Sel et Gras: Frenching the West Village
The walls and ceilings are spray-painted with the neon words "Salt and Fat," as if this were the underground rebel headquarters of a food-policed state, where renegades meet to share contraband jars of duck confit. Sel et Gras, in the West Village, is a funny little place that celebrates rich, Frenchy classics with bite size portions and food-nerd tags.
Although the theme is the French Revolution, Nicholas Pfannerstill, who took over the kitchen two months ago, keeps things pretty straightforward. A trio of croque mademoiselles ($12) makes for some lovely snacking. The teeny sandwiches of ham and Gruyère are held together by a dab of cheesy béchamel and topped with fried quail eggs. Their soft yolks run. Smoky chicken croquettes ($9), hot and milky inside, beg for a glass of something sparkling. Skewers of tender lamb meat ($12) with yogurt sauce and raisin jam are simple but satisfying. Wee escargots ($12), straight from the oven, come crowned with a skinny little baguette. But ignore the bread! If you really want to eat like a king, order french fries with your snails and dip the crisp, Parmesan-dusted potatoes into pools of hot, garlicky butter.
Images of Napoleon haunt Sel et Gras. A framed portrait on the brick wall, a pewter statue in the bar. "It's the soup that makes the soldier"—his saying comes to mind after tasting the mussels ($12), crammed into a too-small dish, filled with a weak and watery broth that lacks the fortifying punch of butter, wine, and salty mussel juice. Other dishes are wanting something as well. The fish on the smoked salmon tart ($12) is cut too thickly and served on a fat, doughy flatbread with a rather feeble rendition of "everything" spice. Indian-style cauliflower and green beans fried in a chickpea-flour batter ($9) are dull, even with a side of sweet tomato jam. Because of those expert croque mademoiselles, you know these dishes could be better, more refined.
Sel et Gras
131 Seventh Avenue South
But order well and Sel et Gras can be a nice spot to have a drink with friends. French pop and hip-hop play not too loudly, and every few minutes there's that gentle reverb—the trains below, rumbling like the city's belly. Candles burn in Weck jars and a chilly breeze from Seventh Avenue blows in through the open doors. Women meet to catch up, balancing on wobbly, backless stools, while at the bar a wine lover sticks his face as deep into his glass as possible and shares notes with the bartender. Together they sniff, swirl, and sip away an hour. The gray-haired South African couple gets chatty with the table next to them, and by the end of the dinner, the couples are exchanging information to meet again for dinner at a fancy Italian restaurant.
Service hesitates and can sometimes be a bit too hands-off. Twice, the check was brought without asking if my table wanted dessert or coffee. Hey, we did! And on one occasion, I sat in a quiet dining room for 25 minutes, waiting for a late friend to join me, but it was 10 unbearable minutes before I was offered a glass of wine. A good waitstaff knows that a woman, or anyone, who has been seated alone needs to be greeted warmly and offered a drink within a minute or two. These are the small, meaningful gestures of hospitality that can lift an evening and help carry a mediocre dish.
When portions are tiny, shouldn't the price tags match? The most expensive dish on the menu at Sel et Gras is an $18 hanger steak. At that price, you might imagine a full, composed dish, but this is a puny fan of sliced meat, very nearly blue under a sauce of bone marrow. At brunch, the same steak can be yours for $17 and includes a bit of green pistou, a fried egg, and fries—and this seems more reasonable. A cue from the server about what to expect would certainly be helpful, but a menu like this shouldn't need explaining.
For dessert, there's cheese. Or a chocolate pot de crème ($9) swimming in some absurdly retro raspberry coulis and garnished with a half-hearted quenelle of whipped cream and three fresh raspberries. It might not be revolutionary, but it's never been a bad way to end dinner.
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.
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