In high school and college, I worked at a gourmet cheese shop, and it was there that I developed a healthy obsession with cheese. When I read in July's Gourmet magazine that there was a new bistro in Manhattan that was devoted to the stuff, I Knew I had to go. In preparation, I searched the web (including Chowhound) in an attempt to find out what the people were saying. Of everything I read, most of the feedback agreed on the following two things: the food was dynamite, and the service was a bomb. I hoped, how I hoped that the people behind Artisanal had read the same feedback I had, and heeded the cry of the public to make the necessary changes to bring the service to the level of the cuisine. Alas, last weekend, I had the pleasure/misfortune of dining at Artisanal. Yes, it was as foretold to me. The cheese, nirvana; The service, indigestible.
First let me tell you about the cheese. While the menu offers full bistro fare, we decided to stick with cheese; after all, you can have fish & steak everywhere, but I can't think of many restaurants where you can compose a meal entirely of this dairy goodness. The menu one receives when one is first seated has its share of cheesiness (i.e. fondues, salads accented with cheese, and grilled cheese sandwiches that sound like nothing your mom made you), but I wanted more-I wanted to know more about the cheese plates, the wine & cheese flights that I had read about, and while I read that in keeping with the French tradition, Artisanal does not customarily hand out until after the meal, I decided that since I wasn't French, I could ask for it now. We decided to begin with an assortment of seven cheeses for around 25.00. I had some in mind, and it was a good thing too, because the waiter seemed to know very little about the cheeses they offered. When one of the goat cheeses I had selected was unavailable, I asked him for a suggestion on one. He pointed to a sheep's milk cheese and made the glorious sell, "this one's good". I told him that I wanted a goat's milk cheese, and he looked confused. He pointed to two goat's milk cheeses and said, "those are good". Oh, and did I mention that when I ordered the other cheeses by name, I had to spell a few of them for him, because he didn't seem familiar with them. I had hoped that the cheese plates would be offered with something other than bread to complement their flavors, but unfortunately, the figs, quince paste and spiced nuts I had heard about were not offered here. So we settled for the six-dollar plate of fruit to help better highlight the cheeses. The cheeses were terrific, although the waiter counted up the cheeses on my plate and realized they "must have forgotten one" of the cheeses I had asked for, and the kitchen had "taken the liberty" of replacing another of the cheeses of which they had none. When I requested some more French bread for the cheese, the waiter nodded and said "sure", as if understanding. His future inaction on actually providing the bread though, proved my assumption wrong.
When another couple arrived and was seated near us, we overheard the waiter informing them of a variety of specials including the fondue of the day (Bacon and cheese). No such information had been disseminated to us when we arrived. I don't think that our waiter intended to keep us from knowing about the specials, I just think he forgot to mention them, and such sloppiness at such prices is inexcusable.
After the cheese course, we decided to order a fondue. We selected the Stilton/Sauterne, but long after ordering it, our waiter returned to our table and said, "You wanted the sausage fondue, right?" I corrected him, and eventually my wife and I shared a nice if not exceptional fondue.
By now we were getting fairly "cheesed out", as well as a little cheesed at the missteps of our server, but we decided to look at the dessert menu to see if we could bind ourselves just a little further with our cheese intake. We had time to practically memorize the dessert menu, and the questions that we had planned on asking the waiter about a couple of items there were eventually replaced with "Let's just get the check" pleas from my wife. I saw the waiter. He was still in the restaurant. And I know I wasn't wearing anything that made me look terribly invisible that evening, but the waiter just seemed oblivious. For some inexplicable reason, it seemed to be a maitre'd that appeared at the table and asked if we could get us anything. Soon thereafter, the check was paid and we were on our way. As we left the restaurant sated with cheese, a bitter taste clung in my mouth; Was it the Reblochon perhaps, or the Taleggio? Maybe the Stilton or the Montgomery Cheddar? No, you and I both know what it was-- Sadly, the stench of the service was stronger than the cheese. (ring ring) Hello, Zabars?
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