Nobody has divined the delicate new alchemy of excess better than Terrance Brennan, who has brought hundreds of his esoteric cheeses south from Picholine and is serving them up to the masses at Artisanal. His restaurant is really a brasserie, wine bar, and fromagerie in one, and it's easy to addle yourself with odd fondue combinations (like fontina with white-truffle essence) or stand zombielike for hours in the fluorescent cheese cave, communing with the glimmering wheels of Epoisse, Flixer, and Harbourne Blue. Thomas Valenti poses similar dilemmas for trenchermen of the old school at his elegant Upper Broadway restaurant, Ouest. Crowds of neighborhood gourmands line up like jumbo jets on a runway to scarf down artful hungry-man creations like bacon-wrapped, mushroom-stuffed capon (with a mound of peppery barley on the side, all doused in a toffee-colored foie gras jus), a truffled "omelette soufflée" dripped with creamy mousseline sauce, and smoked sturgeon salad decorated with whole platoons of lardons and poached eggs.
The scene at Ilo, off the lobby of the Bryant Park Hotel, appears posh by contrast, even high-minded. But after admiring the clean, vaulted décor, I found myself at the bar, devouring plates of gourmet pulled-pork sandwiches topped with frizzled onion rings, and little knishes flavored with truffle oil and melty lobes of Gruyère cheese. I then staggered to the dining room for a taste of the eccentric "tidal pool" containing uni, oysters, and a flotilla of exotic mushrooms, which I followed with crackling slabs of Rick Laakkonen's celebrated roast-duck special, rubbed with sea salt and Sichuan pepper and carved at the table. Such ceremony is mostly dispensed with at Daniel Boulud's hectic new DB Bistro Moderne, where the rooms are a little poky and the kitchen can take glacial lengths of time. But the food is generally worth the wait, and it's always fun to see formerly desiccated society matrons bravely gobbling down brawny dishes like stuffed pig's trotters, cassoulet, boeuf en gelée (served in a parfait glass with a skim coating of horseradish cream), and the noble $27 DB Burger, with its truffle-and-foie gras- laced short-rib interior, and silver stirrup cup of pommes soufflées on the side.
Artisanal, 2 Park Avenue, 212-725-8585
Ouest, 2315 Broadway, at 84th Street, 212-580-8700
Ilo, Bryant Park Hotel, 40 West 40th Street, 212-642-2255
DB Bistro Moderne, 55 West 44th Street, 212-391-2400