Alexandra Grablewski
Cheese bouillon, truffle bread foam.
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Menu Dexterity

Gerry Dawes - May 2009

With his ballyhooed foray into the cheese world behind him, a reinvigorated Terrance Brennan redefines his New York City flagship Picholine with a host of haute ideas tailored to these times.

In the wake of the 1987 stock market crash, around the time when I was working in the restaurant wine trade in New York City, I used to take my customers to lunch at Prix Fixe, where the chef Terrance Brennan had devised a two-courses-plus-dessert lunch menu for $13.50 and a more ambitious offering for $18.50 (the menus ratcheted up to $24.50 and $36.50 at night). I recall being struck not only by the expense-account stretching price but also by the quality and ingenuity of his dishes. I remember one dish in particular, a single pan-seared scallop in a tart pomegranate sauce, an ingenious acidic foil for the sweetly rich bivalve. The dinner menu offered Brennan's much-applauded horseradish-crusted salmon tournedos, and the steeper priced menu included rack of lamb and foie gras.

Now chef/owner of 16 year old Picholine, a Michelin two-star restaurant opposite Lincoln Center, and the always-packed Artisanal bistro in Murray Hill, Brennan, like many other chefs, finds it's déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra once proclaimed. However, as a veteran chef/restaurateur who's been up and down and up and down the economic elevator before, he's been able to draw upon his experience at Prix Fixe to adjust his menus and pricing at Picholine without sacrificing creativity or quality.

This time, Brennan has expanded the Spanish-inspired tapas menu called "tasting flights" he's been offering to pre- and post-theater nibblers at Picholine's bar since early 2008, for example: $20 for paella spring roll, Pedro Ximénez sorbet with serrano ham chips, and panna cotta du jour; $35 for a single ration of jamón Ibérico de bellota. To that he's added a parallel 12 dish menu of "tasting plates"—foie gras "shabu-shabu," sheep's milk ricotta gnocchi, and borscht with mustard ice cream—for $15 each. Both formats he lists as Menu d'Économie. In addition, Brennan also closed the restaurant on Sundays and Mondays and initiated a Tastes of Picholine menu with three plates for $58 per person (customers can order additional plates for $12 each), available Tuesday through Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m. and on Friday and Saturday from 10 p.m. to closing. "You can have a few tapas at the bar or some dishes from the Tastes of Picholine menu, spend $60 on food, and have the Picholine experience for around $80 per person," says Brennan. "The integrity of our food is still there, it's just half portions."

There are some strikingly good dishes on these menus in what Brennan calls the Wine and Cheese Bar at the front of Picholine, but it's his 18 course creative tasting menu that's been turning heads. After selling his calling card, the Artisanal Premium Cheese Center in 2007, Brennan went back into the kitchen at Picholine with renewed purpose. And he did it well before the full extent of the economic downturn became evident. With Carmine DiGiovanni, his chef de cuisine, he devised a $195 menu that can include up to 18 tasting-sized plates. With real enthusiasm in his voice, Brennan says, "You can reach a plateau in this business and level off, but recently I've felt a renewed surge of inspiration about my cooking, and I'm more excited about being a chef than I've been in many years."

Here's a snapshot of some of Brennan's small plates:

Brioche wrapped quail egg, American caviar: Pain Viola bakery brioche cut into strips, stuffed with a poached quail egg, topped with American hackleback sturgeon caviar, and garnished with micro celery.

Foie gras "shabu-shabu" with root vegetable pearls, sweet-&-sour bouillon: In a bowl, raw Hudson Valley grade A foie gras pounded flat and cut into disks, pickled shallots, and duck fat–poached pearls of parsnip, rutabaga, celery root, carrot, and parsley root; poured tableside, a sweet (chestnut honey)-&-sour (red wine vinegar) clarified duck stock.

Nantucket Bay scallops, blood orange/horseradish granité: Raw Nantucket Bay scallops tossed with piment d'Éspelette, Meyer lemon, and olive oil; served with the bracing granité.

Skate "choucroute garni": rutabaga sauerkraut, mus­tard, beurre rouge: Smoked skate wing sautéed with pastrami spices (coriander, cumin, bay leaf, juniper berries, black pepper, and chiles), stuffed with sauerkraut made with pickled rutabaga, duck fat, white wine, onions, Sherry, smoked bacon, and braised pork belly, offset by a Dijon and Pommery grain mustard beurre fondue and beurre rouge.

Diver sea scallops, cauliflower silk & crumble, grape­fruit grenobloise: Sautéed jumbo scallops with cauliflower crumble (cauliflower puree, cauliflower crumbs, toasted panko, capers, mint, and tiny cauliflower florets) and a brown butter/caper/mint sauce with grapefruit juice and segments.

Squab, grilled pear, Tokyo turnips, gingersnap cloud: Squab rolled in a mixture of piment d'Éspelette, mace, licorice, cayenne, and ginger, then pan-roasted; an iSi whipper–discharged mousse of gingersnap cookies, cream, gelatin, ginger, allspice, and cinnamon; Tokyo turnips (heirloom white turnips also known as salad turnips) glazed with beurre fondue; a roasted Bosc pear; squab jus; and huckleberry jam.

Wagyu No. 10, cipollini kimchi: Cipollini and napa cabbage fashioned into the Korean staple; poha—Indian dehusked rice flattened into flat flakes–sautéed in sesame oil until puffed, and then sprinkled with dukkah—an Egyptian nut/spice blend containing sesame seeds, coriander, hazelnuts, cumin, sea salt, and black pepper; raw Wagyu slices covering kimchi on hot plates; spiced oil (peanut oil, ginger, scallion, sesame seeds, and piment d'Éspelette) poured tableside.

Exotic fruit soup, passion foam, coconut/tapioca wafer: A soup made from lemongrass, passion fruit, vanilla, ginger, star anise, lychee nut, basil, and sugar) served with a tuile made from tapioca starch, cooked with coconut puree, and dehydrated on a nonstick pad, filled with passion fruit foam.

Chocolate textures, cranberry crisp: Chocolate terrine, milk chocolate, chocolate liquid–filled chocolates, and a dark chocolate/Earl Grey tea pastry.