Wookiee Hut Cuisine presents:
Artisanal Fromagerie & Bistro
2 Park Avenue, New York, NY
Review by SuSu, MaceVindaloo, Diana, Wraith6

Now and again, one needs to "go out," especially if one has been working very hard for very long, and one gets really really tired and jaded and grumpy. What's more, it's raining and cold and it's an off-time for meals or shows: it's that time when many eateries close for a few hours between meal services. And if one is feeling this way, one doesn't want to phone ahead to check if a place is open or serving.

What one really needs is to "get away," in that kind of Audrey Hepburn type of thing. Going to Paris or something. Do you remember "The Ballad of Lucy Jordan," where Lucy goes postal when she realizes "at the age of 37 she realized she'd never ride through Paris in the springtime with the warm wind in her hair"? Okay, one is not that badly off ... yet. A little intervention is called for.

Suspending reality is something some restaurants do very well; they tend to be expensive but the service is perfect, the food is excellent, and the setting is a form of fantasy that is real enough not to intrude on the ideal things going on in your mind.

This place is not a glamorous address on Park Avenue; it's in an area which was once filled with midtown industries, factories, and sweat shops. It's off the avenue, actually, and gives the aura that you somehow found something special tucked away where it shouldn't have been. Going to the door doesn't break that fantasy, for the hardware and paintjob are not spanking new or sleek. It's metal, scoured and painted over in those cream tones you remember from somewhere.

The room, lined with windows on one side, isn't hypersleek, but it's got great attention to detail. The big clock over the bar is mounted over the mirror, rather than above it. The floors look like tile, but they are softer, more silent linoleum. Because of its incongruous location, it has a little feel of the speakeasy, a place you shouldn't be, but you know you want to.

Alas, the hostess and host were clumsy and didn't really pay any attention to us. They have us a table cluttered between two other tables, even though the restaurant was half empty. But we took the table, hoping that we could see what other people were eating, to see if we wanted to eat it too. And happily, the tables were not so closely placed together that it was impossible to have your own conversation.

We got three menus: the à la carte, the prix fixe, and the wine. Many restaurants now do a "wine flight," which is a group of several wines, to taste. This place also has cheese flights, paired with the wines. For $26, it seemed like a great deal, and we almost opted for that. We didn't feel like a full meal, you see.

A couple to our left was from another country, and they ordered macaroni and cheese, which came out on beautiful copper pans, coated with browned breadcrumbs. They took a bite ... and called the waiter and asked for the check. Sensing distress, the waiter asked what was wrong? They pointed to the pancetta in the sauce — they were vegetarians and could not eat the dish. They did not realize that pork was used in the preparation. The waiter told them they will not be charged for the food, and could be bring them something else? They refused, insisting on paying the bill and leaving. They did express surprise that they were only charged for drinks. The waiter answered, "I couldn't possibly charge you for food you can't eat. Please, thank you for coming, and I hope you come again."

We've often said on 'hut reviews that the character of a restaurant is not defined by situation when things go perfectly. It is defined by how they respond to when things go badly. It gave us great confidence that this was a good place. We especially appreciated that the waiter had the authority to make the decision on his own. No need to go to a manager for approval.

We took pictures of the abandoned macaroni dish, wishing we could eat them! This is against restaurant policy; the offending meals would have to be discarded in the interest of public health. What a waste!

Though sorely tempted to order the mac and cheese ourselves (part of the prix fixe menu), we decided that since we were in a French-style bistro specializing in cheese (they have their own cav, and practice affinage — the process of maturing cheese. This includes washing the rinds, turning them, testing them, etc. — all the post-raw-milk-to-forming process. It gives them better control of the cheeses' condition and maturation, and there is no delay or advanced delivery between cav and restaurant!)

They have a "cheesebar" in the back of the restaurant (walk to the bar, then make a right), where "what's ready" is presented becomingly on a counter. Like fish, cheese does not stink of it's stereotypical odor when it's presented properly. Though cheeses which are odiferous are kept under their own cheese bell or are wrapped properly. The machines to cut cheese — a round saw-blade, piano-wire threads, boards, knives — are clean and sparkling. No cross-contamination! And when we asked the lady behind the counter various questions, she answered them without hesitation and seemed to get the answers right. We especially liked the choir-mirror above the cheese counter, so that those in the dining room can see the counter so clearly!

From our cozy banquette, we ordered a fondue grande, which is the size for 4 to 6 diners. You have a choice of Classic Swiss, Artisanal Blend, Stilton & Sauternes, or Fondues du Jour. Because we love English cheeses, we chose Stilton & Sauternes. The dish comes with cubes of whole wheat bread, but you can add dried beef, fingerling potatoes, apples, kielbasa, beef tips, or crudités for $3 to $11 additional to the $40 fondue. (There is a petits fondue for $24, which feeds 1 to 3 people.) We opted to be purists and try only the bread, though one of us broke down and ordered a croque-monsieur made with prosciutto and gruyère for $14.50.

The food was sublime, it was much more than perfect! Under the enameled cast iron pot was a spirit lamp, rather than a sterno flame or candle, and the apparatus was pretty to look at. The waitstaff came over if it looked like we were fiddling with the flame, to help us raise or lower it to suit. The fondue was sauce-like, but not a sauce in that it was the main player. The bread was merely there as a platform, almost like a medieval trencher ... but we ate the bread too, for it was good and mutable without an aggressive character of its own to detract from the cheese within.

The croque-monsieur is one of the greatest French contributions to civilization, and the version here is wonderful: not too much cheese (yes, there is such a thing as too much cheese!), melted perfectly, allowed to grill and brown to reach a pinnacle of deliciousness and not to burn or split from its fat. It was served with house-fried potato crisps (it was obvious they made them), and a salad with a wonderful mustardy vinaigrette which was a great counterpoint to the sandwich. One of us even made a pig of him/or herself, cutting some of the sandwich into cubes and dipping that into the fondue ... but that was an embarrassing gilding of the lily! It didn't hurt the sandwich, as it was so good that even excess couldn't harm it. (The person in question prefers to think of it as "worship.")

As it was brunchtime, we chose only aperitifs of Campari and ice, and of gin and tonic. The cheese was flavorful and rich, and the bitterness of both drinks complemented the cheese nicely.

You can see in the photo how clean the pot was when we were done. We even scooped the fond — the browned layer at the bottom — and enjoyed that bit, too. The waiter was polite enough not to comment when he saw the hyper-empty pot. We did have a bit of bread leftover, however.

After such a perfect meal, we opted not to have dessert or coffee. We wanted the beautiful flavors of the cheese and its perfect accompaniments to ride on our tongues for a bit longer today.

Out on the street, we were back in New York again, rather than Paris. But that was okay; we never left town, and the great service (we'd even forgotten the crummy hostess), the fine food, and our sense of contentment and well-being put Lucy Jordan back away, where she belonged. At the age of 37, we'd hope that anyone would not have regrets to make one mad enough to go postal. If you start feeling that way at any time, we recommend a place like Artisanal Fromagerie & Bistro to sooth your soul back down.

Disclaimer: The opinions and observations noted are the property of the author. Neither Wookieehut nor any associates makes any claims or lucre from the posting of this report or review. This webpage is presented by Wookieehut.com. Enjoy!