Where once coffee and cognac or a frothy pastry confection were the only postprandial options at Gotham’s Gallic eateries, increasingly waiters are producing trays lined with grape leaves and filled with milk and mold. Where two decades ago we learned chablis and chardonnay, now we grapple with Reblochon and catahoula. My love affair with cheese goes all the way back to Kraft singles and came of age with stinking-ripe Brie. So naturally I turned up on a banquette uttering the culinary equivalent of “Do me” to the server at Picholine, ground zero of the current revolution.
When you’re planning to finish with a butterfat symphony, it’s wise to keep the meal itself light. But at a restaurant as richly reliable as Terrance Brennan’s West Side roost, that’s not easy. Although the fricassee of Wellfleet oysters ($18) and salad of fresh porcini and arugula ($16.50) left some room, I found myself rationalizing an impractically sumptuous short-rib daube ($29.50) to accompany our $40 Gigondas, which we’d settled on after scanning the wine list from right to left for an affordable red that could hold up against the closer. Even my friend’s black sea bass en papillote came in a truffle-infused sauce.
The moment arrived and we watched the ceremonious approach of the cart with its several dozen selections by maître fromager Max McCalman. The server asked if he could choose cheeses to go with the wine. Eyeing our bottle, he sliced away, accompanying the dissections with running commentary. The Irish Durrus was advertised as soft and flowery in contrast to the nutty cheddar and the faintly mushroomy roucoulons from Franche-Comté. The Lancashire butter crumble was touted for its buttery explosion of flavor on the tongue; the Berkswell was classified savory, the Livarot nutty again. By number eight ($32.50) I’d glazed over with cheese-speak—I remember only that it was Spanish. Left with an annotated brochure as an aide-mémoire, we set off tasting, but our buds didn’t quite bear out the effusive descriptions. I’m still waiting for the butter burst, and the Livarot seemed a mite young. Even the Pouligny Saint Pierre failed to match my memories of the luscious creamy ending to a Loire luncheon. Worrying that perhaps our wine wasn’t expensive enough to merit the really good stuff, we headed off into the night satisfied, stuffed, but missing the punctuation a cheese course should offer.
Undaunted, I was back a few days later. An autumn salad ($18.50) and a carpaccio of tuna ($16) led up to a skate wing special that proved ethereally light ($18), and Picholine’s famous wild mushroom and duck risotto ($28) was darkly perfect with the rather dear bottle of Chinon ($64) we’d sprung for. Then it was time to say cheese again. Taking matters into my own hands, I had the server describe and us select. We tried five ($22): a velvety Saint Maure, a Gruyère-like Beaufort, a smelly Maroilles, a gentle Mont Briac, and my bliss, a superfunky blue Cabrales from Spain. Requesting a ripe pear from the kitchen, I astonished the server by mixing blue and butter and slathering it on the pear as I’d learned in France. It was perfect. The server assured me he’d try it sometime.