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.
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.