It didn’t take long for Picholine, after it opened in October 1993, to acquire the reputation and aura of an institution. Its original decor included old master paintings and tapestries or reasonable facsimiles of them, chandeliers, and heavy moldings—which made it look as if it had been there forever. While this interior may have conjured up some idea of a Provençal estate, the region is now present primarily in the subtle color scheme of the fabric-covered walls, which recall the variegated tints of the picholine olive: purple, grey, boysenberry and so forth. Chef/proprietor Terrence Brennan had the rooms entirely redecorated in 2006, producing a quieter, simpler, darker interior, which also looks as if it had been there forever, but also looks thoroughly fresh and up-to-date. The current menus are also up-to-date, offering the fresh, light, and healthy foods people like today. However, certain things haven’t changed, above all Chef Brennan’s absolute insistence that the basics of French cuisine are of the highest quality—not only the ingredients, which are local and organic whenever possible, but the cellar and the cheeses, which revolutionized New Yorkers’ awareness of cheese back in the early 90’s and remain legendary today. For years regulars have been dropping in for a plate of cheese in the bar, when they weren’t up for the full menu.
This now also applies to the various tasting menus Picholine has developed in response to culinary fashion, and now to the depressed economy, and diners can enjoy an astonishing range of different choices in various price ranges, from a full, formal menu to a light snack. In this way Picholine, most definitely as serious about cuisine as it ever was, has become a welcoming, clubby establishment with extraordinary flexibility, all presented by a friendly, thoroughly professional staff in as relaxing an environment as one could wish for—a valuable quality if one is dining before the opera or a concert at Lincoln Center. Picholine is one of six New York restaurants to receive two stars from Guide Michelin, which is a significant distinction in itself and in the case of Picholine, an exceptionally well-deserved one.
I hadn’t been to Picholine for quite a few years, and I was especially impressed by how restful its atmosphere has become. We arrived early, to be in time for a concert, and soon found both dining rooms full to capacity, presumably with diners who also had to leave by 7.45. Conversations were lively; people were enjoying themselves; but the room never seemed loud, and there was no rushing about of any kind. We sensibly decided to try the menu économique, Picholine’s recent response to the economy, which is available in the main restaurant as well as the bar on Tuesday through Friday evenings. As I shall explain, this consists of a variety of tasting portions which can become rather complex, depending on how far one goes. (Like everything at Picholine, the menu économique is flexible, also interesting to the deep-pocketed guest who is in the mood for variety without excess. If you’re going to the Ring des Nibelungen this spring this may be the perfect sustenance.) In any case, I had neglected to inform Matthew, the manager, about our concert, but when I did, halfway through the dinner, the tempo of the service picked up almost imperceptibly—and very courteously—to turn us out in time for our short walk up 64th Street. The staff could not be more professional, adaptable, or pleasant.
The wine cellar consists of around 2500 bottles and is excellent, but I began with a perfectly balanced Kir, and we continued on with glasses of the open selections. I began with a Dashe Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2006, a fine bottle full of all the grape’s most characteristic and best traits, its fruit only supporting a generous tannic body. It tasted older than it actually was. Later I tasted a Foley Pinot Noir 2007 from the Santa Rita Hills, also an excellent and not insubstantial example of its kind. Joanna enjoyed the Landmark Chardonnay 2006. As we ordered Leila, who looked after us, offered helpful comments on the combinations of wine and particular dishes, which went beyond what we might have assumed on our own. It’s a good idea to take the staff’s advice here. Who knows how tapioca crackers with lemon salt or raw bay scallops with blood-orange-horseradish granité will mesh with your wine.
The menu d’économie consists of two columns, one, “tasting flights,” containing first courses and desserts and the other, “tasting plates,” of meat, fish, and vegetarian main courses. The second column also includes the cheese course. (A selection of three flights is $20, and one course of the plates is $20. Four courses are $72.) Somehow on that freezing evening, the px sherry sorbet with Serrano ham chips seemed like just the thing, and I ordered that as a starter, along with the torchon sweetbreads with heirloom beets and a mustard-caper emulsion and the foie gras explosion with gizzards and frisée. Joanna ordered the aforementioned Nantucket bay scallops, chestnut pheasant velouté with black truffle foam, as well as the sweetbreads and a pear/endive salad with Roquefort Mousse, and a Sauternes Mirror. We also tried the Wagyu beef à la Basquaise. This variety covered quite a range of flavors to say the least. Nothing disappointed, and the small portions were just right for some of the dishes, especially the palatte-cleansing sorbet and the rich Wagyu beef, which had a complex, nutty flavor, making the curls of beef seem more like some intricately prepared savory dumpling. These were all superb, showing off the sharp but subtle (and occasionaly blending) contrasts favored by Chef Brennan and his chef de cuisine, Carmine di Giovanni. The sweetbreads were perfectly done, not excessively delicate, in their light coating, and the beets, mustard, and capers got along famously. The pheasant velouté was a harmonious blend of everything that makes game wonderful, while the scallops brought contrast to a peak. The foie gras explosion consisted of four tortelloni filled with liquid foie gras. Leila advised me to be careful and not try to cut them too smartly with the knife. I heeded, but even a tine of the fork let loose an explosion—a fragrant and delicious one.
Our main course was chestnut tagliatelle with game bolognese, scented with black truffles, a satisfying blend of small, randomly cut morsels of various game in a liberal, subtly flavored sauce in which the truffles and the game were perfectly balanced.
The cheese cart, as always, offered its impressive of familiar and unfamiliar cheeses from all over Europe and the United States. They are clearly arranged by type and origin, so it’s not difficult to find one’s way. There are also cheese flights and wine and cheese flights available for $20. In the first one may order a selection of cheeses with a flight of suitable wines, and in the other a glass of red or white wine with a flight of matching cheeses. However, the best source of guidance is human. Max McCalman is now maître de fromage. I was drinking that zinfandel I found so appealing, and John, who was in charge of the cart, advised me on the selection. First came Monte Enebro, a firm, piercing cheese from Spain, then Berkswell, a hard, fruity English sheep’s milk variety. Then Kuntener Reblochon, a velvety, melting Swiss cow’s milk cheese and Prattigauer, a contrasting firm bovine cheese also from Switzerland, and finally Bleu de Laqueuille, a magnificently balanced firm blue cheese from the Auvergne. This proved to be a perfectly-matched succession of contrasting cheeses from four different national traditions. (It goes without saying that they were all at the right age and temperature.) This is an excellent way to address Picholine’s renowned cheese cart, and the variations are almost infinite. However, next time I’m curious to sample the American cheeses. Given our Williamstown location, some of the Vermont cheeses are familiar but others are not, and there are others from Virginia and Oregon on the list. The cheese master presents an elegant checklist to all who partake, and there is no danger of forgetting what you have enjoyed. Apt descriptions are included, inviting one to plan ahead for the next visit. Some of the descriptions might almost apply to people, for example, “hard, majestic, and profound” or “lingering, earthy, and fecund.”
In the interests of accuracy, I enjoyed the cheese course on a separate occasion, also before a concert, but in the bar, where patrons are seated without reservations. (Our first visit, I should note, ended with an exquisite dessert of petit fours and other small sweets, all intensely and diversely flavored: pastries with chocolate and fruit fillings, fruit jellies, and the like.) This experience was just a pleasant as the first, and on both occasions it was possible to go off to the musical events with a clear head. On the other hand I can’t emphasize sufficiently how inviting the dining rooms are for an extended, leisurely evening. Perhaps some day I’ll find myself around Lincoln Center with nothing else to do, however unlikely that may seem. If this means dinner at Picholine, I’ll take full advantage of it.
35 West 64th Street (at Lincoln Center)
New York, New York
Times indicate when guests are seated; kitchen stays open later
Tuesday – Thursday 5:00pm – 10:00pm
Friday-Saturday 5:00pm – 11:45pm
Sunday – Monday: Closed
Dress: Business Casual | Jackets are recommended in the main dining room. | No sneakers or shorts.
Price: moderately expensive to expensive.
Originally Published in The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts