Worth Its Salt
Fleur de Sel caught my eye because of the romance of the phrase. It means "flower of salt," a/k/a "the caviar of salt," which is harvested from flats in Brittany and around the Mediterranean and prized by up-to-date foodies, who value its earthy crunch and well-rounded softness. Because I'm most familiar with the Camargue version from the south of France, for me it carries with it thoughts of fennel, lavender, and rosemary. My Provençal reveries were confirmed by a pristinely napped table outside the doorway topped with an exuberant bouquet of flowers and the menu, which enticed passersby with its signal of a warm welcome. Inside, an airy, open room with a small bar of carved wood subtly extended the Gallic references, and a small cellar of the flaky salt at each table honored the restaurant's name. Presented with the menus by Gaby, our efficient and model-handsome waiter, we noticed that the prix fixe was a hefty $52, but felt that the glorious room made the place a worthy candidate for a splurge if the food lived up.
The ample selection of items changes daily, with none of those pesky prix en supplement to boost the price higher. We feasted on salads of fresh greens filled with toothsome chunks of red and yellow beets before moving on to mains. In for a penny, in for a pound, we went whole hog on a sumptuous half-bottle of 1997 Steele Shooting Star ($30) that harmonized perfectly with my poussin with white asparagus and morels. The tender chick was blanketed in a lush sauce that cunningly combined foie gras and Armagnac. My Southern friend marveled at her crisp-skinned salmon, which arrived atop a pile of ramps mined with caramelized shallots. We'd have forgone dessert if we hadn't already paid for it, but instead soldiered on and shared a caramelized pineapple crepe topped with a rum raisin ice cream in which, for once, I could actually taste the rum-plumped raisins. Then there was a fallen-soufflé-style confection of chocolate in which the warm cacao-scented innards mixed perfectly with the coolness of the accompanying vanilla ice cream.
Delighting in the spot's proximity to some of my favorite shopping venues, I was soon back for another helping. This time I headed straight for the Steele Shooting Star and snagged the cellar's last bottle. Knowing it wouldn't last, I sipped water with my yellowfin tuna tartare appetizer: a brick of hand-chopped fish bound with a lemon gelée and flavored with the pungency of ramps. Commenting on the linguistic overkill, my guest enjoyed the carpaccio of confit of peppers: a slip of mouth-melting red and yellow bell peppers topped with a crunch of sunflower seeds and pimento-stuffed olives and flavored with what we took to be a hint of verbena. Then we popped the cork and moved on to mains. Her pigeon arrived splayed out on a bed of carrot puree with a delicious if indecorous arrangement of ramps and was so tasty that she didn't mind its being a little pinker than the medium requested. My meltingly tender lamb loin punctuated the pleasantly gamy flesh with a pillar of seed-mined greens and more yummy beet pieces. My friend ended with a sugar-rush fantasia that combined fresh raspberries, airy caramel sorbet, and flaky pastry. I passed on dessert, preferring to continue with a cheese plate that included an ordinary Gruyère and a sublime Saint Augustin, sip the last of the wine, and linger with my vinous dreams of the mistral-blown salt pans of Provence.
Fleur de Sel
5 East 20th Street, 212-460-9100.
Open Monday through Thursday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5 to 9 p.m. Major credit cards. Limited wheelchair access.
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