Summary: Wonderful food, with innovative yet classical flavors in sumptuous surroundings. Clumsy service and rushed delivery of courses, however, made for an uncomfortable dining experience.
Fleur de Lys was the first really expensive restaurant I ever went to, back in the days when going for Indian or Thai was a rare treat and the most we'd ever spent on a meal had been $40 for both of us. Mike's boss said he could have dinner at the restaurant of his choice, and Mike had heard that Fleur de Lys was the best French restaurant in San Francisco. At that time, of course, our idea of French food were the bistro classics (things like duck a la orange and boeuf bourguignonne) that we had savored in France and we knew nothing of tasting menus or dishes so small that only made sense if ordered as part of a multi-course dinner. Fleur de Lys was thus my first introduction to "nouvelle cuisine" as I thought of it then.
It was an awkward introduction. Young and poor, we felt out of place in the sumptuous surroundings. We weren't sure how to order and my sister and I were intimidated by the strange sounding dishes. We ended up with "safe" main dishes - some fancifully arranged meat and chops and gorgeous desserts while Mike was more adventurous and went for the tasting menu. He was awed by it, but also really enjoyed it. And that meal - which ended with our borrowed vehicle breaking down and us having to take BART home - stayed in our memory forever.
A couple of months ago, I was looking for a place to go for my birthday (after deciding that Manresa, where I'd made reservations, was too risky a choice given my taste preferences) and I came across Fleur de Lys' menu. I wanted innovative dishes, sublime flavors that would also be novel to me, and I didn't want seafood. The menu at Fleur de Lys seemed to fit the bill perfectly; just reading it made me daydream about it. Mike was happy to make reservations for my actual birthday but a cold and a sick child made us postpone until a week later - a Wednesday night in early May 2005.
Fleur de Lys had endured a fire and a renovation since our last visit, but it didn't look very different from what I remembered. It still has a squarish main dining room, its walls and ceiling covered by heavy brocade that give it a regal tent-like atmosphere. It does feel very sumptuous as well as warm and inviting There are two smaller rooms to the side, which are very plain and almost incongruous but have the benefit of feeling very private. When we got there were given the choice of two tables for two by the main entrance - we were soon to realize that these were clearly the worst tables in the house. They were located to one side of the main dining room, right to the left of the door to the kitchen and with the opening to the preparation area between them. That meant that waiters were constantly rushing by within a couple of inches of the table, close enough that we could feel the air moving every time one went by. Their constant rushing contributed to making us feel rushed rather than relaxed, and the fact that there was always a waiter near us made us feel like we had no privacy. I had never had a worse table in my life. Fortunately, we were later moved to a table in one of the smaller dining rooms (more about that later) which allowed us to enjoy the last part of our dinner in relative peace - especially after a party of elderly academics left, we had the whole place to ourselves. If you do go to Fleur de Lys, I'd recommend that you either ask for a table in one of the small dining rooms or, if you want to enjoy the sumptuousness of the main room, ask for a table against the long wall with the mirrors.
Fleur de Lys' menu is divided into four courses: appetizers, fish, meats and desserts. In addition they serve a cheese course. You can chose a three, four or five-course menu for $68, $76 and $88 respectively. Supposedly, the dishes are sized accordingly to what option you chose so that in any case you'd end up with an appropriate amount of food. We chose the five-course option and found that the meal was very badly balanced. The first three courses were relatively small. Not only did we not get to enjoy the amazing flavors as much as we would have liked, but by the end of the meat course we were still quite hungry. The cheese course and the dessert, however, were huge so we were more than full by the time we walked out, but not in a good way.
The pacing of the courses also left much to be desired. It seemed like the staff were in a rush to get us in and out of there. No sooner did we finish a course than it was cleared and a new one brought to the table. That gave us barely any time to converse and linger over the meal and also made it difficult to just relax and enjoy the dining experience. Fortunately, the pace slowed down somewhat by the end of the meal, after we were moved to the other dining room. Still, it is amazing that a restaurant of this caliber has not gotten its course pacing right.
It's just as amazing that the service also wasn't up to par. Our waitress was affable but out of her league in a restaurant of that type. She didn't seem to be very familiar with the menu, had a general nervous manner and her vocabulary consisted mostly of the word "fabulous." She also seemed to have a great need to hover near our table - that was good in that it allowed me to express my displeasure with the table and have us moved, but her initial response to my complaint about the location of the table was that this was her favorite table. The maitre d' was graceful in moving us but not before commenting that he had given us a choice of tables - both of which were equally bad, as I responded. I am quite sure that they must be quite aware that those tables are very badly situated, so their comments seemed dishonest and made me feel uncomfortable. The other wait staff was better, but they still seemed unable to let us eat alone, someone had to be at our table every few seconds to do something or other or ask us, once again, how everything was.
The food, in general, was great. Chef Keller seems to be particularly fond of using foie gras and black truffles to flavor his dishes and you just can't go wrong with that. The meal started with an amuse buche of a green pea puree on top of a quail egg. It was light and minty and quite good - the type of thing we'd never think of ordering but enjoyed eating.
For an appetizer, I ordered the foie gras duo, which included a burger of seared duck and foie gras in a brioche bun and a baeckeoffe of foie gras, truffles and fingerling potatoes. The burger was too tall to eat all in one bite and the brioche was too dense and thick in itself and distracted from the lovely taste of the foie gras, which was great on its own. The baeckeoffe was excellent; the flavors worked very well together and it felt quite balanced though I couldn't actually taste the foie gras. The tiny dish was served with a lot of pomp and circumstance, two waiters were needed to bring the dish to the table and cut the pastry shell binding the lid with the pot - it seemed rather silly.
Mike went for the roasted Maine lobster and he loved it. It was served with an incredible sauce that was tart, sweet and lobsterish at the same time and worked on many, many levels. Even I, who don't like lobster, fell in love with it. Mike said he could eat this dish over and over and over. You must certainly order it if you go.
My second course was a Moroccan spiced sea scallop. I didn't really like either the texture of the scallop or the grittiness of the topping. I also found it too "fishy" for my taste but I don't generally like the flavor of fish oil; Mike liked it quite a bit. I did enjoy the pomegranate juice it came with. The accompanying cauliflower flan had thick slices of truffles which gave it a wonderful flavor.
Mike ordered the Sesame prawns with Thai Red Curry and coconut milk. He enjoyed the spicy sauce which had a general Asian flair but was still unusual. This was followed by a tiny scoop of extremely bitter yet oddly alluring grapefruit sorbet.
My main dish was the lamb loin and lamb cheeks in a honey and red wine reduction sauce. The lamb was quite good, it was perfectly cooked and tasted of lamb, though I felt it was under seasoned. It was also too small a portion - barely a few bites. The sauce was delicious, however. I hadn't had lamb cheeks before and I thought they were just OK, but anything in that sauce tasted great. The dish came with a potato stew which was homey and satisfying.
Mike went for the filet mignon topped with foie gras and a truffle sauce ($25 extra for the truffles). The sauce was great but the foie gras couldn't compete with its strong flavor. The truffles were also very tasty with the pearl onions.
Our next course was the cheese. We were disappointed to find that both Mike and I were served the exact same cheeses. I wish more restaurants would copy Gary Danko in letting diners choose what cheeses to taste. Well, at least the course didn't consist of one single flake of gouda as it did at Jardiniere. There was one goat cheese in vinegar, a couple of semi-soft cheeses and a couple of hard cheeses. They were all pretty good though none of them were particularly remarkable. The portion of cheeses was very generous to say the least and we couldn't finish them all even though we tried. If you do want to taste the cheeses I recommend only one person in the party order the course and others split it - it really could feed two or three without problems.
It was finally time for dessert. I decided on a dish that included multiple chocolate deserts. I didn't take notes on it but I remember that I liked all of them though wasn't particularly awed by any (I never am anymore). The dessert plate was very generous and I also got a little pastry cylinder with a candle inside to celebrate my birthday which was quite good. Mike ordered the Grand Marnier souffle ($5 extra) and once again it was enormous. It was quite good too, with a well-balanced, homey flavor. After dessert there were petit fours (quite a few of them), none of which I liked much.
The meal, after tax and tip, came to about $280. In all I have to say we were very pleased by the food but annoyed by the amateur service and rushed spacing and size unbalanced of the courses. Mike would still go back but at this point, unfortunately, I wouldn't (unless someone else was paying).
Fleur de Lys
777 Sutter Street
San Francisco, CA