going to lately. No big-name interior designer, no waiters with shaved heads and earrings, no bare-bulb light fixtures that look as though they were designed by the Gestapo; not even cell phones are allowed (it says so right on the menu). It’s the latest outpost of a resistance movement that broke out in the West Village with Wallsé, Annisa and Blue Hill: small, owner-occupied restaurants where the chef is in the kitchen instead of on TV, cooking for a dozen tables and seeing to every plate him- or herself. Renaud took things one step further; he painted the pictures on the walls himself, including van Gogh’s Starry Night and the Dufy in the bathroom.
The restaurant’s white storefront brightens up a rather dreary block just off Fifth Avenue. At night, you can see the welcoming glow of candles through the windows hung with muslin curtains. Renaud brought his father over from France to help with renovations, and the result is unshowy and simple. It feels a bit like a Portuguese posada or a country restaurant tucked away in the hills of Italy, with a terra cotta tile floor, pale yellow walls, a tiny marble-topped bar and an exposed-brick wall hung with an unadorned Christmas wreath. The well-spaced tables are set with white cloths, candles and small bowls of fleur de sel accompanied by miniature wooden shovels with which to sprinkle the precious stuff over your food.
I had recently broken a tooth on a grain of coarse French sea salt hiding in a tuna fish sandwich, and my dentist had replaced it just that morning to the tune of $950. So it was not, perhaps, the best day to try a restaurant called Fleur de Sel. This gray, briny seasoning is too delicate to chip a tooth, but it could break the bank, with a tiny bag costing around 10 bucks. Boxes and jars of it are displayed near the kitchen, some complete with fancy pewter labels and even the name of the person who harvested it-probably friends of Mr. Renaud, who spent childhood summers on his grandfather’s salt marsh. (Owning one these days must be a bit like having a small gold mine, now that fleur de sel is about to become as essential to the yuppie pantry as mineral water.)
When you see Mr. Renaud’s food, you can understand why he likes to paint. The plates are gorgeous. A rosette of marinated mussels on finely diced vegetables that were tossed with a mustard and chive vinaigrette looked like a window in Notre Dame, decorated with glistening dots of balsamic and chive oils. A jaunty lobster salad was like a 50′s couture hat, a red claw set on a latticed yellow disc of crispy apple, all perched on diced avocado. Foie gras arrived on a purée of apricots mixed with mango, papaya, pineapple and rose water, the plate splashed with a dark cognac sauce.
It’s not just the presentation. Mr. Renaud playfully juxtaposes ingredients to lure unexpected flavors from the food. Ravioli filled with roasted chestnuts, white truffles and Parmesan is floated in a soup made with roasted parsnips and puréed vegetables blended into a smooth, milky stock. The broth was thin and subtle, to contrast with the earthy ravioli. In another dish, large ravioli were stuffed with sweetbreads, braised in Madeira and mixed with cèpes and sautéed eggplant, served on an emerald-green spinach coulis. It sounds strange, but it was thrilling. Two trim venison filets were drizzled with a deep-red sauce flavored with beets and licorice powder. The accompanying celery-root-and-potato gratin hid slices of venison sausage.
Our pre-Raphaelite waitress was well-schooled in the menu, which lists some ingredients that may stump the table. Kamut, in case you didn’t know, is an ancient Egyptian grain that was apparently discovered in a pharoah’s tomb and replanted. (After 3,000 years, it still worked!) The stubby, wheat-like kernels accompanied slices of rare loin of lamb marinated in Dijon mustard and thyme. The chicken breast was served with crones, which look like large cloves of garlic but taste like a cross between an artichoke and a potato. They went down very nicely with the foie gras–truffle sauce-and a dash of fleur de sel, of course.
If giant turnips are not on your list of the season’s most desirable root vegetables, Mr. Renaud will make you think again. He cuts them in slivers and fashions them into a galette with figs and dates, topped with sage. A juicy pigeon was perched on the edge of the tart, accompanied by a rich salmis made from its liver and heart.
Roasted sea scallops served with Jerusalem and crispy globe artichokes were complemented by sweet and tart pan juices mixed with sherry wine and vinegar and honey. Filet of escolar was steamed with garlic oil and set afloat on a wonderful panaché of wild mushrooms in champagne vinegar, olive oil and muscadet, with a discreet spoonful of soy sauce to give it an edge.
“In France, if they bring dessert before they take the salt off the table, they lose their third Michelin star,” said a friend archly when our waitress brought over the dessert menu. “They” took away the salt and we had one of each of the four desserts. A chocolate soufflé nested in a dark-chocolate tart shell was paired with a delicate, sorbet-like milk-flavored ice cream to cut the richness. Light, airy tiramisù, served in a martini glass, was subtly flavored with banana. The raspberry feuilleté-thin layers of puff pastry topped with a zeppelin of white-chocolate caramel ganache and filled with fresh berries-was simply extraordinary. So was the warm, caramelized-apple crêpe, a favorite dish from Mr. Renaud’s Breton childhood, that was served flat, not rolled, with Devonshire cream. The homemade sorbets were works of art, made from pineapple, grapefruit and pear and served on paper-thin candied slivers of their respective fruits.
At Fleur de Sel, where dinner is a $52 three-course prix fixe , Mr. Renaud turns out the sort of haute cuisine you would pay a great deal more for at a grand French restaurant. But at heart it’s a casual neighborhood place. On the way out, there was large basket filled with little white packages of Breton sea salt. “Help yourself!” said our waitress. This must be the first restaurant where people would rather steal the salt than the shaker.
5 East 20th Street460-9100
noise level: Low
wine list: French and Californian, many bottles under $50
credit cards: All major
price range: Lunch main courses $15 to $16.50, prix fixe $28. Dinner prix fixe $52
lunch: Monday to Friday, noon to 2 p.m.
dinner: Monday to Saturday, 6 to 10:30 p.m. good
no star poor