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Monday
Mar192012

La Quenelle

 

Note: La Quenelle closed after an extremely brief run. The chef, Cyril Reynaud, says he hopes to re-open in a “more intimate setting.”

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During the Great Recession and its long aftermath, one chef after another substituted grand ambitions for humbler ones. You can’t blame the chefs for this: they have families to feed. Still, you can’t help cringing every time it happens. Or celebrating the opposite.

Enter La Quenelle, chef Cyril Renaud’s return to his métier after three years serving crêpes and flipping burgers.

The backstory in brief: Renaud worked for six years as chef de cuisine at Bouley and another four as executive chef at La Caravelle, where he earned three stars. Then in 2000, Renaud opened Fleur de Sel in a jewel box space in the Flatiron District. William Grimes awarded two stars; a Michelin star followed. I dined there twice, the first an ill-advised Christmas Eve (the usual rule about holiday meals) and a much better visit in 2006, to which I gave three stars.

In 2009, the chef added a casual spot around the corner, Bar Breton, dedicated to savory crêpes (called galettes), small plates, and of course a burger. We liked it—for what it was—but no one would mistake it for his flagship. But shortly thereafter, Fleur de Sel closed; unsurprisingly, the chef cited the economy.

Almost three years to the day, Renaud shuttered Bar Breton and re-christened it La Quenelle, returning to the more elegant classic French cuisine he was known for in the first place. (It’s named for the quenelles, a dish for which he was especially well known at La Caravelle.)

La Quenelle is necessarily a compromise, in many respects. It’s built on the bones of a much less elegant space, though he’s added tablecloths, lowered the lighting, and decorated it with his own paintings, which Grimes (at Fleur de Sel) called “wobbly efforts in the manner of van Gogh.” I’m not sure if the chandelier (above left) built from inverted glassware is Renaud’s work, but it’s a beaut.

He’s trying to bring back a more elegant class of service that Fleur de Sel had nailed, but the staff are still learning. When asked if he could transfer the bar tab to our table, the bartender took on a pained look, as if his dog had just died. “We prefer that you settle it here.” But after a conference with the manager, he transferred it anyway.

Memo to staff: no restaurant should tell you what it prefers: if you can accommodate what the customer has requested, just do it; better yet, offer before they ask. (When the Pink Pig dined here, a few days before we did, a similar request was not granted.)

The menu resurrects memories of Fleur de Sel to a considerable extent, but at a lower price point. Tellingly, although all the mains are above $25, only one surpasses the psychologically crucial $30 barrier. Appetizers are $13–17, and a five-course tasting menu is $75. In contrast, the last meal I had at Fleur de Sel was $79 prix fixe for three courses—and that was six years ago.

The lower prices probably limit the quality of the ingredients in ways I’m not able to articulate, but to me, this meal was a pretty good approximation of Fleur de Sel’s best.

 

I started with a Foie Gras trio ($18; above left), with a torchon, a terrine of glazed artichoke and black truffles, and another with smoked almonds. My girlfriend had the Burgundy Snail & Polenta ($15; above right) with a red wine maple sugar reduction and parmesan tuile. Both dishes were labor intensive, beautifully plated, and excellent.

 

So too were Maine Sea Scallops ($30; above left), with curry roasted carrots, fresh grapefruit, curry foam, and artichoke chips. The Quenelle de Brochet ($29; above right) is the chef’s signature dish, as well as the restaurant, so it is no surprise it’s superb: a delicate fish dumpling in a seafood and roots risotto, and bathed in a lobster foam.

When we don’t want a meal to end, we order dessert. The Mascarpone Banana Mousse ($12; right) with langue du chat, coffee ganache, and a white chocolate crisp, could do battle with the best of the dessert card anywhere in town.

The wine list could be broader and deeper. A 2002 Saint Emilion at $47 was one of the few bargains at the lower end. As they did at Fleur de Sel, the staff kept the wine on a cart in the middle of the dining room, a system that can only work if they are attentive about refilling empty glasses—which they were.

The only reviews so far are from Gael Greene and the aforementioned Pink Pig, both of whom had mixed, although largely positive, reactions. They also sampled more of the cuisine than we did.

Is La Quenelle the rebirth of Fleur de Sel, or a last gasp? Time will tell, but this cuisine is a notoriously tough sell with the professional critics. In the early going, Renaud can fill the place with old friends. Longer term success depends on reaching a new audience.

La Quenelle (254 Fifth Ave. between 28th & 29th Sreets, Gramercy/Flatiron District)

Food: Classic French, beautifully done, by a master of the trade
Wine: Mostly French, with some good bottles, but could use more breadth
Service: An approximation of the old Fleur de Sel, with some rough spots
Ambiance: The casual Bar Breton space, made more elegant and slightly redressed

Rating: Category Killer
Why? If you treasure this cuisine (as we do), where else have you to go?

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