Classic French Fare at New York's Sel et Poivre

Staff Writer
Disappear off Lexington Avenue and into France at this charming bistro
Melissa Kravitz

Parisian touches like a chalkboard menu and wicker chairs add French flare to Sel et Poivre

In New York, there are few restaurants that make the ten-year mark, let alone the twenty-year. Sel et Poivre (853 Lexington Ave) has been serving classic French bistro cuisine since 1989, and is still going strong in its renditions of traditional Parisian dishes.  

After opening the restaurant originally with her mom, Pamela Schienle and her husband Christian took over as the owners. Christian serves as the chef, wine director, and half-owner of the establishment, and acknowledges that the key to their happy husband-and-wife business is working on alternate days.   

Entering Sel et Poivre off Lexington Avenue truly brings you into a little pocket of Paris.   The 10-foot L-shaped oak bar features wooden barstools that have a charming vintage feel.  Sit down and order a glass from the impressive international wine list.  Christian suggested that I try the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and though I hesitated for a second, the first sip convinced me that this man knew his wines. This was easily the best Sauv Blanc I'd ever tasted, so fruity and full bodied; I could see how this wine list could get dangerous quickly.

Food is served at the bar, but the romantic dining room enchants diners with a more intimate experience. The 65-seat dining room buzzes with a melange of company on a wintry weeknight: from grey-haired neighborhood regulars to a younger crowd sporting trendy clothes and colorful tattoos.  High ceilings, candlelit tables with white linen tablecloths, and leather banquettes truly give off a Parisian vibe.  Pale yellow walls are decorated with black-and-white framed family photographs as well as famous prints by European artists. 

And of course, the classic, sophisticated atmosphere trickles straight down to the menu. The Fish Soup ($8.75) is a must try.  Again, I was a bit skeptical, as a dish called Fish Soup leaves not much to the imagination (I envisioned a dead salmon floating in a bowl of broth), but the dish was truly fantastic.  The pureed red snapper creates a fresh, flavorful, and light soup, that warms you with every sip.  The dish is also served with bread, shredded Swiss cheese, and a homemade rouille –– a garlicky aioli with a peppery kick, which Christian jokes will certainly keep vampires out of the restaurant. 

Salt and pepper –– or Sel et Poivre –– have never been touched during my dining experiences here.  All the food is well-seasoned and naturally flavorful. Other tasty traditional dishes include Celery Root Remoulade with red beets ($8.95), various terrines of pate made in house, including venison and duck (M/P), and Escargots with garlic butter and herbs ($9.75).  The restaurant's signature dish may very well be the Skate Fish with lemon, capers and basmati rice ($19.95).  The fish is light and falls apart delicately in your mouth; the acidity of the lemon and pickled capers brings out the sweetness of the fish, making each bite delectable.

And don't forget to save room for the dessert du jour! The rich chocolate cake drizzled in raspberry sauce melts in your mouth and is a notable favorite.  

Prices are certainly reasonable here; find excellent deals on the Two-Course Prix Fixe Lunch ($15.95), Three-Course Prix Fixe Dinner ($29.95), and the weekend brunch menu, which includes coffee and a choice of brunch cocktail ($15.95).

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For a taste of France just off one of New York's iconic streets, step into Sel et Poivre.