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My Experience at Artisanal

  • b

In high school and college, I worked at a gourmet cheese shop, and it was there that I developed a healthy obsession with cheese. When I read in July's Gourmet magazine that there was a new bistro in Manhattan that was devoted to the stuff, I Knew I had to go. In preparation, I searched the web (including Chowhound) in an attempt to find out what the people were saying. Of everything I read, most of the feedback agreed on the following two things: the food was dynamite, and the service was a bomb. I hoped, how I hoped that the people behind Artisanal had read the same feedback I had, and heeded the cry of the public to make the necessary changes to bring the service to the level of the cuisine. Alas, last weekend, I had the pleasure/misfortune of dining at Artisanal. Yes, it was as foretold to me. The cheese, nirvana; The service, indigestible.
First let me tell you about the cheese. While the menu offers full bistro fare, we decided to stick with cheese; after all, you can have fish & steak everywhere, but I can't think of many restaurants where you can compose a meal entirely of this dairy goodness. The menu one receives when one is first seated has its share of cheesiness (i.e. fondues, salads accented with cheese, and grilled cheese sandwiches that sound like nothing your mom made you), but I wanted more-I wanted to know more about the cheese plates, the wine & cheese flights that I had read about, and while I read that in keeping with the French tradition, Artisanal does not customarily hand out until after the meal, I decided that since I wasn't French, I could ask for it now. We decided to begin with an assortment of seven cheeses for around 25.00. I had some in mind, and it was a good thing too, because the waiter seemed to know very little about the cheeses they offered. When one of the goat cheeses I had selected was unavailable, I asked him for a suggestion on one. He pointed to a sheep's milk cheese and made the glorious sell, "this one's good". I told him that I wanted a goat's milk cheese, and he looked confused. He pointed to two goat's milk cheeses and said, "those are good". Oh, and did I mention that when I ordered the other cheeses by name, I had to spell a few of them for him, because he didn't seem familiar with them. I had hoped that the cheese plates would be offered with something other than bread to complement their flavors, but unfortunately, the figs, quince paste and spiced nuts I had heard about were not offered here. So we settled for the six-dollar plate of fruit to help better highlight the cheeses. The cheeses were terrific, although the waiter counted up the cheeses on my plate and realized they "must have forgotten one" of the cheeses I had asked for, and the kitchen had "taken the liberty" of replacing another of the cheeses of which they had none. When I requested some more French bread for the cheese, the waiter nodded and said "sure", as if understanding. His future inaction on actually providing the bread though, proved my assumption wrong.
When another couple arrived and was seated near us, we overheard the waiter informing them of a variety of specials including the fondue of the day (Bacon and cheese). No such information had been disseminated to us when we arrived. I don't think that our waiter intended to keep us from knowing about the specials, I just think he forgot to mention them, and such sloppiness at such prices is inexcusable.
After the cheese course, we decided to order a fondue. We selected the Stilton/Sauterne, but long after ordering it, our waiter returned to our table and said, "You wanted the sausage fondue, right?" I corrected him, and eventually my wife and I shared a nice if not exceptional fondue.
By now we were getting fairly "cheesed out", as well as a little cheesed at the missteps of our server, but we decided to look at the dessert menu to see if we could bind ourselves just a little further with our cheese intake. We had time to practically memorize the dessert menu, and the questions that we had planned on asking the waiter about a couple of items there were eventually replaced with "Let's just get the check" pleas from my wife. I saw the waiter. He was still in the restaurant. And I know I wasn't wearing anything that made me look terribly invisible that evening, but the waiter just seemed oblivious. For some inexplicable reason, it seemed to be a maitre'd that appeared at the table and asked if we could get us anything. Soon thereafter, the check was paid and we were on our way. As we left the restaurant sated with cheese, a bitter taste clung in my mouth; Was it the Reblochon perhaps, or the Taleggio? Maybe the Stilton or the Montgomery Cheddar? No, you and I both know what it was-- Sadly, the stench of the service was stronger than the cheese. (ring ring) Hello, Zabars?

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  1. i have a big question for anyone about the cheese offered at ARTISANAL. can you get non-pasturized fresh cheeses? if so, i thought it was illegal in the USA (i have heard because the US dairy association will not allow the competition). any other places you can try the real deal non-pasteurized cheeses? i don't want to get anyone in trouble, but a chowhound needs to know these things.
    i'm sorry to hear about your service at the restaurant, what a let down for a cheese fan. those stories are another reason why i have hesitated to try ARTISANAL besides my raw cheese question.

    5 Replies
    1. re: mrnyc

      Yes, and yes.

      When choosing the cheeses, ask to speak to the fromagier.

      Patrick

      1. re: mrnyc

        You can get fresh, french raw milk cheeses in the US at a few places. Customs is aware of the obvious raw milk cheeses such as camembert but they are less aware of other very good less than 60 day old raw milk cheeses that are sent to the US. Reblochon is often raw milk and sometimes you can get l'ami du chambertin, epoisses, vacherin haute-rive and many raw goat's milk cheeses. Most of NY's big cheese shops have 1 or 2 raw milk cheese offerings on any given day. I sold cheese for several years and it seems that once customs lets the cheese in no one really cares if you sell it. Camembert Chatelain from France is partially pasteurized and although it is not true raw milk camembert it is the best camembert I have ever had in the States and it is readily available. From time to time, raw milk camembert slips in and I still think that Camembert Chatelain is better.

        1. re: mrnyc

          thanks! now I won't hesitate to ask at the shop or the restaurant. i'm glad to hear people aren't afraid to stick it to those damn 'anti-free trade' bullies at the USA dairy association.

          1. re: mrnyc

            Can I ask people to please NOT take that bait?

            And, MrNYC, can I ask you to please refrain from leaving gratuitous political flame bait on this site? I REALLY don't have time or energy to put out fires, so I ask that they not be lit in the first place. Let's stick to food, it's what we do best...and most civilly.

            ciao

          2. re: mrnyc
            m
            Melanie Wong

            You're way off base. The pressure to ban fresh unpasteurized cheese in the US is from fear of listeria. This is also the case in the European Union which is close to banning unpasteurized cheese too. So I hardly think that the US Dairy association is behind that European movement.

          3. Great story. Deja vu for me. I have never been to Artisanal even though I only live 4 short blocks away. But what described sounds exactly like the situation at the former restaurant at its location, Rosehill. It was a sea food restaurant. Great food, lousy service. I wonder if, after Rosehill closed, after being open only a very short time, they hired the same waitstaff. Some of them were abominable. Its as if the waitstaff, not the food, put Rosehill out of business.

            3 Replies
            1. re: walter
              s
              silver queen

              I on the other hand have never had anything but delightful service at Artisanal, brisk and professional and caring.

              But as for knowledge of the 300 cheeses on the list, ask for the cavista or fromageur or whatever the cheese guy on duty calls himself. It is always better to be an active participant in your meal rather than passive-aggressively resenting whatever might come your way. Artisanal is one of the very few U.S. restaurants that actually has cheese consultants on the payroll--if you choose not to harness their knowledge, you are missing out on half of what you are paying for.

              1. re: silver queen

                Silver Queen,

                Thanks for the advice. However it was never made clear to me that a fromagier was on the premises, as you indicate. Had I known that, certainly I would have taken advantage. I think it was the server's duty to make this kind of information available rather than blindly trying to answer my questions about which he had no knowledge, don't you? I'm glad you had a server that was more knowledgable and more attentive than ours.

                1. re: Bruce

                  Hi there,

                  It is absolutely incomprehensible why the waiter didn't ask you if you wanted to see the fromagier. The service we experienced there was abysmal (aside from the fromagier).

                  I've posted here about it before and the reviews have also mentioned it: ask to speak to the fromagier at Artisanal! He was extremely helpful and spent about 10 minutes going through the cheese list line by line, helping us build a 10-course cheese plate. It was exquisite, and we left educated as well as satiated.

                  Does ANYONE from Terrence Brennan's empire read Chowhound? I'd love to hear a reply (anonymous if need be) from one of them.

                  Patrick

            2. I have to say, I was at Artisanal for the first time this past weekend as well, and I had an entirely opposite experience than you did. My mother and I walked in late, in a snit, and despite all this, we were seated right away. Our waiter was utterly fantastic. Fantastic. I haven't had such good service in a long time, which was great because I found the space itself too noisy and the decor bleh. I'm going to mangle his name, but I believe it was Mamoud. He's a grad student at Columbia, and he know every cheese on that list, plus most of the wines. He was incredibly helpful and attentive. When one of the cheeses we ordered turned out to be a little hard - it was like Japanese plastic food hard - he instantly replaced it with a different one, plus he found some Neal's Yard Berkwell in the back that had just come in... well I could blather on, but I guess the point is, if you are going to Artisanal, ask to be seated in his station. He was outstanding.

              PS Why would someone order fondue in summer? The couple next to us did, and the smell was just echhh...

              1. Not to get away from the cheese debate and back to the service debate, but...
                My boyfriend and I had an impromptu dinner at the restaurant last night. The food was unbelievable, but as mentioned many times before, the service left something to be desired. My boyfriend and I are in our mid 20's and know a lot about food ( with him being in the business and me being obsessed with learning about food). The waiter treated us like children, and did not even listen to what we were asking him. Then, he never came back to check on our meal ( not through any of the courses) and did not appear until the check needed to be brought over. I would go back for the food, but the service makes me think twice.

                1. His name is Peter. Ask him to pick out unusual cheeses and he will provide some that on not on the printed menu. Great cheeses.

                  While you are there take a look at their walk in cheese aging area.