The smell of smoke and fire interrupts our quiet dinner conversation and makes the pleasant French soundtrack ringing in the salon wash out into the ether of my brain. My nostrils flare outwards and I pause mid-sentence, craning my neck around to see what’s going on. Two retro looking glossy black plates are being carried in either hand by our waitress and are quietly laid in front of us. A duet of shrimp and white asparagus are tangled together and embellished with dots of sabayon and a buttery looking cream. A translucent slice of mandarin props up the tail of the shrimp, which is lightly blackened and the source of the charred perfume. It hugs around the delicate asparagus tube and begs to be eaten as a pair.
French born Jean-Baptiste Pilou, head chef and owner of the chic Fleur de Sel, earned his stripes at the Cordon Bleu before working at three-starred Michelin restaurant Guy Savoy in Paris. It was there that he met his wife, Salta-born pastry chef Valentina Avecilla, whom he would later follow back to Buenos Aires. The pair worked separately for a time — him at La Bourgogne, her at Tegui — before deciding to open this small French bistro hidden in the depths of Belgrano R five years ago.
You will find Pilou in the restaurant all day everyday. He arrives each morning at 9am to begin prepping the evening’s service. His meticulous style is hidden behind simple flavors wrapped into few, albeit selective, elements that arrive on the final dish.
“I don’t like the idea of decoration. I only put things on the plate to add flavor,” explains Pilou, “I’m more concerned with their being a diversity of flavors like acid, sweet, savory, than making something look pretty. I don’t put flowers on things for social media. They are there because you can actually eat them.”
The asparagus and little lakes of cream sauce shine bright white on the plate and with the exception of a few bits of char, the shrimp do, too. They all stand at stark contrast from the large and shiny black plate they sit on. But neither the plating nor its contents feel like self-congratulatory attempts at conceptual cooking but rather the product of skill mixed with happenstance. “We were lucky to find some white asparagus had come in from Peru,” Pilou quips nonchalant.
Everything dances together perfectly, and as you dip your fork into different combos, the dish grows and builds layers. The meaty shrimp and earthy slightly softened asparagus have a purity of flavor when paired alone, but the cream sauce adds a surprising layer of citrus and fat that comes out stronger when dipped with a touch of sabayon.
The rest of the menu, which can be ordered a la carte or as a four or seven course tasting menu, follow the same line of thought. Plump pine mushrooms are buried underneath a floor of white and pink flowers that perk upwards like the first day of spring. A soft-boiled egg melts out gooey yolk slowly drips to the bottom of the dish filling everything with a creamy buttery bite. Crispy skinned bass served with mussels and a shrimp emulsion streaked across a thick vegetable sauce—I didn’t much care for the mussels but the fatty-flavored bass cut apart in large flakes to soak up the sauce.
A hearty magret of duck is cooked to a lovely medium red. The meat is gentle and tender and the skin was cooked crisp without losing the homey fat layer. Soft baby carrots were slightly sweet and highlighted by a single slice of mandarin that pulled the flavors back to the first shrimp dish. For dessert, a cloudy puff of lemon cream is dolloped onto a crepe shell. The airy cream makes the pops of blueberry and elderberry all the more explosive.
Recently, Fleur de Sel has expanded to offer lunch service at downtown’s Alianza Francesa, with Avecilla running a kitchen that offers more traditional French fare.
Fleur de Sel
La Pampa 3030, Belgrano R
Tuesday through Saturday from 8:30pm to midnight