November 15, 1993 | Vintage Insatiable

Picholine: Olive and Kicking

        Yawn, just another risotto.  What’s a menu these days without the obligatory risotto?  Duck risotto?  Big deal.  With pumpkin and wild mushrooms?  Yawn.  White truffle oil?  Must be pollen in the air.  Stricken chiefs reach for the truffle oil.  Not that I don’t like risotto. Oh my. Ohimigosh. This risotto. Ohhhmmmmy.  (Sighs.  Small gasps of delight.)

        We are a gaggle of tickled tastebuds gathered around a table at Picholine, not quite daring to be bearish about life on the Upper West Side now that Terrance Brennan has settled here. We are your cliché citizens of Zabar’s country: a little bit artsy, proudly paranoid, wallowing in immodest eccentricities, only mildly manic-depressive.  Grunge is not fashion. It’s how we dress. That’s why sensitive panhandlers prefer upper Broadway.  They can feel equal, if not superior. Even though Café des Artistes and Shun Lee have graced our turf for decades, and now we eat amazingly well at Restaurant TwoTwoTwo, we still talk about the cuisinary curse, our fate as a gastronomic wasteland.  So proud of our pain yet hungry for the cure.  Could this be it?

        Brennan, whose sunny Mediterranean flavors first touched us at the Polo, is only recently divorced from his partnership at Prix Fixe and Steak Frites.  While searching for a spot all his own, he agreed last summer to whip the  kitchen of Brasserie Pascal into shape, then bought out the lease when Guy Pascal decided, “I will return to my people on the East Side.” A new awning signals the change on West 64th, a street that has hast become a mini-restaurant row poised to feed Lincoln Center’s kulturflock.

        The chef and his pretty blonde wife, Julie (that’s her in the long swirl of velvet, exiting at 10:30 to relieve the baby-sitter), might have left the front room as it was, with greenery papering the walls up to the stained-glass conservatory ceiling.  But no. They’ve stuccoed it up instead, flanked a unicorn tapestry with country housewares, and set out new potatoes, apples, and pomegranates in bowls and wire garden stands to welcome you into the bar. Not exactly brilliant, but pleasant.
        All it takes is a bite of moist olive-perfumed focaccia and the house-baked breadsticks in assorted flavors to catch the drift. Serious ambition here. The waiter pours a puddle of nippy green oil onto the bread plate, and even before we tuck into fragrant shrimp on peppery curried tabbouleh or almost-sweet chick-pea soup with garlicky chorizo and red-pepper painted croutons, our mouths are already in sensory crossfire. Skillful cooking, a zesty flavor palette, an artist’s eye -- these are the chef’s trademarks, a tendency to oversalt his only flaw.
        Dumplings of ricotta and Swiss chard in a prosciutto-and-sweet-garlic-perfumed broth, the portobello-and-white-bean salad with shards of pecorino, and the house’s namesake salad (grilled vegetables with feta chunks in a balsamic vinaigrette) flaunt his strengths, and the five tiny ramekins of Mediterranean spreads (taramosalata, hummus, tapenade, eggplant caviar, and feta-oregano whip) with grilled flatbread chips are ideal for sharing.  France, Italy, Morocco, Greece -- familiar flavors mingle.  Slow braised leg of lamb, moist and rich on white-bean “brandade.” Crusty baby chicken with a salty staccato of olives and preserved lemon, eggplant pancakes on the side. Nutty skate on fennel in a niçoise vinaigrette. Silken cod in a haze of caramelized onions and potatoes boulangère. Only the venison daube disappoints --the meat dry as sawdust. And the hanger steak, served sliced rather than whole, with its remarkable crackle of potato, is just a tease to lusty carnivorean cravings. Moist, fruit-studded pumpkin-bread pudding with caramel and candied pecans, intense lemon-curd Napoleon, and lush, caramelized banana tart Tatin with banana-nut ice cream make fitting finales. With a good red table wine- Château Bel Air ’88 at just $16 or a Mouiex Saint Emilion at $20 -- a dinner for two could run $100, tax and tip included, but no one who loves to eat will feel exploited.

        Sloshing through peddlers’ debris, dodging garbage-can scavengers on the way home, I feel the high of discovery.  The arrival of Picholine (say “Pee-show-leen”) in my neighborhood can only be a good omen.

55 West 64th Street between Broadway and Columbus Avenue. 212 724  8585

Click here for Vintage listings page

Providing a continuous lifeline to homebound elderly New Yorkers