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A Meal at Fleur de Lys

[whitespace] Fleur de Lys
More Than Just Lean Cuisine: Fleur de Lys chef Hubert Keller creates healthy dishes made with vegetable purees and broths.

David Fortin

Whether vegetarian or not, Fleur de Lys provides a lean and light approach to French cuisine

By Paul Adams

Hubert Keller has been operating Fleur de Lys for over a decade now, and cheffing around the world for quite a bit longer than that; the effect of his coolly masterful touch is an air of comfort and security. He is an exuberant chef of an extremely high caliber, and a pioneer of "lighter" cooking, combining a traditional French emphasis on the flavors of prime ingredients and classic techniques with nonstandard ingredients and combinations (or the lack of standard ones). In what has now become a usual style, he creates healthful dishes by flavoring and thickening them with vegetable purees and broths rather than fats and dairy ingredients.

But while this leaner approach may be the modus operandi at Fleur de Lys, the passionate and urgent flavors of the dishes loudly say that healthfulness is not their raison d'etre; there is another imperative at work here.

At Fleur de Lys, the patron is seated under a canopy of bright red fabric hand-painted with a vegetal motif which is echoed in the upholstery and semi-psychedelic plates and candles. The effect of this tent is a unique cozy splendor; it rises in the center of the room to accommodate a massive floral arrangement. Tables are also available in alcoves removed from the big top, which alcoves' beams and paneling suggest perhaps an antique European inn.

The meal begins with very fresh crusty bread in a choice of varieties, served by the bread waiter. (Service is hierarchical and extremely competent.) There is a full a la carte menu and two degustations: one vegetarian and one non-. There are preselected wines to accompany the degustations in addition to an extensive and impressive list if you prefer to select your own. The a la carte menu has a wealth of salads, soups, appetizers, and entrees of fish, meat, and vegetable. Offerings are by and large dependent on the season. To entice the diner, awaken the palate and pass that stretch of pre-appetizer time, little canapés are often brought out--for example, a little sliver of egg onion tart, redolent with thyme.

This author appreciates the vegetarian tasting menu: Fleur de Lys supposedly was the first upscale restaurant to offer a vegetarian menu (now everyone's doing it), and since this is where the chef's innovation lies, it is an excellent showcase for the restaurant. Plus, of course, if you prefer to avoid meat, it's the obvious choice. On a recent visit it consisted of, sequentially: cauliflower mousseline; eggplant caviar; braised celery hearts; handmade orecchiette with wild mushrooms; and a choice of dessert.

The mousse is extremely light and creamy, a small mound of it surrounded by a softly pungent watercress sauce and punctuated by vertically inserted blue-potato chips like paper-thin purple lenses, their crispiness excellently complementary to the delicately smooth mousse.

"Eggplant caviar" is not a particularly good name for this garlicky puree. It is served chilled in the form of a cucumber-wrapped timbale, with pleasingly al dente couscous layered on top. The cylinder is surrounded by succulent cherry and teardrop tomato halves and little blobs of sweet and rich mango sauce. This last sounds funky, but its vague tartness offsets the somewhat bland uniformity of the rest of the dish.

It's good to see attention being paid to subtle-and-therefore-often-overlooked celery for a change, especially such flattering attention as this. Hearts of celery are braised with roasted shallots and olives, and served atop a mild tomato nage with broccoli, baby asparagus and fresh cherry tomatoes. The result is a hearty and harmonious ragoutish dish in which each vegetable has a clear voice. Knife, fork and spoon are required.

The orecchiette dish is truly dazzling. Served in a miniature copper saucepan, with a nest of crispy fried leek strands on the side, it is hot, and foamy on top, and best eaten with a spoon. The pot contains a dense, herby, buttery mass of little perfect pasta ears and assorted wild mushrooms: morels, black chanterelles, cepes, possibly shiitakes. It is delightfully rustic and rich, with overtones of wood and nut and earth and wine. The raw tomato fragments on top and the leek nest provide necessary and exciting textural contrast.

Dessert options include a quince pie, coconut and pineapple meringue cake with poppy-seed ice cream, chocolate-orange pie with vanilla ice cream, chocolate crème brûlee with coconut ice cream, chocolate and raspberry sabayon soufflé with caramelized pecan ice cream, and a sorbet trio, among others. Desserts are very good, and complicated, but not spectacular, with the possible exception of the intense chocolate truffles.

As a restaurant should, Fleur de Lys provides an experience which exceeds what can reasonably be created at home, not least through sheer creative variety of offerings. Because of the volume and diversity of the cuisine, it isn't possible to summarize it effectively, only to give examples. Every visit is different, and exceptional.

Fleur de Lys, 777 Sutter St.; 415/673-7779.

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From the March 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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