Charm School

As much as people analyze and hypothesize about our relentless pursuit of beauty and the inordinate amount of power given to it in our culture, it’s really a fairly obvious trait. You don’t have to be Camille Paglia (whew!) to recognize the universal appeal of Michelangelo’s David or Makena Beach in Maui, or to understand why David Letterman fails to blink while he interviews the model Gisele Bundchen. Charm, however, is a far more elusive quality. It requires time to be discovered. Its origins are not as easy to divine.

For example, a restaurant can be deemed beautiful as soon as you walk through the door. Most anyone who has been there remembers the moment when, after you ascended the staircase, the dark, rigid grandeur of The Four Seasons’ Grill Room first came into view, or your maiden dance under the Deco chandelier on the Fred-and-Ginger-perfect floor of the Rainbow Room. But charm is rarely a first-sight kind of sensation. You won’t necessarily find it woven into the curtains or hanging from the ceiling. You have to sit down and wait.

Take Fleur de Sel. The entrance has been under a scaffold from the day it opened on a bleak Flatiron-district street that boasts less foliage than the Bonneville Salt Flats. The room is stolid, square, and overly lit in spots (it’s bright enough by the window for Georgette Klinger to inspect your pores), with a flat terra-cotta floor, perfunctory café furniture, and equally unremarkable flowers. Worst of all, two of the walls are exposed brick, the calling card of all thoughtless seventies-era urban renovation, sure to unwittingly (and unpleasantly) remind you of wine bars and loft beds. Hopeless, right?

Didn’t I tell you to wait? I have been to Fleur de Sel about a dozen times now, and not always for work. Why? Because it is gently winning, unfailingly satisfying, and effortlessly charming. There may be nothing compelling to look at – other than your dinner companions, so choose wisely – but for all its lack of splendor, a relaxing sensation takes over as soon as you enter the room, like a kind, warm hand firmly landing on your shoulder, assuring you that there is nothing more to worry about. Your last stressful decision was made when you passed under the scaffolding. This is one contented room. Half its inhabitants probably don’t even notice the brick.

Should your suspicions remain, they will soon be dismantled by the confidence of the staff, each of whom seems to be willing to perform any task for your benefit, from taking your coat to refilling a water glass. The small room never feels close or cramped because everyone moves from one task to the next with smooth assurance. Best of all, everyone involved exudes pride in what Fleur de Sel offers: a finely honed menu with virtually no missteps, marked by a preference for grace and delicacy, boldness without boasting, and balance without a touch of blandness.

Ever buy a person a perfect gift, one that takes him by surprise because he had no idea you knew how much he wanted it? Chef-owner Cyril Renaud must feel like this all the time, because his precisely edited menu is buoyed by unheralded treats delightfully hiding amid many of his dishes. Snapper is delicately seared, but it’s the scotch-lobster sauce with a brash tweak of harissa paste that turns the dish jigworthy. Parsnip soup arrives looking like the work of an overzealous Starbucks employee: a bowl of foam nominally anchored by a few parsnip slices. However, the foam is not only luscious and faintly sweet, but beneath the clouds lie barely earthbound squares of ravioli bursting with the lush flavor of chestnuts and white truffles. The rustic, earthy quality of otherwise silken sweetbread ravioli is enhanced by a superb coarse broth of cèpes, sautéed eggplant, and creamed spinach. I think rose water is as cloying as most Jane Campion movies, and apricots are as in-your-face as Shania Twain’s wardrobe. But combine the two and something fresh and subtle happens to a seared foie gras. Baby shrimp, watercress, and celery leaves would make a breezy salad on their own. Adding vanilla-lemongrass vinaigrette to it is like putting a diamond in the bottom of a glass of champagne: a perfect, if over-the-top, complement.

There is a beet-licorice sauce to make suddenly ubiquitous venison taste new, and a nutty Egyptian grain called kamut waiting to share the limelight with a loin of lamb in the softest of Dijon marinades. One galette of turnips and figs hidden beneath the succulent Catskill-bred pigeon is simply not enough. Roasted scallops get a sweet-and-sour honey-sherry gastrique that renders them wonderfully unfamiliar. Chicken gets a rejuvenating bath in a sauce of foie gras and Armagnac. There aren’t many more choices. But how many more do you need?

Despite one or two overly interpretive ice creams and ganache accompaniments, the dessert selection – chocolate tart soufflé, caramelized-apple crêpe, tartare of poached pear in cassis, and raspberry feuilleté – is blissfully in concert with the first two courses of the prix fixe menu. All told, it could leave you almost grateful that Fleur de Sel makes do with armless chairs and not plush banquettes or loft beds. However, just so you don’t feel too at home, the menu has a printed request against the use of cell phones in the room. Be still my heart – and all those little Nokias. Let others pine and lust and forsake all else for beauty. I will be content to while away my hours counting the grains of sea salt in the little wooden bowl on my table at Fleur de Sel, a happy slave to charm.

Fleur de Sel
5 East 20th Street (212-460-9100). Lunch, Monday through Friday noon to 2 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Thursday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 9 p.m. Prix fixe: lunch, $30, dinner, $52. V., M.C., A.E.

Charm School