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Reichl reviewed it twice, first in December '93, giving it two stars, then again a little over 2 years later, in March '96, bumping it to 3 stars, writing, "I wasn't crazy about Picholine when it opened. . . . [brennan] has pushed himself. . . to make Picholine the best restaurant in the area. . . . And he has succeeded. . . . everything about Picholine has improved."

In his *** review, Bruni starts by recounting a very bad experience he had there just pre-makeover. But the overhaul he says makes it, "arguably the nicest restaurant surprise of this disappointing season."

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I've been there twice since the renovation. Once in the dining room, once at the bar.

I have to say that, physically, the renovations made the dining room seem no less stuffy -- in fact, no different -- than before.

OTOH, the new bar menu has substantially improved the eating-at-the-bar scene, which formerly was moribund and now is rather lively.

The bar menu looks fairly enticing, but the main menu (also available at the bar) is so good that I can't see taking recourse to the bar menu.

I don't see the menu as being quite as rejuvenated as Frank Bruni does. But that's probably because I liked my last pre-renovation meal there a lot more than he appeared to. (The review is upthread.) I would say that the food there now is marginally (as opposed to vastly) better than before (probably because Terrance Brennan is paying more attention -- he was in the house during both my recent visits). But I thought it was fine before.

I continue to strongly recommend Picholine as an oft-overlooked gem (I hate the word "gem" when applied to things that aren't actually stones). Although I guess it may not be so overlooked any more.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Having just gotten through a horrific extended work period, I treated myself to the game tasting menu at the bar last night. I was eating strictly for fun, and I'm not gonna do an extended dish-by-dish runthrough. But boy did I love it. It was a Superb Dining Experience.

The only downside was that, cumulatively, it was too rich, and I ended up in sort of a food coma.

With all the attention they've gotten since the renovation, you can no longer say Picholine is a Great Forgotten Restaurant. But I still sometimes feel it doesn't quite get its due as a member of the City's elite. Not JeanGeorgeDanielDucasse four-star, but up there with the best of what's below.

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  • 4 months later...

Given its relative proximity to me, I have no idea why I waited so long to try Picholine. Truth be told, before the renovation, I didn't really see much reason to go, except for the fabled cheese cart. Since the renovation, I've been lured many times to locales far more distant and meals far less impressive than the one a friend and I enjoyed here on Sunday evening.

We had the tasting menu as written here, with a few minor changes. My friend doesn't eat read meat, so made substitutions for the duck and lamb courses. I'd read about the chicken kiev with liquid foie gras, so I substituted that for the lamb. And we're both gluttons, so we actually ended up adding "Soft Shell Crab -- Crisp Pork Belly and Crab-Tamarind Sauce" a couple of courses before the cheese, after drooling over the table next to us ordering it.

The sea urchin panna cotta was flat out phenomenal. The texture was perfect. The flavors were purely oceanic. My friend remarked that he was literally reminded (in a good way) of swimming in the sea as a child and swallowing a bit of sea water in the process. Leagues better than the sea urchin dish at L'Atelier.

The crayfish soup was also very nice. Reminiscent of gumbo. Okay, a bit of a fancy-pants fusion-y gumbo with the addition of the fennel foam, but het, it tasted good and that is what matters. Just spiced enough to give you that slight prickly sensation at the back of the mouth. My friend's only complaint was that it bordered on being too salty. We both quite enjoyed it, though.

The scallops, er, actually, scallop was wonderful. The tart blood orange vinaigrette and briny capers were refreshing hits on the tastebuds to keep them from getting bored from the creamy cauliflower puree. The thin fried slice of cauliflower on top was a nice textural counterpoint as well.

The risotto was rich and delicious. Very comforting dish, especially considering the incredibly ugly weather we were having that day. The tiny nuggets of duck skin crackling were a great addition (granted, are duck cracklings ever a bad addition?).

The extra course of the soft-shell crab was also a hit, save for the superfluous addition of a leaf of raw lettuce to the plate. The crab-tamarind sauce bordered on being overly sweet, but was nicely balanced by the salty pork belly (which was perfectly crisp on the outside, unctuous and fatty on the inside). The crab itself was a nice specimen, especially considering it's early in the season. I must admit, I am a sucker for soft-shells.

The chicken kiev with liquid foie gras center was, not surprisingly, quite rich. They had even warned that it was probably the one main course that would be difficult to do in a tasting menu portion. (Once they realized I'm a pig, however, they kindly subbed it anyway :raz:). The chicken was remarkably moist. I'm not sure how much I dug the foie gras filling. It looked kind of....broken. Like a separated sauce. Tasty, of course, but not the most visually appealing. The vegetables on the plate were futile, completely overwhelmed by the richness of the foie gras. The sauce on which it was plated had also formed a bit of a skin, presumably from sitting under the heat lamp a bit too long (though the dish was served piping hot anyway). This is completely forgivable, though, as we'd ordered the soft-shell crab only after the previous course, and they'd been kind enough to sub it in at the position in the meal where it made the most sense at that point.

The cheese course...what can I say? Best in the city? Yeah, that's definitely what I'll say (my other favorites, for different reasons, are Daniel, Gordon Ramsay, L'Impero and Otto). Their selection is, of course, encyclopedic. The fromager is quite a nice guy and very knowledgeable. And I discovered a new personal cheese crush: Azeitao from Portugal. Great, great stuff.

With the cheese, we enjoyed some phenomenal port (Quinta Do Noval Colheita 1974). I'm no expert on port, but this is undoubtedly the best I've ever had.

The chocolate souffle dessert was very nice. Could've been a bit lighter, perhaps, but the flavor was great. Rather than the usual chocolate sauce poured into the top, it was served alongside a dish of etheral peanut butter mousse layered atop a pleasantly salted peanut butter "sorbet" (I'd have called it ice cream), and a salted peanut tuile of sorts. Wonderful textural, temperature, and flavor contrasts from start to finish. I really enjoyed this.

After the souffle, we enjoyed a very nice riesling ice wine. My friend thought it almost too sweet, and a bit of a step down in complexity after having the port earlier. But I thought it was quite tasty. (As a point of reference, though, my favorite dessert wine is Moscato d'Asti, which I know many consider to be too sweet.)

Some chocolates and petit fours, and we were out the door, fat, happy, and surprised that we were, in fact, still on the Upper West Side.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Stopped by Picholine tonight with the family. Work for my parents had been crazy, so it was somewhat relaxing to all get together after lots of travel and just enjoy a relaxed meal. The room is about as purple as everyone says and the clientele nearly as elderly, especially before around 9 PM. Other than that, the meal was really solid. I won't say there were any groundbreaking revelations, but the cooking is very precise and quite delicious. This was not a light meal by any means, however. The dishes aren't so much complex as they are assertive and rich.

We selected the tasting menu, with a couple substitutions. My mother and sister ordered the John Dory with truffle vinaigrette and chanterelles and the veal with favas and, like, crispy potatoes and a grassy soft cheese. We also got one passion fruit cannoli in place of the standard chocolate souffle. I must say that the two semi-downers of the night were our inability to order the chicken as tupac did as part of the tasting menu and the fact that we were served pre-selected cheese assortments. To speak to these semi-issues, our captain told us that the only way that they could do the chicken is if they split it between my mom and sister. Since we wanted to try more items, we declined. I kind of wanted to choose my own cheeses too, but, with that said, we were each served three different cheeses on each of the four individual boards. In the end we were able to try 12 cheeses by sharing and they were unquestionably excellent, but I guess part of the mystique of working through the fabled cart was denied. I think part of the problem was that they were busy and the cheese guy already had a queue of tables to visit who had ordered the cheese a la carte. I'm seriously considering going back just to try the cheeses at the bar.

All in all, the food was very solid. Comparisons to Country and Gordon Ramsay are apt, with this meal far outshining Country. I might be inclined to say that I enjoyed my few courses at GR slightly more, but experience with that restaurant is so limited that I can't make an accurate judgement. Nevertheless, I place Picholine at low to solid three stars. Given that I'm not necessarily enamored with this type of classical cooking, that's pretty high praise.

Highlights were the cheese course (without a doubt) and the crayfish bisque with boudin blanc. Those were truly excellent dishes. I liked the much lauded cauliflower panna cotta but wasn't enamored. The seaweed the borders the dish in an attempt to add some texture was kind of distracting. The blood orange with the scallop was a very nice touch, but could only do so much to break the hackneyed cauliflower-scallop combination. Nevertheless it was a very solid dish. Also, the John Dory was kind of a surprise. Perhaps because the rest of us were eating lamb or veal, the crispy fish with acidic vinaigrette and nutty mushrooms really worked. Nothing revolutionary, just tasty and somewhat refreshing. That pan fried fish with butter-cooked mushrooms was refreshing speaks to the heaviness of the food that Sneakeater had mentioned.

The souffle was good, if predictable. I, too, wished it was lighter and had a different accompaniment to foil the richness and sweetness. The passion fruit cannoli was a really nice dessert. The shell was dried pineapple and the filling was a pineapple mousse. A tropical fruit soup and, like, salsa were at the bottom of bowl.

Chocolates, petits fours, and coffee rounded out the meal. We were all, and still are, extremely full. I was kind of hoping for a refreshing pre-dessert that never came, so perhaps that also could be improved. Nevertheless the whole meal was just a very good "fine dining" experience. I still feel like the place is somewhat trapped in time (or at least a time different to what I'm accustomed to), but this is not necessarily to its detriment. The restaurant was very full and more lively than I had predicted.

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  • 1 year later...

First dinner at Picholine. You can read the entire review at the ulterior epicure.

My friends and I ordered the Menu Royale, with a few changes due to allergies and one expectant mother.

Amuses Bouche

Tomato Confit and Roquefort Custard

Tempura Blue Foot Chanterelle

Sea Urchin Panna Cotta

Sauteed Foie Gras

Warm Maine Lobster

Atlantic Halibut

Licorice-Glazed Squab

Cheese Course

Passion Fruit “Cannolo“

I find it interesting that the restaurant’s cuisine, which I find rustically haute, is billed as Mediterranean, even though there are quite a few Asian inspirations on the menu, like the Warm Maine Lobster, the third course on the “Menu Royale” tasting menu. It featured a fat lobster claw draped over a crispy cake of basmati rice surrounded by a thick, spicy and fragrant kaffir lime-lemongrass coconut curry. Gutsy, fragrant, and full of body, it was the hit of the evening.

The best move of the evening, for me, was requesting a substitution for the seared foie gras. My friends thought it was fine (with rhubarb and hazelnut), but it wasn’t anything to write home about. I, on the other hand, chose the “Foie Gras Shabu Shabu” from the prix fixe menu.

This featured a thin slice of foie gras au torchon topped with a slice of duck ham and dusted with truffle salt. The server poured a steaming “sweet and sour bouillon” (imagine one part of each veal stock, dashi and hot and sour soup (emphasis on the sour)) over the foie gras to gently poach it (12 seconds recommended).

I think that a diner would miss the point of this dish if they thought that the foie gras was supposed to play the lead role. In fact, I think that diner would be disappointed. Rather, I think that the foie gras, both the texture and flavor, is intended to compliment the bouillon, which I was immensely satisfying by itself. The foie gras dissolves with time, adding to the flavor.

That diner might also be missing the point if they thought that the Sea Urchin Panna Cotta - the most anticipated dish on the menu for me - was supposed to be all about sea urchin. While the sea urchin panna cotta did constitute the majority of this dish, it was certainly not the emphasis.

I especially appreciated Brennan’s chutzpah for including this on the Menu Royale. Presumably anyone who’s going to order the Menu Royale would want to try what is probably the restaurant’s most well-known dish (other than cheeses). But, I can see how it might be considered “controversial” (I do know of at least one caviar-averse friend who asked for a substitution (not at this dinner)). (The Roquefort custard with Sauterne gelée, served as an amuse bouche, was an equally gusty move.)

Two notes on this dish (because it really is worth mentioning):

(1) Don’t think that the Sea Urchin Panna Cotta is entirely *not* about sea urchin. In fact, more than any other sea urchin creation I’ve ever had (that is, something that has sea urchin incorporated into it as opposed to whole sea urchin roe sacks), this panna cotta actually tasted very much like sea urchin roe - slightly sweet and creamy. The consistency of the panna cotta also mimiced the texture of sea urchin roe; it was like very soft custard, despite it’s rather firm, Jell-O-like appearance. This gave me an extra reason to like this course.

(2) My friends and I noticed that Brennan has a fascination for thinly-shaved or wafer-like preparations. This course came with two perfectly-round tissue-thin “potato wafers” (about the size of a 45 rpm vinyl). I’m thinking they’re made with potato starch, and baked instead of fried. The wafers are intended to be used as a vehicle for the custard-soft components of this dish. In theory, it’d be great, but two things made this impractacle: First, the wafers were so thin that they barely stood up under the weight of the panna cotta, no matter how much or little you put on them. Second, they would have worked much better had the wafers been closer to bite size; there were wafer crumbs everywhere. That being said, I loved these wafers and would have been happy if they had just brought out a basket of these instead of bread.

The other course that I was especially looking forward to was the Licorice-Glazed Squab. Part of my fascination was that the preparation was surprisingly similar to a dish I had at de bookkedoorns, a two-star Michelin restuarant in the Nederlands. Both featured licorice-treated squab with beets.

I recognize that on a tasting menu comprised of “greatest hits,” the concept of seasonality goes out the window. This squab presentation sounded very autumnal/wintry. And, it was. So, I wondered if the inclusion of rhubarb was a acknowledgement to those seasonally-minded diners of the dish’s asynchronism (same with the seared foie gras course mentioned above).

Overall, this dish was heavy. Although, I did, strangely, enjoy the flavor that the cashew purée contributed, I found it too sloppy and greasy to truly enjoy (plus, I hate it when they put a piece of meat that needs cutting on a pile of something mushy). The same is true for the purslane “salad,” which was much more foie gras vinaigrette than greens. However, the squab and accompanying cubes of foie gras were perfectly-cooked. The licorice glaze on the squab skin was the highlight of this dish. The spicing was subtle, but definitely discernible, lending a slightly sweet and anise-like aroma that I tend to shy away from in larger amounts.

Tempura is not this restaurant’s strongest suite. Both the tempura Blue Foot Chanterelles (on a stick, served as part of the amuse bouche) and tempura soft shell crab (that my friend substituted for the lobster - bad move) were limp. The plating on that tempura soft shell crab was a little busy, which I think was the most disappointing and least successful dish of the evening. The crunchy vegetables “a la Grecque” and raisin-mustard emulsion were creative acidic substitutes for more traditional ones.

Since I have more than just a passing interest in cheese, I’ll note that the selection is incredible - there are over sixty in the house on any given day. You can smell them too. If you give Max McCalman (the Fromager) some direction, he'll happily assemble a progression for you. That’s what we did. Since he recommended (or, one gets) three cheeses per person, we agreed to pool our collective selections and let him choose a progression of nine, with my sole request that he veer into more off-beat territories.

Service was efficient and polite but otherwise a bit chilly up until dessert when I asked our head server what her favorite dessert was. “Being a woman,” she enthusiastically recommended the Chocolate Soufflé.

Rewinding just a bit: the reason I got to choose my dessert was because the Passion Fruit “Cannolo,” the Menu Royale dessert, posed a field of allergy mines for me. This featured passion fruit mousse piped into a tube made from a thin sheet of dehydrated pineapple. The connolo sat on a bed of coconut tapioca pudding and was sided by a colourful quenelle of diced mango and kiwi. Big on table-side presentations, an “exotic fruit” soup was poured around the connolo.

The soup made little sense to me (cold soup desserts rarely do), since the tapioca pudding dissipated into milky whisps (with tapioca pearls bobbing about; what’s the point of tapioca pudding if it’s doused in liquid? If they wanted to flavor the “exotic fruit” soup with coconut, then why not just add coconut to the soup?) and caused the otherwise crispy pineapple connolo to go soggy. I admit I did taste just a bit of the soup and the passion fruit connolo; it was quite refreshing and I do think that of all the desserts on the dessert menu, it was probably the right ending for such a heavy meal.

We also got the Nouveau Carrot Cake (which was really a macaron) and the Chocolat Souffle. Both were good, but not nearly as good as the Warm Caramel Apple Brioche, which was mind-blowing. I generally dislike brioche; there’s often an after-bitterness that I deem offensive. Also, I find the hallmark mallowy softness of brioche intolerably inferior to the crustier breads and pastries that I prefer. Even worse, good (moist) brioche is hard to find, and a dry brioche is the kiss of death.

But, apparently, all of my tics and nits go away when you soak brioche in a warm, sticky sweet warm caramel. This little loaf was oozing with warm syrup. By anyone’s estimation, this brioche was way too sweet. But, it was one of those rare indulgences that one can’t help but sneak.

The real joy of this dessert, however, was the lacy tangle of what appeared to be dehydrated (baked?) apple strands on top of a salted caramel ice cream (that really didn’t taste much like salted caramel ice cream). They were crunchy (not unlike the fried noodles they garnish bad “Asian” salads with). Also, the tart “salad” of sauteed apples around the ice cream was extremely enjoybable, it tempered the sweetness of this dish.

I’ll refrain from commenting on the restaurant’s make-over since Bruni did such an excellent job in his review (2006). Suffice it to say, I don’t really care for it; they traded tapestries for lavender. And, despite the attempt at an injection of youth, the dining room still felt somewhat tired and suffocatingly-tight (although the front room much more so than the back room).

Like the interior, the restuarant’s culinary aesthetic, both visually and conceptually, feels dated and sometimes frumpy, if not beautifully so. Other than the tempura fumbles, a forgettable fish, and a greasy bird, I’d say that the food at Picholine is rather solid.

My biggest criticism of the Picholine Menu Royale isn’t a criticism of the food itself. Rather it’s an issue that plagues ”greatest hits” menus, generally. And that is: by their very nature, “greatest hits” menus lack higher-level coordination, and thus, often, cohesiveness. Since they are most often forcibly assembled, they can be unbalanced. Greatest hits may be greatest hits, individually. But, strung together, they can make for a disjointed experience. I think Picholine’s Menu Royale falls prey to this.

Might the halibut have been more memorable had it not followed the powerhouse lobster course? Maybe. Would the squab have been more enjoyable in the dead of winter instead of Spring? Probably. Was sauteed foie gras with rhubarb a bit over-played? Yes (For this reason, I think my progression, with the Foie Gras Shabu Shabu was probably better; I don’t understand why *that* dish isn’t a “greatest hit.” I think it’s far more interesting and special than the Sauteed Foie Gras course.).

The service, as I noted, could have been a bit more friendly and consistent (other than our head server, it seemed that we were geting a revolving door staff betwen ordering and dessert). On a minor note, we did manage to inhale the (wonderful) basket of bread served with the cheese. When we asked for more, the server said they had run out of bread. Although I have no reason to doubt his word, we found this was odd. However, our party did request number of changes for allergies and preferences, and they were accommodated graciously.

Is Picholine worthy of its second Michelin star? Yes, probably, although my meal didn’t quite reveal that level of consistency and merit. How does it compare with its peer restaurants? Strictly on a food basis, I’d say it’s much less finessed and refined than Daniel, more satisfying than Del Posto, and more imaginative than, though perhaps on par in execution with, Bouley. I haven’t been to Gordon Ramsay at the London or masa, which I would probably find hard, if not impossible, to compare with Picholine.

What entices me to return to Picholine more than anything else (I still want to know why they retired the dining room’s cheese-themed tasting menu) is its “Tasting Flights” menu, which (I believe) served at the bar. I could easily see myself perching at the bar for this less formal sampling of Chef Brennan’s food. And, yes, I checked, Mr. McCalman does make bar calls with his trolley.

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)


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  • 5 months later...

Ate dinner here for the first time with my parents this evening before seeing Don Giovanni at the Met. Overall we had a very nice meal. It definitely wasn't a jaw dropping experience, probably not even on top ten meals list, but very well done and an enjoyable part of the evening.

There were three amuses, tempura chantarelle lollipops, a cauliflower panna cotta with lemon gelee, and a celery puree with truffle foam.

I had the foie gras shabu shabu as previously discussed here. It was an interesting dish that I find difficult to describe. As mentioned above its not about the foie, but I didn't find it was necessarily about the broth either. It tasted good, but i felt there needed to be a stronger, more dominant overal flavor to the dish. I think someone up-post mentioned the broth was quite sour, but I thought it more mellow and could have benefitted from the stronger, sour flavor.

Next I had the lobster claw with the vanilla, brown butter sauce, barberries, endive, and mushrooms. Delicious

Followed by my favorite dish of the evening. Roasted John dory with salsify and mushroom capuccino. This hit every flavor and texture component perfectly.

Next was a roasted wild partrdige dish consisting of two thighs and a sausage made from the breast/loin of the partridge, at least thats how it was described. This was served on a bed of spaetzle with a liquid foie gras sauce as well as the natural jus reduction.

On to dessert which is probably one of my favorite desserts I've ever had. The passion fruit cannoli with coconut tapioca and exotic fruit soup. Amazing! The cannoli shell was a thin dried slice of pineapple with the most amazing passion fruit filling. I'm not exactly sure how to describe the filling as it was not heavy enough to be a sorbet/gelato and too thick to be a foam. All I know is that is was so heavily concentrated and tart. I can't say enough about this dish. I could drink a whole cup of the fruit soup.

Service was average. When we first began the restaurant was empty and our waiter was often absent when courses were brought out and didn't offer much explanation on the dishes until asked. But all in all service was attentive and courteous, but simply average for this class of restauarant. An enjoyable experience that I wouldn't mind repeating before another night at the opera, but probably not a place to return to if I didn't have other plans to be in that area.

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Service was average.  When we first began the restaurant was empty and our waiter was often absent when courses were brought out and didn't offer much explanation on the dishes until asked.  But all in all service was attentive and courteous, but simply average for this class of restauarant.  An enjoyable experience that I wouldn't mind repeating before another night at the opera, but probably not a place to return to if I didn't have other plans to be in that area.

This happened when I ate there with my parents just over a month ago: no explanation of a single course. It was kind of bizarre, because our waitress had the table next to us, too, and she'd come out and explain their courses but then walk away without explaining ours. We had to ask for explanations of courses. The food was solid (sea urchin panna cotta, cheese platter were the best) but not exactly exciting, but the service really knocked it down a couple of notches for me.

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  • 3 months later...

Stopped in for the new "Tastes of Picholine" menu before the Met tonight (5:30 pm res). The menu is $56 for 3 courses, with $12 for any extra course. This is of course a very nice alternative to paying $92 for 3 courses, with $12 for any extra course, the regular menu price.

The "Tastes of Picholine" menu is here (pdf)

I personally had the Foie Shabu, the Lobster, the Wagyu and a 3 Cheeses Affine, each course besting the previous one. The Foie Shabu is something pretty unique, and I can appreciate it for that alone. The Fried Vanilla Milk from the lobster dish feels like a Ko element, even though it predates it. It's fried (and therefore not particularly refined), it's creative, it's paired with something lux and it's pretty f'ing good. I guess it was the relative lack of refinement that made it feel slightly out of it's element among the septuagenarian set. The Wagyu Rib Eye was from Texas, a grade 6 combination of Wagyu and Angus, and was REALLY good. I had mine black and blue, and they weren't far off - just really really delicious. And of course the cheeses, just the highlight of the meal.

As for my first overall impression of the restaurant, I feel like it's a big time all-star athlete who's a cut above the rest, but who still occasionally blows a really routine play for whatever reason. When something didn't slip through the cracks, service was really very good - drinks filled, captain checking in conscious of your time, all levels of staff working together, warm greetings all around. But several small things did slip through the cracks in our short time there - dish not recited here, markings set incorrectly there (fish spoon for meat course), amuse forgotten (table next to us), napkin cleared (not refolded) when my wife used the restroom right after dessert but before enjoying coffee/mignardises.

And this impression wasn't limited to the front of the house. My wife's Steamed Sea Bass was great, but with the skin left on, and nothing more powerful than a completely blunt fish knife, it was near impossible to tear through. The butter was set in a small round bottomed dish that wobbled around violently anytime you tried to knife yourself a piece of the pat. A butternut panna cotta with apple gelee amuse brought an instant mental association with baby food (which I'm rarely around).

All of which are minor complaints that shouldn't individually distract from a very generously discounted price for some very good food. The fact that this is an option for pre-opera/orchestra is frankly sensational. The cheeses are just off the charts good, and even the worst dish of the evening was a dish we wouldn't at all mind eating again. On this particular day, the restaurant was not slammed, Chef Brennan came out twice to walk around and take in the atmosphere. At this price its safe to say we'll be back before the next show at Lincoln Center, but perhaps not otherwise since it's a touch out of the way for my usual routes.

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