Fleur de Sel is one of those under the radar gems that I’ve never felt has gotten the props it deserves. Run by chef/owner Cyril Renaud, it’s a precious little Michelin-starred jewel box on a rather sleepy block of 20th Street that’s one of my favorite spots for an intimate and luxurious meal. But times are not exactly primed for luxury at the moment, and while I certainly hope that the economy ricochets back into gear, for now restaurants peddling elegant haute cuisine are not exactly on my (or probably your) go-to list.
Which is why I was quite pleased to learn that Renaud had decided to open a more casual restaurant, a Flatiron area spot serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, dedicated to his native cuisine of Brittany called Bar Breton. Not only was I intrigued by a restaurant dedicated to this region’s cuisine, but I was also impressed with the fact that despite the hard times we are all going through, Renaud opened Bar Breton with a mission of giving. Every year he will donate five percent of Bar Breton's annual profits to a different charity, starting this year with Citymeals-on-Wheels. Nice.
And the warmth of that spirit of giving is evident in the restaurant as well. Bar Breton glows with soft golden light through the glass façade onto the street. Water glasses painted with swirls of cherry red give the room an immediate sense of joy and whimsy. The bar, a long stretch of wood matched with Windsor bar stools built by George Ainley (a Vermont woodworker), had a nice crowd of twosomes catching up after work—men with ties loosened, women with feet dangling out of their heels. You’ll find the bar topped with something very unusual: ceramic coffee cups. I was perplexed. Where were the wine glasses? Was everyone on the wagon? Not quite. While wine is served here (50 whites and 50 reds from around the world, and some nicely priced ones, too), the more unique draw is the list of French farmhouse ciders, which are served as they are in Brittany, in white ceramic coffee cups. The list includes East Coast and Breton apple ciders such as Farnum Hill Farm (New Hampshire), West County Cider (Massachusetts), and a "Sidre Brut" from Eric Bordelet, a French producer of Breton cider, which I particularly liked. It’s lightly alcoholic (only 4%) and just slightly sweet and tart, balanced with a bit of hops.
Beyond the bar, you’ll find the dining room lit by carved wooden sconces topped with extra wide chocolate linen shades and earth-toned walls painted with ornate floral patterns that are often seen on china patterns in his native land. Straight wooden booths for two and four occupy the front part of the restaurant while the rear offers a collection of tables made of reclaimed wood from a Vermont barn, with an eclectic collection of mix and match antique chairs (some are not suitable for adult-sized rears, or at least not my adult-sized rear), and an authentic soapstone sink from upstate New York with vintage Kohler faucets.
I read the menu and was intrigued by the presence of galettes, the buckwheat crepes indigenous to Brittany, filled with sweet and savory fillings. The one that caught my eye in particular was one filled with ham, cheese and topped with a sunny side up egg ($16). I love anything with a fried egg on top. I’d be interested in a cardboard reporter’s notebook topped with one, so a gooey ham and cheese crepe sounded pretty fantastic to me. It did not disappoint. Craig and I shared one, and aside from the marinated mushrooms, which seemed to get in the way of the egg, ham and cheese, the galette was heavenly—hot and gooey, smoky and cheesy, and lovingly glossed with the oozing yolk of a sunny side up egg.
Though galettes are the hook of this sweet neighborhood tavern (somewhat oddly located on 28th and Fifth), in some cases they were hit or miss. During the day, the galettes are served as they are in Brittany—a wide circular crepe filled up with eggs, cheese, chorizo, what have you, with the edges folded over to form a square. They’re great. But at night, Cyril rolls the crepes up to form these sort of long thin logs that he slices into 5 or 6 pieces for easy sharing. This is a nice idea, but it’s a mistake. The buckwheat crepe is too dense (they are gluten free which may add to the problem) and too dry to be layered on itself so many times. These crepes are meant to be one layer, not six. All I ended up tasting was the rather hearty, bready crepe, not the filling. The smoked duck galette ($13) suffers the most from this nighttime treatment. It’s altogether too dry and the filling is quite skimpy. But the galette filled with ripe slices of forme d’ambert, Anjou pear, honey and walnuts ($10) works much better, as does the one filled with horseradish crème and chiles and topped with sheets of wild smoked salmon, capers, radishes and fennel ($12). The salmon rivals the ham and cheese for Best Galette.
But Renaud’s menu offers much more than just buckwheat crepes. An entire section of the menu is dedicated to Niacs—snacks or small plates as they are more commonly known in these parts. Unfortunately, I found these suffered from inconsistencies in temperature and taste. A salt-roasted potato stuffed with braised veal cheeks and topped off with a crispy hat of Parmesan looked lovely ($8), but it was a snore. The potato tasted boiled, not salt roasted, and the dish was bland, like a miniature Shepherd’s Pie made by a very lazy Shepherd without access to seasoning, or apparently a hot stove. The dish was barely room temperature both times I ordered it. It just didn’t deliver what I was expecting (which would have involved a hot dish with flavor and texture).
The potato leek soup was also tepid, and quite thin, as if it had been treated to a cold shower before making it to the table. Similarly, a platter of golden baccala croquettes were pretty to look at but were cold, chewy and dense. But another night, the chicken croquettes were piping hot with béchamel and bacon spilling out of golden crunchy shells. The salad of warm French beans—skinny and tender—tossed with toasted hazelnuts, fresh mint, and sweet roasted tomatoes in a zippy creamy dressing was terrific—just as perfect for a picnic in the park as for dinner.
A small point here about bread service relates to a pet peeve of mine: cold (freezing cold) butter. As their bread service, Bar Breton serves thick slices of rustic country bread along with little pots of butter kept so cold that they might have been be chipped from a glacier. Why keep butter (especially such delicious butter from Brittany) at such a frigid temperature that one must use a steak knife to cut into it? It's not usable at this temperature and just tears up the bread anyway. Leave the butter out. Let it warm up. Please?
Moving on, entrees are divided into two sections: From the Grill and From the Plancha. A striped bass ($25) cooked on the plancha that was served over a sort of ragout of endive, bacon and chervil, was overcooked and had an oddly bitter and smoky flavor that was not at all pleasant. But the house burger ($16) was quite good, an ample round of well-seasoned beef set on a sesame bun topped with tomatoes, pickles and red onion and your choice of cheese with a tin of wonderfully salty and crisp rosemary dusted frites. Scottish Salmon ($24) was also lovely, a supple and succulent filet of pink fish, bedded on coins of fingerling potatoes tossed with fennel in a deeply flavored red wine jus. And the grilled pork chop was as juicy as it was massive, but it was served relatively naked, with a salad of roasted baby beets that seemed rather a haphazard accompaniment that didn’t really bring out the sweetness of the pork. But it did taste great with my cider.
Consulting Pastry Chef Yvan Lemoine (who helped launch Fleur de Sel eight years ago) continues the restaurant’s inconsistencies. Her nutella crepe is delicate and as decadent as it sounds ($6), but Chef Renaud's grandmother's recipe for Foutimassons, a type of beignet, are billed as profiteroles ($7) and are filled with banana crème. If these were called beignets I might have been ready for a cream filled donut, but as it was, I was expecting profiteroles and thought these soft pastry shells would have benefited more from cold creamy scoops of ice cream and chocolate sauce. Chocolate mousse was rich and dark but the texture was chalky rather than smooth, which seems like a mistake one might find on a Top Chef elimination challenge but not at a Manhattan restaurant.
At this point, Bar Breton is a work in progress and a promising one at that, with an appealing room and menu. Renaud is no amateur and the bumps in the road are sure to smooth out with a little more time and attention. Even with its ups and downs, it’s a restaurant that makes sense for these times, a sort of Brittany gastro-pub open all day with a friendly casual setting and gently priced fare and one that I look forward to returning to for galette and a cup of cider, a burger and a beer. It’s not Fleur de Sel, but in some ways, that’s the point.