[Pigging by Wilfrid: March 7, 2012]
In an unlikely twist to the story, veteran tocque Cyril Renaud has gone upmarket again, switching his Flatiron crêperie and bistro Bar Breton into a restaurant recalling the cuisine, if not the ambience, of his former venture Fleur de Sel.
Bar Breton, a sliver of a property on Fifth Avenue, bar and booths at the front and a few tables at the back, served tasty savory buckwheat crêpes, or galettes, together with a few bistro dishes and some polished bar food: in the latter category, I liked the burger with blue cheese and the salt cod fritters.
Suddenly, in the same spot - and not much changed - we have La Quenelle. Goodbye burger, as far as I could see (although you can still get croquettes and pommes frites at the bar, welcome back tasting menu and ambitious carte.
And the moment you embark on the former, you are whisked back ten years to Renaud's Fleur de Sel menu. Kind of.
The first of five courses on the $75 tasting menu is goat cheese and artichoke ravioli with paddlefish caviar and a beet-mustard reduction, close to a carbon copy of a Fleur de Sel signature, although I have a feeling the caviar back in 2000 might not have been domestic.
It was always an ingenious dish, the salty dab of fish eggs bringing out the earthiness of the filling, the beets sweetly rounding it off. Characteristic, it turned out, of La Quenelle's performance - the skin of the ravioli was just that bit more gummy than it should have been.
The second course was less substantial than the first, and might better be served as an amuse. Some tiny bites of lobster with refreshing apple chips which disappeared almost before I could register them. (Note, no menu is yet available online, and server descriptions were cursory).
Wild striped bass with mushrooms gestured less at Fleur de Sel than Le Cirque, recalling Daniel Boulud's famous paupiettes of sea bass in Barolo sauce. The fingerling potato crust did not have the prettiness of the potato scales I recall from Le Cirque, but I often think serving this kind of fish with a red wine sauce is a good idea.
Speaking of red wine sauces, the reductions with the following two courses seemed perilously similar. I wonder if the kitchen is simply giving different accents to the same base sauce? Madeira, I think, was the addition to the moat surrounding the seared foie gras. I asked my server about the purée, and he identified it as spinach (this was after a conference too). Spinach, I remarked, is green. He went away and came back again. Apricot.
Veal breast also came from the fondly remembered Fleur de Sel playbook. It's a difficult cut, requiring long slow cooking, and despite its fat content can come out dry. This was dry-ish.
Another red wine reduction joined it on the plate, as well as a green coulis the derivation of which I missed. Spinach, perhaps.
Dessert was light and delightful. Crème brûlée served neatly on a disk of warm brioche, prune and Armagnac ice cream (one of my sweet tooth favorites).
Make no mistake, this was a nice dinner. Renaud was present, in his kitchen outfit (blacks, actually, not whites). I never had the impression that he was "phoning it in." At the tight price point, he may not yet be achieving the consistency in the kitchen he would wish. Similarly, the front-of-house, though warm and cheerful, never give the impression that they had eaten, or would consider eating, the food. Descriptions seemed to have been learned by rote.
As to the carte, there's not let up in luxury. A trio of foie gras, Long Island duck breast with (this time) a port wine reduction, and harking back to La Caravelle, his famous quenelles de brochet with seafood risotto and lobster foam.
When he goes upmarket, Renaud surely goes upmarket. The wine-list carries some hefty Burgundies, but a few cheaper country wines. The tasting menu permits a $45 wine pairing which begins, disappointingly, at the very low end - a Babich sauvignon blanc (generally a ten dollar bottle), and moved on through an interesting (if also inexpensive) Beaujolais blanc, Chateau Chatelard, to a red from the Languedoc. It was disappointing that the same sweet wine, a Sainte-Croix du Mont appeared with both the foie gras and the dessert.
It was one of a number of signs that, as yet, things aren't quite right here. But I wish Renaud, in what might turn out to be a Quixotic venture, the best of luck.
Extra gripe: Please transfer bar tabs to table tabs. It's absurd to have to have to settle a credit card bill, walk two yards to my table, and open another one.
Very little info as yet at the Website.