February 22, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

Picholine: Olive and Still Kicking

Sea urchin pana cotta crowned with caviar sits on sea consommé. Photo: Steven Richter 
Sea urchin pana cotta crowned with caviar sits on sea consommé. Photo: Steven Richter

     Like a fabulous older woman, Picholine has weeded out the closet, tried cosmetic surgery, survived romantic breakups and deepened over the years. In his drive to find the Michelin groove he teethed on long ago at Taillevent in Paris and Roger Vergé’s Moulin de Mougins, Chef-proprietor Terrance Brennan has gone from hummus and rustic Provençal plaid celebrating the small Mediterranean olive in 1993 to white gloves and intimations of Versailles with mascarpone and white truffle in an ooze of cauliflower purée. And now, after yet another makeover he’s lowered the wattage to evoke a subdued Parisian hotel, with velvet drapings, a palette of lavenders and purples, and new tricks like foie gras shabu shabu.

Risotto and gnocchi arrives already divided for the three of us. Photo: Steven Richter       

        But many of the same servers are here - professionals, intuitive, old family retainers, intimate but not too. Though the celebrated cheese sommelier Max McCalman has gone on to other devotions, the landmark trolley that got Gotham feeders to dare serve cheese again is still here, of course, peddling manna of goat, cow and sheep in irresistible perfection. True, modish foams and “capsules” may put traditionalists like me on guard, but the transcendent sea urchin panna cotta crowned with caviar and sitting in chilled ocean consommé still rules the Preludes on the $92 three course menu (plus $10 for a fourth). Brennan’s creamy risotto that knocked my socks off in its truffled excess of duck or rabbit and wild mushroom eight years ago survives, more focused tonight with wild “shrooms” of course, local squash and parmesan from a heritage breed of cow, Vacca Rosa. 

         Except for a Tapas crawl late-night bar hop for brilliant small plates revealing Brennan’s crush on Spain, I’ve not been by in years. But I’d celebrated Picholine in all its incarnations, almost hyperventilating in the rarified air at a tasting in 2002. With a bubble of high expectation created by Michelin singling it out for two stars, three years in a row, my return seems overdue.

Cheese tempura and a trio of amuses launch an ambitious seduction. Photo: Steven Richter

        I’m not expecting a swarm of hip young people. Banishing Pavarotti for Diane Krall on the sound system didn’t do much to lower the mean age here. It’s cheering enough not to need a flashlight to read the menu and talk without shouting. It’s not as sexy as Daniel or as vibrant as Le Bernardin, but it’s hardly an old folks’ spa. Affluent urbanites come here for celebrations, birthdays and anniversaries, and performers meet friends for supper after the concert. Once you  start eating, you won’t care who’s sitting across the way.

A bouquet of basils blossom on raw Nantucket Bay scallops. Photo: Steven Richter

        The ambitious seduction begins with Comté cheese tempura nodding like flowers on wooden stems to dip into cherry marmalade and a trio of amuses: truffled bread crumbs frothing away atop smoked ham bouillon frothing away atop in a shot glass, butternut squash panna cotta with cranberry gelee and smoked hazelnuts, and in a ceramic spoon, a beet raviolo filled with pickled celery root.  A poached quail egg wrapped in toasted brioche with sturgeon caviar from Spain arrives on its own odd ceramic platform, an extra just for us, I suspect, sent out by Chef de Cuisine Carmine DiGiovanni.

Lamb two ways with eggplant condiment and harisa paper. Photo: Steven Richter

        The sweet song of raw bay scallops shines through a much ado of radish sprouts and crunch, citrus soy, all kinds of basil, and redundant sprinklings of sesame powder. Carefully cooked lobster with endive, kumquats and fried vanilla milk confirms that someone, Brennan or his right hand here, has gone molecular. So far it’s not fatal. Three of us agree to share the risotto and the sheep’s milk ricotta gnocchi as a middle course. Artichoke barigoule, bottarga and parsley pesto seem rather a lot of baggage for the delicate gnocchi, but that doesn’t stop me. 

I could live without the foam on this otherwise smartly accessorized wild pigeon. Photo: Steven Richter

        A ragù of wild game innards, incredibly rich on house-made chestnut tagliatelle from the chef’s $105 five-course tasting, is chosen as an entrée by my mate. (“We’re exceptionally flexible,” Brennan allows.) And rare wines brought by our companion enhance the subtle gaminess of my wild Scottish wood pigeon - tender, meaty and rare - complete with buckshot (the menu does warn).  It would have been less amusing if I’d cracked a tooth.

Cheesemeister Alex Garcia touts the perfect mix of creamy offerings. Photo: Steven Richter

        It’s Picholine after all, so cheese is imperative. Only one of us is legally entitled to this third plate, but all of us are transfixed by the rich gems on this Tiffany of cheese carts, the supernal Vacherin that gets spooned into a small saucer, a runny Reblochon-like Tomme Crayeuse, Kunik (a double cream American goat) and a nutty multi-syllabic edible velvet from Switzerland, divided onto three plates.  Nut-studded bread, fat dates, quince chutney and raisin-studded onion jam clutter the table: cheese camp followers. 

       Under the rules, we can share a dessert for just $10 more. Tart sorbets are the perfect finale as the table fills again, this time a casting call for mignardises – chocolate tuiles standing up like toast in a slotted holder, bergamot lemon and pistachio macaroons, apple confit on Breton sable cookies, chocolate bon bons.

       “I almost forgot,” the captain cries, running toward us with a saucer of warm raspberry almond crisps, the house’s traditional last little warm touch. A stick-to-your-teeth farewell. Clutching small cellophane bags of financières – take-home for breakfast -- we emerge to blustery reality.

35 West 64th Street between Broadway and Central Park West.  212724 8585. Monday to Thursday 5 to 11 pm. Friday and Saturday 5 to 11:45 pm.

Click here to read my first review of Picholine in New York, November 19, 1993

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