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NEW YORK — The sight of New York taxicabs aside, it wouldn't be hard to confuse Artisanal, Terrance Brennan's new restaurant and cheese shop on East 32nd Street, with a Paris bistro: red leather banquettes, a checkered tile floor, and every particle of the air steeped in the pungent perfume of cheese. Brennan, the chef-owner of Picholine, has brought his passion for cheese to a unique New York eating experience. Artisanal offers over 200 individually crafted cheeses from affineurs in 16 countries — the largest selection in America.
"Cheese is so sensual," says Brennan, a self-proclaimed caseophile (who knew there was a word for it?) who cultivated a love affair with cheese while working and living in France. "I love just looking at it."
Brennan not only looks at it. He spritzes it, rotates it and ripens it in the walk-in cave he custom-designed. "No one's bringing cheese from A to B in the U.S.," he says. Brennan's one-of-a-kind cave with its beechwood slatted shelves allows him to modulate the temperature and humidity in separate areas and thus maintain an extraordinary level of control over the quality, texture and flavor of his arsenal. "There are three kinds — goat, sheep and cow — and thousands of different types, from mild to strong and runny to firm and hard."
In addition to the restaurant and bar, Artisanal has a wine list with over 125 varieties by the glass and a retail counter that sells every cheese on the menu, including curiosities such as callu de cabeddu, a rare goat bladder cheese from Sardinia, and innerschwietzer weicher, a runny Swiss version of reblochon. "Americans fear not having the knowledge," says Brennan, "and they fear fat. I want to change that."
For those who prefer their cheese melted, Artisanal has revived some classics. The menu offers nine fondues, ranging from the Artisanal special blend to an English cheddar and bacon and a provencal goat cheese with porcini mushrooms. At lunch, there are gourmet grilled cheeses: gruyere and prosciutto, buffalo mozzarella and grilled vegetables and Cashel blue and quince.
The menu does have cheese-less fare. Main courses range from a home-made boudin blanc to rabbit with spaetzle and on to the classic likes of coq au vin and cassoulet. But Brennan hopes that most of his customers will allow Artisanal to push their palates a bit further.
"I want it to be user-friendly," he says, adding that his customers have always been an adventurous lot. "We don't even have brie on the menu."