“I recommend the fondue du jour,” said our waiter. “It’s made with 100 cheeses.”
“Do we get to choose which 100?” asked my husband.
The waiter looked nonplused. But the question wasn’t as far-fetched as it sounded. From where we were sitting, we could see a tilted mirror on the wall reflecting more than 100 cheeses displayed on the brightly lit glass counter below, overseen by a man in a white cap and lab coat. The strong smell of aging cheese rolled through the dining room like a fog.
“Isn’t combining 100 cheeses akin to mixing together all the paints on the palette and getting black?” my husband inquired.
“They’re semi-hard cheese ends from the shop,” said the waiter. “None of them is too strong. If you’re going to order other things to start, I suggest you get a ‘petite’ fondue for the table. Unless you’d prefer a ‘grande’?”
A “petite” ($20) would do the job, along with a basket of gougères, little cheese puffs, and a glass of Pinot Meunier from the list of more than 125 wines available by the glass as well as by the bottle.
After months of anticipation and delay, Artisanal has finally opened, a bistro-brasserie-fromagerie boasting the largest selection of artisanal cheeses in the country, if not the world. It is owned by Terrance Brennan, chef-proprietor of Picholine, the restaurant near Lincoln Center that has built its reputation almost as much for its cheese cart (supervised by Max McCalman, the city’s first cheese sommelier, or maître fromager) as for its food. Artisanal, on Park Avenue and 32nd Street, occupies a spot that’s been jinxed since 1982, when it opened as the short-lived La Coupole before going on to become Larry Forgione’s An American Place and Rosehill. Adam Tihany, who designed La Coupole, has returned the space to its brasserie roots, installing red banquettes, antique mirrors, brass rails, lace curtains and a mosaic floor, along with Art Deco ceiling fixtures made by Jean Perzel, the same artisan who created the originals in La Coupole in Paris. The restaurant also has a glass-enclosed walk-in cellar that maintains the proper temperature and humidity for each cheese.
Even with the palpable aura of cheese, the dining room is light and airy, but it’s also as noisy as Balthazar, thanks in part to the tiled floor. It’s already drawing a chic clientele, mostly from uptown. Nearby, a table was dominated by a glamorous woman of a certain age and another era-complete with false eyelashes, a magnificent purple mohair picture hat and strands of the biggest pearls I have ever seen-holding court with a group of sycophantic young men. On the banquette, two couples from the Upper East Side-loafers without socks, striped shirts, velvet headbands and silk wrap dresses-speared their forks into cubes of peasant bread and dipped them into a bubbling cauldron of fondue.
The waiter set down our 100-cheese special and turned up the Sterno flame. We immediately immersed our forks. “It tastes like a 50-50 mix of Camembert and Swiss,” said my husband, which wasn’t a bad thing at all. It was earthy and strong, and we had to stop ourselves from spoiling our appetites. There are six other fondues on the menu, including a vacherin and porcini blend (which needed a good shot of kirsch), and esoteric combinations such as cheddar and bacon, and Stilton and sauternes.
Artisanal’s menu, overseen by chef Peter Daledda, consists mainly of bistro-brasserie classics with the occasional American dish, such as shrimp cocktail. Brandade de morue, a creamy white disk of puréed salt cod and potatoes, turned out to be surprisingly tasteless. Escargots pithiviers were a better choice, tucked inside airy puff pastry and served with a mild sage-garlic butter. On the lighter side, there was a platter of chilled spring vegetables topped with shavings of sheep’s-milk ricotta in a lively herb vinaigrette.
The skate wing Grenobloise was a burnished gold, crisp but tender, served with tiny florets of roast cauliflower and a garlicky parsley sauce with capers. Lamb shank from Jamison Farms, meltingly tender, was paired with ratatouille and polenta seasoned with goat cheese. The hanger steak had excellent beefy flavor and came with a pile of good fries. Dover sole (a hefty $36) was efficiently boned by our waiter in the old-school style, using two spoons, and served with a fricassee of morels and asparagus. Chunks of rabbit, given a pleasantly acidic accent from Riesling, came with spaetzle and a delicate mustard sauce.
No meal should be without a visit to the cheese counter. The man in the lab coat, fromager Peter Kindel, gave me a taste of cabicou, a pungent goat cheese marinated in schnapps. “We have 100 cheeses on display,” he said, “but we have 250 altogether, mostly European hand-crafted”-all of which are for sale, should you feel the need to make your own 100-cheese fondue at home.
So when our waiter appeared with a five-page list of cheeses (arranged in alphabetical order, with little boxes on the side so you can tick off each one you’ve tasted, plus a page for notes), we got serious. He returned with a sampler plate of three and marked them on our list: a Portuguese serra (“soft, grassy and complex”), a Sontheim’s tilsit from Colorado (“semi-soft, aromatic and complex”) and a Wisconsin Trade Lake Cedar (“firm, earthy and complex”). “Peter recommends you eat the mildest, going on to end with the strongest,” the waiter said. Complexity being the order of the day, we did as told. The cheeses were all extraordinary.
After so much cheese, you may as well wind up with one of Artisanal’s terrific desserts: if not chocolate fondue or cheesecake, then profiteroles with hot chocolate sauce or a lovely caramelized tarte tatin.
Our delightful waiter, who was one of those rare birds-a waiter who seemed actually to enjoy being a waiter-said he had been brought over from Picholine. He also worked at the ill-fated La Coupole. “We used to keep the curtains drawn so people in the street would think it was full,” he revealed. Artisanal, I’m sure, is not going to have that problem.
2 Park Avenue (at 32nd Street) 725-8585
Noise level: High
Wine list: International, reasonably priced; more than 125 by the glass
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses lunch $12 to $33, dinner $16 to $36
Lunch: Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Dinner: Monday to Thursday, 5 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.