I take cheese very seriously.
If you don’t, just stop reading now.
If you DO…well then, you will want to make your way to Artisanal for dinner, as I did. This Terrance Brennan restaurant, an NYC stalwart for years, is the city’s most famous cheese emporium. The restaurant worships cheese. There are cheese tasting menus, cheese fondues, and even an entire room filled with the stinky stuff, where you can eat amongst the dairy.
If that doesn’t sound romantic to you, then again, please just stop reading now.
Artisanal looks like a huge bustling Parisian brasserie - a bit less authentic than Balthazar, but just as bustling. It is ideal for an upscale dinner with a group of friends, but since it gets so loud, it isn’t the best choice for a first date.
It is rare that a restaurant makes a cocktail so extraordinary that I sit up and take notice. This is such a rarity. Lillet Blanc is an aperitif, a fortified white wine that is sweet and citrusy. It balances well with the peppery basil and tart lemon. The final touch of crisp champagne makes this bright cocktail both potent and eminently drinkable. This tastes like punch but after just one, you will be pretty buzzed.
Luckily, the restaurant serves plenty of dishes to soak up that booze.
Each meal here starts with crusty, tangy sourdough bread. There is a nutty whole wheat version as well, and both go well with the sweet, unsalted butter.
This starter is a classic bistro dish. Cubes of tender, robust beef, mix with egg yolk, capers, pepper, and Worcestershire sauce in this satisfying, if somewhat bland rendition. I prefer my tartare to be mixed tableside, extra spicy, but this is at least made with extremely fresh, coarsely ground beef. It is especially tasty when spread on warm toast, creating a carnivorous open faced sandwich. The frites that come alongside are exemplary. Piping hot, incredibly crispy, and not too salty – they really taste of potato. Order the truffle mayonnaise alongside for dipping purposes. The mayonnaise is rich and creamy, and the truffles are heady, deep, and incredibly savory. I started dipping my spoon into the serving vessel and eating the mayo plain.
No, I’m not embarrassed.
When you come here, you eat fondue. There are 3 fondues to choose from – 2 standard choices, and one rotating fondue du jour. The one we tried, the fondue du jour, was made with leeks and Gruyère cheese. The fondue comes to your table with hunks of bread, and you of course have to purchase some add ons. The fondue arrives to the table in a pot on a burner, so it stays liquid and warm the whole time. The first thing about this fondue was the aroma. It smelled like that mouth-watering scent of onions bubbling away in butter, mixing with the light, high note of white wine. Dipping a chunk of bread in the fondue made the cheese stretch from the pot to my plate in a ribbon. The taste was…perfection. Nutty, salty, gooey, creamy. Studded with sweet bits of browned and caramelized leeks.
The bread is tasty enough, but when you add in juicy nuggets of garlicky kielbasa, sweet apples, and tiny, tart cornichons, the meal takes on a wholly different level of greatness. The tastes are so varied and customizable – the pot finished all too quickly.
If you are eating French, you might as well do it all the way – am I right or am I right?
The profiteroles here are topped tableside with warm, viscous chocolate sauce that hits the perfect note between bitter, milky, and sweet. The ice cream is smooth and fragrant with vanilla, and the dough is crisp and light, crunching ever so slightly between the teeth. The best dessert on the menu, and possibly the best rendition in town of this dish.
Artisanal is a very special place. Not just because the prices are upscale but not obscene. Not just because the service is efficient and knowledgeable but not pushy. Not even because the food and drinks are spot on in preparation and execution. It is because this restaurant specializes in the ultimate communal experience. What fosters conversation more than eating together and sharing a meal like this? Dipping into bread basket together, laughing as cheese strings refuse to break, arguing over which fondue to get…this is what eating is about. It is about sharing an experience with another person. Artisanal is tailor-made for that kind of experience.
And if you love cheese as I do, it is tailor-made for you.