Restaurant Reviews

The French Conundrum: The Culinary Idiosyncrasies of Salé-Sucré

Get a behind the scenes look at Salé-Sucré by checking out our slideshow.

It's clear from the first bite of creamy, pungent cheese, a little wedge cut out of an entire wheel rolled in spices, that the chef knows his way around a Camembert. The squat cylinder of cow's-milk cheese is marinated in Calvados apple brandy, rubbed with herbes de Provence and pan-fried, then served warm with a drizzle of honey and a few rounds of toast. It develops a protective crust as it's marinated and fried, so when I cut into the wheel, the warm cheese in the center practically oozed out. It was all I could do to catch it on my knife and a piece of toast and hurry it toward my mouth before it had a chance to drip onto the table. Once it cooled a little, it sliced more neatly, and I abandoned the toast entirely in favor of eating the warm, nutty cheese like a slice of pie, crust and all. It's intended to serve two, but the three people at my table couldn't quite finish it, in spite of the fact that each bite of ripe, moldy rind and creamy, sour interior sank us further into a gleeful cheese coma.

The Camembert appetizer is a standout platter at Salé-Sucré French Bistro, a restaurant in a small strip center on White Oak in the Heights. And no wonder, as chef Philippe Harel is a descendant of Marie Harel, thought to be the original creator of Camembert. According to legend, Marie was a farmer living in the village of Camembert in Normandy during the French Revolution. In 1791, she saved a priest from the village of Brie from death by guillotine when she hid him at her farm. As a thank-you, he taught her how to make cheese.

The story of Marie and her cheese enhances the feeling of tradition surrounding Harel's food, as well as the general vibe of Salé-Sucré. Though the French gave up on making tourists linger through two-to-three-hour meals a few years back in favor of a more modern approach to dining, Salé-Sucré has the feeling of a small French bistro right out of the 1990s. The recipes are traditional, the flavors are traditional, the plating is traditional and the wait is oh-so-traditional.

Dinner at Salé-Sucré has just about everything an evening at a small bistro in a quaint French city should have — personable but professional waiters; chic, cozy atmosphere; lots of time for long conversations over good wine; and plenty of culinary idiosyncrasies. Some, like serving superfluous chopped salads on every plate, are forgivable. Others, like using canned or frozen ingredients, are just confusing.

Salé-Sucré, French for "savory-sweet," has been open for a little more than a year in a space formerly occupied by the White Oak Bakery. Harel and his wife, Béline, manage the kitchen and the house, and their pleasant but perpetually overloaded son, Romain, takes orders and makes drinks. Though it's not the most organized front-of-house service I've ever seen, it's charming, and it makes the experience feel almost like dining at a friend's cottage when he's a little too busy for guests.

Salé-Sucré is a bright, airy restaurant with pop art tables featuring lacquered paintings of saucy showgirls, collages of old newspaper articles and abstract flowers bursting with color. In contrast, two walls are anchored by quilted burgundy booths that invite diners to sit and stay and be enveloped by the cushions. There's a revolving door of local art on the walls, some of it pleasant, some of it undeniably tacky, but this only adds to the sense that you're eating at your French cousins' house where they happen to have tacked their children's art to the walls.

A large wooden bar fills one entire wall of the restaurant, displaying a small collection of liquor and a multitude of French wines, all of which have been hand-selected by Harel. Every wine in stock, as far as I could tell, is an excellent example of the French penchant for producing some of the best wine in the world. From the vast variety of flavors present in a single glass of Domaine la Suffrene Bandol to the bright but creamy acidity of a Baron de Hoen pinot gris from Alsace, the wine list is full of stand out bottles, each of which is available by the glass. If you're unsure of what wine to order with your meal, just ask. Romain will be happy to bring you samples or to make suggestions, as he knows his way around tannins and terroir.

If the wine menu, without any descriptors or flavor profiles, is difficult to navigate, the food menu is exactly the opposite. The names of all the dishes are listed in French with translations and explanations below in English for those who might not be familiar with moules marinières or escargots en persillade.

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Kaitlin Steinberg