Picholine (NYC)

35 West 64th Street (between Broadway & Central Park West)
New York, NY 10023

5 Second Summary:
Price Range- 2-course lunch $29, 7-course chef’s tasting $58, 10-course chef’s tasting $88 (at time of posting)
Ambiance- Swanky, elegant although dress is casual
Cuisine- French/Mediterranean
Hits- Incredible technique, top-notch (organic, sustainable) ingredients, modest prices, formal and very capable service, vegan and vegetarian friendly
Misses- There’s little around Picholine’s Lincoln Center location except… well, Lincoln Center.  Lack of confidence? (read on)

Liz and I met early at Picholine’s unmanned bar, ready for another fabulous Restaurant Week lunch.  We had left the “husbands” at home, leaving us free to gorge ourselves on French food and discuss the finer points of Liz’s upcoming wedding.  No one came to take our drink order, but we were seated early and resigned ourselves to ordering a cocktail at the table.

The dining room, with ornate white molding, lavender walls, and crystal chandeliers, was notably feminine.  Liz accurately described the decor as what you’d expect if Housewives of Beverly Hills star Lisa Vanderpump had a restaurant on the East Coast.  Frank Bruni, less kindly, called it “cloying,” “monochromatic,” and “the architectural equivalent of a bridesmaid’s dress” in his 2006 review.

It seemed as good a place as any to discuss Liz’s wedding dress fitting, and we settled in with glasses of Pol Roger Extra Cuvée de Réserve.  A restaurant’s champagne list tells you a lot, and I rather enjoyed this brut, which had a lot of structure and depth for a non-vintage champagne.

Picholine’s pretty-as-a-picture set-ups made us feel like the grown-up equivalent of girls at a tea party.  It was a great place for a girls’ lunch, or perhaps a date. 

Our first taste was an amuse bouche of micro-thin salsify chips accompanied by sweet potato panna cotta (creamy but not sweet) topped with a port gelee.  The chips were remarkably thin and light with a cerebral, sweet-to-spicy flavor progression.  The flavor was intense: star anise, sea salt, and cardamom.  It was probably my favorite dish of the day- powerful, flavorful, smart, and bold.

We had chosen our meal carefully to sample and split.  The 2-course lunch ($29) offered more exciting choices than the limited Restaurant Week menu ($24), so opting for the regular menu seemed like a no-brainer.  Liz’s appetizer was a tuna “napoleon” with flavors of the Riviera and olive oil ice cream.  As you can see, the “napoleon” was a layered “cake” of beautifully colored tuna slices and a crunchy, puffed-rice-type of chip topped with watercress.  The olive oil ice cream was a bit thin and flat; it could’ve been richer.  Here began my line of thinking about Picholine.  The amount of work that went into the dish was clear.  There was a lot of technique, a lot of planning, and beautiful plating… all with a remarkably modest price tag.  It wasn’t, however, knock-down-drag-out delicious.  Something seemed missing.

My appetizer was a chestnut veloute poured tableside over cèpe marmalade with chocolate granola and a bacon-maple mousse.  It was extremely subtle, technical, and had depth of flavor… but somehow the sum didn’t equal the whole of its parts.  I could appreciate the rich chocolate (not sweet) of the granola, the earthiness of the cèpe mushrooms, and very faint bacon-maple… but I didn’t have the irresistible urge to gobble down the entire bowl.  These dishes felt brilliantly thoughtful…all brain.  Where was the heart? Where was the soul? It felt polished and discerning but not passionate.

I hoped the entrees would change my mind.  Liz had pan-seared diver sea scallops “rossini” (a reference to 19th century composer and truffle-and-foie-gras lover Giaccino Rossini?) with black truffle oil, foie gras-pistachio dressing, and topped with thin slices (like cheeky little berets) of sunchoke.  The pan-sear was perfect, the textures lovely, the flavors deep and rich… and yet not entirely memorable.

My entree was the grilled Columbia River sturgeon.  I was tempted by the skate wing “pastrami,” because -like hanger steak- I feel that putting skate wing on a menu is a challenge to the eater.  When done well it is sweet and flavorful; when done poorly, it can be terribly dry.  Looking back, I feel certain that the technique would have been perfect: cooked on the cartilage and the fillets perhaps later removed to retain moisture.  I also considered the Elysian Fields lamb.  Although I’m not a huge fan of lamb, this Pennsylvania farm prioritizes a humanely raised philosophy and has the stamp of approval of Chef Thomas Keller’s input.  It appears regularly on the menus of both The French Laundry and Per Se, and if it’s good enough for T.K., it’s good enough for me.  That said, I was intrigued by the Pacific Northwest sturgeon, one of the largest and oldest living freshwater fish.  It tasted, ironically, like pure ocean and was quite tender if not a little bland.  Served with salsify fondant (a little more flavor), Syrah sauce (the bulk of the flavor), and topped with foam, it was once again technically proficient.  The pommes “Lyonnaise” were thinly “mandolined” and stacked like a gratin or a terrine; they tasted deliciously of butter and fat.  The crisp top layer and soft texture beneath made this simple, comforting, and one of my favorite parts of the meal.

We were reasonably full and could have skipped dessert, but I feel like the additional course often provides more information in the big picture of a restaurant. While waiting, we opted for another champagne-based drink.  I had a hibiscus cocktail, while Liz tried the pomegranate.  Mine was delicious: subtle, dry, and aromatic with visual aesthetic.  Hers was bright red, a bit sweeter, and also refreshing.



We chose the “chocolate and peanut butter” dessert: a mousse, crisp croustillant, and peanut butter sorbet served with whimsical peanuts encased in sugar and shaped like toothpicks.  The peanut butter was subtle in flavor, the chocolate rich, and the dried white crumble (front of the plate) was also peanutty and innovative in form.  This dish was incredibly complicated but muted in flavor.

My overall impression of Picholine’s food? It’s erudite, polished, and utterly masterful.  And, yet, it’s like a woman with luxe hair, porcelain skin, stunning eyes, full lips, high cheekbones, and a size 2 figure who is not described as beautiful.  One can appreciate it for its discrete parts and for the effort and technique that go into each plate.  But something feels missing. Worried that I was being unduly tough, I dug up some older reviews of Picholine.  The New York Times gave Picholine three stars (“excellent”) in 2006, and New York Magazine gave it four stars (“exceptional”).  With a 2007 James Beard nomination for the country’s Outstanding Restaurant in 2007 and two consistent Michelin stars from 2008-2011, Picholine clearly has street cred.  Yet Frank Bruni noted Picholine’s “seemingly chromosomal stuffiness,” its lack of “energy and style,” and that it is fundamentally “too quiet” despite its “first-rate ingredients and superior execution.”  What isn’t in Bruni’s review (or mine) is sheer deliciousness… because it simply isn’t there.  Picholine is refined.  I wanted so badly to fall head over heels in love with it, and yet I walked away feeling like there was some missed potential… a lack of confidence? a very head-over-heart approach? a lack of wild, reckless abandon? It felt zippered up way too high at the neckline and with floor-length hems too low to show any real natural beauty.  You got the sense that there was something fabulous underneath, but it was heavily cloaked in a genteel modesty.   I admire Chef Terrance Brennan for Picholine’s philosophy and proficiency, but at the end of the day, only the passion and complexity of the amuse bouche and the pommes lyonnaise really stood out and were truly memorable.

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