My favorite part of France is Provence, in part because of its wonderful food. Among my fondest memories is devouring a delicious fish soup in an unpretentious bistro on a warm spring day in Avignon. Unlike Bouillabaise, its more famous cousin, it is strained or pureed and accompanied by divine dollops of rouille (garlicky aioli with a peppery kick), thin slices of toasted French bread, and grated cheese. (I am a sucker for a good rouille, which I first discovered in Julia Child’s Mastering The Art of French Cooking, page 50.)
So imagine my delight when I recently came upon that same, wonderful fish soup (rouille and all) in an unpretentious but charming East Side French bistro, Sel et Poivre, reasonably priced at just $7.95.
Sel et Poivre, which opened in 1989, is now the love child of husband-and-wife Pamela and Christian Schienle. Originally launched by Pamela and her mother, who retired a few years ago, Pamela oversees the 65-seat dining room and full-service bar, and Christian presides over the kitchen as Executive Chef and Wine Director.
The Schienles have put together a winning combination for those of us who like affordable French food, a cosy candlelit setting and friendly, low-key ambience. Sel et Poivre is a warm and welcoming place for neighborhood people, shoppers from Bloomingdales and art folks fresh from an event at the nearby Park Avenue Armory. Though the wine list is mostly French and American, the restaurant itself — with its antique sconces, banquettes, white table cloths, dark wooden beams, pale yellow walls and prints from renowned European photographers — feels like a transplanted Parisian bistro.
The menu is wide ranging: classic bistro fare plus enough salads and pastas to accommodate anyone from the-ladies-who-lunch to a picky child or grandchild. Depending on your mood, you can eat simply and, for the Upper East Side, reasonably. You can dine a la carte, choose a Prix Fixe menu or share with friends, as I did the other evening, a leisurely and thoroughly delicious dinner of the restaurant’s “signature” dishes.
While waiting for our meal, we enjoy a bubbly glass of a prosecco, recommended by Pamela, who circulates in and around the tables all evening, checking that her guests are well taken care of. Than we begin with the wonderful tomato-and-red-snapper-based fish soup, as sunny as a Provencal sunset. We carefully mound the rouille on a slice of toast before floating it in the bowl (the suggested method) and scattering fresh ribbons of grated Swiss cheese on top. It’s perfect. (On Monday, Bouillabaisse is offered).
Next comes a delicious root salad: an oval mound of celery remoulade, with an unexpected hint of curry in the mayonnaise dressing, atop an oval bed of cubed red beets. It’s beautiful to look at and refreshing to taste. ($7.95) I can imagine a perfect lunch or light dinner of those two dishes alone.
Basically, French food is all about the sauce, and nothing better exemplifies this than the fish dish – a perfectly executed Skate filet in a classic lemon and caper beurre blanc sauce. All I can say about their rich and tasty sauce is mmmmmmm. Served with basmatic rice, the dish is a total winner. ($17.95)
The same can be said of the Calves liver a la Lyonnais. It’s the sauce—buttery caramelized onions deglazed with white wine—that transforms and elevates this basic peasant dish into something quite special. It’s enormously popular with Sel et Poivre diners. ($18.95)
Pamela slips us a small slice of the restaurant’s Steak au Poivre and French Fries, just to taste another one of their renowned dishes. I am not a big steak person but everyone else at the table fell in love with the aged New York sirloin encrusted with peppercorns bathed in a brandy and cream sauce. As one person observed, “I could make a meal out of just the French fries dipped in that sauce.” ($28.95)
Last is definitely not least. The restaurant’s flourless chocolate cake with a touch of raspberry coulis ($6.75) is a small piece of heaven, amazingly light and beautifully presented. It melts in the mouth and is absolutely worth the extra hour on the treadmill to work off.
Pamela (photo, below) brings us a French dessert wine (Muscat Beaum de Venise $6.50) to end our dinner. A bit over top, but exactly how I remember the finale to so many wonderful meals in France. I feel as though the illusion of being on the Left Bank is complete.
I look forward to my return visit.
Sel et Poivre is open for brunch on Saturday and Sunday, dinner seven nights a week. Reservations are recommended. To take a look at their full menu, and hours, go to their website: www.seletpoivrenyc.com
Sel et Poivre
853 Lexington Avenue (Between 64th and 65th Streets)