Wine and flowers. The very mention evokes a lazy afternoon in the French countryside. Walk into Vin et Fleurs on Thompson Street in SoHo, and you’ll find yourself in just such a daydream. The charming French restaurant has been thriving for over seven years, though a Google search won’t produce the barrage of blogosphere coverage that ‘foodies’ these days are accustomed to. It’s under-the-radar, but that’s part of the charm.
Ellen Lane owns the restaurant with her husband, Farid Boughalem, who is also the chef and sommelier. Farid grew up in France, getting his first restaurant job at his brother’s place at the base of a mountain before attending culinary school for three years. He went on to cook at restaurants in Switzerland and Morocco, eventually landing in New York City in 1991, where he held down FOH gigs at prestigious spots like Balthazar and Bouley.
His original vision for Vin et Fleurs was a restaurant and flower shop operating symbiotically. Sound like a Woody Allen flick? As romantic as the idea was, the health department wasn’t as keen on it. The floral theme remains primarily in a decorative capacity these days, with Farid making weekly trips to the flower district to compose new and beautiful arrangements that complement the current season and the rustic interior. A marble bar, natural wood tables and white-tiled kitchen reinforce the old-world charm.
The food is simple, traditional and delicious, and the wine is meticulously curated. Most of the dishes are French classics, with a few twists thrown in here and there, and the bottles hail from near and far, the only requirement being quality. While chatting with Farid about his passion for minimizing food waste–an area where the French are light years ahead of us–I grazed on starters like Avocado Crevettes (half-avocados cupping cognac and tarragon shrimp) and Tartines of pain de seigle bread from Balthazar bakery with goat cheese, prosciutto, thyme and figs that have been steeped in wine for three weeks. The macerated fruit was chewy and intensely sweet, balancing out the tart cheese and buttery cured meat.
Glass of pinot noir in-hand, I dug into the Steak Tartare, a nest of minced raw filet mignon topped with frisee and a spotted quail egg, flanked by two pieces of basil garlic toast. In my experience, it’s best to pour the yolk onto the beef and spread it on the toast before taking a bite, but any manner of consumption is sure to please.
The Halibut proved to be an essential main, ribbed with thick, flavorful char-lines and bathed in a tart lemon beurre blanc, topped with chorizo. And the Ratatouille, brought out as a surprise, showcased thick, perfectly sautéed sliced veggies redolent of garlic and herbs.
By this point, the chef and I were deep in a discussion about what it means to say that food is “good.” It’s the first adjective that most people use when describing a dish that they like, but it doesn’t actually say anything. Good by whose standards? One could enjoy a filet-o-fish lunch from McDonalds and a $295 dinner at Eleven Madison Park in the same day, and surely both experiences would be “good.” The point is that it’s far more productive for a diner to explain what it is about a dish that he or she likes. For example, the Crepe Soufflé that I ended my meal with had a pillowy exterior encased in delicate caramelized sugar, and was filled with sweet custard. It was surrounded by tart passionfruit sauce, which I enjoyed thoroughly. This is more laborious, but it shows a chef that you were paying attention to your palate and his plate.
I was also lucky to sample a yet-to-be named cocktail from the forthcoming menu. It’s a favorite concoction of Farid’s, built with Grand Marnier, lemon juice, Angostura bitters, a raw brown sugar cube and a sparkling wine finish. If it were up to me, I’d name it the SoHo Sunset.
Classic French cuisine in New York City is on the rise again, with the recent arrival of big-name chefs and opulent palaces like Le Coucou and Le Coq Rico. And while I’m sure that the food at these new restaurants is very “good,” I’m happy to have found a stalwart, quietly offering wine and flowers to the city for seven years and counting.
69 Thompson Street