Summer Restaurant Week Lunch: A Sophisticated Treat at Boulud Sud

2013-08-16 12.09.31

I’ve always felt there’s something inherently decadent in a fancy weekday lunch. Maybe it’s a holdover from my childhood, a memory of “take-your-daughter-to-work-days” when my parents would whisk me away from the doldrums of elementary school to the magic and wonder of the Big City. Or maybe it’s the lack of a corporate charge card — even as a working adult the business lunches have been pretty few and far between, special occasions that are to be savored, the rare respite from bag lunches or trips to the corner bodega’s chopped salad bar. During those special lunches I always feel like I’m part of the in-crowd, an exclusive club of diners with larger wallets and looser office rules, allowed to while away the afternoon sipping Chiraz and munching on delicately toasted crostinis.

This past week I had the chance to dip my toes in those elusive waters once again, when my office closed for a full Summer Friday. Instead of reverse commuting to Connecticut, I would actually spend a weekday in Manhattan, and dammit, I was going to take advantage of that. Fortunately, it was also the last day of Summer Restaurant Week, so Jacob, Sarah and I decided to check out the RW lunch deal at Boulud Sud.

 

First Impressions:

The simple and refined entrance to Boulud Sud, a good indication of the decor to come.

The simple and refined entrance to Boulud Sud, a good indication of the decor to come.

Boulud Sud is one piece of Daniel Boulud’s mini empire of restaurants and shops, spanning the globe from his high-end flagship restaurant Daniel in NY, to versions of his more affordable French-inflected restaurants like Cafe Boulud and Bar Boulud, found both in NY and more exotic locales such as London, Singapore, and Beijing. Although all of Boulud’s restaurants are based in his background of French cooking, Boulud Sud is defined by an emphasis on Mediterranean flavors, including a wide range of regional influences from the Riviera to North Africa to Turkey and the Middle East.

Looking through one of the large plate glass windows that make up the front of the restaurant.

Looking through one of the large plate glass windows that make up the front of the restaurant.

I’m lucky enough to have previously dined at Daniel for my mother’s birthday, and even though I was far less pretentiously critical about food back then, I recall being bowled over by the service and the quality of the food. For the most part it was more traditional French cuisine, and so when choosing another Boulud restaurant to visit for RW, I wanted to try to emulate my experience at Jean Georges’ Spice Market and see how Boulud would handle the flavor profiles of non-native cultures. Given my recent trip to Israel and growing appreciation for Mediterranean cuisines, Boulud Sud seemed like an obvious choice.

Boulud Sud is located right off of Lincoln Center, on 64th St between Broadway and Central Park West, and is housed in the same building as two of Boulud’s other endeavors — the casual Bar Boulud and the eat-in/take-out market Epicerie Boulud. These restaurants are also just across the street from Picholine (the high-end restaurant by Terrance Brennan of Artisanal fame) and a location of the Atlantic Grill, making this a bit of a powerhouse corner of the Upper West Side.

The view from the bar into the rest of the dining room, where you can see the regional paintings on the walls.

The view from the bar into the rest of the dining room, where you can see the regional paintings on the walls.

The restaurant’s aesthetic is modern restraint, the outside decorated with a plain sign, a large steel door, and huge plate glass windows that allow lots of sunlight. Inside, Boulud Sud features a soft, cool color palette, heavy on slate grey, chocolate brown, and sunflower yellow, with green-tinted water glasses on the basic wooden table tops. The modern metallic chairs actually reminded me of the types I’d see in the conference rooms at my middle school, oddly inelegant considering the rest of the delicate decor. The dining room itself is relatively small, perhaps due to the conglomeration of 3 restaurants in one building, but this adds a level of intimacy, aided by the soft lighting and softer music, a bit of a respite from the louder soundtracks and lackluster acoustics of some of New York’s other trendy restaurants. The brown and taupe walls are covered with paintings of Mediterranean land and seascapes, except for the majority of the inner side of the restaurant, which is dominated by a huge open kitchen. As commonplace as open kitchens seem to be these days, I admit I still really enjoy a tableside view of chefs in action (maybe it’s my slight addiction to Chopped). There were several times during our lunch that we would stop and try to figure out which dish the chefs were working on, from stirring massive stockpots to food processing the heck out of some yogurt sauce.

Looking back from our table into the large open kitchen of Boulud Sud, which takes up most of the back wall.

Looking back from our table into the large open kitchen of Boulud Sud, which takes up most of the back wall.

 

The Food:

As was discussed in my Peter Luger review, I like to do a bit of research before going to a restaurant. I’ve always been a planner, and I try to avoid making poor decisions based on haste and fluster in the face of an impatient waiter. I leave the spontaneity to new Oreo products and ice cream flavors. Part of the decision to go to Boulud Sud for Restaurant Week was based on the menu on their website, and I also poked around on Google to see if anyone had already reviewed their lunch offerings. Unfortunately, the menu had changed since the beginning of Restaurant Week (which confusingly takes place over a month), and while most of the entree choices were the same, the appetizer and dessert segments of the menu were dramatically different. Perhaps it’s a matter of seasonal/market ingredients, but I was bummed because I had been looking forward to a specific Middle Eastern flatbread appetizer one blogger had raved about. Overall, we still had a great lunch, but it was slightly more improvisational than I had anticipated.

Faced with the unfamiliar menu, I chose the Summer Chicory Salad to start, while Jacob and Sarah picked the Ouzu Cured Salmon. Then Sarah and I both went with the Spiced Lamb Burger as a main, and Jacob got the Za’atar Spiced Merlu. Sarah and I finished our meals with the Chocolate Panna Cotta, and Jacob chose the Housemade Cremes Glacees (Chef’s Daily Ice Cream Selection).

The complimentary olive oil and bread -- way more than your average throwaway bread basket.

The complimentary olive oil and bread — way more than your average throwaway bread basket.

The meal began with complimentary bread and olive oil. The olive oil was clearly of extremely high quality, and was poured table-side into a small saucer with slivers of garlic and rosemary sprigs on the bottom. We were given two types of bread — slices of standard rustic Italian bread baked with olives, and pieces of focaccia that seemed to be topped with oregano and tiny pieces of sun-dried tomatoes. I generally have an aversion to olives (I find the flavor utterly pervasive in dishes), but this bread was so soft and fresh I ended up eating multiple pieces (luckily the olives were relatively few and far between). Focaccia is one of my favorite types of bread, so I took more than my fair share out of our bread basket. Both types of bread had a great, springy chew to them, and they soaked up the oil as we all greedily dunked again and again. Fortunately, our waiter noticed our empty tray almost immediately and promptly asked if we’d like some more (cue impolite nods with crumb-filled mouths). The service at Boulud Sud is quite fast, so before we had even finished our second tray of bread, our appetizers arrived.

My literally bitter/sweet Summer Chicory Salad.

My literally bitter/sweet Summer Chicory Salad.

The Summer Chicory Salad (Capers, Golden Raisins, Red Wine Vinaigrette) was a nice-sized portion, especially when placed next to the Ouzu Salmon, which seemed a little skimpy in comparison. Although I’ve tried New Orleans chicory coffee, I’d actually never encountered the green in the flesh (er leaf, I guess). It turns out chicory looks a lot like arugula, and has a similar peppery, bitter taste. When combined with the radicchio that made up the rest of the roughage, I found the base of the salad a little too bitter for my tastes. Fortunately, the rest of the components served to brighten the dish, from the sweet golden raisins to the thin slices of cheese I would wager was Pecorino. The red wine vinaigrette and the capers were more subtly present, and I thought the small crouton cubes added a nice crunch component while avoiding soaking up too much of the dressing. When I managed to get all the salad’s ingredients into one bite, it was actually a pleasantly floral combination.

The Ouzu Salmon - still not my cup of tea, but pretty to look at.

The Ouzu Cured Salmon – still not my cup of tea, but pretty to look at.

I’m starting to think I should just force myself to like salmon, since I seem to encounter it at nearly every new restaurant I try. My untrained palate couldn’t detect a strong ouzu flavor to the Ouzu Cured Salmon (Whole Wheat Bulgur, Cucumber, Dill Yogurt). If you’re curious, ouzu is an anise-flavored aperitif that is extremely popular in Greece and Cyprus. I’ve never warmed to the taste of anise or anything on the fennel/licorice spectrum (Red Vines only, please), so you would think the combination of salmon and anise would be pretty repugnant to me. Actually, I found the fish very fresh, and fairly similar in flavor to the lox my mother serves alongside the basket of bagels on Sundays. The overall plating of the dish is what impressed me most (in fact, most of the dishes in our meal were very elegantly laid out). The dish came off as bright and summer-y with a great contrast of colors in the bright pink radishes, the orange-ish salmon, and the green dill yogurt and cucumber. I thought the accompaniments shone brightest in this dish — the bulgur had a nicely chewy texture that played off the softer salmon, cucumber and yogurt. The sauce ended up approximating the flavors of the tzatziki spread on my burger, a standout element there as well.

The Spiced Lamb Burger ultimately reminded me of a high quality American take on shawarma.

The Spiced Lamb Burger ultimately reminded me of a high quality American take on shawarma.

Although I had been tempted by the Ratatouille and Hand-rolled Ricotta Cavatelli on the menu, I ultimately had to go with the Spiced Lamb Burger (Harissa, Eggplant, Tzatziki, Sweet Potato Chips) because it received high praise from the review I had read. The burger came served simply on a slate board, with the chips to one side and a small bowl of good ol’ Heinz ketchup on the other. Given the exotic spices included in the dish, the ketchup seemed a bit incongruous, but I guess I can’t really complain given my traditionalist views of hot dog toppings. The Lamb burger was served on an excellent soft brioche bun. I usually lean towards the potato bun for burgers, but unsurprisingly, Boulud Sud uses great bread that held its own as much as it could against the juiciness of the burger and its toppings. I also admired the fact that Boulud Sud recommends a more undercooked lamb burger — most places will suggest cooking the patty to at least fully medium, but at lunch the waiter suggested I go with my usual burger choice, medium rare. The burger arrived fully pink in the middle, the finely ground meat moist and flavorful. Although there was a lot of interplay between the harissa and the tzatziki, I never lost the taste of the lamb in the jumble. Harissa is a hot chili sauce from Tunisia made mainly of piri piri, serrano and other chili peppers, garlic paste, coriander, chili powder, and an oil. In this case the harissa added a little kick to the meat, but I wasn’t put off by the spice, since it was mitigated by the silky eggplant pieces and the cool tzatziki spread placed underneath the patty. The only downside is that all of these spreads and oily eggplant pieces meant the burger eventually started falling apart as I worked my way through it, leading to a fork-and-knife situation by the end of the course. I enjoyed each bite as I went, so I didn’t really mind, but it seems obvious to me that you can’t load down a bun with chili sauce, yogurt, oily eggplant and a burger patty and expect it to really hold together. This was still the best lamb burger I’ve had — putting Bareburger’s dry patty to shame for sure, but overall I prefer other proteins if I’m going to have a burger. A rack of lamb, or a lamb stew captures the succulence of the meat far better. The most disappointing aspect of the dish was the sweet potato chips. Sweet potatoes are one of my all time favorite foods, so I was let down by the lack of distinct sweet potato flavor in the chips — they mostly tasted of the seasoning (maybe za’atar?), and considering the caliber of the vegetables in the appetizers, these chips were really only adequate.

My favorite dish of the meal -- Za'atar Spiced Merlu.

My favorite dish of the meal — Za’atar Spiced Merlu.

While the Lamb Burger had elements of Boulud Sud’s Mediterranean inspiration, the truly distinctive dish I should have gotten was Jacob’s Za’atar Spiced Merlu (Rice Pilaf, Eggplant, Lemon Tahini). The small bites I had of his dish were my favorite of the whole meal, which is crazy considering how impressed I was with my dessert (and dessert in general, frankly). Za’atar is a Middle Eastern spice blend mixing dried herbs, sesame seeds, sumac, and salt. Like Indian curry powders or garam masala, the exact specifics of a za’atar recipe are family secrets that vary from chef to chef and culture to culture — Lebanese za’atar is different from Israeli za’atar, which is different from Jordanian za’atar — although common components are thyme, marjoram, oregano, and sage. The merlu (which Wikipedia suggests is the French term for the white fish hake) sported a thick top crust of the za’atar, to the point where you could easily spot the sesame seeds and reddish tinge from the sumac. The fish was perfectly cooked, flaking off in small slices and serving as a buttery base for all the seasonings. The dish was topped with cilantro, liberally applied to avoid overpowering the entree while still adding another level of complexity, especially working in concert with the brightness of the lemon tahini in accentuating the sesame in the za’atar. The rice pilaf on the bottom was soft, but not goopy, with enough heft to it to combat the tenderness of the other components, from the fattier eggplant to the smooth fish flesh. Overall, it was just a remarkably well seasoned, fresh dish that was distinctive and memorable, standing out above Sarah and my well-executed, if somewhat more familiar Lamb Burger. I think if I went back for the regular menu at Boulud Sud, I would lean towards the seafood dishes, which highlight Boulud’s deftness as a French chef to elevate the bounty of the Mediterranean Sea.

 

The Housemade Ice Creams from left to right: Dulce de Leche, Rose-Marzipan, and Rhubarb Gelatos.

The Housemade Ice Creams from left to right: Dulce de Leche, Rose-Marzipan, and Rhubarb Gelatos.

The desserts suggest that Boulud’s pastry chef is pretty damn deft as well. The ice creams of the day were Rhubarb, Dulce de Leche, and Strawberry Gelato, but we were intrigued by the Rose-Marzipan Gelato mentioned in the Orange Cloud dessert (although I wasn’t particularly interested in the dessert I was curious about how one creates an “orange cloud”), and so asked if we could sub it in for the more mundane strawberry. The restaurant happily complied, although they neglected to tell us this fact until we asked after receiving our check (our waiter was very apologetic afterwards). So while eating, our uninentionally enforced detective work led us to conclude we had indeed been given the Rose-Marzipan, but it did not taste strongly of rose or marzipan. There was the generic sweetness I expect from rosewater, but I was surprised at how muted the almond flavor was, especially considering the recent spate of almond/marzipan desserts I’ve tried where the marzipan nearly punches you in the mouth. The other two gelatos were much more successful — the rhubarb tasted like it had just been plucked from the market, with its trademark tartness. Sweets monster that I am, I loved the dulce de leche, which was achieved the classic powerful sweetness without veering into the cloying quality of some of the newer trendy salted caramel ice creams. Although the plating was not the explosion of artistic flourishes that my panna cotta was, I appreciated the clean lines of the small (but deceptively full) metal cups of gelato, served with a few small sugar cookies baked with pine nuts. The Boulud take on Pignoli cookies tasted less pine-nutty and more just like the powdered sugar on top, but they were a nice complement when paired with the rhubarb gelato.

The Chocolate Panna Cotta -- lovely to look at, even better to eat.

The Chocolate Panna Cotta — lovely to look at, even better to eat.

As I alluded to before, the Chocolate Panna Cotta (Caramel, Raspberry Foam, Chocolate Sorbet) arrived in front of me demanding attention. The plate was splashed with a collection of bright and dark colors, soft and crunchy textures, and a range of flavors from bitter to sugar-overload sweet. The Raspberry Foam’s taste was just as strong as its nearly blood red color — concentrated and very sweet, but in a natural, “Jolly Rancher ain’t got nothing on this” way. I loved dipping the fresh raspberries in the foam to pump up the fruit’s flavor. The cookie crumble spread across the dish reminded me of both Oreo crumbs and the cookie crunchies that split the two layers of a Carvel ice cream cake (obviously, either way, I was in heaven), while the yellow pieces evoked Rice Krispies or petite pieces of Cap’n Crunch. There were also miniature squares of what tasted like a rich caramel blondie — and all this before you even get to the panna cotta or sorbet. The panna cotta was set beautifully, holding its shape as I swiped spoonful after spoonful. It seemed to be made of dark chocolate, its relative mildness only apparent in contrast to the intense bittersweet darkness of the Chocolate Sorbet, which was so dense and rich it seems impossible that it wasn’t made with dairy. This was just a fantastic melange of flavors and textures — you had some acidity from the fruit, intense richness from the panna cotta and the sorbet, some sweetness from the crunchies, and some saltiness from the caramel — overall, it was a multilayered, extremely satisfying dessert, coming as a bit of a surprise considering the relatively mundane description.

 

Final Thoughts:

While I would say on the whole my meal at Spice Market was a more exciting culinary adventure, my Restaurant Week lunch at Boulud Sud was in no way less memorable. It was exciting to dabble in a world of leisurely weekday repasts, to people-watch the upscale tourists and NY natives murmur over the soft jazz and elegantly plated fare. The food was excellently executed and well-seasoned (I might give more of a rave if I had ordered the merlu myself), if not as daring as I had initially expected, but I think I’d like to explore the rest of Boulud Sud’s regular menu on another visit, maybe even for dinner.

As I stumble my way through my mid-twenties, one of the things that has become increasingly clear to me is the importance of the ritual. The memories of those special city lunches with my parents held aloft in my mind linger because they were a break from the routine, something my classmates didn’t get to experience — a secret shared by only a select few. I’m grateful to have discovered that that magical quality remains as you get older — it’s just a matter of savoring those less common opportunities. My lunch at Boulud Sud was a prime example of this — surrounded by friends, playing sanctioned hooky, it seemed like an embarrassment of riches. So if you have the chance to escape the office for some noontime noshing, I’d suggest giving Boulud Sud a try. Its relaxing, classic environment, attentive service, and comfortably transcultural fare present a lovely meal, while also allowing you to relish having the opportunity in the first place.

Boulud Sud

20 W 64th St (Between Broadway and Central Park West)

http://www.bouludsud.com

The Cellar at Beecher’s: Underground Dining, Top Floor Food

With the floral arrangements and questionably humorous Hallmark cards of Mother’s Day still nipping at our heels, it seems only fitting to take a moment to talk about my own mother. I’ll just come out and say it: I’m a mama’s girl. As the youngest child and only girl in my family, I suppose it’s pretty understandable. Once my mother got over the mania that came with being able to finally buy dresses and Osh Kosh jumpers galore, and I got over my intense resistance to wearing anything without pant legs (I had three older brothers — a bout of tomboyism was inevitable), we settled into a strong relationship that has supported me and shaped me immeasurably ever since. Now I could go and explain how my mother’s work as a writer has enabled me to pursue my own creative projects, or how her openness and generosity (we rock a huge First Seder guestlist) has informed my politics and worldview, but let’s be serious. For this blog I’m going to talk about how my mom taught me to love food.

I am fortunate to have grown up in a family that strove to eat dinner together every night. Because of this, my relationship with food has always been deeply connected to the ideas of unity and community. As we’ve all grown up, exploring new foods and restaurants has become almost a tradition in my household, from tasting menus to new sweet shops (my mother is an unrepentant chocoholic, and my father loves ice cream — surely this explains a lot about me). Not to mention the fact that when all her children were fully grown, my mom finally got the chance to cook dishes outside of the Venn Diagram of hot dogs/tuna fish/taco night. While I’ve certainly enjoyed some of the more refined dishes she’s made for my visits home, but I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the classics that graced our table while I was growing up.

One such staple was macaroni and cheese. Very, very occasionally we would have the Blue Box Kraft version, which I appreciate for its place in Americana (and for its blatant ploy to ensnare dino-obsessed kids like myself with its mascot Cheesasaurus Rex). But my mother’s homestyle mac is a different beast, and much preferred, in my opinion. First things first, my mother employs the larger penne or rigatoni noodles, to better soak up the cheese sauce, which combined Velveeta, American and cheddar cheeses. On top went a few single slices of American cheese, baked to a deep brown crust that nearly verged on burnt. Presented in the same ceramic bowl on each occasion, my family became immediately divided into two camps — those who preferred a serving with the crunchy top, and those who desired the softer bottom layer. My mom’s mac and cheese was tender, saucy rather than gooey, and to this day is my optimal version of mac and cheese.

In all my years of mac and cheese consumption, I have tried plenty of excellent varieties, from lobster to buffalo to truffle. But I had never encountered anything similar to my mother’s rendition. That is, until last week, when Jacob, Mike and I made our third Cheeseplorational inquiry to Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in the Flatiron.

Aw yeah, it’s time to talk about cheese again.

First Impressions:

The entrance on the corner of 20th and Broadway.

The entrance on the corner of 20th and Broadway.

I used to work in the Flatiron District, so I’d passed Beecher’s many times before ever stepping inside. The top floor is occupied by the cheese store, where you can try samples of their cheeses and accompaniments, as well as purchasing smaller snacks and takeout versions of the mac and cheese varieties they sell in their restaurant. There is a small cafe upstairs with seating, which offers views down into the industrial metal vats where some of the cheese is made. This glass-enclosed area takes up nearly a third of the store, and can even be viewed from the windows outside, so passersby can see Beecher’s cheesemongers hard at work.

Inside on the first floor -- you can see the huge metal cheesemaking vats on the left.

Inside on the first floor — you can see the huge metal cheesemaking vats on the left.

Downstairs in The Cellar

Downstairs in The Cellar

Down a quick flight of stairs near the entrance you’ll find The Cellar at Beecher’s, the small lounge and restaurant that offers lunch and dinner menus. The overall atmosphere of The Cellar is restrained yet playful. At the back of the room is a small bar that offers beer, wine, and specialty cocktails (whimsically named for historical personalities connected to the building Beecher’s is housed in). The rest of the tight space is taken up by armchairs with low tables, a larger communal table, and the more common two-tops and four-tops. It’s dimly lit, except for the highlighted paintings on the wall which feature animal and cheese related puns. Much like Murray’s Cheese Bar, I appreciated the sense of whimsy to balance out the intensity of the hip-lounge vibe.

Nothing like a good food pun to whet your appetite.

I like my animal themed paintings like I like my cheese — slightly nutty.

There are only a dozen or so tables in total, and despite our dining on a Monday night, the place was full and bustling. Although I had my eye on one of the neat booths built into the wall, the three of us squeezed into a table technically meant for two. As I glanced behind me, I suddenly realized the brick walls of the lounge were broken up by glass cases of cheese wheels on display. It turns out The Cellar is also where Beecher’s ages its “Flatiron Cheese,” a variety exclusive to the New York location. Talk about a good omen.

Close enough to touch.

Close enough to touch.

The Food:

Both Mike and Jacob had already been to Beecher’s several times (in fact, Jacob lives right around the corner, and one can only resist the siren call so often), so they warned me to stay away from the wine list. Luckily, I was in the mood for something lighter, since I was about to coat my tongue in curds and whey, so I opted for an Allagash White, one of my favorite summer beers. It ended up working perfectly with the meal, refreshing without being assertive and clashing with the food.

Jacob had been talking up Beecher’s “World’s Best Mac and Cheese” for months, so obviously that was the first item we ordered. We then made our way through the small but diverse menu, picking the Burrata & Anjou Pear Salad, the Mushroom Tart, and the Cheesemonger’s Five Cheese Plate. When the food arrived, our waitress had the unexpectedly Tetrise-seque challenge of finagling all the plates onto our already crowded table of glasses and cutlery. While Beecher’s certainly gets credit for cutting down on our wait time by squeezing 3 people into a two-top, it ultimately made things more difficult for the service and our dining.

The Burrata and Anjou ... Salad? Questionably named but certifiably delicious.

The Burrata and Anjou … Salad? Questionably named but certifiably delicious.

The Burrata & Anjou Pear Salad came with sprigs of basil, sea salt, and several pieces of toast. I’d call it more of a deconstructed crostini than a salad, since the bread and burrata dominated more than the basil greens. (Or maybe I just have an overly provincial definition of salad in these wild days of culinary experimentation.) Regardless of naming practices, I found Beecher’s take on burrata to be much more successful than the one we tried at Murray’s Cheese Bar. The plate was presented with alternating slices of pear and burrata, which made it relatively easy to assemble (it would have been even easier if the kitchen had just done the work themselves, but I understand the impulse to avoid toast soggy with fruit/cheese juice. Gross.) The cheese was a little firmer, largely keeping its shape when lifted onto the bread. and the interplay of the crisp, sweet pear with the burrata cut through some of the richness of the cheese. The basil and sea salt worked to keep the dish savory, leading to a real progression of flavors across the tongue with each bite.

The Mushroom Tart -- handcrafted for the umami faithful.

The Mushroom Tart — handcrafted for the umami faithful.

The Mushroom Tart proved to be the unexpected hit dish of the night. Again, the menu’s description was a little misleading — Beecher’s seems to like deconstructing traditional presentations, so what actually ended up on our table was basically a stew of shiitake, crimini, and portabella mushrooms slightly overlapping a singular piece of pie crust. The stew was so intensely mushroomy, I was in fungus heaven, with rich wine-infused flavors that verged on a Marsala sauce. The mushrooms were tender but still had some heft to them, reminding me of the base for a mushroom bisque just before it’s been pureed. As for the crust, it was actually most reminiscent of a biscuit in texture, more crumbly than flaky. I liked the crust, but I would have been just as happy with just a bowl of the mushrooms. I went back for seconds and thirds, and found that the flavors were even more heightened when combined with the creamy sweetness of the sauce from the mac and cheese.

The lady of the hour -- "World's Best" Mac and Cheese.

The lady of the hour — “World’s Best” Mac and Cheese.

Speaking of, the “World’s Best” Mac and Cheese, although sporting a rather ostentatious name, turned out to be pretty damn delicious. As I mentioned earlier, I was struck by how similar Beecher’s approach to the dish was to my mother’s — using penne over elbow macaroni, with a white cheese sauce that was creamy rather than sticky. Beecher’s didn’t fully broil the top, which I was perfectly fine with, as a lifelong member of the pro-mac-underside club. I believe Beecher’s uses their flagship cheese, a cow’s milk variety of white American cheddar, mild with just a hint of tang that is barely detectable in their Mac and Cheese. It was served in a basic oval dish, and I appreciated the homestyle approach, not only for nostalgic reasons, but for how it fit into the overall vibe of The Cellar — down to earth but still informed. Based on the few cheese-centric restaurants I’ve been to, it seems like the each of the waitstaffs really love working at their restaurants. I can’t blame them, I’m pretty sure I’d be plenty happy surrounded by cheese and wine all day.

The Cheesemonger's Five Cheese Plate -- a strong showing with some highs and lows.

The Cheesemonger’s Five Cheese Plate — a strong showing with some highs and lows.

Last, but far from least, was the Cheesemonger’s Five Cheese Plate. In the chaos of trying to fit all of our dishes on the table, our waitress accidentally neglected to tell us which cheeses had been monged for our enjoyment. We managed to flag her down a few moments later for the full details. While I grabbed a takeaway menu on my way out of Beecher’s (including the cheeses offered at The Cellar), Artisanal still holds top prize for literally giving us a guide to our cheese plate. So based on my slightly hazy memories and the menu, here are the cheeses I believe we tried, clockwise from the top right: Pt. Reyes Cheese Co., Original Blue, cow, CA; Vermont Creamery, Bijou, goat, VT; Holland’s Family Cheese, Marieke Gouda, cow, WI; Cowgirl Creamery, Red Hawk, cow, CA; VT Shepherd, Queso del Invierno, sheep & cow, VT.

Like Murray’s the cheese and accompaniments were set out on a slate board, separated by pairing. I really liked the attention to detail that came with the pairing of each cheese with specific item, rather than giving us “some things that generally go well with lots of cheese.” The only general addition was the crackers, which were perfectly pleasant if unremarkable in flavor. Of the cheeses, the only one I’d tried before was Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawk, during a vacation in Napa a few years ago. I was very excited to see it on the menu, since it was one of the best cheeses I tasted in California (yes, my vacation involved a lot of cheese — no one is surprised), and remains one of my favorites to this day. I’ve had trouble finding Cowgirl’s products here in NY, so discovering that Beecher’s carries at least Red Hawk was fantastic news. Here’s hoping they have some other varieties as well.

Red Hawk is a rich cheese, smooth and soft to the point of being somewhat spreadable without being runny. It has a salty, earthy flavor, it was paired excellently with a grapefruit marmalade.

As with my previous cheese posts, I was happiest with the really funky cheeses, so I thought the Original Blue made a strong showing. This cheese is a pretty bold blue, so I’d recommend delaying your hot makeout sessions unless pairing it with Listerine. Perhaps in acknowledgment of a blue cheese lover’s likely singledom, Beecher’s chose to pair itwith fig jam, which showed up twice on our cheese plate (more successfully here than with the gouda).

The Marieke Gouda was a nice compromise between the attributes of young and older goudas. It had the buttery, caramel flavor of and older gouda, but was slightly softer than the chunky, dry and hard aged variety. Apparently, this cheese just won top prize at the 2013 US Championship Cheese Contest, and while I enjoyed it, I think I personally prefer the super-aged, crusty crystallized and crumbly type of gouda. The Marieke was also paired with the fig jam, which I didn’t think did much for the cheese.

The Queso del Invierno was my least favorite — I found it too mild in flavor. There was nothing bad about it, but I thought it really worked best as a vehicle for the candied nuts that were paired with it. I’m a little surprised, because it was the only cheese made of blended milks on our plate, but I could see it working best grated into a salad, or even to bolster the flavor of a macaroni and cheese.

My favorite cheese of the night was the Bijou Goat Cheese. It’s semi-soft to soft cheese, similar in texture to Red Hawk, holding its overall structure but featuring a paste-like interior. It had that grassy, goat cheese flavor with a good tang and some underlying sweetness, and came with honey with some honeycomb mixed into it. The honey perfectly complemented the cheese, heightening the sweetness while allowing the pungent goaty taste to still shine through.

Final Thoughts:

Now that I’ve been to a handful of cheese shops and restaurants in New York, I feel like I’m starting to zero in on the features that matter to me the most. While I still think that Artisanal had the best cheese plate and service, my meal at Beecher’s was more enjoyable on a dish by dish basis. A common thread in my most positive restaurant experiences (at least on this blog) is the low-key tone of the restaurants. I’d rather have a fun dining experience at a place with mediocre food than feel uncomfortable at an overly pretentious restaurant that serves the best Chilean Sea Bass you’ve ever tasted. The Cellar at Beecher’s took the cute milk-puns on the wall at Murray’s Cheese Bar and filled their lounge with it. The best part is that they’re not immediately apparent — a glance at the paintings might lead you to think they were generic art prints, but if you stop and actually look at them, you realize how silly the content is. The Cellar has the veneer of cool and classy, but underneath is the soul of the cheese nerds who want to share their curdly passion with you.

I’m bound to go back for the mushroom tart alone, but Beecher’s also offers a few more adventurous types of mac and cheese on The Cellar’s menu (curried cauliflower anyone?), so I’ll have to try out these parallel universe versions of my mother’s dish. If you’re game for a little tongue-in-cheek humor with a strong menu of cheesy delights, check out The Cellar. After all, I can’t invite everyone to my mother’s house for mac and cheese, so you might as well get the next best thing.

The Cellar at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese

Corner of Broadway & 20th St.

http://www.beechershandmadecheese.com

Review: Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro, or Cheese Bar Hunger Games — May the slice be ever in your flavor

Although you’d never think it from the things I write about, when I’m not stuffing my face with Megastuf Oreos or jelly donuts, I do attempt to eat relatively healthily. Yes, those Trader Joe’s frozen dinners and canned soups do come into the picture from time to time, but most weeks I cook lunch to bring into work, and aim to eat dinner at home as often as possible. As a consequence of both shallow pockets (beans = cheaper than chicken) and a growing love of fresh produce, I’ve kind of become a part-time vegetarian. Yes, I do love me some meat, but if push came to shove, I think I could survive without hamburgers or fried chicken. Veganism, however, is a whole other story. Sure, I could say goodbye to a rack of lamb or a Thanksgiving Turkey, but give up omelets? Pizza? Ice cream? Or worst of all, cheese? Sorry, PETA, it ain’t happening.

With that in mind, it will come as no surprise that my dairy-dependent friends Mike and Jacob and I would choose Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro as our next dinner event. After all, it was Artisanal’s Cheese of the Month Club that inspired our gustatory pilgrimages in the first place. So last week we decided to dine in and see how this cheese-inflected restaurant compared to Murray’s. Worst case scenario, we’d end up with more than enough of our daily calcium requirement.

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Despite the Park Ave address, Artisanal is really just around the corner, on 32nd street.

First Impressions:

Unlike the restaurant offshoot of Murray’s Cheese, Artisanal has operated a bistro along with its fromagerie for over a decade. Located just off Park Avenue in the Flatiron/Murray Hill borderland, the restaurant is fairly unassuming. In many ways Artisanal’s aesthetic is the complete opposite of Murray’s Cheese Bar: while Murray’s was all casual white kitchen tiles and lactic-pun filled chalkboards, Artistanal is fashioned in the classic French bistro style, draped in red and yellow, with wicker chairs, leather banquettes, and elegant murals on the walls. The waiters were all dressed in crisp white shirts and black slacks, and were very friendly but professional. While Murray’s is small, noisy, and crowded, Artisanal was airy and bustling but discernibly refined in tone. I imagine that you’d be expected to shush your kids if they were being too rowdy in Artisanal.

Inside Artisanal -- note the mural along the back wall.

Inside Artisanal — note the mural along the back wall.

If Murray’s cheese bar is the young and hip, industrial kitchen American cheese club, Artisanal is the older Continental cousin who is more reserved, old-fashioned, methodical and professorial. The plus side of this is that the staff at Artisanal is eager to educate their diners about all aspects of the menu, from wine pairings to cheese varieties. Artisanal actually has quite an extensive menu of inventive takes on classic French cuisine, from Duck Bourguignon to (of course) cheese fondue. I was tempted to try several entrees, but resolved to hold out for another visit. We had come for cheese, so cheese it would have to be.

Food:
We opted to go for a couple of small plates (ostensibly for some greenery and balance, but who were we kidding) along with the “Plateau” — a board of meats, cheeses, and assorted accompaniments.

Butternut Squash Gnocchi, with a medley of vegetables. Look how big each gnocchi (gnoccho?) is!

Butternut Squash Gnocchi, with a medley of vegetables. Note how big each gnocchi (gnoccho?) is.

To start we had the butternut squash gnocchi, which were far from uniform in size, but unilaterally delicious. They were soft in texture without being mealy, and managed to achieve the smooth caramel flavor of butternut squash without veering into high levels of starch. The gnocchi came with a medley of roasted vegetables, including brussel sprouts and wild mushrooms. As it happened, we had chosen roasted root vegetables as our other starter, so there was a welcomed abundance of veggies, at least for me. The root vegetable side included potatoes, carrots, turnips, and more wild mushrooms, and all were well-seasoned, full of salt, pepper and oil while retaining a crisp bite. And given how fungi-forward I am, I was delighted by the double dose of mushrooms. I find it odd how much I relish well-made vegetables these days, but I suppose in the scheme of things, I could have far worse obsessions (cough cookies and candy cough).

Roasted root vegetables -- straightforward, but very well executed.

Roasted root vegetables — straightforward, but very well executed.

But let’s get to the main event: the Plateau. It arrived on a long wooden board, with a pile of charcuterie on one side, the selection of six cheeses in the middle, and a variety of dried fruit, walnuts, berry gelee, and a small piece of fig cake. In contrast to Murray’s Cheese Bar, there were no crackers provided, although we were offered unlimited refills on the complimentary bread basket (which featured 3 types of bread).

Our overflowing bread basket.

Our overflowing bread basket.

Our waitress was very kind and patient throughout the course of the meal, answering all of our questions and offering advice on the type of cheeses we should try and how we should plan our meal. An additional charming bit of good service was the fact that the fromager provided us with a marked menu from the cheese counter, which specifically noted which cheeses he had selected for us. Our six cheeses ranged from mild to intense, and included one of Artisanal’s special “truffle cheeses,” which we opted for at an additional cost. The “La Carte Des Fromages” menu was a wonderful resource, separated by animal of origin which is shown through an adorable heading featuring a little goat, sheep, cow or combination.

The Plateau -- rom bottom right counter clockwise: Camembert, Tomme De Savoie, Garrotxa, Trifulin, Holzige Geiss, and Roquefort.

The Plateau — from the bottom right counter clockwise: Camembert, Tomme De Savoie, Garrotxa, Trifulin, Holzige Geiss, and Roquefort. Not to mention the pile of charcuterie, sliced apples and pears, walnuts, fig cake, and strawberry gelee. Whew.

Although I love eating and learning about the vast multitude of cheese types, I’m actually not very good at breaking down and articulating the differences between individual cheeses. I’m going to attempt to go through my lows and highs of the Plateau cheeses, but my comments will probably err on the side of “um, cheesy and delicious!” rather than “oaken in quality, with a buttery mouthfeel.” For now, I can only aspire to that level of pretentiousness.

– Camembert (French cowsmilk, classic, soft cheese, very creamy and rich, earthy flavor): My least favorite of the bunch, probably because it was the most familiar cheese for me. I understand the reasoning behind including it — you want to have a more basic cheese that grounds the plate and gives the diners a “safe choice.” But as it happens I prefer the less assertive nature of Brie for my soft cheeses, and since I’ve had plenty of Camembert before, I was a little disappointed we weren’t trying a more exotic variety (some sort of American cousin, maybe?). There was nothing bad about this Camembert, but nothing that made it particularly memorable.

– Tomme De Savoie (French cowsmilk cheese — milder, little firmer, described as “nutty, stout”): I discovered when I got home that Tomme De Savoie is actually on my “Cheeses to Try” list (ugh, yes, I am that person. I know, I can’t stand me either). It was a little bit more of a palate cleanser, less coating of the tastebuds than the stronger cheeses on the board. This allowed the accompaniments to shine a bit more in combination with the cheese. For example, when paired with the strawberry gelee, you got a great contrast of sweet jam and the nuttiness of the cheese. Had I been offered the Tomme De Savoie on its own, I probably would have given it a stronger review, but it got a little lost in the funky fray of the stronger cheeses.

– Garrotxa (Spanish goat cheese, semisoft): Garrotxa was actually one of the cheeses featured during our Cheese of the Month Club, and I remember enjoying it then (especially because of the unusual name.) It was also on the nutty side of things — the menu describes it as having “hints of hazelnuts,” but again I found I preferred it when spread on bread or mixed with the fig cake, rather than savoring it alone.

– Roquefort (French sheepsmilk cheese, soft, creamy, strong  tangy flavor): As I think I mentioned in my Murray’s review, I’m learning that I really love flat-out “smells like feet,” in-your-face, assertive cheeses, so any type of blue cheese is A-okay with me. This Roquefort was pungent, and paired well with the walnuts, green apples and pear slices which balanced out the tang. When tasting cheeses I find I want a cheese that will linger on your tongue a little while, and this sample did in the best way possible. Definitely of a higher quality than your average Gorgonzola crumbles.

– Trifulin (mixed milk cheese with Black Truffle, semisoft): Although I really enjoyed this cheese, I’m struggling to identify what made it so good. Perhaps it was the richness of the Black Truffle in it. It was decadent and very creamy, but milder in flavor than I expected. Honestly, if you hadn’t told me it featured truffles, I would never have been able to pick them out. But at the time I was eating it, I couldn’t stop taking more pieces. This might have been a case of enjoying the novelty and the experience of eating something rather than favoring any particular flavor.

– Holzige Geiss (Swiss cheese, semisoft goat cheese): The neat thing about this cheese is that it is wrapped in tree bark as it ages. This is no holey Swiss cheese, my friends — it had a strong flavor with a heavy, creamy quality, and a salty kick. I found myself coming back for more again and again. It spread great on the soft french bread, and lame as it might be to say, I honestly believe the bark infused it with a “woodsy” quality. It had the kind of smokey earthiness I’m drawn to in stronger cheeses. Maybe it’s the earthy, mushroomy quality that I like (geez, this blog is like “Number One Oreo and Mushroom Fan” these days). I’m going to look for this one again — hopefully they sell it at Fairway!

The board also included some charcuterie and cornichons. I only tried a small piece of the meat, but it seemed to be very delicately cured and cut — not so assertive with the pickling flavor. I appreciated the variety of meats offered, although I suppose they could have been more deliberately plated. It was interesting the way that Artisanal sort of walked the line between reserved European aloofness and a little messier American eagerness. Maybe the Plateau is the perfect symbol of their interplay between serious cheese devotion and little more freewheeling food fun.

Of course we had to have dessert -- Warm chocolate tart with salted caramel ice cream.

Naturally, we had to have dessert — Warm chocolate tart with salted caramel ice cream.

Of course, all this food was not going to stop us from getting dessert. We finished off the meal with a warm chocolate tart, which was almost like a lava cake in terms of the oozing dark chocolate inside. It came with a scoop of salted caramel ice cream and a biscuit tuile. Since this is the third time I’ve had salted caramel ice cream in the past couple of months, clearly the salt/sweet/chocolate combo is becoming very trendy. For this ice cream, the caramel flavor itself was not as strong as the saltiness, but I was okay with that given the sweetness of the chocolate tart. There was also a semisolid chocolate sauce which seemed to be made of possibly unsweetened chocolate — it did cut some of the richness of the other parts of the dish, but in a distracting way that detracted from the overall dessert. Ultimately, as good as the tart was, after the variety of flavors we’d had from the cheeseboard, it was hard for the dessert to really stand out. I think I would have appreciated it more if I had ordered a more traditional meal, but given the richness of the Plateau’s offerings, the chocolate tart was pleasant, but not anything to rave about.

Final thoughts:

I think what impressed me most about Artisanal was the attention to detail shown throughout the meal. From our attentive waitress who patiently dealt with all of our questions (how good is this dish? Is this enough food? What’s a truffle cheese?), to the clearly marked rubric for our cheeseboard, to the never empty bread basket or water glass, I came away from my meal feeling like my experience as a diner was the top priority. Yes, you’re paying slightly more than you would at Murray’s, but that surcharge goes toward quality service and frankly, better food. I would say that if you’re looking for some wine and small bites, Murray’s is a fun place to try out. It’s more casual, which caters to those who either don’t care as much about cheese education, or those who are knowledgeable enough to recognize names and types of cheese and make selections on their own. Artisanal falls in the middle of that spectrum, reaching out to those like myself who are only just figuring out the difference between Raclette and Roomano, and appreciate a little guidance. Artisanal also wins points for offering a dessert menu that I’d actually want to eat (of course this goes into personal preference, since I’d clearly rather have cheese as a main course rather than a dessert. No apple pie with cheddar for me, please. The only dairy I take with my pie is ice cream). Overall, I’d recommend Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro for a nice lunch or dinner, whether you’re a cheesehead or just looking for a slightly nouveau take on French cuisine. Settle yourself in for a classy, but down-to earth meal — rest assured that you’ll be taken care of.

Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro
2 Park Ave
http://www.artisanalbistro.com