I realize it is widely known that New Years Eve is second only to perhaps Valentine’s Day as the worst day for an gastronome to go out to eat – rushed service, inflated prices, servers who would rather be out with their friends – I experienced all of these things one year prior in Chicago at Cantu’s Moto – one of the most disappointing experiences of my life. Knowing I would be in New York for NYE I planned ahead and called all the usual suspects – Daniel, Per Se, GILT, Bouley and even some others like SHO, Del Posto, and the Michael White spots – all had limited menus, all had elevated prices. Amongst places offering a veritable deal for the evening were Tocqueville, Craft, Esca, and finally Picholine – a restaurant that had been on my “to-do” list for 2 years – who was offering their standard menu during the first seating with the only caveat being required 20% gratuity. $95 for three courses +$12 per each additional course and the hostess on the phone couldn’t have been more friendly or attentive – I was sold.
Arriving minutes early for my 6:30 reservation I made my way in the front doors to a brightly lit and bustling bar area full of balloons, streamers, and festive decorations (all invariably tastefully done) to be greeted with a “good evening and happy new year!” from a pair of hostesses. Checking my bag after stating my name I was led through the bustling restaurant to a prime table on the perimeter overlooking the entirety of the restaurant, including the area from which the food was delivered. Declining alcohol my water glass was filled instantly (and never reached less than 3/4 full) and my server greeted me with a menu. A pleasant man who - despite the busyness of the room – was friendly, conversational, and both forthcoming and inquisitive I rather wish I remembered his name because the service throughout the meal didn’t miss a single step. Explaining the nightly specials, including one that he stated Chef Brennan had actually just brought in a few hours earlier directly from a source in Scotland, he stepped away to allow me time to decide.
Returning approximately 10 minutes later I placed my order with the response of “someone has done their homework – beautiful choices.” As my server stepped away the couple at the neighboring table also commended my choices and told me they’d come to Picholine from the Hapton’s prior to a show across the street every single New Years for the last 11 years. Clearly known to the house I actually had a lot of fun talking to the couple (who were clearly loosened up by wine and spirits,) the husband of whom was apparently a local real-estate guru and the wife a good friend of ex-Times critic Frank Bruni. They both disagreed with Bruni and stated they loved the room’s color – and I agreed. Although tables were spaced close and the room was a bit noisy (despite the decidedly elderly crowd) due to the holidays I really liked the feel of Picholine that evening with myriad balloons floating overhead and everyone dressed in their best.
Shortly after placing my orders the first of two amuses bouche arrived – a trio of flavors including a crispy and savory slice of dehydrated salsify with spiced with mace and nutmeg, a succulent slice of Australian hiramasa prepared crudo style and served with lime salt giving it an almost margarita essence, and a miniature crème fraiche panna cotta with black osetra caviar and a potato crust beneath – a beautiful way to start a meal.
The next dish, another unscheduled amuse, harkened back to my meal at Per Se only 24 hours earlier. Entitled Sunchoke Veloute with Black Truffle Foam the dish was another velvety smooth puree of creamy vegetables (akin to the pumpkin at Per Se) accented with a creamy froth (not really a ‘foam’) that breathed the very essence of truffles without overpowering the artichoke soup.
Amuses served the bread man next made his way by my table and at the recommendation of my neighbors I went straight for the Seven-Grain, an absolutely flawless table bread that tasted somewhat akin to less sugary honey nut cheerios. Perfect crust, great crumb, and paired with Picholine’s house-pressed extra virgin olive oil or salted butter. Other bread selections for the evening included a standard whole wheat and a good olive baguette – but really, skip ‘em, eat more Seven-Grain.
The first ordered course of my meal arrived almost 45 minutes after seating – I loved the fact that the meal felt so leisurely. A signature dish of Chef Brennan, Sea Urchin Panna Cotta with Chilled Ocean Consomme, Caviar with black sea salted crisps was everything I expected and more. Ranking on par with Keller’s Oysters and Pearls, Savoy’s Colours of Caviar, and Robuchon’s Le Caviar Osciètre as signature caviar dishes this dish may have surpassed them all in harkening the very essence of the ocean. Creamy and light panna cotta tasting precisely of fresh uni, a broth much akin to high quality nori, Caviar with a briny pop and sea salted crisps that could be added if desired for texture – this dish alone warrants a trip to Picholine for anyone visiting New York.
Still wowed by the panna cotta I sat and texted some friends a happy new year while I waited for my next dish. The table to my right having finished those diners moved along and were replaced shortly by another friendly elderly couple who also seemed to be known to the house – they were actually ordering off the second (tasting menu) seating and notably everything went without a hitch for both our tables despite the varying timings, dishes, and servers. My second dish, Warm Maine Lobster with Fried Vanilla Milk, Endive, Kumquats was another marvel of a sea creature preparation with a perfect butter poached half-tail and claw topped with braised endive floating in a pool of creamy warm broth that did not taste far removed from almond milk speckled with pureed fruit and cinnamon. One of the sweeter lobster compositions I’ve experienced I loved this dish and was more than surprised at the portion size which was quite ample.
The next dish of the evening arrived a little more quickly than the last – likely because it was largely a tableside preparation. Entitled Foie Gras Shabu Shabu with Root Vegetable Pearls and Sweet and Sour Bouillon the dish was presented as a thin raw terrine of Hudson valley foie gras and “pearls” of turnip, carrot, and potato in a bowl. Finished tableside with the addition of a steaming hot bouillon that smelled largely or vinegar and lemon I was instructed to wait “10-15 seconds” until the foie cooked. Waiting the necessary time and then inserting my spoon the foie broke down and with a small stir a “soup” of sorts formed. Taking a bite I was instantly reminded of the sweet yet bitter and unctuous flavor of the foie service at Guy Savoy, but overall found the lack of textural contrast to be a bit boring. Delivering a great aroma and palate sensation I just felt like something was missing texturally – perhaps a “crouton” or more crispy vegetables.
As much as I’d anticipated the panna cotta and the lobster, I have to say that the moment I heard of the Wild Scottish Game dish of the evening I started looking forward to it the most. Taking into account the “birdshot may be present” warning on the menu (especially considering my recently broken tooth scheduled for removal on 1/12,) I slowly delved into Wild Scottish Wood Pigeon with Almond Polenta, Cherry, Mizuna, Parsnip, Brussels Sprout, Royal Trumpet Mushroom, and Game Reduction the moment it was placed before me. A veritable hunter’s feast on a single plate the Pigeon was a bird I’d never before experienced and I was instantly struck by its duck-like coloration and palate sensation but guinea hen flavor and lack of fattiness – wonderful. Chewing slowly I surely did find a piece of birdshot – a piece that when joking with my server later he took and taped to a Picholine business card as a souvenir. Pairing the savory bird with the varying options on the plate – the sweet creaminess of the polenta, the fructose of the cherry, the earthy sprouts and mushrooms, the bitter mustard-esque essences of mizuna – a dish I won’t soon forget.
After a short delay I was next offered coffee – coffee that was included in the meal price (take note Savoy and Daniel) – a very excellent and nutty blend that contained chicory, if I’m not mistaken, and served with (nice touch) warm cream (which I unfortunately don’t use in my coffee.) Arriving shortly after coffee was my dessert - Warm Caramel Apple Brioche with Apple Salad and Salted Caramel Ice Cream. Light and airy yet intensely buttery and with hints of apple and glazed in caramel the texture of the brioche was almost that of a yeast donut while the “apple salad” was a cinnamon and sugar infused sold concoction resembling an apple crumble when taking into consideration the buttery lattice above. The ice cream – divine and creamy – and adding a hot cold contrast to the already well thought out plate.
Following the collection of my dessert plate (I resisted licking it clean) was an escort of mignardises and two more refills of coffee. Amongst the candies and confections were a lavender marshmallow, Cherry Gelee (wonderful,) Tiramisu Cake, Butter Cake (think shortbread,) Cookie “bark,” and chocolates of Cocoa Truffle, White Chocolate and Olive Oil (beautiful), Caramel and Dark Chocolate, and dark chocolate ganache. Sitting and digesting while sipping my coffee I talked with my server about the design of the room and my meal at Per Se the night before – nothing felt rushed and I told him to feel free to bring the bill while I traveled downstairs to visit the restroom (I was to be standing outside in Times Square for hours.) Returning to my table I found a copy of the menu and a small bottle of Olive Oil with a tag reading “Happy 2010” along with the bill. Paying and saying farewell to my server and neighbors I made my way up front and collected my belongings leaving the restaurant just prior to 8:45pm.
Making my way towards Midtown I reflected on the speed, quality, and overall “bargain” of the meal I’d just experienced – if Picholine was truly not at its best on New Years I have to say it must be one amazing experience when it is less busy and firing on all cylinders. Whereas my previous two NYE experience were rushed affairs at excessive prices and mediocre service my night at Picholine ranks amongst my favorite meals of 2009 – the food, the experience, the service – and for my dining dollar I’d certainly recommend it over Jean Georges, Ko, and perhaps even Daniel – even on New Years Eve.