Note: For a later visit to Artisanal, click here.
Artisanal is chef Terrance Brennan’s ode to cheese. I understand he has his own factory in Manhattan, where many of the chesses are manufactured. The distinct odor of eau du fromage permeates the whole restaurant. One lucky table gets to sit in “The Cave,” where many of the cheeses are stored. We weren’t that lucky, but cheese is everywhere. There’s even a retail counter, where you can buy a hunk of your favorite cheese to take home.
My mother, who’s visiting from out of town, has traveled in France extensively, and even lived there for a year. She said Artisanal immediately transported her to a brasserie in Paris. The Adam Tihany-designed interior conjures up the original brilliantly. The tile floor and other exposed hard surfaces makes it a bit noisy, but we had no trouble hearing our own conversation.
Your server greets you with a bewildering array of menus. There’s the dinner menu, with wines on the reverse side; a separate premium wine menu; a cheese menu that lists themed servings, optionally paired with wines; and a cocktail menu. Later on, there’s a dessert menu and a new cheese menu with the cheeses listed individually.
The main dinner menu, however, is packed onto just one page. Starters run $7.50 to $21.50, mains $17.50 to $29.50. Fondue is either $24 (petite, serves 1-3) or $40 (grande, serves 4-6). A $30.04 prix fixe is available every night, though it’s worth noting that if you add a flight of cheese, a party of two is still going to have trouble getting out for under $100.
Things start well with a basket of fresh bread and a dish of butter so soft it spreads like whipping cream. I ordered an appetizer of Bleu Cheese and Walnut Crisp, served with asian pear, watercress, and warm bacon vinaigrette. It looked like a green salad, but the flavor of Brennan’s astonishing bleu cheese put all others to shame. I’m no cheese expert, but I’ve never experienced anything of this quality.
I then had a lamb porterhouse, a cut that neither of us had ever heard of. It was a bit smaller than the typical New York Strip steak, but for lamb it was an enormous piece of meat, very tender and cooked perfectly to the medium rare I had ordered. (The lady at the next table asked for medium, but she also got medium rare, and was dissatisfied; after she sent it back, it returned well done.) The lamb was served on a bed of stewed rice, tomatoes and olives that was a perfect compliment to the meal.
You can’t visit Artisanal without sampling the cheeses, so we ordered a plate of three. What do you call the guy who comes over and takes your cheese order? Is he the fromagier? Anyhow, he looked like he was about 16. We asked for two goat cheeses and an “exotic” bleu cheese. As at Picholine, you get back your own copy of the cheese menu, with your choices circled. One of those he gave us wasn’t even on the printed menu, and it was probably the best of all.
At the end of the meal, our waiter looked at my plate, and said, “You did good!” I’m glad to know he approved. We certainly did!
Artisanal (2 Park Avenue at 32nd Street, Murray Hill)