Note: Click here for a more recent review of Picholine.
It seems that when I roll the dice with fine restaurants on New Year’s Eve, I keep getting snake eyes. Restaurants tend to offer a limited menu—something they can serve to hundreds of people quickly and easily—at an inflated price. I was disspointed in Ouest last year (although I’d had a good meal there on another occasion), so I suggested to my friend that we take a step up the food chain, to Picholine, mainly because it’s the best restaurant of that calibre near Lincoln Center, where we were starting our evening.
Let me be clear: I did not have a bad meal at Picholine last night. But my friend and I paid almost $800 (incl. tax & mandatory 20% tip) for a dinner that, to put it charitably, just might have been worth about a third of that. A New Year’s markup is fair, and to be expected, but a 200% mark-up? I am not so sure about that.
Picholine was serving a six-course prix fixe at $195. We began with a quartet of amuses bouches, consisting of: (1) Cauliflower Panna Cotta with Caviar; (2) Peekytoe Crab Tartelette; (3) Goat’s Cheese Gougère; (4) White Bean-Truffle Soup. These were all small, but together made a respectable first course.
There was a choice of two appetizers. We had the Sauteed Foie Gras and Wild Game Pate with a Kumquat Chutney and Port Vinaigrette. (I haven’t noted what the other appetizer choice was.) This was a superb, thick lobe of foie gras, and certainly the best dish of the evening.
For the fish course, the choice was Maine Diver Sea Scallops or Wild Striped Bass with Truffle Toast, Salsify and Oyster Jus. We both had the striped bass, which was skillfully prepared without ever rising to excellence.
For the meat course, the choice was rack of lamb or Scottish Pheasant with Crosnes, Dried Fruit, and Foie Gras Sabayon. On this dish, the accompaniments were better than the main event. One imagines Picholine’s assembly line of scores, and perhaps hundreds, of pheasant breasts, and it isn’t a pretty thought. Is high-quality pheasant available in such quantities? I found mine dry and tough.
Picholine’s cheese course is possibly the best in New York. We received a generous serving of six cheeses, none of them likely to be encountered anywhere else. We were feeling rather bloated by this time, but we did give a try to each of them:
(1) Fleur de Maquis, a sheep’s milk cheese from Corsica, encrusted in dry herbs.
(2) Roncal, a sheeps milk cheese from Navarre, Spain. This was a hard cheese, and our least favorite of the bunch.
(3) Le Moulis, a cheese from the Pyrenees, described as “semi-firm, lingering, earthy, and fecund,” whatever that means.
(4) Winnimere, a wonderful raw cow’s milk cheese from Greensboro, VT.
(5) Sprintz, a cow’s milk cheese from Switzerland that was described as “hard, majestic and profound,” whatever that means.
(6) Stilton, a cow’s milk cheese from England that had a “mineral tang.”
All quotes are from the cheese menu, which (as always at Picholine) they give you to take home, with your choices circled and numbered.
Finally, there was a dessert tasting, which consisted of four small mini-desserts on one plate. At this point my stomach was yelling “No mas!”, but I gave most of them a try. I found them unremarkable, but perhaps I wasn’t the best judge of things by that time. Mignardises, which I didn’t touch, came with the bill.
I’ve saved the most serious complaint for last. Picholine has a wonderful wine list, but we took our chances on the recommended wine pairing, at $115 per person, i.e., $230 for the two of us. At that price, we could have had two terrific half-bottles or a blow-the-doors-off full bottle, and had money left over. Instead, we put ourselves in Picholine’s hands, and went home both poorer and disappointed.
We were served just four glasses each, with no wine for the amuse or the cheese course. A little math tells you that they were charging $28.75 per glass, and for that price you expect the best, especially at a restaurant noted for its wine list. We were optimistic when we tasted the excellent sauterne that accompanied the foie gras, but what on earth were they thinking when we were served a red wine with the striped bass? I know it is not impossible to drink red wine with fish, but for a wine pairing it was bizarre. Moreover, the server advised that it’s “something new from Oregon.” For that we were paying $28.75 a glass? My friend aptly characterized it as “flat” and “lacking any body.”
For the pheasant, our server turned up with another red, which she assured us was “something bolder.” We couldn’t taste any difference at all. Several hours later, as we were reliving the meal, my friend and I concluded that they give us the same wine for both courses. We are not wine experts, but we think we can tell when something allegedly “bold” is in fact no such thing.
A mildly fizzy dessert wine came with the final course, and this was more suitable, but by now we were rather offended at what we’d been given for our $230. I’ve ordered wine pairings at a number of restaurants, and normally you get a range of provocative choices that present some strong contrasts, and really enhance the meal. Instead, we were simply ripped off. In addition, several of the wines were mis-timed (i.e., arriving well before the food they were supposed to go with).
The space at Picholine is of course lovely. Naturally, the restaurant was packed. Our reservation was at 10:30 (after the New York Philharmonic Gala), and there were still people getting seated after us. Service showed the potential for being first-rate, but on such a night, naturally there were slips. On another day, I think Picholine would do a lot better.
We paid $195 apiece for the food, $115 apiece for the wine pairing, 20% for service, and tax, for a final bill $795.93. At that price, the restaurant should be going the extra mile—nay, the extra light year—and they did not.
Picholine (35 W. 64th St. btwn Central Park West & Broadway, Upper West Side)