It was to be our last meal in New York and I wanted something slightly different. Not brash and noisy as at Cafe Luxembourg or Jaya, an inexpensive Malaysian restaurant in Chinatown, or a great value bistro such as Jarnac, however good and enjoyable they had been, but somewhere slightly gentler, a restaurant that would ease us all back into a European frame of mind.
Picholine was the obvious choice. Since it opened in 1993 Terrance Brennan's restaurant, situated between the Lincoln Centre and Central Park, has shared many of the characteristics which have distinguished the best New York restaurants over the past decade - excellent cooking, a catholic wine list and prompt service. But for those who like to talk and to be heard over the dinner table and above all for those who enjoy cheese in the very best condition, Picholine is a solitary beacon amongst New York's 18,000 eating establishments.
The restaurant's distinguishing marks are immediately obvious. The maître d' wears a sober three-piece suit (the equally charming maître d' the night before had sported an open-neck shirt and a long pony tail); most of the clientele are of a certain age, not old but not too young either; and to get to your table you have to walk past a very well stocked wooden trolley of cheese.
En route to the cheese we ate three stunning first courses. A very pretty carpaccio of hamachi tuna with ginger and soy; slices of baked fingerling potatoes covered in melted Vacherin cheese and slices of smoked crispy bacon - just the kind of dish which you feel that you have earned after a morning's skiing but goes down just as well after a morning's skating in Central Park; and a chestnut and sausage soup. This soup was terrific, not just in its warmth, colour and flavour but because it was presented and then ladled so elegantly with a silver spoon from a silver tureen. My only regret was that the waiter, having filled my bowl, took the tureen away.
Line-caught Casco Bay cod with Maine butter clams and rosemary, a wild mushroom and duck risotto and a daube of beef short ribs, all equally good, showed the overall strengths of the kitchen and the warning line under the wild game dish which read please be careful of bird shot revealed this could be nowhere else other than the US.
And in a way Picholine's cheese trolley could be nowhere else either. Not only is it the result of obvious, considerable passion on Brennan's part and that of Max McCalman, his maître fromagier, but also of their combined and sustained determination to battle for the right to serve unpasteurised cheeses in this highly protected society. In addition the trolley's scope is far, far wider than the cheese trolleys of any top French or Italian restaurant which for the best of reasons choose by and large to serve only their own. You would certainly not find Spenwood, Berkswell or Ticklemore, three of England's most distinctive cheeses in Paris or Milan.
And finally, because this is New York, there is a level of investment in the quality of the service and a determination to make the service easy for the customer, two traits which I find missing from all but a very few British restaurants.
Picholine, like most other top places in this restaurant-obsessed city, is very busy in the evenings so do book well in advance. But cheese lovers will be delighted to hear that Brennan and his team are opening a more relaxed bistro, Artisanal, in mid-February. This will feature a walk-in cheese cellar with 160 cheeses, a wine bar and a restaurant that promises dishes from raclette to modern fondues.
Picholine, 35 West 64th Street, 212-724 8585
Cafe Luxembourg, 200 W70th Street, 212-873 7411
Jaya, 90 Baxter Street, 212-219 3331
Jarnac, 328 West 12th Street, 212-924 3413
Artisanal, 2 Park Avenue (due to open mid-February)