Chef Terrance Brennan’s Picholine is considered not only one of the best vegetarian restaurants in New York, but one of the best restaurants, period. It gets one Michelin star and three stars from the New York Times, though I think it deserves higher: the meal I had there recently was the best meal I’ve had in a long time (probably since Eleven Madison Park).
I went to Picholine on a whim recently; my wife was out of town and they had a 1000-point reservation available on OpenTable on a Saturday night. On the one hand, this was quite a pretty penny to drop on a whim; on the other hand, the food was so good it was well worth it (and the service was great to boot, which is saying something considering I was a party of one, was one of the last people to leave on a Saturday night, and was probably slightly underdressed).
Anyway. Picholine is one of those restaurants that offers a separate vegetarian menu. I appreciate that kind of effort; it shows that the chef has actually put some thought into a coherent set of vegetarian options, rather than just tacking some meatless entrée onto the end of a list. I actually have a bit of a problem at restaurants like this; because I’m not used to seeing several vegetarian options at each course, I have a hard time deciding what to get. Eventually I settled on the chestnut-fennel veloutte and the cauliflower “steak”.
But first up was the amuse. (Sorry about the poor picture quality; I didn’t have my good camera that night.) Clockwise from the top: pistachio bon-bon, potato croquette; beets (beet, beet puree, beet paper). The pistachio I thought was a bit dry, and the croquette was fine, nothing remarkable. The beets, though, were great. I’ve noticed beets on just about every menu recently (usually in a beet-goat cheese salad, for some reason), but this was unlike anything I’ve had recently. The beet puree was actually kind of spicy, and I really liked it.
Next up was a manchego cheese “lollipop”; a small cube of manchego cheese tempura-style. I liked the cheese, although the tempura coating is very thin and the cheese overwhelmed the tempura texture. It probably would have worked better with a slightly smaller block of cheese.
[Update 4/4/11: Initially I’d forgotten to include discussion of the radish]. The cheese was followed by “baby radish in mushroom ‘soil'”. The “soil” is created by dehydrating mushrooms, and the presentation here was fantastic: it literally looked like a radish growing in the ground. So points for presentation, but the taste wasn’t great. Or, maybe more accurately: I’m not a fan of raw radish, so I didn’t particularly like this. (And I don’t think you’re suppose to eat the mushroom “soil”, or in any event I didn’t, so it seemed like that was mostly for show.)
Then it was time for my first course: the chestnut-fennel veloute. Wikipedia tells me that a veloute is a type of French cream sauce, and I guess that makes sense, becuse this dish was a creamy soup (but it was not heavy; I don’t know how they managed that, but kudos). The chestnut-fennel flavors came through well and made the dish very satisfying. The dark pieces you see at the top are chocolate; the whitish cubes are marshmallows, and the red is a cherry. The chocolate and marshmallows were sweet, and the cherry was very tart. The contrast of flavors was great: I could have a creamy bite (just the soup); a sweet bite (soup + chocolate/marshmallow); a tart bite (soup + cherry); or some some combination. By the time I’d tried each combination a couple of times, the course was finished: the perfect amount.
My main course was the cauliflower “steak”. I wasn’t really sure what to expect with this, and unfortunately the photo doesn’t do a good job of capturing the presentation, so I’ll try to explain. The “base” was about a quarter-inch thick and consisted of what I think was a roasted cauliflower, essentially smashed flat. The various garnishes were mostly other types of cauliflower, either whole florets, slices, etc. There were also raisins, toasted marcona almonds, and a “vandouvan vinaigrette”. Vandouvan is a sort of French/curry spice blend. Just as with the soup, these contrasting flavors — the spicy vandouvan sauce, the sweet raisins and the crunchy almonds — came together in different combinations so that hardly any two bites were the same. Delicious!
The it was time for the cheese course. Picholine’s cheese service is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The restaurant has a “Matire d’Fromage”, and the cheese cart contains all sorts of interesting cheeses. Usually the restaurant offers three cheeses in lieu of dessert; I was going to be ambitious and get one cheese and dessert. It didn’t work out that way; after the cheese course, I was quite full and just called it a day.
Unfortunately I don’t remember the name of my wine, but it was a semi-firm cheese, and the rind is made up of the seeds and skin from the grapes used to make barolo wine. (Perhaps it was a testun al barolo?) In any event it was quite good — the cheese absorbs some of the flavors of the grapes — and by the time I was done, I couldn’t handle a full-on dessert course.
That didn’t mean I was done, though! I had a coffee, and with the coffee came some wonderful macarons, petit fours and chocolates:
I’m sure these selections change regularly, if not daily, but here are my thoughts: the macarons were okay, but they were very tart and fruity. I suppose the pastry chef was trying to move away from the usual pistachio/chocolate range, but they verged on bitter. The pistachio cake, on the other hand (the small pyramid-shaped thing at the top of the picture) was great, and the cinnamon stick (the white thing on the left) was amazing. The other chocolates were very good as well. I wasn’t a fan of the jelly, but that’s just because I don’t like them generally; it had nothing to do with this particular one. All in all, quite a lot of sweets for ordering “no dessert”! (I should also add that the restaurant graciously gave me another set of everything when I said that my wife was out of town and asked for a couple of chocolates to take home for her.)
Overall, Picholine was fantastic. I’d put the experience right up there with Eleven Madison Park, and I can’t understand why it only got one Michelin star. In addition to the overall quality of the restaurant, their accommodation of vegetarians in excellent. I assume that the regular options for the amuse were non-vegetarian (at least in part), and they substituted vegetarian alternatives without my asking. As I noted near the outset, service was excellent, and I have to specifically commend Jason, the sommelier, and Chiago (sp?) the maitre d’. All in all, Picholine was one of the best restaurants I’ve been to in New York. Four and a half stars.