Sunday, March 19, 2006

Cheese/Steak New York Entry #78 Artisanal

Some out-of-town friends swear by Balthazar, and so when they were planning to visit Manhattan I suggested that we dine at Artisanal, Terrance Brennan's brassy cheeserie in Murray Hill. American brasseries - Balthazar, Les Halles, Pastis, and Artisanal - seem to result from the same design cookie cutter: walnut, porcelain, tile, posters; gold, maroon, black, and white. An American imaginary exists as to what a brasserie should be, not nearly the diversity found by the Seine.

At a place like Artisanal - a competitor of Murray's as to the best cheese shop in the city (I give the edge to Murray's as to the diversity of their selection, their accompaniments, and their knowledgeable workers) - one is well-advised to focus on cheese. The high point of our meal was the pair of cheeses at the conclusion, a surprisingly spicy and pungent Munster and a luscious Brillat Savarin.

Table service was friendly, although plates were whisked from the table before they were cleaned and our pleasant waitress was not fully conversant with the wine list.

With the exception of some fine frites (not as luxurious as those at Les Halles), dishes that lacked cheese were pedestrian. I was unimpressed by Burgundy snails and pastry puffs on a bed of chopped onions. Neither the bread nor the onion added richness to the inoffensive slugs. The dish was bland and constrained. The hanger steak was similarly ordinary, pleasant and tasty, but not compellingly beefy. The garlic sausage was a roughly ground mass that lacked appeal, even with sturdy lentils.

We treasured our gougeres: airy puffs whose lightness made their rich cheesy aroma all the more powerful. Aside from the post-prandial cheeses, the gougeres were the star of the evening. On this Sunday night our Artisanal cheese fondue was less ethereal. The problem was less the heated cheese itself - although it could have been heated more, filled with a bubbling mix of varieties - but with the accompaniments. Both the bread cubes and the cut apple seemed stale and tired: yesterday's products. Better was Onion Soup Artisanal, made with three cheeses and three onions. The topping was somewhat overcooked, but the liquid was both sweet and strong: chicken soup for the Gallic soul.

At Artisanal the closer to raw cheese the better. I may return for a cheese plate with one of hundreds of wines by the glass. Otherwise, despite fair prices, food and service lack a strong profile. At Artisanal man must live by cheese alone.

2 Park Avenue (at 32nd Street)
Manhattan (Murray Hill)

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