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Say Cheeses

Handcrafted cheese and exotic fondues take center stage at Artisanal; at D'Artagnan, the new foie gras emporium, you can't be too rich or too fatty.

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The business of restaurant reviewing comes with all sorts of salutary benefits. You aren't trapped in an office, for one thing. You are paid to lounge around in elaborate settings while highly trained professionals fawn all over you. You eat for free, and it is your duty (in fact, it is your job) to steal food off other people's plates. But if you're an obsessive eater, like me, there's also a darker, more Faustian side to this bargain. That became clear the other week when I spent several days shuttling between D'Artagnan and Artisanal, two new establishments built around the same exotic premise. D'Artagnan, run by the partners who own the foie gras purveyor of the same name, has a menu consisting largely of . . . foie gras. Artisanal is the chic new Park Avenue fromagerie devoted to the fast-growing cult of cheese. I asked my wife to accompany me on this cholesterol odyssey, but after one visit to Artisanal, she diplomatically took to her bed with a cold. My father, a diplomat by training, was less diplomatic. "My gosh," he said, "that sounds like a near-death experience to me."

He's right, of course, but in this palate-addled town, pure richness has become an endlessly refined commodity, like exotic varieties of Chinese tea. At Artisanal, diners can linger in the fromage "cave," a clean, fluorescent space filled with iridescent wheels of Flixer (from Switzerland), Harbourne Blue (from England), and Drunken Goat (from Spain). There are 200 or so of these esoteric cheeses available daily, according to chef-owner Terrance Brennan, who perfected the art of the cheese cart at his uptown restaurant, Picholine. At Artisanal, however, you can also get a blue martini (blue cheese is in the olives), five types of grilled-cheese sandwiches, and seven kinds of fondue. The fondue might be bacon and Cheddar, or Zamorano with little bits of chorizo, or one of several fondues du jour, like Gouda mixed with Guinness Stout. If that doesn't do you in, on the bistro menu there's a nice Beaufort-cheese-and-bacon tart, six different cuts of steak, and a tasty pig's-trotter plat du jour, deboned and shaped into a tube of the purest, crisp fried fat.

Unlike D'Artagnan, which is run by legitimate Frenchmen, Artisanal is decorated in the familiar faux-brasserie style, with fleets of tobacco cane chairs, lots of exposed tile, and an array of drearily vivid Francophile posters on the wall. The un-cheese menu is a straight brasserie knockoff, too. In between fondues, I tackled a basket of tiny cheese puffs called gougères, a fairly bland steak tartare, and a bowl of delicious escargots sealed in a buttery pastry crust. I thought the main courses were mostly unremarkable except for the pig's trotter, which everyone else at the table found mildly disgusting, and a portion of skate wing, which managed to be tender and chewy at the same time. My first fondue was the Gouda-and-Guinness, which seemed cheesy enough but looked like a creamy vat of crankcase oil. An unlikely mix of Italian Taleggio, pesto, and pine nuts was more sightly and tasted surprisingly smooth. On my final visit, however, the fondue du jour was called "100 cheeses," comprising leftovers and butt ends from the impressive house stock. The result was a greenish-gray bubble-gum liquid, which reduced my friend the cheese aristocrat to a contemplative, scholarly silence. "That's some weird shit," she finally said.

The wait staff at Artisanal are aware of the inherent weirdness of cheese, so they hover around the table, offering soothing instructions, like chemistry teachers guiding students through some mildly complex test-tube experiment. When the actual cheese plate arrives, you are presented with an elaborate tip sheet, complete with cheese names, taste descriptions, the sequence of your particular cheeses on the plate, and even a space for jotting cheese-inspired notes. The cheese aristocrat thought these pretensions were silly and complained that the house selection wasn't nearly interesting enough. But the several plates I sampled were, frankly, delicious, although after fondue and a heavy main course, your senses are so overloaded that it's difficult to tell a waxy slice of Orb Weaver (from Vermont) from a good wedge of Sonoma Dry Jack (chocolate-rubbed, from California).

This isn't an issue at D'Artagnan, where the foie gras comes in a single, silky variety, served in all sorts of deadly ways. The room looks like a funky tourist restaurant in Europe, with waiters dressed in jaunty native bandannas and a series of stage-prop Three Musketeers artifacts (capes, swords, etc.) hung on the exposed brick walls. My first meal was a dainty foie gras burger, served in all its unctuous richness, without burger meat, on a toasted, tea-sandwich-size bun. I almost managed to eat half of it before moving on to a generous bowl filled with big tubes of penne, interspersed with nuggets of foie gras and mushrooms (porcini, shiitake, and chanterelle), all covered in a savory wild-mushroom sauce. This surprisingly light dish also comes in appetizer form, but if you're feeling reckless, you'll probably want to dive into Les 3 Foie Gras, which is a kind of upmarket pupu platter for cholesterol addicts. It's composed of a simple slab of foie gras au naturel, a gimmicky but tasty invention called Gascon sushi (foie gras rolled in duck prosciutto), and the strangely named French Kiss, which consists of a creamy foie gras mousse stuffed inside a couple of fat, Armagnac-soaked prunes.

Ironically, these are a few of the more temperate items on the D'Artagnan menu. The co-owner is Ariane Daguin, whose father is a renowned chef in Gascony, so the menu is weighted with traditional Gascogne hungry-man foods like cassoulet (with authentic white Tarbais beans, garlic sausage, and fat strips of pork belly), grilled venison ($6 extra for a Rossini­foie gras topping), and hefty joints of duck confit edged with fat. I can't say I made a big dent in any of these dishes, but I did find time to enjoy a set of perfectly broiled quail from the downstairs rotisserie (try the chicken, also, and the authentically gristly country lamb), plus two refreshing summer soups (sweet-corn and a smooth, tart gazpacho). To polish off the $65 foie gras tasting menu, I had to enlist the help of an elegantly trim Parisian friend, who methodically made his way through dabs of rosy-pink foie gras terrine slathered on toast points, followed by a delicate nodule of poached foie gras bathed in noodles and a light mushroom broth. After that came two escalopes of pan-seared foie gras, one with cooked grapes in a Floc wine reduction, and the other flopped on top of a neatly sliced duck breast in more Armagnac sauce.

The Frenchman chased all this down with a bottle or two of '95 Cahros, and when I called for dessert, he didn't bat an eye. At Artisanal, the abundance of cheese tended to dull any urge for desserts, although there were nine of them on the menu anyway; my favorites were the fruit tarts, freshly baked, with the smallest hint of cheese in the crust, and a giant, fin de siècle pot of chocolate fondue, which came with orange-flavored madeleines and special house marshmallows for dipping. At D'Artagnan, you can follow your foie gras burger with cheeses (I didn't) or a yellowy crème Catalane, which is a hearty, custardlike version of crème brûlée from the Pyrenees. There were also dense slabs of chocolate fondant, and an apple croustade with a light, frilly crust that melted to butter in your mouth. At least so said the valiant Frenchman, who consumed portions of both these dishes as the table looked on in horror, plus another half of a sponge-cake baba (soaked in more Armagnac) before decorously putting down his spoon and retiring for the evening.

Artisanal 2 Park Avenue, at 32nd Street (212-725-8585). Lunch, Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner, Monday to Thursday, 5 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday, till 1 a.m. Appetizers, $7 to $20; entrées, $17 to $36. A.E., M.C., V.

D'Artagnan 152 East 46th Street (212-687-0300). Lunch, Monday to Friday, noon to 2:30 p.m. Dinner, Monday to Saturday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Appetizers, $6 to $19; entrées, $16.50 to $26. A.E., M.C., V.


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