Back then, if you’d asked me about French cuisine, I wouldn’t have much insight to offer because I never received a proper introduction. And I’m pretty sure those cheesy escargots that my mother forced me to try five years ago don’t count.
My first introduction to real French cooking was at Sel et Poivre several weeks ago when I was invited to blog about the bistro’s dinner menu. Helmed by Chef Christian Schienle, the quaint eatery started in 1989 on the busy strip of Lexington Avenue and it offers “a taste of Paris on Lex.” For those wondering, Sel et Poivre literally translates into Salt & Pepper — core ingredients in the cooking.
Rustic and refined, the interior features honey-colored walls lined with black and white photographs and walnut paneling. Elegant flower-shaped lamps bathe the dining room in a warm yellow glow, creating the perfect ambiance for a nice dinner setting.
Chef Schienle — an amiable, robust Austrian man with a huge passion for French cooking — swung by our table every 10 minutes to chat. Anchored by Schienle’s creativity and passion for authenticity, the menu features a variety of wallet-friendly French classics and a growing list of international wine.
The first thing to hit our table was the Celery Root Remoulade with Red Beets. Strips of remoulade-drenched celery perched upon a bed of beets, creating an exotic combination. It was delicious, tinted with a slight spicy tang from the sprinkling of yellow curry powder.
And then there was the Red Pepper Bisque—a piquant and flavorful reddish broth. Most soups are cream-based, but this was prepared strictly from potatoes. It was light and healthy.
Those two appetizers were great preludes into our entrees. Dinner rolled out with the Wild Striped Bass first, served with artichoke hearts, fennel and black olive lemon oil. This was one of the best bass I’d ever had, and I promise I’m not exaggerating. The succulent white flesh exuded freshness, crusted with a thin layer of lightly salted crispy skin. The artichokes and olive lemon oil complemented the dish well.
As for the Duck a l’orangewith Wild Rice, the juicy duck meat was coated in a sauce made perfect with lots of butter, apples, onions and of course, salt and pepper.
Next up was the Aged New York Sirloin Steak, where slices of medium-rare steak were served with two types of sauces: Roquefort and Poivre. The latter was a spicy pepper sauce, while the Roquefort was cleverly crafted from sheep blue milk cheese that hailed from the southern region of France. Everyone at the table loved both sauces, but we all agreed that the Roquefort was simply genius.
When the Veal Kidneys with Mustard Sauce, Boiled Potatoes and Spinach arrived, I held my breath. So yes, I grew up in an Asian household where things like chicken feet and gizzards weren’t uncommon, but veal kidneys were still pretty new to me. The kidneys tasted rather gamey, but the mustard cream sauce added a nice layer to the dish.
Before we were done with the kidneys, Chef Schienle brought out Veal Liver and that was how I learned that the French really like animal organs. The liver was nicely cooked and served with lots of onions.
After the hearty entrees, we were spoiled with some of my favorite things in the world — Chocolate Lava Cake and Crème Brulee.
The lava cake oozed with rich, viscous dark chocolate that was creamy but not overpoweringly sweet. It was coupled with vanilla ice cream, buttery cream and sweet raspberry coolie. The crème brulee hit the spot, its lightly charred surface cracking to reveal smooth and creamy custard.
I thoroughly enjoyed my first French dining experience, and will definitely be heading back before the winter ends for more of that red pepper bisque and wild striped bass!
SEL ET POIVRE
853 Lexington Ave., New York, NY 10021