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Paying Homage to Fromage in All Its Incarnations

June 28, 2001|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

NEW YORK — Cheese is back. Cheese courses are cropping up on menus all over town, and several restaurants, notably Patina and Melisse, offer a cheese cart along with vivid descriptions of each of the fromages on display.

Picholine, a French restaurant near Lincoln Center notable for its extensive cheese selection, has opened a bistro and wine bar, Artisanal, entirely devoted to the smelly stuff. It's not the first to do so, however. Androut, the famous Paris fromagerie , has long had a restaurant upstairs with a multi-course menu of dishes based on various cheeses. And one of my favorite Paris cheese shops, Ferme St. Hubert (around the corner from Fauchon) has a minuscule restaurant next door where you can order cheese samplers or make a lunch of an omelet or croque monsieur followed by fresh cheese slathered in ivory creme fraiche.

As soon as you push open the door at Artisanal, the pungent smell of ripe cheese hits like a fist. Even on a sweltering day in New York a few weeks ago, I immediately think wine, cheese and bread. You can have that, of course, but the menu offers so much more. My eye goes straight to the gougeres , which I've never encountered outside France. These are the wonderful little cheese puffs Burgundy vignerons offer with their wines. Smart idea, because cheese makes the wines taste rounder and softer. Here they're served warm from the oven, and they taste like bites of cloud.

Spring vegetables with fresh sheep's milk ricotta turns out to be a plate of fat violet-tipped asparagus stacked with gorgeous green fava beans and shavings of pecorino. Fresh ricotta--the milky taste of spring--is buried beneath.

The fondue of the day (Fondue! Who could think about it on a day like this? But we do) is "100-cheese fondue" made from all the little ends of the cheeses. Somehow this melange does not appeal. I want to be able to taste a cheese or at most several cheeses. So I try the classic Swiss fondue, as part of the fondue lunch--for $4 more it comes with steamed vegetables, flaky air-dried beef and fingerling potatoes, yellow and buttery inside.

The waiter brings out a heavy enamel pot so tall I can barely peer in and a basket of dark and light bread cubes, some with crusts. Molten and bubbling, aromatic enough to perk up even flagging appetites, this is classic fondue.

Someone else at the table orders the grilled cheese sandwich with prosciutto and Artisanal blend of cheeses instead. The bread is buttered and browned. With the melding of cheeses inside, it's another classic.

The one-page wine list offers every single wine by the glass, and there are dozens of stellar choices.

For dessert, there's cheesecake, of course, individual rounds with a mousse-like texture swathed in a strawberry and rhubarb compote. But after such rich fare, the best choice may be a lemongrass or orange-ginger sorbet.

Pride of place at Artisanal goes to the huge cheese counter at the back where you can just look, talk cheese or buy some to take home. I didn't ask, but I'm betting they would wrap it nicely for the plane.

*

* Artisanal, 2 Park Avenue at 32nd Street between Park and Madison avenues; (212) 725-8585. Lunch appetizers, $7 to $13.50; main courses, $12 to $33. Open Monday through Friday for lunch; Monday through Saturday for dinner.

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