When Terrance Brennan opened Picholine in 1993, it was forward-thinking in its dedication to cheese—it nearly single-handedly ignited a cheese-plate arms race—but backward-thinking in its style. The stiff room always reminded me of a white-glove hotel from another era. Thirteen years later, Brennan ordered a face-lift, shutting the place down for much of the summer before reopening in September. But aside from some barely recognizable design tweaks, Picholine remains a formal shrine to fine dining.
Up front, in the bar area, they’ve installed four small tables and a purple leather banquette, and replaced the staid carpeting with gray limestone and purple marble. A new bar menu allows for some quick, comparatively affordable ways to taste Brennan’s handiwork: $15 for three tapaslike bites of dishes like bacalao fritters and duck carpaccio; $18 samplings of items from the dining-room menu; and $18 for a three-cheese flight from six possible countries, along with optional $20 wine pairings. For Lincoln Center fans, it’s a much-needed, casually elegant, pre- and post-concert pit stop.
I needed a waiter to point out exactly what the design firm, Coffinier-Ku, had done in the main dining room. Apparently, the crystal chandeliers now sport silk lampshades and gray mohair has replaced a cotton-weave leaf tapestry on the banquettes.
The revamped dinner menu now features Brennan’s own version of the choose-your-own-combo, prix-fixe-meal—though he hasn’t abandoned the Mediterranean style of cooking that made him famous. Diners can pick any two dishes from a precious list of appetizers (“Preludes”), fish (“Day Boats”), meats (“The Land”) and pastas for $64 a person. While most of the dishes on the short menu are new, a few old favorites—like sea-urchin panna cotta and olive-crusted lamb saddle—remain.
Brennan combines rich, regal ingredients with even richer foods in his updates of classic dishes: Poached egg en cocotte comes not only with polenta and braised pork belly, but truffled toast; the Maine lobster is paired with chanterelles, rhubarb and vanilla brown butter; and the chicken Kiev was filled with an aromatic liquefied foie gras and served over a bed of lobster mushrooms thinly sliced like fine truffles. Somehow the ingredients stand on their own and work well together. The sheep’s-milk gnocchi nearly evaporate in your mouth, and contrast beautifully with crisp shrimp and creamy chanterelles in a parsley pistou.
Only one dish was a flavor collision: The skate entre, stuffed with a cabbage-and-pork-belly slaw, was woefully undermined by dueling sauces—creamy mustard and sour berry. Beware of portion sizes, too. The gnocchi dish, for instance, was literally five dumplings and three shrimp, something you might see as part of a ten-course tasting menu. If you stick with just two courses, you will leave hungry.
But, of course, no one does—coming to Picholine without having a cheese course is like skipping the steak at Peter Luger. Fromager Max McCalman continues to oversee a cheese cellar with 75 or so varieties, including a Spanish rarity called Montenegro that, McCalman will tell you, is just one octogenarian producer away from extinction. Alternatives to the cheese course include a wonderful apple-filled brioche thick with salted caramel, but servers will insist you don’t eat these courses at the same time.
If Brennan was hoping the face-lift would draw in the young’uns, he only partly succeeded. White-haired couples continue to dominate the main room. The customers in the tasting bar, meanwhile, appeared to be mostly in their thirties, giving Brennan hope that, unlike Montenegro cheese, his client base won’t be going extinct anytime soon.
Picholine, 35 W 64th St between Broadway and Central Park West (212-724-8585). Subway: A, C, B, D, 1 to 59th St--Columbus Circle. Mon--Thu 5--11pm; Fri 5--11:45pm; Sat 11:45am--2pm, 5--11:45pm; Sun 5--9pm. Two-course prix-fixe meal: $64.