Scarcity is the mother of invention, non?
French cuisine, at its heart, is about peasant food, from the old stewing hen going into the cooking pot, to frog legs. Using ingredients that were scrounged for during times of want is a time-honored tradition: frog legs, snails, offal—not much was ever off limits when you were hungry.
Much of the genius of these dishes lies in the sauces. That’s why at Sel et Poivre (“salt and pepper”), I’d venture to say your greatest ally at the table is the bread basket. The venerable French bistro that’s been serving in Midtown East for about 25 years, makes sauces so good, you’ll want to mop up every last drop—in the good old French way, of course. The French bread, sourced from Long Island City’s Tom Cat Bakery, and served warm and crusty, is more than worthy of the job.
The frog legs ($18.95 for lunch and $20.95 for dinner) are not usual American fare, and if you’re feeling squeamish gazing at the lithe little legs a little too long, like my dining companion did, you might lose your nerve and pass on the amphibian.
But it’s well worth gathering up your courage if you’re not an adventurous eater. There’s not much meat, but it is delicate, tender, with a slightly crisp exterior. They are served in a surprising but delicious sauce, of garlic and Pernod, which imparts ever so pleasant undercurrent notes of anise.
There are snails, too ($8.95 lunch, $9.50 dinner). To me, escargots are just an excuse to load up on the addictive, bright-green sauce of garlic, butter, and parsley, aided by the slices of French bread, and served with a timbale of wild mushrooms and basmati rice. No timid flavors here. Forget it for a date, but if you love garlic, this is a good pick.
The menu announces dishes without fanfare or embellishment. That’s rare in an age where many menus give a lengthy rundown of method and ingredients in minute detail. But if the lack of pretension keeps prices affordable, especially for the neighborhood, then so be it. Three-course prix fixe lunches are offered for $13.95 and $17.95; dinner prix fixe, $27.95.
The matter-of-factly named “Fish Soup” ($7.95 lunch and $8.75 dinner) anywhere else would have a meaty little paragraph of description extolling its virtues. From looks alone, you can’t tell it’s a fish soup—no heads or chunks anywhere, but rather a smooth, pureed soup, with a base of red snapper, that tastes somewhere near Marseille, recalling flavors of Provence and the French seaside. Taste the soup on its own, then swirl in some rouille, a rust-colored aioli with tomato paste, garlic, saffron, and paprika that comes on the side. It is addictive. Or heap the rouille onto crispy toast that comes along with it, sink it to the bottom of the soup, and work your way to the sunken treasure.
Even the grilled salmon makes an unexpected but good marriage with white beans, whose stock add a creaminess to the white wine sauce ($20.95 lunch, $22.95 dinner).
The marvel is that though being mostly classics, the entrees are quite light. The sauces probably could accommodate more cream and more butter according to the classic old-school canon, but they don’t suffer any less for it, and in fact achieve a nice balance of light but satisfying.
There are also daily specials, from coq au vin on Tuesday, cassoulet on Friday, and couscous royal on Saturday. (The latter has become an adopted French dish.)
Finally, what’s a French meal without dessert? Well, personally, I can never say no, even if every health magazine right now is trumpeting the latest ways to lose that winter weight to squeeze in those summer swimsuits (hey, it ain’t over yet, is all I have to say).
The crème brûlée was my death knell—perfectly creamy with that crackly caramelized top. Although it ended the run of light classic dishes, I hobbled out into the wintry night completely sated.
An Owner With Many Hats
The man behind the dishes, desserts, and wine list is Christian Schienle, who runs Sel et Poivre with his wife Pamela Schienle.
Born and raised in Vienna, Austria, Christian Schienle apprenticed at the famed Hotel Sacher.
Eating and drinking are in his DNA, he said. He’s now the fourth generation of his family to be involved in food and drink. Back home, his family used to make its own bacon and blood sausage (in the bathtub, of all places) and make use of every part of the animal, including the pig’s head. “The cheeks are the best part,” he said. For a moment, there is a far away look to his eyes. “Too much good stuff.”
Schienle is also a hunter and fisherman. Laws don’t allow him to bring back his own game, but being a big fan of game, it is always served as specials. Wild boar, having a reputation for being the Italian Viagra, goes quickly, he said.
He will be offering a game tasting menu March 10–23, available a la carte or for a $65 prix fixe for three courses. The menu includes venison shank served with porcini mushroom risotto; wild boar burger with cheddar cheese, onions, jalapeños; and stuffed quail with goat cheese, port wine reduction, sweet potato purée, and wild rice.
When fishing is in season, though, he casts off his boat, moored at Jones Beach Inlet, and brings the catch to the restaurant.
The wide-ranging wine list features international wines, though the offerings from France are extensive.
From the unpretentious menu, well-executed food, and full wine list, to the warm, classic bistro atmosphere, Sel et Poivre is a terrific place to while away the hours.
Sel et Poivre
853 Lexington Ave. (between 64th and 65th streets)
Monday–Friday noon–4 p.m.
Monday–Thursday 4 p.m.–10:30 p.m.
Friday–Saturday 4 p.m.–11 p.m.
Sunday 4 p.m.–10 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday noon–4 p.m.