As planned, I went to Picholine last night with my parents and had a very nice time. Was I blown away? No, but I had one of the more pleasant upscale restaurant experiences I've had in a while, marred only by a bad recommendation from the sommelier and a surprisingly disappointing selection from the famous cheese cart.
We had to wait at the bar for 15 minutes, and the maitre d' was rather brusque about it. I had changed the reservation from 8:15 to 8:00 on the phone, but apparently this did not make it to the front. A minor annoyance. Take note that I had to guarantee $150 on my credit card for this 5-person reservation, a sad reality of dining at popular places in NYC. It was cancellable up to 12 hours in advance, however, and this seems reasonable in light of the "reservation abuse" that seems to occur a lot these days.
We began with an amuse-bouche of flaky pastry with a very sharp cheese inside it -- delicious. I had the sweetbreads, which were rich and intense. Two of us had the seasonal soup which was also absolutely superb -- fennel and chestnut soup over apple chutney and black trumpet mushrooms... creamy, warm and simple but with subtle complexity if you chose to listen for it. I had the duck risotto which was as wonderful and homey as I remembered it. The portion was enormous, as well -- and I was trying to save room for the cheese plate!
Not everyone fared so well with the entrees. My mother had the venison (rare) with spaetzle, and my father had the hare (rare). The meat in both cases was lovely, but both were marred by rather bland, sweet sauces, exactly what Jim warns against in his book. I'd tried to steer them toward the rack of lamb or some seafood, but whatever. My cousin had the paella, and pronounced it very tasty. I didn't get to have any.
The wine was more problematic. The sommelier was very helpful. I wanted a red burgundy to complement the variety of dishes we were having, and asked her whether she would recommend the Tollot-Beaut Beaune '96 or one of the Oregon Pinot Noirs. She steered me away from the Tollot-Beaut toward an admittedly cheaper Beaune from another maker, which she described as earthy and intense, but needing to breathe for "a couple minutes". The wine arrived and it was totally closed-up and tart... the essence of a young burgundy. It showed promise, however, and I assumed it would open up in the glass. No such luck. The wine remained thin and closed right up to the end of the bottle -- the end of the appetizer course, for us.
I am so sick of restaurants serving immature or mediocre red burgundy! Sometimes I wonder whether restaurants know anything about this wine. They would do better to omit from their wine lists completely than offer an obligatory selection that they don't know well.
To her credit, the sommelier seemed truly contrite when she asked how we enjoyed the first bottle. She helped me in choosing a Cornas, an intensely beefy northern Rhone wine that I've always wanted to try, often described as wine in a "nineteenth century style". This was a Cornas from Juge that was very nice indeed -- I can't remember the year -- so this partially made up for the burgundy fiasco.
Of course, we all had the cheese next, and this was not as great an experience as I'd remembered. Instead of the regular fromagier, we got a young assistant who did not have much time for us. He looked at the wine we'd been having and summarily suggested a selection of 7 cheeses for us. Rather than haggle or discuss (he clearly wanted to move on to the next table -- and the place WAS crowded), we accepted his selection. Good-not-great, as Jim would say. I remember the cheese last time as being perfectly aged and perfectly selected for us. This time we had some decent taleggio, a very nice Wisconsin gruyere, a brie variety and some other cheese that honestly made no impression at all. The big disappointment of the evening.
My brother ordered the Valhrona chocolate tart for dessert -- I had one bite, and it was as floury and cocoa-y as one could wish. The waiters came over and literally littered the table with petits-fours which I could not eat. Coffee and the check.
All in all we spent 3 hours in the restaurant -- surely a record for my mother -- and it went by fast. The service was very good -- attentive without being intrusive, and pretty much as fast as we needed it to be. Aside from the maitre d' (who literally said, after ignoring us for two minutes, "Oh, you can wait at the bar -- or WHATEVER", and no, I wasn't staring at him or otherwise ruining his evening), all the staff were unfailing kind and courteous.
We sat in the middle room. It was bustling and fairly noisy, but we were able (just able) to make conversation across a large-ish round table. Once the wine started flowing we stopped noticing the noise.
I felt happy after the meal. Would I recommend this place above all the other upscale midtown places? Hmm... I really don't think so. I'd take Le Périgord if I wanted the combination of hominess and elegance, and the wine problem would not have occurred. We would have forsaken the cheese course though, and I'm assuming that our experience with that was an anomaly. On the other hand, Le Périgord would probably have offered to pay for the bottle after we had that kind of problem with something they recommended.
Still, Picholine is nice. I'll go back, someday. And yes, my parents enjoyed it -- even if they were not blown away by the first bottle of wine or their own entree selections. Perhaps just as importantly, they felt comfortable there.