Monday, June 13, 2005

Restaurant 37: Fleur de Sel

RESTAURANT: Fleur de Sel
LOCATION: 5 East 20th St.
DATE: June 10, 2005
FOOD: $25 Prix Fixe Lunch: Appetizer - Goat Cheese & Artichoke Ravioli, Paddlefish Caviar, Beet-Dijon Reduction; Entrée - Roasted Cod, Tomato Confit & Spring Garlic Coulis; Dessert - Crème Fraiche & Vanilla Panna Cotta, Confit of Rhubarb, Strawberry Sorbet.
BEVERAGE: Tap Water.
PRICE: $32.00

Everybody loves a deal. Rich or poor, the lure of a specially priced quality item is enough to catch just about anybody’s attention. Perhaps, this is especially true when it comes to gourmet food. Paying $3.50 for a bargain basement selection of reheated frozen “delicacies” at Old Country Buffet lures no one but the incredibly cheap or incredibly obese. But, a $25 prix fixe lunch menu at a two star Manhattan restaurant, whose dinner tasting menu runs to $75? – Now that’s something unique. While Manhattan’s restaurant week offers the best chance at such value, that’s only twice a year. Fleur de Sel, the lovely Flatiron French restaurant, dishes up their $25 lunch year round, seven days a week. If Fleur del Sel hired Morrie from Goodfellas for some 15 second TV spots to plug the deal, word would get out, and this lunch “secret” might explode.

Fleur de Sel’s design would appease Fredric Jamison with its postmodern blends. The exterior façade is that of a country, Province bistro, while the interior is slick and contemporary. It’s a peaceful, quiet space, if a bit too small for the number of tables. The lunch menu includes three courses: an appetizer, entrée and dessert, each with two selections to choose from. The menu changes daily and includes dishes from the regular menu. There is even a three course $17 wine pairing for those who want to revive the ‘80s, American Psycho/Wall Street get smashed on your lunch hour of power.

I began with the goat cheese and artichoke ravioli. With two of my favorite ingredients as the filling for my preferred pasta, this dish had the same pre-assured stink of success as a Vanderbilt heir. But the addition of the robust beet saucing and subtle daubs of caviar made this dish something even Babbo diehards would love. In a dish with this many loud flavors, it would be easy for internal competition to ruin any shot of cohesion (see last year’s Lakers). Luckily, that wasn’t the case. The fresh and velvety goat cheese received bolstering from the artichoke, while the caviar and beets worked as stark contrasts to the ravioli’s smoothness. A larger portion of this pasta would have been an outstanding lunch (or dinner) entirely on its own.

The roasted cod which followed was good if somewhat nondescript. Reminiscent of the cod at L’Ecole, the fish and saucing were simple and straightforward. The cod could have been tenderer, but was far from dry. The tomato and garlic coulis provided the dish with a beautiful green color, but little else. It had a pleasant buttery taste, but failed to really augment the cod in a meaningful way. The cod was like a Horatio Alger novel – given as a seafood introduction to a fish novice, it would have been entirely successful – given to an English professor, and it would have imparted significantly less of a reward.

Fortunately, the meal didn’t end on the mediocre cod – though with the lag time between entrée and dessert, it very well seemed to have. While expecting a Chili’s-esque 15 minutes or less guarantee would have been fallacious (and such needless rushing, completely unwanted in that type of environment), the service was too lackadaisical for a lunch hour in this city. After all this is New York, not some sleepy, Yoknapatawpha County (I had a high school English teacher offer extra credit to anyone who could spell Faulkner’s fictional region correctly) backwater town. Twenty minutes between entrée and dessert is just too long.

However, when it finally did arrive, the panna cotta was well worth the wait. With the luxurious, feathery creaminess of an Italian cheesecake, this panna cotta made me seriously reconsider my avowed dislike of this dessert. The vanilla hues were restrained but noticeable, allowing the crème fraiche to dominate and not result in a taste too much like vanilla ice cream. The rhubarb, sliced into four, thin leaf-like strips, segmented the panna cotta into quadrants, but added a delightful bitter contrast to the sugary sweetness of the strawberry sorbet and caramelized brittle. It was an inversion of strawberry-rhubarb pie a la mode that acted as if it were the original and not the update.

$25 can go a long way. It can buy hundreds of ballpoint pens, enough candy for Halloweens now and into the future, and at least one cocktail (two might be a stretch) at a Manhattan lounge. But if you have some time to kill at lunch, it might be best spent at Fleur de Sel, where a taste of excellent contemporary French cuisine can be had on the cheap. Now where’s Morrie and his awful wigs for the classy commercial?

RATING: 7.3/10

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