Chef Renaud paints. His eye for a still life shows in this salmon presentation.
Savory buckwheat crêpes at his simple Bar Breton were Chef Cyril Renaud’s response to the city’s financial trauma in 2009 after closing his eight year-old Michelin-starred Fleur de Sel. Now he whips off the mask of making do, revealing the ambitious chef who won three stars at the late La Caravelle, still in the same down-sized crêperie space, cheerleading an economic recovery.
The chef is among those sentimental French cooks who keep the retro quenelle alive.
He calls it La Quenelle, invoking the gossamer pike dumplings from the old days. There is no cream in the updated ground pike batter nor in its Nantua-like sauce, except for a bit of whipped cream at the end to lighten it. And here, as at the late lost Caravelle, an island of seafood risotto with carrots and Swiss chard stems – added for crunchiness - nests alongside. Topping all, lobster foam. The familiar flavors fill my mouth and I think how close it is to perfect. If only it were a bit less grainy.
Tonight the goat cheese and artichoke ravioli on beet-mustard reduction is our amuse.
The amuse is back, too, wearing tiny broccoli flowers: two little paddlefish caviar-topped goat cheese and artichoke ravioli, the chalkiness of the cheese thrillingly set off by the sweet tang of its beet slick. Rye bread arrives warmed, wrapped in a napkin. And the price creep is not overly aggressive: appetizers $13 to $17, entrees $27 to $33, $75 for the chef’s five-course tasting. White tablecloths come off for lunch where there’s still a burger and a $29 three-course prix fixe.
Octopus is paired with the grain Kamut and black rice, watercress and cilantro. Ho-hum.
It’s clear from the flare and complexity of the new menu - Kamut grains and black rice, red-wine maple sugar reductions, chocolate-braised short rib - crêpes and burgers could never fulfill this man. I imagine him in his signature chef blacks, brooding and fantasizing over his crepe pans watching the Dow for a sign.
Burgundy snails on polenta with a red-wine maple syrup reduction celebrate recovery.
During a stock market roller coaster, he may have conceived of planting Burgundy snails on polenta with a rivulet of red wine-maple syrup reduction flying a parmesan tuile. It’s good, as is the pig and foie gras terrine with house pickles and Devonshire mustard ganache salvaged from Bar Breton’s offering.
Pig and foie gras terrine is a holdover from the Bar Breton menu.
The delivery of his smoked salmon might have been inspired by one of Michelin three-star Michel Bras’ exquisite blossom-strewn creations. The salmon is half-smoked, half-cured like gravlax, in-house, arranged in delicate tendrils on the plate with lemon confit, green herb sprigs, and a splash of horseradish vinaigrette.
A crunch of artichoke chips crown exquisitely cooked scallops. I don’t even mind the foam.
Exquisitely cooked scallops with a blossom cut for extra caramelization (Renaud worked with Bouley too) are surrounded by pink grapefruit, curry-roasted carrots and a curry foam, with artichoke chips for crunch. For all the rich chemistry of red wine and Valrhona braising, the short ribs are slightly tough and dry.
With skilled alchemy, Renaud produces a most unusual duck breast.
But Long Island duck breast, served with red plum and apple compote and Swiss chard, is astonishingly rare and evenly cooked, almost gelatinous. “Do you cook them sous vide?” I ask.
Absolutely not. He abhors the concept. “But I was tired of the chewiness of duck breast.” After searing it on the skin side, the skin is removed and it gets poached in duck fat. “Then it rests.”
Tonight’s red-wine-chocolate braised short ribs are sadly tough and dry.
Listening to him describe his techniques reminds me how French he is, that he is a chef who actually cooks. Balthazar’s bread is not merely warmed in Renaud’s kitchen. It is baked for 20 minutes. “That removes the humidity, recrisps the crust,” he explains. “There is always a bread in the oven for the next customer.”
Tropical fruit and a gooseberry on a slightly too frozen ode to the creamsicle.
Perhaps the orange creamsicle is not quite up to Creamsicles on a stick of childhood memories – it’s too icy. Still, I’m impressed by the gooseberry jewels (how rare is that, a gooseberry?). But you may feel as fulfilled as the chef himself if you end the evening with his apple tatin crêpes with Devonshire cream (a gift from the kitchen) or sensational crème brulee riding atop brioche pudding with Armagnac ice cream, plump raisins and scattered salted pistachios.
It’s not an impossible room for a crêperie but lacks elegance for La Quenelle.
It’s a shame La Quenelle is stuck in Bar Breton’s tortured space on Fifth Avenue. The chef’s paintings that seemed so charming at Fleur de Sel don’t do much for the narrow space beyond the bar or behind crowded tables, one step up in the back. It’s hard to imagine a stylish buzz in this place. But old friends of Fleur are already here. When you treat yourself next morning at breakfast to the house’s farewell crumbed coffee cake instead of your usual dumb kibbles and bits, you might find yourself drawn to go back.
254 Fifth Avenue between 28th and 29th Streets. 212 213 4999. Monday through Thursday 11am to 10:30 pm; Friday and Saturday till 11 pm. Brunch Saturday and Sunday from 10:30 am to 4 pm.
Copyright on these photographs is held by Gael Greene 2012. All rights reserved.