Like many a personality on the Upper West Side, Picholine got a facelift.
The last time I was in the restaurant, Spring of 2006, I was there on a non-eating mission. The food might have been fantastic, but the oddly-configured restaurant itself struck me as terribly tired, somewhat outdated, and immensely frumpy. Frank Bruni aptly described it as “funereal.”
This was the great Picholine?
But, since then, they spruced up the interior (i.e. paved it with purple) and relaunched their image. They received three-stars from Frank Bruni and picked up the nomination for the 2007 James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant. This year, Picholine was awarded a second Michelin star and the restaurant’s Executive Chef, Terrance Brennan, received a nomination for the 2008 James Beard Award for Best Chef New York
They trimmed and re-vamped the menu (curiously, taking the cheese-themed tasting menu out). Postive buzz from trusted friends started to filter in.
Things were looking up.
If Picholine has a legacy, it’s cheese.
To describe the role that cheese plays at the restaurant as a program is an understatement; obsession might be over-aiming. That it’s a curriculum, is more on point (the restaurant offers “Classes & Workshops“). Cheese is the restauarant’s raison d’être.
In addition to owning and cheffing at Picholine, Chef Brennan is the chef and proprietor of Artisanal Premium Cheese Company and Artisanal Fromagerie, Bistro and Wine Bar. Together with Maître Fromager and Garde et Jure (as designated by France’s exclusive Guilde des Fromagers) Max McCalman, Brennan maintains one of, if not *the,* most spectacular cheese carts in the world.
Since I have more than just a passing interest in cheese, I’ll note that the selection is incredible – there are over sixty in the house on any given day. You can smell them too; Mr. McCalman, drives his pungent bus, piled high with about half of the available cheeses, around the dining room throughout service. He’s a more articulate but no less enthusiastic (or sassy) morsel-pusher than your local dim sum cart wench. The main difference is that he doesn’t dispense goods from his trolley, it’s mostly for display.
Instead, he marks off your cheese selection on a pre-printed menu and gives it to one of this assistants to have cut from the cheese holding area in the back of the house. That menu, which includes a more detailed description of the cheeses, is presented along with your cheeses so you can read up on each one served.
If you give him some direction, McCalman will happily assemble a progression for you. That’s what we did. Since he recommended (or, one gets) three cheeses per person, we agreed to pool our collective selections and let him choose a progression of nine, with my sole request that he veer into more off-beat territories.
I’ve never met a cheese I didn’t like, and none of our nine cheeses broke that streak. My favorites were Pena Blanca, a pungent though bright and tangy Spanish sheep’s milk cheese; Evora, a waxy, salty, slightly vegetal Portuguese sheep’s milk cheese; and Abbaye de Tamié, a barnyardy French cow’s milk cheese with considerable staying power (my friend referred to it as the “cheese that keeps on giving”), though not as strong as, say, Epoisses. The Majorero Pimenton, a semi-firm Spanish cheese was unique in that the rind, which was rubbed with paprika, was not only smoky, but quite spicy although the flesh of the cheese was mild, especially for a goat’s milk cheese, by comparison.
Of course, the Picholine serves much more than cheese. Named after a French olive, the restaurant’s cuisine is rustically haute and leans toward Mediterranea, although there were a couple of Asian inspirations like the Warm Maine Lobster, the third course on the “Menu Royale” tasting menu. It featured a fat lobster claw draped over a crispy cake of basmati rice surrounded by a thick, spicy and fragrant kaffir lime-lemongrass coconut curry. Gutsy, fragrant, and full of body, it was the hit of the evening.
Likewise, most of Picholine’s flavors tended to be bold, although the Atlantic halibut was quite forgettable, and sadly, accompanied by a broken sherry sabayon.
This was the least exciting dish of the evening. The fact that it was paired with a Meursault (“Clos du Cromin” Chateau Genot-Boulanger 2005) that tasted the way turpentine smells didn’t help. It wasn’t quite offensive, but it overwhelmed the fish.
The Menu Royale, which is an assembly of the restaurant’s classic dishes, included (click on each course for the picture, or here for the entire set):
Because we had a few allergies and one expecting, there were a few trade-outs.
The best move of the evening, for me, was requesting a substitution for the seared foie gras. My friends thought it was fine (with rhubarb and hazelnut), but it wasn’t anything to write home about. I, on the other hand, chose the “Foie Gras Shabu Shabu” from the prix fixe menu.
This featured a thin slice of foie gras au torchon topped with a slice of duck ham and dusted with truffle salt. The server poured a steaming “sweet and sour bouillon” (imagine one part of each veal stock, dashi and hot and sour soup (emphasis on the sour)) over the foie gras to gently poach it (12 seconds recommended).
I think that a diner would miss the point of this dish if they thought that the foie gras was supposed to play the lead role. In fact, I think that diner would be disappointed. Rather, I think that the foie gras, both the texture and flavor, is intended to compliment the bouillon, which was immensely satisfying by itself. The foie gras dissolves with time, adding to the flavor.
That diner might also be missing the point if they thought that the Sea Urchin Panna Cotta – the most anticipated dish on the menu for me – was supposed to be all about sea urchin. While the sea urchin panna cotta did constitute the majority of this dish, it was certainly not the emphasis.
Together with the caviar, the chilled “ocean consommé” (a brilliant orange necklace of gelatinized consommé), and Christmas-colored seaweed, this dish tasted like an approximation of how sea water smells (at its best). This may not sound appetizing, and, I admit that for those who are shy/fearful of sea-briny flavors this might be quite foul. But, I do like the briny smell of the ocean and I found this dish novel and rewarding.
I especially appreciated Brennan’s chutzpah for including this on the Menu Royale. Presumably anyone who’s going to order the Menu Royale would want to try what is probably the restaurant’s most well-known dish (other than cheeses). But, I can see how it might be considered “controversial” (I do know of at least one caviar-averse friend who asked for a substitution (not at this dinner)). (The Roquefort custard with Sauterne gelée, served as an amuse bouche, was an equally gusty move.)
Two last notes on this dish (because it really is worth mentioning):
(1) Don’t think that the Sea Urchin Panna Cotta is entirely *not* about sea urchin. In fact, more than any other sea urchin creation I’ve ever had (that is, something that has sea urchin incorporated into it as opposed to whole sea urchin roe sacks), this panna cotta actually tasted very much like sea urchin roe – slightly sweet and creamy. The consistency of the panna cotta also mimiced the texture of sea urchin roe; it was like very soft custard, despite it’s rather firm, Jell-O-like appearance. This gave me an extra reason to like this course.
(2) My friends and I noticed that Brennan has a fascination for thinly-shaved or wafer-like preparations. This course came with two perfectly-round tissue-thin “potato wafers” (about the size of a 45 rpm vinyl). I’m thinking they’re made with potato starch, and baked instead of fried. The wafers are intended to be used as a vehicle for the custard-soft components of this dish. In theory, it’d be great, but two things made this impractacle: First, the wafers were so thin that they barely stood up under the weight of the panna cotta, no matter how much or little you put on them. Second, they would have worked much better had the wafers been closer to bite size; there were wafer crumbs everywhere. That being said, I loved these wafers and would have been happy if they had just brought out a basket of these instead of bread.
The other course that I was especially looking forward to was the Licorice-Glazed Squab. Part of my fascination was that the preparation was surprisingly similar to a dish I had at de bookkedoorns, a two-star Michelin restuarant in the Nederlands. Both featured licorice-treated squab with beets.
I recognize that on a tasting menu comprised of “greatest hits,” the concept of seasonality goes out the window. This squab presentation sounded very autumnal/wintry. And, it was. So, I wondered if the inclusion of rhubarb was a acknowledgement to those seasonally-minded diners of the dish’s asynchronism (same with the seared foie gras course mentioned above).
Overall, this dish was heavy. Although, I did, strangely, enjoy the flavor that the cashew purée contributed, I found it too sloppy and greasy to truly enjoy (plus, I hate it when they put a piece of meat that needs cutting on a pile of something mushy). The same is true for the purslane “salad,” which was much more foie gras vinaigrette than greens. However, the squab and accompanying cubes of foie gras were perfectly-cooked. The licorice glaze on the squab skin was the highlight of this dish. The spicing was subtle, but definitely discernible, lending a slightly sweet and anise-like aroma that I tend to shy away from in larger amounts.
Tempura is not this restaurant’s strongest suite. Both the tempura Blue Foot Chanterelles (on a stick, served as part of the amuse bouche) and tempura soft shell crab (that my friend substituted for the lobster – bad move, I think this was the most disappointing and least successful dish of the evening) were limp. The plating on that tempura soft shell crab was a little busy. The crunchy vegetables “a la Grecque” and raisin-mustard emulsion were creative acidic substitutes for more traditional ones.
Service was efficient and polite but otherwise a bit chilly up until dessert when I asked our head server what her favorite dessert was. “Being a woman,” she enthusiastically recommended the Chocolate Soufflé.
I had been torn between the “Nouveau Carrot Cake” and the “Warm Apple Caramel Brioche.”
Rewinding just a bit: the reason I got to choose my dessert was because the Passion Fruit “Cannolo,” the Menu Royale dessert, posed a field of allergy mines for me. This featured passion fruit mousse piped into a tube made from a thin sheet of dehydrated pineapple. The connolo sat on a bed of coconut tapioca pudding and was sided by a colourful quenelle of diced mango and kiwi. Big on table-side presentations, an “exotic fruit” soup was poured around the connolo.
The soup made little sense to me (cold soup desserts rarely do), since the tapioca pudding dissipated into milky whisps (with tapioca pearls bobbing about; what’s the point of tapioca pudding if it’s doused in liquid? If they wanted to flavor the “exotic fruit” soup with coconut, then why not just add coconut to the soup?) and caused the otherwise crispy pineapple connolo to go soggy. I admit I did taste just a bit of the soup and the passion fruit connolo; it was quite refreshing and I do think that of all the desserts on the dessert menu, it was probably the right ending for such a heavy meal.
While considering my options for dessert, my (pregnant) friend suddenly caught the urge for carrot cake. You can’t say no to a pregnant lady (although, I would emphasisze my friend is indeed a lady and asked very politely whether they might accommodate the substitution).
The Nouveau Carrot Cake was actually a (giant) carrot macaron. The rest of the “cake” was rather deconstructed: there was some sort of orange milky sauce (like carrot creme anglaise, or something), cream cheese ice cream, candied walnuts, golden raisins, and what appeared to be carrot cake crumbles. The macaron was actually quite good. My problem with this dish is that it somehow tasted more like lemon than carrot; there was a lot of high citrus notes. The ice cream, which was tangy, somehow didn’t taste quite like cream cheese, either – maybe more like lemon cheesecake?
Since my friend ordered the Nouveau Carrot Cake, I told our head server to suprise me. She certainly did. She brought out both the Chocolate Soufflé and the Warm Caramel Apple Brioche (comp disclosure).
I think there’s a limit to how good a chocolate soufflé can be, and to that extent, this one maximized its potential. I suppose these things just don’t thrill me nearly as much as they do others. The fennel ice cream, however, was a treat. It was garnished with a (note) thinly-shaved cross-section of fennel and toasted pine nuts, which, together with the fennel, was truly amazing.
The Warm Caramel Apple Brioche was mind-blowing. I generally dislike brioche; there’s often an after-bitterness that I deem offensive. Also, I find the hallmark mallowy softness of brioche intolerably inferior to the crustier breads and pastries that I prefer. Even worse, good (moist) brioche is hard to find, and a dry brioche is the kiss of death.
But, apparently, all of my tics and nits go away when you soak brioche in a warm, sticky sweet warm caramel. This little loaf was oozing with warm syrup. By anyone’s estimation, this brioche was way too sweet. But, it was one of those rare indulgences that one can’t help but sneak.
The real joy of this dessert, however, was the lacy tangle of what appeared to be dehydrated (baked?) apple strands on top of a salted caramel ice cream (that really didn’t taste much like salted caramel ice cream). They were crunchy (not unlike the fried noodles they garnish bad “Asian” salads with). Also, the tart “salad” of sauteed apples around the ice cream was extremely enjoybable, it tempered the sweetness of this dish.
I’ll refrain from commenting on the restaurant’s make-over since Bruni did such an excellent job. Suffice it to say, I don’t really care for it; they traded tapestries for lavender. And, despite the attempt at an injection of youth, the dining room still felt somewhat tired and suffocatingly-tight (although the front room much more so than the back room).
Like the interior, the restuarant’s culinary aesthetic, both visually and conceptually, feels dated and sometimes frumpy, if not beautifully so. Other than the tempura fumbles, a forgettable fish, and a greasy bird, I’d say that the food at Picholine is rather solid.
My biggest criticism of the Picholine Menu Royale isn’t a criticism of the food itself. Rather it’s an issue that plagues “greatest hits” menus, generally. And that is: by their very nature, “greatest hits” menus lack higher-level coordination, and thus, often, cohesiveness. Since they are most often forcibly assembled, they can be unbalanced. Greatest hits may be greatest hits, individually. But, strung together, they can make for a disjointed experience. I think Picholine’s Menu Royale falls prey to this.
Might the halibut have been more memorable had it not followed the powerhouse lobster course? Maybe. Would the squab have been more enjoyable in the dead of winter instead of Spring? Probably. Was sauteed foie gras with rhubarb a bit over-played? Yes (For this reason, I think my progression, with the Foie Gras Shabu Shabu was probably better; I don’t understand why *that* dish isn’t a “greatest hit.” I think it’s far more interesting and special than the Sauteed Foie Gras course.).
The service, as I noted, could have been a bit more friendly and consistent (other than our head server, it seemed that we were geting a revolving door staff betwen ordering and dessert). On a minor note, we did manage to inhale the (wonderful) basket of bread served with the cheese. When we asked for more, the server said they had run out of bread. Although I have no reason to doubt his word, we found this was odd. However, our party did request number of changes for allergies and preferences, and they were accommodated graciously.
Is Picholine worthy of its second Michelin star? Yes, probably, although my meal didn’t quite reveal that level of consistency and merit. How does it compare with its peer restaurants? Strictly on a food basis, I’d say it’s much less finessed and refined than Daniel, more satisfying than Del Posto, and more imaginative than, though perhaps on par in execution with, Bouley. I haven’t been to Gordon Ramsay at the London or masa, which I would probably find hard, if not impossible, to compare with Picholine.
What entices me to return to Picholine more than anything else (I still want to know why they retired the dining room’s cheese-themed tasting menu) is its “Tasting Flights” menu, which (I believe) served at the bar. I could easily see myself perching at the bar for this less formal sampling of Chef Brennan’s food. And, yes, I checked, Mr. McCalman does make bar calls with his trolley.
Executive Chef Terrance Brennan
35 West 64th Street
New York, New York 10023