Many years ago, when my hair was still red, I wrote a piece for Gourmet about eating at the bar at high-end restaurants. I said then that eating at the bar was a great way to beat the system. That is, you never had to hit speed dial in a vain effort to get through, you never had to deal with the officious types answering the phone saying, "I'm sorry, sir, we're fully committed," and you never ever again received what I call the 5;30 or 10 o clock fandango we are all too familiar with. Plus, you don't feel pressure to order three courses and spend a lot of money. You eat what you feel like eating. What a concept!
You can eat at the bar at many of the city's best restaurants, including Daniel, Babbo, Jean-Georges, Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Gotham Bar & Grill, Del Posto (the bar area there is called the Enotecca), and at the newest spot to beat the system, Terrance Brennan's revamped and reworked Picholine.
I sat with a friend at the bar there on very comfortable stools with comfortable leather backs. We could have sat at a row of tables right in back of the bar, but the bar stools were just as inviting. OUr bartender/server was solicitous and extremely knowledgeable about Brennan's brand new menu.
We ordered three of the selections from the tasting flight for $18. The paella spring rolls sounded a bit weird, but were in actuality crispy and delicious, and just saffrony enough. The seared beef in a pimenton vinaigrette was perfectly cooked and intensely beefy. The warm buffalo carpaccio in a chocolate peppercorn vinaigrette was the only clear loser in the bunch. More and more chefs are using unsweetened chocolate in savory dishes, but I haven't found a non-Mexican restaurant or chef that has figured out how to pull it off.
Sheep's nilk ricotta gnocchi with chanterelles and serrano ham were cloud-light and wonderfully earthy. The organic egg en cocotte was a soft-boiled egg topped with white truffle shavings that we were instructed to spoon onto black truffle-smeared toasts. Delicious!
The sea urchin panna cotta, a riff on Alain Ducasse's famous dish, was topped with caviar and served with sea weed crisps. The sea urchin panna cotta tasted like what could only be described as sea cream. You could practically hear the ocean roar with every bite.
The one must-have dessert is the warm caramel apple brioche, served with salted caramel ice cream on disk of apple salad. This is the caramel apple of our dreams. A pear belle helene, served in a chocolate soup along with milk sorbet, was not as successful. We planned to have some of Max McCalman's wonderful cheeses, but we were too stuffed.
Though Brennan was intent on making Picholine less stuffy, it still doesn't feel like a casual restaurant. But I felt totally comfortable wearing an oxford shirt and slacks. Just don'w wear a t-shirt, shorts, and sandals, and you'll fit right in. The bar awaits you at the new Picholine. Now you just have to find the place, which isn't easy right now because there is no sign. There is someone stationed outside the door who asks if you are looking for Picholine. A sign would be bettter. Picholine is at 35 W. 64th Street (between Columbus Ave. and CPW). 212-724-8585