good shmeats

one food-loving vegetarian taking New York City's restaurants one plate at a time.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Artisanal Bistro - Gramercy

Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro
32nd Street between Park and Madison

A good meal takes time. This fundamental law of culinary physics is regularly broken in our frantic, fast-paced city. All too often, the food we eat serves as a brief waystation between activities and not the celebration we might like it to be. Fortunately, the creative forces behind Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro understand the importance of time; time to create beautiful, fully-realized cheeses, and time granted to customers to fully-enjoy their craftsmanship.

Walking into Artisanal's spacious bistro, I was hit with an intoxicating waft of sharp cheese. This smell lures some customers directly to Artisanal's fromagerie counter, where one can sample and purchase sturdy hunks (or melting slabs) of earthy Italian pecorinos, fudgy blues from France, and buttery Vermont cheddars. The cheese staff (which includes a college friend of mine, Charles) effortlessly shares the stories, methods, and quirks that make each of Artisanal's 200-plus cheeses distinctive. Artisanal also offers a series of classes, events, and internships for cheese die-hards at their Artisanal Premium Cheese Center on 37th street and 10th Avenue.

Those who stay and dine at Artisanal Bistro are invited in by elegant red walls, gleaming brass furnishings, high ceilings, and immaculately crisp tablecloths. The space has a polished air that is reminiscent of the high-society 1930's era. If smoking was still allowed in New York City's restaurants, monogrammed silver cigarette cases would be on every table, and long-stemmed holders would rest between every pair of red lips. The wait staff at Artisanal glides between tables like polished professionals who are serving a dining experience as well as plates of food. As someone who only occasionally inhabits the explicitly upscale scenes of New York, dining at Artisanal felt a little like playing dress up.

The three-hour dinner my friend Cat and I shared started with bite-sized Parmesanan puffs (which I compared to airy macaroons) and a crab salad that was topped with a spray of shredded greens. The crab dish was served with compliments from the kitchen for being a friend of a staff member. I was somewhat embarrassed to send back such a generous gift, but I did devour the tasting-plate of gnocchi which arrived, also unannounced, shortly after. The gnocchi was billowy, crispy and lightly bathed in brown butter. The savory nuggets paired beautifully with the bottle of peppery Cotes du Rhone that Cat instinctively selected from the extensive wine list (and which our attentive sommelier confirmed was a worthy choice).

I followed the gnocchi appetizer with a dish of Pumpkin and Mushroom Risotto. The short-grained rice was delicately dressed in an aromatic sauce. Nibbles of pumpkin and mushroom thickened each bite, and the whole dish was dotted with toasted pumpkin seeds. Delicious as it was, I was pleased that the portion was modest - allowing me room for another course, another glass of wine, another hour of savored dining.

Midway through our Cotes du Rhone, Charles brought out a gorgeous plate of six cheeses, which he compiled from some of his own favorites. As he explained the selection, he revealed that Artisanal serves all cheese plates with the mildest cheese placed in front of the lady. (My gut reaction is to disapprove of this outdated practice, but since I was playing fantasy dress-up for the evening, I let it go). With two women at the table, Charles diplomatically placed the most delicate cheese halfway between myself and Cat.

Our cheese plate included, from mildest to most piquant: A Chabichou du Poitou from France (delicate and slightly acidic), a Robiola La Rossa from Italy (cherry-essence and soft), an Abbey de Bellocq from France (burnt caramel flavor), a Pecorino Walnut from Italy (nutty and firm), a Roomano from Holland (caramelized and sturdy), and a Rogue River Blue from Oregon (tangy and crumbly). Cat and I both favored the Robiola La Rossa. When allowed to linger on the tongue, the flavors of this cheese complexified and deepened several times over. Never a fan of blue cheeses, I sampled but mostly avoided the Rogue River Blue.

We finished our dinner with a Bouchon Chocolat with Orange Ice Cream, which we found out translates to a "cork" of chocolate. Indeed, this rich cake was both the shape and size of a wine cork propped upside-down on the plate. A scoop of velvety orange-flavored ice cream melted wonderfully into the porous cork cake. With Bacchalian delight and sincere reverence, we toasted the end of our meal and drank the last drops of wine from our glasses.

Leaving Artisanal, I thought that Slow Food - an organization devoted to the enjoyment of lengthy, well-crafted meals - would have been proud of our meal at Artisanal. Certainly after a long week of deadlines, running around the city, and abbreviated meals, our evening at Artisanal was a perfect fantasy.


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