Entries in Cyril Renaud (3)

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?

Sunday
Jan252009

Bar Breton

 

Note: Bar Breton closed in February 2012. It has been renamed La Quenelle with the same chef/owner, Cyril Reynaud. He has dropped crêpes and will serve a more traditional French menu. Fleur de Sel, his other restaurant referred to in the review below, has also since closed, so it is not surprising that he wants to use this space to do something a bit more elaborate.

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Bar Breton opened about six weeks ago in the Flatiron District. It’s the casual sibling to Fleur de Sel, Cyril Renaud’s Michelin-starred place nearby.

Like many restaurants named “Bar X” these days (Bar Boulud, Bar Blanc, etc., etc.), there is a bar, but it’s beside the point. The menu offers a mix of French brasserie standards along with savory crêpes known as galettes. There are four of these ($12–18), along with small plates called niacs ($8–12), soups & salads ($10–14), mains ($16–26), sides ($5) and desserts ($6–8).

The niacs and galettes are in varying sizes. Some of the niacs are just nibbles, and others are full-blown appetizers. Some of the galettes are appetizers, and others can stand in for main courses. There’s a potential for confusion, but our server’s guidance was spot-on.

The whole menu fits on a page, and except for the burger, it stays true to Chef Renaud’s Brittany roots. It is also terrific food at a budget price. Our bill for two, including a bottle of wine for $32, came in below $100 (before tip). That isn’t easily done these days.

There is a $35 “restaurant week” menu, which I believe will be available at least through the end of February. You get four courses for that price, which is a great deal, though we chose to spend less than that by getting two courses each à la carte.

To start, we had the Salt Baked Potato with braised oxtail ($12; above left) and the Suckling Pig & Foie Gras Terrine ($11; above right). Both came from the niacs section of the menu.

I loved the Braised Lamb Shank galette with roasted winter vegetables ($18; below left). My girlfriend had the burger ($16; below right). I didn’t try it, but I did try the fries, which were perfect. Our theory is that no brasserie has any business serving fries unless it can nail them. Bar Breton did.

I have only one minor complaint. The back of the long, narrow space is separated from the kitchen by two swinging doors that let in a lot of bright light. It slightly mars the ambiance of what would otherwise be a nice room. Obviously it is a casual room, but a sturdier partition could have blocked out the kitchen light.

On a Friday night, the space was close to full by 8:00 p.m., which is always encouraging for a new restaurant. Service was fine, including a nice basket of fresh bread. In a tough economic climate for restaurants, this is one that deserves to succeed.

Bar Breton (254 Fifth Avenue between 28th & 29th Streets, Gramercy/Flatiron District)

Food: *½
Service: *
Ambiance: *
Overall: *

Monday
Nov062006

Fleur de Sel

Note: Fleur de Sel closed on February 21, 2009. Chef Cyril Renaud plans to focus on his casual restaurant nearby, Bar Breton.

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I had dinner at Fleur de Sel on Christmas Eve a few years ago. It didn’t wow me. Like other expensive restaurant dinners I’ve had at holiday times, it seemed mass-produced and over-priced. But with Fleur de Sel winning a Michelin star for the second year in a row, I thought it was time to give it another chance and was very glad I did.

Dinner at Fleur de Sel is $79 for a three-course prix fixe, which we had. Also available are a six-course tasting menu (with two choices for most courses) at $87, and the chef’s tasting menu (number of courses not specified) at $112.

The evening’s only dud was my appetizer choice: Maine Lobster salad, with truffle mayonaise and Asian pair ($5 suppl.). I found the cold lobster thin and flavorless. My mom and my girlfriend both had the goat cheese and artichoke ravioli topped with caviar. Both of them gave me a taste, and it was outstanding. The kitchen sent out a a trio of crabmeat pancakes as a bonus mid-course, which were also excellent.

We went our own ways for the main course. I had the crispy poussin, with organic arugula, wild mushrooms, and foie gras emulsion. This was the best poultry dish I’ve had since the bluefoot chicken at Alain Ducasse. The crispness of the skin and the tenderness of the flesh inside were a perfect contrast. My mom ordered the Atlantic Halibut, and my girlfriend the Duo of Lamb ($6 suppl.), and both pronounced themselves delighted.

A roasted fig dessert (which two of us had) was wonderful, as was a chocolate tart. A complimentary order of the raspberry feulletteé with white chocolate and caramel ganache was also sent out for us to share.

The wine list is rather expensive. Many pages have no choices under $125; bottles under $75 are scarce. I was happy with a Chateauneuf du Pape at $80, but I don’t think it would hurt to offer a few choices at lower prices. In an unusual arrangement, open bottles for the whole restaurant are kept on a table in the center of the room. We found this annoying, as we are quite capable of refilling our own glasses, and would prefer to do so at our own convenience, rather than a server’s.

The space at Fleur de Sel has a quiet, comfortable elegance. The décor is understated, but arguably a bit bland. The restaurant was less than half full on a Sunday night. Indeed, there was only one other occupied table when we arrived at about 6:20, although it had started to fill up nicely by the time we left.

Fleur de Sel (5 East 20th Street between 5th Avenue & Broadway, Flatiron District)

Food: ***
Service: **½
Ambiance: **½
Overall: ***