Thursday, October 28, 2010

Sel et Poivre: an affordable touch of Paris on the Upper East Side

Sel et Poivre (853 Lexington Ave., Upper East Side)

One couple clinks glasses of Cotes du Rhone, while another tears from a warm loaf of peasant bread, dipping it into the fragrant broth of the mussels a la provencal, both tables gazing upon Lexington Avenue over a lush partition of autumnal chrysanthemums.  At the bar just beyond, neighborhood friends gather before moving to a table for an anecdotal evening of comradery.

In the main dining room, dark wooden beams stretch across the ceiling toward the floor, like deep chocolate feuilletine carefully strewn across walls of a french vanilla custard.  Soft candlelight illuminates the white linen tabletops, intensified by antique sconces along the periphery.  Family photos of vacations and Parisian street scenes add a welcoming touch to the bistro, which is run by chef-owner Christian Schienle and his wife (and co-owner) Pamela, whose extremely warm and welcoming sweetness is visible throughout the entire evening as she delivers drinks and circulates throughout the dining room.  Sel et poivre ("salt & pepper") has been an Upper East Side window into Paris dining since its doors first opened in the summer of 1989.

Dinner begins with a glass of Stellina di Notte, a lightly sweet and citrusy prosecco with a hint of pear and melon.  Wines by the glass rather affordably range from $6.50 to $14, while half and full bottles range from a $19 Beaulieu Vineyards Chardonnay to a $350 bottle of Chateau d'Yquem, with practically everything in between.

Shortly after we toast, a tray arrives at the table with soft croutons of sliced french bread, a mound of shredded swiss cheese, and a bowl of rouille (a garlic aioli with crushed red peppers).  The waiter instructs us to use the garnishes in any manner we choose, but he recommends a small dollop of the rouille on the bread rounds with a sprinkling of cheese, then floating it in the fish soup which is now being placed before us.  Naturally, I take his recommendation.

Though the simplistic titles on the menu may do little to tantalize the appetite, each dish is deliciously more complex than the unrevealing monikers imply.  This fish soup ($7.75), for instance, is a hearty and fragrant, thick tomato broth laced with a base of red snapper and accents of a variety of other seafood, all of which have been pureed so that only the strong whisper of the ocean is present in this otherwise velvety soup.  With the twirl of a spoon, the garlic cream blends with the melting fromage, creating one of the most exquisite bisques I have ever tasted.  The vibrant bubbles from the prosecco awaken everything, and I am instantly in heaven.

The next course features a beautifully crisp and creamy white celery root remoulade on a pedestal of shimmery magenta beets.  This root salad appears simple enough, but one bite reveals the tanginess of the beets, and a surprising yet fantastic slight kick of cumin and curry in the remoulade.

The next dish wowed me in its simplicity and expert execution.  The mildly sweet and moist wing tip of skate fish with lemon and caper beurre blanc is everything you hope from a classic French dish.  The butter-drenched filet is so expertly prepared that it nearly dissolves on the tongue, with the salty kiss of the plump capers.  Served with tender grains of basmati rice, it's quite literally a perfect plate ($17.95).

It reminded me of a clip I once watched of Julia Child preparing a similar version, so I thought I'd throw it in for those who might want to try it.  If you are unfamiliar with skate, it's a particularly informative video about how to transform a somewhat peculiar and ugly fish into a rather simple and exquisite meal. I absolutely love every aspect of this clip from 1980 (for a point of reference, today on flounder is $14.99/lb and skate is $10.99/lb).

Tender, earthy, and sublimely decadent calves' liver is blanketed with caramelized onions and a lyonnaise sauce ($18.95).  This classic white wine demi-glace with sweet onions adds a magnificent sweetness to the thinly sliced medallion of liver, tender enough to taste like a grand sauteed foie gras.  A lumpy heap of buttery smashed red potatoes sides wonderfully with this hearty plate, all of which is smartly paired with a 2007 Vintners Cuvee Syrah from Rosenblum Cellars in Sonoma ($10), a spicy red wine with hints of lavender and vanilla that harmonize gorgeously to cut the richness of the meat.

What bistro would be complete sans a steak au poivre, executed here to remarkable effect?  Tender and lean, buttery aged New York sirloin is crusted with cracked red and black peppercorns, served in a pool of a silky, spirited poivre sauce of calvados brandy and cream.  Of course we also had to try the pommes frites, delicious golden steak fries with bits of crispy potato skin speckled with salt crystals.

As our server poured a cordial glass of Chapelle-St-Arnoux muscat ($6.50) the color of sweet golden raisins, I sighed in surrender, happily full and ready for sleep.  Although I vowed I couldn't touch another morsel, you can guess how much remained of my terrine de chocolate, a flourless sliver of light as air chocolate mousse.  I think I spooned up even the last drop of raspberry coulis.

Sel et Poivre also features prix fixe menus for brunch ($14.95), lunch ($13.95 or $17.95), and dinner ($27.95).  

Sel Et Poivre on Urbanspoon


tropix13 said...

I loooooooove Sel et poivre! My family & I travel all the way from our home in Hawaii for their food,& it feels like Paris! Tropix13

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