So Helmet says, “You want to go to Picholine with me, Misspooz, Pichon, Ringwald, and Deputy?”
So I say, “There is nothing I like more than fine dining with you guys, and the last time I ate at Picholine I was very impressed by the food, although I found the room a little stodgy; that was like 4 years ago.”
So Helmet says, “I bought the dinner at a charity auction and it expires soon. I also hear they have completely remodeled the stodgy interior and revamped the menu so we’re going to go, you should come.”
So I say, “Revamped the menu? They still have wild game and that insane cheese cart, right?”
So Helmet says, “Yea geez (Helmet likes to talk British every now and then) relax, its all still there and according to Bruni it’s better.”
So I say, “Well you have piqued my interest. I will break my natural 23rd street northern boundary and trek up to the hyperborean wilds of the greater Lincoln Center area with you.”
So it went a little something like this:
Simply put, the redesign is a study in purple. Enough shades that as you walk around you are reminded of how many names you know for the color: amethyst, aubergine, eggplant, heliotrope, lavender, lilac, magenta, mulberry, orchid, perse, plum, pomegranate, puce, violaceous, violet, and wine all come to mind as you glance about. While the paint is indeed fresh and the finish new, the room is not necessarily reinvented. It is still a room best suited to the well-heeled upper-what-ever-side Wasps to don their bowties and sup while discussing opera fundraising, just in mauve instead of dandelion.
The menu is new and fresh, with a strangely confounding simplicity. There are nine options branded “Preludes,” three Pastas offered (one being a risotto), four Day Boat selections and another four decisions From the Land. The setup is you get two courses for sixty-five dollars and may add more from the selections for fifteen dollars a pick. There are also five winter black truffle preparations available at a premium I didn’t really understand, explained on the insert as (25.suppl./35.suppl.) and a seven course chef’s menu mainly comprised of dishes offered throughout the menu.
As written there were not many courses I was not interested in trying so after some horse-trading and negotiations I ended up sampling as follows:
Amuse: Brandade croquette, cauliflower crème with lemon gel and parmesan crisp, and stripped bass ceviche with shiso and bergamot. The cauliflower bite was more crème than cauliflower and so rich it robbed the lemon film of most of its acidity. The brandade was fried crisp and light with a touch of aioli. The ceviche was so much more about the bergamot and shiso flavors than the fish that the fish role could have probably been played by most any cold soft chew. Liking bergamot and shiso I wasn’t bothered, but I might switch these flavors with a crème so the light lemon was on the fish and the stronger aromas were tempered by the crème.
First course, was a divided with Helmet, the SEA URCHIN PANNA COTTA, Chilled Ocean Consommé and Caviar, an exceptional dish. The panna cotta was complimented by a quenelle of caviar, some sea greens, and a cooled gel of lobster and mussel stock. Alongside were potato crisps topped with dried sea beans and greens. Great sea urchin dishes taste like the sunlit top of a beautiful sea, the danger is that when the urchins themselves are not immaculate or are over-manipulated they can taste brackish. Here it all comes together perfectly, staying light and pure while definitely of the ocean. Not to foreshadow the report, but even if all else was miserable I would probably go back for this. The second half of the first course was “BACON AND EGGS” Polenta, Tuna Bacon and Truffle Toasts: cubes of smoked tuna belly studded polenta topped with a poached egg (firm from being brought to table in a covered dish) and dusted with tiny indiscernible slivers of fried something (I would guess potatoes but not confidently). A stick-to-your-ribs variation on breakfast flavors it was a good course, probably perceived as more brutish than it deserves because it was eaten in concert with the Uni.
Second course, was shared with Misspooz, STRACCIATA, Sweet Maine Shrimp, Escargots and Hazelnuts. Homemade noodles tossed with shrimp that had been sprinkled with something crunchy, buttery snails, toasted hazelnuts, with wonderfully flavorful micro-celery all tied together by an herby pesto of sorts. The shrimp and snails were quite nice especially served together, with the snail’s chewy, buttery, earthiness contrasting the crisp, sweet saline pop of shrimp flesh, both well complimented by the greens and the dressing. The pasta however was overdone/chewy, and the dish suffered for it. The other choice in this round was LARDED DIVER SEA SCALLOPS, Chestnut and Almond Milk from the BLACK WINTER TRUFFLE DISHES supplemental portion. Wilted lettuce, a buttery almond foam, generous slivers of black truffle, and chewy yet still sweet chestnuts scattered about two plump scallops cooked until crisp on the outside with a pleasingly dense bite. A nice dish, it read slightly better than it translated.
In the third spot, Pichon, Helmet, and I selected one of each of the three options of WILD SCOTTISH GAME BIRDS (birdshot may be present) which the kitchen kindly third-ed for us so we didn’t need to swap plates all over the place. From lightest to deepest in color as well as flavor were partridge, pheasant, and woodpigeon all roasted and served with brussels sprout leaves, roasted apple, roasted mushrooms, and tortellini stuffed with the game birds’ legs, all dressed with game bird stock. Growing up I was often forced to eat birds my father had shot, and the bright spot in the days before my palate matured enough to crave the sanguine gaminess of wild meats was finding the BB’s embedded in parts. Sadly I found no shot in these offerings. The dishes were quite nice, the broth doing an admirable job of compensating for the dry-ish meats. On a return visit I would go for just woodpigeon of these three offerings, or whatever was gamiest on that day. Picholine does a wonderful thing being one of the few places that offers truly wild birds and once you have committed to that they should be gamey with an oomph which is lost as you work through the lighter options.
Fourth round was a division with Pichon, with me insisting on the HEIRLOOM CHICKEN “KIEV,” Braised Mushrooms and Liquid Foie Gras because Frank Bruni had mentioned it both in the review and his year-end roundup. Having now read the words “liquid foie gras” for a third time I couldn’t see past it. Sadly the dish was bad. What poured forth when the waiter pressed a long pointed chopstick into the flakey fried yellow crunchies encasing the chicken breast had the consistency of a broken hollandaise. Clear fat with beige globules flowed onto skin that had set on a pool of mushroom demiglace between the kitchen and the table. Not only was there none of the unctuous poetry that should go with “liquid foie gras,” but rather a bland oleaginous weight that caused both Pichon and me to stop eating with stomachaches. (If Bruni was served this dish as I was and gave this place three stars he loves the color purple more than Prince, or has a stomach/palate made of iron). The other dish in this series was WAYGU RIB-EYE, Cépe Mousseline and Tempura Celery. The mousseline is probably worth remarking on, but the rest of the dish seemed mediocre, mostly due to a lack of salt, and I won’t comment further due to the association with the Kiev.
After some quick self-medicating with a few drams of grappa and an amaro I was fit enough to face the cheese cart, a collection so loved and well managed that it almost causes me to forgive the occasions of badness and mediocrity that happened between the brilliance of the Uni and here.
Max McCalman has a passion for cheese that translates as almost fetishistic, and the presentation of the cart is worth the price of a dinner. Still discombobulated from the Kiev, I put myself in his hands simply asking he provide me with a sampling of cheeses so funky you would believe they were created by angry deranged lunatics at an asylum on an island a safe distance from humanity. What he produced were: DURRUS, a cow milk cheese from Co. Cork, soft with floral and milky flavor; KRÜMMENSWILER FÖRSTERKÄSE, a cow milk cheese from Canton Thurgau, Switzerland, soft with a spicy mustard flavor; and VACHERIN FRIBOURGEOIS, a cow milk cheese from western Switzerland, firm with pronounced acidulous taste; which were horrible enough to heal me and the KRÜMMENSWILER FÖRSTERKÄSE was so absolutely ghastly that I asked for a second dish, which in turn got me treated to some in a doggy bag on the way out.
All in all my first Picholine foray which was prior to its reinvention is a good, albeit hazy memory. This fresh experience really straddled the gambit from spectacular to bad. Will I go back? Probably. The cheese program and game meats alone make this a unique enough place to merit a second shot. Combined with my fond memory I am pretty sure it will happen. Either way I am very glad this was not my first and only experience.