Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Restaurant Week New York Entry #64

One of the more peculiar events in New York - a town filled with the jolting and the eccentric - is Restaurant Week. Here restaurants advertise special lunches (at $24.07 - get it?) (and some dinners - at $35.00) that allow some restaurants to pack their tables serving meals that cost the same as the prix fixe that they offer the weeks before and after and for others to allow their chefs to snooze at the stove with dishes conventional and spare. The week provides an excuse for Bridge and Tunnel tourists to descend on Manhattan restaurants, filling each chair, and causing chaos throughout. But if it works, go for it.

To embrace this marketing triumph, some friends and I chose lunch at Fleur de Sel. Fleur de Sel [gourmet sea salt] has a daily prix fixe three course lunch menu at $25.00, so we saved a cool $0.93 - or, as New Yorkers might say, that and $1.07 can get you on the subway. [A four course lunch with a cheese plate is served for $42.00.]

Undeniably Fleur de Sel is a graceful restaurant. Even on a rainy day, Fleur's interior space is sunny Brittany. Its colorful prints, flower arrangements, and bright tones is a pick-me-up. The dining room is a small space with a lithe French country feel.

At some restaurants, one feels that the lunch specials are a come-on, a loss leader, to get diners in the door where they learn of the good stuff at inflated prices. Lunch at Fleur de Sel is an honorable occasion. Yes, the vanilla lobster salad with truffle mayonnaise and sugar cane/coffee marinated pork chops were reserved for our betters, but during Restaurant Week, perhaps no lobster or sugar cane were needed in the larder.

I started with the finest soup I have had in New York (recalling that the once amazing Soup Kitchen International is now a metastasizing franchise). Chef Cyril Renaud's parsnip soup with roasted chestnut/parsley ravioli was exquisite. The bits of truffle - black and white - was the kitchen's gift to diners. While I rarely order truffles, when used moderately, they perfume a plate. The liquid was straight-up butter, cream, and parsnip: a January bracer. The ravioli was more Valhalla than Venice. I could eat these pasta pouches all afternoon. This parsnip soup, so well rooted, is one of the finest libations I can image.

My entree was Pan-Seared Drum Fish with Baby Carrots and Mushrooms in a Lobster Whisky Emulsion. Our server explained that Drum Fish is related to seabass, a claim that I have no reason to doubt except that I seem to be told that every fish is related to seabass. Drum Fish are carnivores so they get what they deserve. However, the description of this dish promises more than the plate delivers. It was a satisfying alliance of fish and vegetables. However, the emulsion didn't have much of an impact. The fish was rich (Fleur de Sel is a butter peddler), but it was an earthbound contrast to the transcendent soup

Dessert was Raspberry Feuilleté with a White Chocolate Caramel Ganache. Sandwiched between two thin wafers was a layer of plump berries. Spooned on top of this edifice was a ganache glob, icing posing as sorbet. Eating ganache is licking the beaters when the frosting is done, slightly less challenging but equally indulgent. Fleur de Sel is stomach - not heart - friendly. However, as rich as the burnt sugar ganache was, the dessert was routine: a plate of calories, not of memories.

To imagine this lunch, alternately sparkling and pleasant, served for $24 is to demonstrate that bargains endure. And New Yorkers believe that bargains are their right. The first $24 purchase - the mythic sale which all New York schoolchildren learn is their birthright - was the purchase of the island itself by Peter Minuit from the Lenape Indians. But times change. Today $24 would not be enough to buy a pound of fleur de sel. Thankfully butter is cheaper than salt.

Fleur de Sel
5 East 20th Street (at Fifth Avenue)
Manhattan (Union Square)

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