Everyone knows Fleur de Sel, and almost everyone underrates it. (Perhaps not on this list, but in the world at large.) Most critics bypass its discretely elegant yet astonishingly sensual cuisine in favor of the flash and dazzle of celebrity chefs. Cyril Reynaud can beat the pants off any of these chefs. But he'll never be one of them. That requires a lot of gladhanding, hobnobbing with the glitterati, and Mr Reynaud is too busy cooking. For the first few years, until he found a sous-chef he could trust, he cooked every dish coming out of the kitchen. He still does most of the work. And he's too nice a guy to be a self-promoter. I once complimented him on an entree and he told me, "my sous-chef created it"
I've eaten at Fleur de Sel for years but my mom's been sick and I haven't been able to get there for months. I ate there twice recently and wrote accounts of each visit to cheer her. It occurrs to me that these little journal entries show how good Fleur de Sel is, and for that reason I am sharing them with you.
Fleur de Sel is just about my favorite restaurant in the whole world. I haven't been back there since last year. I went today... and I'm still in love. Cyril Renaud is an unsung genius. The food is so beautifully presented that I'm sure the Museum of Modern Art would send a guy around to photograph it, if they only knew. (Not a bad idea for a MOMA exhibit, actually, photos of food in top restaurants.) I'll have to go back with a camera.
First course. A sheet of glass like a frosted windowpane, inedible, merely a foil for four jewels, each a brightly colored perfect teardrop. The first, and largest, minced raw mackerel. The second, a creamy pudding made of mustard and butter. The third, caviar. The fourth, minced purple onions with vinegar. On top, lovage leaves, lending more color and a hint of celery.
The main course was a big thick fillet from a monkfish that was lazily swimming around Long Island over the Labor Day weekend. Around it was a lovely autumnal red lobster and wine emulsion, exuberantly bubbling, and tasting a lot like the classic Sauce Nantua without the cream. Alongside was a tomato confit; the tomato, roasted at a very low heat for 5 or 6 hours, basically stewed itself in its own juices, and the flavor was so concentrated that each tiny bite was a heady Platonic ideal of tomato. There were a few thyme leaves concealed somewhere, so every few bites I'd get the summery, surprising taste of thyme. On top of the fish was a galangal leaf which, when chewed, burst with bright lime flavor.
Dessert: banana mousse, the bottom layer minced bananas long macerated to yield a heady flavor, topped with a light frothy cream whose exquisite taste had the essence of tropics and summer. All contained within a circular enclosure made of the thinnest wafer, and, as a roof, paper-thin slabs of brittle. caramel.
Back to Fleur de Sel, genius chef Cyril Renaud's domain. I was seated next to a Japanese couple. A lot of Japanese find their way to Fleur de Sel, which may seem strange, since it is the one NYC restaurant that never follows any foodie trends, such as Asian fusion. No Asian spice, no wasabi or galangal, has ever seen the inside of its kitchen. But my first course showed me why the food aesthetic is quintessentially Japanese.
Three tiny jewel-like ravioli, stuffed with salty goat cheese and topped with caviar and a few tiny green leaves, floated in the center of a sweet, beet-red sauce made, not coincidentally, of beets. Something as beautiful as the finest sushi, but cooked.
Second course: Duck. Six thin slices of breast, cooked so rare they tasted like steak, set in a fan next to a rectangle made of pieces of leg meat topped by a rectangle of crispy, fatty skin. Beneath was thin crunchy asparagus with pieces of various wild mushrooms, and the crisp clear flavor of fresh thyme. Around it all, dark brown sauce made of mushrooms and wine.
Dessert: thin slices of perfect, slightly cooked peaches set in a pastry shell, topped by a dollop of homemade sour cream and a paper-thin caramel roof.
I once read an article by a woman who visited one of the best restaurants in Paris. "It was so beautiful that tears came to my eyes," she said. Now I know how she felt.