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Note: Click here for a more recent review of Picholine.

picholine-logo.gif Picholine has redeemed itself. Two years ago, we were ripped off on New Year’s Eve, spending $800 for two on a meal that might charitably have been worth a third of that. Last night, we spent $400 on an excellent meal that was worth every penny.

I’m not the only one who thought the “old” Picholine needed some attitude adjustment. Before a September 2006 makeover, Frank Bruni chose Picholine for his sister’s birthday, and it was so lackluster that he had to apologize. For the Times restaurant critic, not being able to find the right restaurant for a family celebration must have been acutely embarrassing.

Post renovation, Bruni found it “arguably the nicest restaurant surprise of this disappointing season,” re-affirming the three-star rating two previous critics had awarded. The 2008 Michelin Guide upgraded Picholine to two stars, making it one of the city’s top ten restaurants.

picholine-inside.jpgThe revamped décor has impressed no one except, perhaps, some Upper West Side dowagers. Even the china looks like something your grandmother would use. La Grenouille, a restaurant that is thirty years older, is far more lively.

There is nothing the management can do about the narrow space, but when you enter you hit a traffic jam around the host station/bar/coat-check area, a drawback I recall from two previous visits. The aisles in the two dining rooms are narrow, and servers sometimes seem to be pirouetting around obstacles.

Fortunately, there is nothing old-fashioned about chef Terrance Brennan’s rejuvenated cuisine, which is reason enough why Picholine remains popular, and one of this town’s toughest tables to book. Even with several weeks’ notice, 8:45 p.m. was the earliest I could get on a Saturday evening, although we showed up at 8:20 and were seated immediately. (Picholine does a lot of pre- and post-Lincoln Center business; it was still more than half full when we left at almost 11:00.)

With the best cheese selection in town (shared with sister restaurant Artisanal), the cheese course at Picholine is practically obligatory. It is therefore curious that the menu does nothing to alert you to this fact. If you choose either of the printed prix fixe options—three courses ($85) or four courses ($95)—it apparently does not include cheese. (Both of the tasting menus, at $110, do include cheese.)

picholine01.jpgWhen we told the server we wanted an appetizer, an entrée, and a cheese tasting, he offered us an option not shown on the menu—two courses for $65—and then we were charged separately the odd price of $33.50 for a six-cheese tasting. I am not sure how a first-time visitor would be expected to figure this out. And why is the menu still captioned “Autumn 2007”?

The opening trio of amuses-bouches was slightly pedestrian. A codfish cake (9:00 in the photo) tasted like a smaller version of a cafeteria fish stick, and lobster salad (1:00 in the photo) didn’t taste very lobster-y. A smooth mushroom panna cotta  (5:00) was the best of the group.

picholine02a.jpg picholine02b.jpg

Chef Brennan loves his panna cottas. Sea urchin panna cotta (above left) with caviar had an ethereal silky texture. My girlfriend ordered the foie gras terrine (above right; $8 suppl.), which was on a par with the better examples of the genre around town.

picholine03.jpgHeirloom Chicken “Kiev” — the quotation marks suggesting a riff on the classic dish — was a tour de force. It is still January, but for now this is the dish of the year.

Brennan wraps chicken around chanterelles and foie gras, covers it in a cornflake batter and deep fries it, melting the foie gras. After the dish is brought to your table, a server lances the chicken with a silver spear, and the liquid foie gras oozes out. (The photo was taken after this surgery had been performed.)

Frank Bruni loved it too.

The frommagier brought the cheese cart to our table and gave us an overview. We told him our general preferences and asked him to choose six. There was not a weak selection among the group. As always, he handed us a printed cheese guide to take home, with the ones he’d selected for us identified by number. The meal ended with a broad selection of petits-fours.

The wine list is long and expensive, so I decided to let the sommelier choose for us, giving him a ceiling of $100. He came up with a luscious burgundy at $95 that went perfectly with the chicken. We also accepted his offer of a taste of sauterne to go with my girlfriend’s foie gras. We were charged only $10 for that, and he comped a white wine to go with my Sea Urchin appetizer.

Our captain, a veteran no doubt of many dinner services, provided helpful ordering advice and stayed on top of things. Both the frommagier and sommelier followed up to ensure we were happy with our meal. The junior staff that served the bread and amuses-bouches were a little hard to understand—a problem at many New York restaurants, as these positions are often taken by non-native speakers. Although we were seated side-by-side at a table with ample space, the cramped quarters meant that servers had to reach awkwardly to set and clear the silverware.

The space at Picholine will always seem twenty years too old, but the food, wine and cheese are the stars.

Picholine (35 W. 64th Street between Columbus Avenue & Central Park West, Upper West Side)

Food: ***
Service: ***
Ambiance: **½
Overall: ***

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