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The discreet charm of Fleur de Sel (long review)

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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.

First visit
       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. 

       Second visit
   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.

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  1. And in my ecstatic Proustian musings I forgot an important pecuniary detail. The $25 three course lunch is one of the city's best unsung bargains. The entrees, which change daily, almost always include some of the more expensive items from the a la carte menu... so if you ordered the entree alone it would cost about $32. Unlike many top chefs, Mr Reynaud is usually there for lunch. And, a true artist, he doesnt think about cost. He used to put so much truffles in the $25 lunch soup that for once I could fully appreciate their musky, mysterious perfume. Someone must have told him that he was losing money on the soup; if he'd sold a lot of those soups he would have gone broke.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Brian S.

      I whole heartily agree with your praise of Fleur de Sel. I ate there, on Friday, for my birthday , .My choices echo your own on your second visit except my dessert was a beautifully constructd thin, rectangular Italian meringue topped with a scoop each of mango,strawberry and raspberry sorbet.It was a very nice way to spend a birthday luncheon. My husband and I plan to return.

    2. thanks so much for sharing, brian. i had the tasting menu at fleur de sel last year and it was phenomenal...i've been longing to go back.
      i'm sure your mom really appreciates your journal entries. i hope she gets better.

      1. Thank you for your review - we always "mean" to try it, usually for Saturday lunch, and always end up at Gramercy Tavern instead, because the dining room looks empty. Next time, b/c of your review, we will go there instead!

        Best wishes for you mother.

        1. Brian,
          Loved your reviews. My mouth was watering and
          I can't wait to go to Fleur de Sel. You've also
          renewed my faith in Chowhound as well.

          My best to you and your mother. Flynn

          1. I found Fleur du Sel to be pretty mundane in the cuisine department, but quite pricey. Good service and excellent wine list. The room is drab (hard to make hopsacking warm and inviting) and overlit. Once was enough for me.

            1 Reply
            1. Are you channeling Barbara Cartland?

              1. "On top of the fish was a galangal leaf..."

                "No Asian spice, no wasabi or galangal, has ever seen the inside of its kitchen."


                2 Replies
                1. re: Rico Pan

                  Yes, this post combined two journal entries written a week apart. I noticed the inconsistency when I was editing the post just before posting it here. And I thought, what the heck, I'll leave it and see if anyone notices. The leaf might well not have been galangal. It had a strong citrus flavor. Maybe it was verbena?

                  1. re: Brian S

                    Maybe a kaffir lime leaf? was it like citrus but also strong like ginger?

                2. I wish to thank you all for your feedback, for your kind words, and for your good wishes for my mom. I hope you all try the $25 lunch and enjoy it. In return for your help, here's a tiny snack from Fleur de Sel:

                  Image: http://www.fleurdeselnyc.com/images/s...

                  1. I just returned after a year's absence. The $25 lunch is as good as ever. My first course was a frothy soup made of delicious sweet corn puree. Submerged in its depths were savory wild mushrooms and a few squares of ravioli which explode in the mouth with an intense basil flavor. This was followed by a perfectly cooked sea bass filet atop a bed of sweet onions, and frothing around this was s red sauce made of lobster emulsion, rich and salty with the tang of the sea. Dessert was tiny apricuts under a pastry roof. The place was half empty. You'd think there'd be a line out the door.

                    1. I must agree - Cyril Renaud is one terrific chef. And those goat cheese raviolis with the beet reduction are fabulous!

                      We've gone to Fleur de Sel a good number of times in the past few years and have attended a few parties in the home of a friend when Cyril did the catering. He had prepared most of it in his tiny kitchen at the restaurant, then did the final cooking and composition at her house. It was really fun to be on the other side of the counter in my friend's open kitchen, watching as he and his 2 helpers churned it all out. And, of course, he made his signature apple crepes. We're looking forward to another one of those dinners in December.

                      4 Replies
                      1. re: Deenso

                        Bumping this because I've been eating here over the past two years and am still in love in this place. The cooking is so well executed and thoughtful that I tend to come back here every few months. Has anyone had the Caramelized Granny Smith Crepe with Devonshire Cream? It is one of the best desserts I've ever had, this coming from a serious foodie who has eaten in Paris, Tokyo, and years in New York. I particularly love his signature ravioli dish and meat duos. Anyway this place gets my check of approval, probably my favorite french restaurant that isn't a minimum of $100 a head.

                        1. re: silencespeak

                          Thanks for bumping it. I think it was my first review on the Manhattan board. It's an easy place to be in love with... especially with lunch at $29. I think I've been going there for seven years now. I started going soon after reading William Grimes' review in 2000.


                          1. re: Brian S

                            And that apple crepe is my favorite dessert in the city....even if it's not on the menu, he might whip one up for you, doesn't hurt to ask.

                            1. re: bob192

                              We have been going to Fleur de Sel since it first opened in 2000. We're huge fans of Chef Renaud's superb cuisine, and Chef de Patisserie Devon McDavid's dessert creations are truly inspired. The Brittany crepe is a signature. It has been on the menu since Day 1 and always remains.