My wife and I have been to Picholine several times, and we always have enjoyed the experience. Before its recent remodel, the restaurant reminded me of a genteel, subtle brothel — but in a good way! And the food always was excellent, especially the lobster in vanilla brown butter. Actually, that was an incredible dish, one of the best I’ve ever had. And their wine list was reliably interesting, and expensive, but this is New York City, after all.
I have read that after the renovation, the restaurant experienced a rocky moment or two, but judging by our recent experience, the food is as good as ever, and the service certainly is more refined. Now, I am easily swayed by a great bar, with a great bartender standing behind it, making me a perfect martini. So I was primed to enjoy the evening, and Picholine did not disappoint. We started with the aforementioned martinis, sitting at the bar. When we told the maitre’d that we would have drinks at the bar, he said that our table was ready and that we should tell him when we would like to sit down. I liked that. We aren’t regular customers, and I didn’t tip him on the way in, although my wife was looking particularly lovely, so…Anyway, we were shown to our favorite table (note the attention to detail — our favorite table from previous visits), in the corner of the larger of the two rooms. It’s a great place for people watching and taking in the restrained bustle of the restaurant. And the seats are at right angles (I am not a big fan of side by side seating for two), so conversation is easy.
The service, from the very beginning, was professional, subtle, and attuned to our needs. We never felt rushed or deserted, and the pace of the food was obviously based on the waiter’s observation of us, not the convenience of the kitchen. We ordered wine by the glass, and once again, the waiter was professional and knew what was being poured. He brought a taste of a Mersault for my wife, who promptly puckered up and spat it across the room (just kidding. She smiled demurely and asked for another wine). The waiter whisked the glass away and brought another, more appropriate wine for her palate. I asked for a Zinfandel that I had never tried, and he suggested the Foley Pinot Noir which, I must admit, was an excellent choice. And his suggestion of a sweet white wine (I was thinking port) to go with the cheese course was perfect.When we were last at Picholine it seemed as if management had flooded the place with well-meaning, but not terribly accomplished waiters, or perhaps waiters-in-training. This time the wait staff was skilled and unobtrusive.
But on to the food! My wife had the lobster appetizer, which was not the same as the classic from the old menu, but it was superb in its own right. The sauce was a simple, intense reduction that went well with the sweetness of the lobster. I had the sweetbreads, and although it was an interesting dish, I wasn’t thrilled. The sweetbreads were fried in a cake, accompanied by some interesting pickled vegetables and a flavored mustard that was quite good. But the sweetbreads were mild, and a bit underwhelming opposite the bright flavors of the rest of the dish.
My next course was a mushroom risotto, recommended by the waiter. The rice was perfectly cooked, but the mushrooms had a texture that may be disconcerting to some. They were almost crispy!. I liked the dish, and I especially liked the contrast of the creamy rice with the crunchy mushrooms. The waiter brought my wife a bowl of the pumpkin bisque, presumably because it would be unseemly to bring just one dish to a table for two (again, note the attention to detail). We appreciated the gesture, which was unexpected, and the bonus was that the bisque was excellent.
The main courses were less successful. My wife ordered the loin of lamb, which was cooked perfectly, but it didn’t mesh well with the very aggressively flavored tapenade. It also came with a garlic flan that I liked very much, but she didn’t find interesting. It was mild, and the texture was on the light side. My venison also was cooked exactly as ordered, and it was served with a very nice parsnip puree that my wife ate with gusto. The dish was very good, but it wasn’t exciting or particularly interesting.
As we expected, the dessert and the cheeses were excellent. The cheese director, Max McCalman is certifiable, but incredibly knowledgeable, and amusing to boot. And one of the cheeses, a Spanish hard cheese called Zamorano, may have been the best cheese that I have ever eaten! The liquid chocolate tart was a delight (at least the small taste that my wife allowed me to have), with interesting ice creams, a beautiful presentation, and a lovely crisp outer shell that hid great chocolate on the inside.
One of the difficulties in evaluating a restaurant is being dispassionate about the food! Everything else about our evening was wonderful. The service was excellent; the restaurant was elegant (maybe not beautiful, but still nice); the experience was even better than we expected. But the food was the least impressive part of the evening. That is not to say that there were no “wows,” but judging the meal as a whole? I would say that the food was very good, perhaps excellent, but at the prices that Picholine is charging, I expected more. Will we return? Yes, without question. But we will order more carefully, probably taking advantage of the relative bargain of the prix fixe, or just drop in and have something light at the bar. That might be the best way to take advantage of this restaurant’s strengths, and avoid the pitfalls of a menu that is, at least in part, a rote recitation of the typical and expected.
Picholine does so many things so well, that it is a bit of a disappointment that the food does not quite match everything else. But we had a marvelous time, truly a special night, and as I have said before, food isn’t everything!