April 5, 2009

Picholine Perfection

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The night before I came back to Cornell, I had the pleasure of eating at Terrance Brennan’s Manhattan restaurant, Picholine. Though I had had an unpleasant experience there five years ago, complete with terrible service and even worse food, recent reviews had piqued my interest in returning. I was willing to give Picholine another chance and I was glad that I did.
From the moment I walked through the door, I could sense a distinct change in the atmosphere of the restaurant. Though the décor was still outdated compared to other bastions of haute cuisine, the proprietor had certainly made an effort to modernize.

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When I took my first look at the menu, I was astonished with the selection of innovative dishes. I had never heard of ricotta gnocchi, foie gras “shabu shabu,” or chicken kiev with liquid foie gras. This was far different from the more mundane rack of lamb or duck confit I had come to expect from Picholine. For dinner, my friend and I opted to skip dessert to try more appetizers and we got the foie gras “shabu shabu” with root vegetable pearls, sweet and sour bouillon; wild mushroom risotto with local squash, duck confit, and truffle; sheep’s milk ricotta gnocchi with artichokes barigoule, bottarga, and parsley pistou; and warm maine lobster with vanilla milk to start. We had the heirloom chicken “kiev” with chanterelle mushrooms and liquid foie gras and the wagyu beef rib-eye with pomme confit, grilled trevisio, and béarnaise sabayon with bordelaise sauce for the entrees.

Before our appetizers, we received an amuse bouche of manchego tempura, pea soup, mushroom barley soup, another soup. On one plate was a glass filled with “soil” and “grass,” from which the manchego tempura “grew;” on the side of the plate was a small bowl of pea soup. The theme of spring and growth was apparent throughout the meal, but this amuse bouche took it quite literally. On top of the sticks, the manchego tempura looked like marshmallows roasted over an open fire and it had a similar consistency as well. The exterior was slightly crunchy while the interior was soft and squishy, pleasantly accompanied by the mild bite of aged manchego. Compared to the manchego, the pea soup tasted cold and bland, but it helped to clear my palate for the next two soups. I cannot remember the soup in the tall glass, but I do remember the sweet taste of the foam at the top. Unfortunately, the soup was very difficult to drink through the foam and most of the flavor that came through was from the foam. The soup in the small bowl next to it was the mushroom barley, which had the consistency of gelatin. It took on the shape of indentation from the spoon, but other than the interesting texture, just tasted like mushroom barley.

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After the amuse bouche came the first two appetizers. These were the foie gras “shabu shabu” with sweet and sour bouillon and the warm maine lobster with fried vanilla milk. Shabu shabu is a type of Japanese cuisine where you cook your own meat, fish, and vegetables in a pot of boiling water. I assume that the quotation marks are meant to indicate that it is not a true “shabu shabu” as it is not served as such, but only cooked in a similar fashion. The dish was presented as a bowl with uncooked foie gras on the bottom. Then, hot sweet and sour bouillon was poured over the foie gras. Most interesting about this dish was the fact that the bouillon was just hot enough to cook the foie gras, but just cool enough so that after combining with the cold foie gras, it cooled down enough so as to not overcook the meat. The end result was a texture of foie gras I have never tasted before. It was luke warm and separated upon touch, but the flavor remained on my tongue long after swallowing. Combined with the bouillon it resembled the traditional fruity and fatty mixture that I have come to expect from foie gras, but it was presented in a new and exciting way.


The warm maine lobster was delicious, moist, and sweet. However, the most interesting part of the dish was the fried vanilla milk. It looked like a yellow baby bell cheese fried on the outside. The waiter said that it was made by flavoring the milk and chilling it until it was hard enough to work with. Then it was battered and fried. It tasted very sweet (a little too sweet for my taste) and had the consistency of melted cheese.


Next came the wild mushroom risotto with duck confit and the sheep’s milk ricotta gnocchi. The taste of mushrooms permeated the risotto and the duck confit was also very prominent. It was a very well done risotto where the cheese was very well balanced with the mushrooms and duck and each flavor came out equally. My favorite part of the dish was the duck confit, which came in shreds throughout the dish. It had a slight tomato taste that reminded me of a duck ragu I had previously had.


The gnocchi was served in a cream sauce and together with the cheese in the gnocchi itself made for a very rich dish. I have only had potato gnocchi before and the texture of this gnocchi was very unusual as it was much softer than that of potato gnocchi. It had a parsley pistou that was incorporated into parts of the cream sauce that gave the dish a spring flavor along with the artichokes. The rich savory elements of the cream sauce and ricotta gnocchi contrasted nicely with the vegetables to make it a delicious dish.


Finally, it was time for the entrees. These were the chicken kiev with liquid foie gras and the wagyu beef rib-eye. Chicken kiev is traditionally a breaded chicken stuffed with butter and baked so that when it comes out of the oven, the butter is melted and explodes outward when the meat is cut. This particular chicken kiev was filled with butter and foie gras. I assume that goose foie gras was used, as it melts much easier. When served, the waiter made the first cut to ensure that we did not get hot butter squirted into our eyes (this happened to me once with chicken kiev). The picture was taken after the initial incision and the result was an overflowing of brown foie gras butter. It worked perfectly with the taste of the chicken and I was pleasantly surprised at how prevalent the taste of foie gras was. I had my doubts about foie gras chicken kiev, but it turned out to be amazing.


Wagyu refers to several breeds of cattle whose meat has intense marbling. It used to only be produced in Japan, but now wagyu is produced by America and Australia. I have no idea where this wagyu came from, but I love rib-eyes and this was no exception. When the dish was served, the waiter poured the bordelaise sauce around the circumference of the plate. This meant that there were two sauces for the steak: the béarnaise sabayon and the bordelaise. The béarnaise sabayon tasted had the rich and tart taste that a perfect béarnaise should have, but with a whipped and foamy texture as well. I have never been a fan of bordelaise, but together with the béarnaise the savory and sweet tastes were very interesting with the meat. The steak itself was incredibly tender even if it was not as rare as I like. That is the amazing thing about wagyu. With most steaks, they lose so much of their tenderness if they are cooked even a degree above rare, but wagyu maintains its tenderness, providing room for error and deliciousness at all temperatures.


Even though we did not order dessert as I do not particularly like sweets, the restaurant provided a few petit fours and some more novel dessert creations. The petit fours were an assortment of five different flavors of chocolates. Next was an assortment of cotton candy flavors and flavored sugar candy on top of sticks coming out of a glass, quite similar to the way in which the manchego tempura was served. Lastly was a spoonful of raspberry sorbet topped with chocolate salt. We were instructed to eat this in one bite. The flavors were very unique, especially that of the chocolate salt. It tasted salty on the portions of my mouth where there was no contact with the sorbet, but chocolaty on the parts where it met with the sorbet.

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The meal as a whole was fantastic and it changed my opinion of Picholine from an overpriced, overrated, washed-up restaurant for old people to an innovative, respectable, home for haute cuisine. I had a great time, the wait-staff was friendly, and I got to try food that I never thought was possible. It challenged my perceptions of how chicken kiev, gnocchi, and foie gras could be made and I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed Picholine’s interpretations. I highly recommend eating here if you feel like celebrating and happen to be in the Manhattan area.