Big Cheese


The Swinging ’60s were right about one thing—fondue rocks. Originating in Switzerland as a method of recycling cheese rinds and stale bread during the winter months, this humble dish of melted cheese—spiked with wine and kept molten over a spirit flame—became the culinary hit of the decade, and woe betide the housewife who threw a party and forgot it. For the intervening decades the fondue sets, with their spindly forks and colorful enamel pots, languished on flea market tables. Now maybe it’s time to plunk down your three dollars and grab one.

Descended from the fabled cheese cart at Picholine, Artisanal is a new restaurant whose menu features a mix of cheese-driven dishes and regular bistro fare. The setting recalls a busy Parisian brasserie, with wine-dark banquettes surmounted by metal railings and an army of stern waiters who bustle about in floor-length white aprons. Enter and be assailed by the pungent smell of aging cheese, which issues from a retail counter and refrigerated “cheese cave” that collectively feature nearly 200 selections. A white-jacketed cheese expert, who a French friend tells me should properly be labeled an “affineur,” is on call at all times.

Continuing a trend that began a couple of years back, fondue reaches the apex of its revival at Artisanal, occupying a prominent box in the center of the menu. Seven varieties (petite $20, grande $38) range from a doctrinaire but delicious Swiss, to a cheddar dotted with crumbled bacon, to a mellow and pale vacherin sometimes laced with tidbits of porcini mushroom, sometimes just with truffle oil. Listen carefully when the waiter reveals the fondue du jour, and if it’s the “100 cheeses,” order it. The complex and elusive flavor just might be the result of the claimed number of ingredients.

The menu poses a dilemma, because between fondues, apps, soups including an excellent three-cheese onion, mains, desserts, very good toasted sandwiches (lunch only), and cheese assortments, no one could consume all of the courses offered. As if that’s not enough, the menu also includes six steaks and a pair of indifferent plateaux de mer—massive displays of raw and cooked crustaceans on multilevel metal trays, like the kind that lure customers into bars along the French Riviera. You can’t skip the appetizers, because then you’d miss the snails pithiviers ($11)—diced grommets in flaky pillbox hats dropped into a puddle of sage butter; and gougères—transcendent little cheese puffs so light they threaten to float out of the basket. Reject the foie gras terrine and steak tartare as too heavy-handed to permit you to eat much else.

Similarly, the main courses ($17 to $36) are too ponderous and elaborate to go well with cheese, especially during the summer months. There’s a crisp-skinned chicken cooked under a brick Tuscan style on a bed of pureed white beans that you’ll wish were mashed potatoes, a magnificent sautéed Dover sole expertly deboned at table, and a boudin blanc that most rave about, though the same French friend proclaimed that it wasn’t authentic—”German bratwurst,” she sniffed. Accordingly, I have revolutionary advice: skip the mains and enjoy fondue, appetizers, and a cheese course, in that order.

Only by concluding your meal with cheese can you plumb the fundamental genius and insanity of Artisanal. Predictably, the stinkiest cheeses rule, aged way beyond what you’d find in the store. My favorite is Berkshire blue, a Massachusetts cheese so spectacularly over-the-hill that if you found it in the back of your fridge you’d toss it in the trash. This wonderful dairy product has resolved itself into a lumpy multihued puddle that must be scooped with bread. Come to think of it, it’s really just a fondue at room temperature.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 12, 2001

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