Chef Brennan’s Picholine Achieves (Pricy) Pinnacle

“You put your left finger on your eye and right index finger on the cheese … if they sort of feel the same, the cheese is ready.”

–M. Taittinger, the French champagne vintner, on Camembert

“I’m into sharp, aggressive cheeses with hair on their chest,” said J. to the man who had wheeled over the cheese trolley at Picholine. “I’m not interested in your mild, soft, I-don’t-know-what cheeses.” The man, a waiter who was standing in for Picholine’s maître fromager that night, was apparently being put to the test. “How many cheeses have you got on that trolley?

“Fifty-seven.”

“Any American cheeses?

“Two tonight. Mountain shepherd, an aged cheese from Vermont. Catahoula, a strong cheese from Louisiana.”

The waiter set about cutting slices and wedges and carefully arranging them in a circle around a large plate. He put it down in the center of the table.

“These cheeses are mainly full-flavored, ” he said, using a rather more refined term to describe their condition than J.’s “hair on their chest.”

He began describing them: “Going around clockwise, we have raw cow’s milk from Belgium with a beer-washed rind, lightly balanced manchego from Spain, Taleggio, Pavé d’Auge made with raw cow’s milk …”

“I thought you weren’t allowed to bring raw cow’s milk into the United States.”

“If it’s aged for 60 days or more,” the waiter replied, unfazed. He continued to point around the plate. “Here we have a Somerset farmhouse cheese with smoked-beefy undertones, here we have a pungent torta del Casar–garlicky with a truffly flavor on the palate–a Cashel Blue from Louis Grubb in Ireland …”

To go with the cheese there were quince paste, pressed figs with nuts and Medjool dates. We plunged in.

The remarkable cheeses, which are aged in a climate-controlled cave, are not the only reason for going to Picholine. In the past couple of years, the food there has come into its own. When it first opened in 1993, Picholine was a pleasant if not wildly exciting Mediterranean restaurant, one of a handful of good places to eat near Lincoln Center. But now it has become a lot more than somewhere to bolt your dinner before the opera or ballet. This is a restaurant you want to linger in, not for its rather bland but comfortable setting, but for the excellence of its cuisine.

Picholine is named after a small green Mediterranean olive. A bowl of these olives is placed on the table when you sit down, along with a wonderful deep-green olive oil to go with the house-made breads. Terrance Brennan, the chef and owner, produces dishes that are rich, lavish and beautiful to look at, and they have strong, emphatic flavors. He has now cast his net a lot wider than the Mediterranean–and as he has traveled farther, so have his prices.

Apart from a green salad, first courses are now between $14 and $21, and main courses range from $25.50 (for risotto) to $34. Tasting menus run to $65 and $85 per person. A bowl of soup will set you back 12 bucks. At that price it had better be good, and it was. Emerald green and made from fresh peas, it was as thick and luscious a soup as you’ve ever seen, so delicious that since J., who had ordered it, was not willing to part with more than a mouthful, we asked for another bowl.

Grilled octopus, a Brennan signature dish, was tender and buttery, served in glistening slices on a bed of potatoes and fennel with a delicate lemon-pepper dressing. Scallops were marinated in verjus (green grape juice) with slivers of radish which were slightly peppery but not pungent enough to overwhelm the most important part for me, the sea urchin roe that was tucked underneath.

Mr. Brennan’s risotto has been on the menu since the restaurant opened (but not, I’m sure, for 25 bucks). The rice is cooked in chicken mushroom stock and mixed with wild mushrooms, crisp shredded duck confit and white truffle oil. In fall, it is made with pumpkin, in winter with squash, and in summer with corn. In spring, it comes with fava beans, and that’s my favorite. It was brought to the table in a copper pot, and when the waiter took off the lid, the aroma of truffles filled the air.

You can also get a whole fish boned at the table for two and terrific soft-shell crabs, done differently every day. There are daily rotating specials of “classic cuisine” such as turbot with black truffles, duck à l’orange or, on Friday, shellfish paella. I usually prefer lobster done quite simply–boiled or grilled–but Mr. Brennan flavored it with rhubarb, vanilla and aged balsamic vinegar. What a combination! Yet it worked, bringing out the subtle taste of the lobster meat.

After the cheese trolley came dessert. White chocolate (“sugared chicken fat” Mimi Sheraton once called it) is not my favorite thing, but at Picholine it makes a lovely, mild panna cotta, sailing on a red pool of strawberry coulis. “It looks like a Robert Wilson stage set,” said J. Buttermilk cake flavored with Meyer lemons and served with poppy seed yogurt ice cream and basil sauce was also delicious, as was the rhubarb napoleon, thin layers of crispy puff pastry with ginger cream, rosemary and Sauternes.

And then the cheese. It is a well-known fact that eating cheese just before going to bed causes nightmares. It was after midnight when we finished dinner at Picholine. If any of us had been going to a Freudian analyst the next morning, he or she would have had a field day.

Picholine

* * *

35 West 64th Street

724-8585

Dress: Casual chic

Noise level: Fine

Wine list: Well chosen, with some good choices under $35

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Main courses lunch $16.50 to $25.50; prix fixe lunch $28, tasting menu $33; dinner $25.50 to $34, pretheater two-course $48; three-course $56; Chef’s tasting menus $65; seven-course $85

Lunch: Tuesday to Saturday 11:45 A.M. to 2 P.M.

Dinner: Sunday 5 to 10 P.M., Monday to Saturday 5:30 to 11:45 P.M.

* – Good

* * – Very good

* * * – Excellent

* * * * – Outstanding

No star – Poor