J. Walman's Travel RestaurantEntertainment &Wine Report

ARTISANAL
 

2 Park Ave., Enter on 32nd St., Betw. Park & Madison (212) 725-8585
Appetizers: $8.50-$98 (Grand Plateau). Entrees: $15.50-$33.50. Fondues, Petit: $20, Grand: $38. Desserts: $6.50-$10.00 (Chocolate Fondue for Two PP)
Hours: Lunch Mon-Sat: 11-3  Dinner: Mon-Thurs: 5-Midnight, Fri-Sat. till 1AM
Location: Flatiron District
Price Category: Moderate-Expensive
Wine Selection: Extensive, Beautifully Selected & Fairly Priced (More Than 125 by the Glass)  Bottles:$18-$105. Glass: $5-$25.
Cheese Selection: The Largest (Nearly 200 Selections), Most Comprehensive & Best Stored In America, Perhaps the World. Plate of 3: $12, 6: $21, Each additional, $3.50 Select your cheese from mild to strong; soft to hard; and by variety (cow, sheep, goat)

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 Let us hope that fickle New Yorkers never abandon their au current love affair-de-fromage, as they did such ephemeral passions as last year's rage-du-jour Belgium cuisine. There is so much to love about Artisanal, Terrance Brennan's new venture, that I want to get my three gripes over with at the get-go. Gripe (1).I am not an admirer of restaurants that are difficult to find. Thank the good lord that is not the problem at  Artisanal. But it is hard as hell to enter. My first visit, a miraculous tasting of American Artisan cheese from our country's major cheese producing states, began with my entering through the back door of 2 Park Ave., an office building, and wading through TV equipment. Dinner proved no less daunting. I knew where to go now, so it was to my chagrin that a sign on the door of 32nd St. instructed me to enter through the office building at 2 Park Ave., which this time was locked. A kind guard took pity on us and escorted two tired New Yorkers to the correct entrance a few feet West of the misleading sign.
 Once inside, the reception was warm and gracious and business was amazingly jumping on a summer Saturday evening. But let's not digress. Gripe (2). Fromager, Peter J. Kindel, is young, energetic and excellent, especially in his all-American descriptions. "I like this one, because it's really stinky." There's my kind of word -- "stinky." Like the "F" word or certain foreign descriptives, it's perfect for assertive cheeses. My gripe is that there is only one Fromager (perhaps economics don't permit clones), and I had to request to speak to him. Finally, Gripe (3). Artisanal is too good for its own good. I suggest you either go there for a cheese/wine experience or for a restaurant/food/wine experience and share a cheese course before dessert, because the food, as prepared by Executive chef Peter Daledda (and that includes delectable desserts by Deborah Racicot), is hard-core serious-kitchen stuff.
 The  restaurant's interior by Adam D. Tihany, whose name (with David Rockwell’s) has become synonymous with NY restaurant design, is a "revisit" to Tihany's original masterpiece, La Coupole. The grand space stands up and pays attention to such details as decorative brass rails, antique mirrors, imported lace curtains, and other quintessential elements of an authentic French brasserie, such as newspapers on wooden sticks. Mr. Tihany also designed a spectacular glass enclosed walk-in cheese cellar (the "cave") that retains the proper temperature and humidity for its prized content. In the main dining room, diners can visit the beautifully displayed selection of cheeses, none of which is offered before its time, and observe the staff slicing and wrapping at a pick up counter, flanked by antique brass posts.
The floor's vibrant mosaic pattern was custom made of  concrete tiles in Bordeaux. The banquettes have leather seats and mohair backing -- both in burgundy. There are dark tobacco cane Boulevard chairs with mustard leather seats and Art Deco lighting fixtures, created by Jean Perzel, the same artisan that made the original fixtures at La Coupole in Paris. This is all punctuated by an 18' by 12' mural, completed in 1926 that decorated "Feguide," a famous brasserie in France's Lille Train station for over forty years.
 We began our eating escapade with a lush terrine of foie gras ($16.50), with grape chutney on grilled bread. We also chose one petit fondue. The lauded 100 cheese rotating special was not on the menu that night. Instead I chose the vacherin and truffle combo (the price changes daily, depending on the market price of truffles) that was wonderful but too short on the black truffles for its price-tag.($38 (petit); $54 (grand)). A Ribera del Duero Condada de Haza '98 ($48 the bottle $12 a glass) was as good as it gets in the tempranillo department: Intense, assertive fruit and legs that a love goddess would envy. Entrees were equal to Manhattan’s best French restaurants. Sautéed Dover sole (deboned tableside) with a fricassee of morels and asparagus ($33.50) was beautifully timed and impeccably fresh. Rabbit au Riesling with rutabaga "sauerkraut," spaetzle and mustard sauce, was a tad wintery, but a fabulous dish nonetheless.
 Now here's what I mean about Artisanal being so good that it should be two restaurants. We were satiated. But to dine at Artisanal and omit a cheese course would be like traveling to Egypt and skipping the pyramids. Once the options are chosen, you are presented with a menu that has been numbered with your selection to peruse as you indulge. Our first choice was a "gaonedo from Spain. It was a hard, natural blue with a sharp finish (the menu’s description, which I'll accept as gospel). Next, a "Nisa," from Portugal which was firm, rich and charismatic. Third, one of our favorites, was a "Stanser Flada for Switzerland, which was (and I love this one) very soft, smelly and assertive. Then, a Llangloffan from Wales that was hard, sharp and rich, followed by a Hoch Ybrig, another Swiss cheese that was described as assertive, nutty and complex. Finally, yet another Swiss  candidate, a Stanser Schafchas. It was indeed aromatic, semi-soft and challenging. The chaperoning  bread was superb. Oh yes, you'll have to sample desserts, whether it be the signature Artisanal cheesecake with spiced strawberry-rhubarb compote or a baba au rhum with chantilly cream and current marmalade that brings tears to my eyes, as I think of it and realize that this is the first baba au rhum I've seen on  a Manhattan menu in years. Keep your creme brulee (which is also available with lemon verbena) I'll take my baba and be a happy camper. Artisanal, along with his justifiably famous "Picholine," is another winner Brennan. Now If only he could change that entrance-sign.


Walman's and Nancy Preiser's reviews are available and have been seen on the Internet. Click here to see an index of other reviews on the worldwide web <http://www.punchin.com>. <http://www.wineonline.net>. They have been heard on WNCN, WEVD & WQXR radio, seen in Fodor's and Mobil Guide Books, and printed in Chocolatier, Troika and Metropolitan Millionaire magazines and newspapers and throughout the world, including the NY Post, Women's Wear Daily and the NY Times, via the Punch In International Network. This review may be reprinted free of charge, so long as source and byline credit are included: "J. Walman's Restaurant Report," "Punch In International®," Wine On Line International®.
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