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

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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

Review: Murray’s Cheese Bar and Big Gay Ice Cream Shop — One Udderly Delicious Night

Ewed better believe I just made a dairy joke. And a damn gouda one at that, I must cownfess. Okay, enough already, this is getting abscurd.

Well, if you’re still reading after all those terrible puns, I actually do have a fair amount to say about the evening I spent at Murray’s Cheese Bar and the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop. And yes, I have pictures this time! A word of caution, before we proceed — this combo is only for the most lactose-tolerant. Those not interested in milk-based delights should turn off here.

One of the myriad lessons I’ve learned from my mother is the importance of lists, from to-dos to groceries to party invitees. Unfortunately, the internet has only served to facilitate my list-making habits, and so in an extension of that philosophy, I have Google doc to keep track of the kooky New York food institutions I want to visit. This week I got to check not one, but two items off of that list! Let’s begin with the cheese course:

Murray’s Cheese Bar

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The first and more recent addition to said list was Murray’s Cheese Bar. Murray’s Cheese is a classic part of New York food culture. However, growing up in the suburbs outside of the city meant my only real exposure to Murray’s products came from their counter inside the Grand Central Market. Occasionally a parent or friend would pick up a cheese or some crackers on the way home, but to this day I’ve actually never stepped inside the real Murray’s Cheese Shop in the West Village.

In my quest to more specifically define my palate, I’ve been trying to narrow down the features I like most in cheeses. Of course, I’m going about it in the same haphazard, financially limited way that I’m exploring wine and beer (basically, when I can afford to try something new, I take incremental, not super brazen steps). But, I have started yet another Google doc of my favorite cheeses and their basic wikipedia descriptions. This was inspired in part by the monthly cheese club I bought into at work, organized by my coworker Mike. Each month I would get to try three or four new cheeses, and once Pandora’s box was opened, I just wanted to learn (and eat) more and more.

While I’ve heard that you can get pretty fabulous cheesy paninis at Murray’s Shop, it wasn’t until this past summer that they opened up a separate sit-down, dine-in full service restaurant, just a few doors down on Bleecker. As soon as the post announcing Murray’s Cheese Bar popped up on Eater NY, I yelled across the office to Mike (and my foodie companion Jacob) that we had to go. It’s a restaurant literally dedicated to cheese — just think of the sampling options! Finally, after months of scheduling kerfuffles, we  made it to the Cheese Bar last week.

Unsurprisingly, there’s not a lot of real estate to go around in the West Village, so Murray’s Cheese Bar is small, but not uncomfortable. The dominant color is white with accents of red from the chairs, but overall I kept feeling like I was in a neighbor’s clean, but cozy kitchen. A small number of tables line the right wall, facing the bar where cheese is displayed in glass cases, and you can watch the cheesemongers prep the plates if you so choose. We were offered the last three seats at the bar, but ended up taking a table nearby instead.

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The view from our table. Cute holiday additions complement the obligatory cheese jokes.

For drinks, Murray’s offers wine, beer, and a selection of hard cider (which is becoming a bit of a trend, at least in NY). I got the Foggy Ridge Hard Cider First Fruit, and I fully recommend it if you’re curious about cider. It’s got a great apple taste without being cloyingly sweet, which I often find is the problem with a lot of the ciders that have become readily available (Woodchuck, Original Sin, etc). It was a flavorful drink that complemented, but never overpowered, the food I ordered.

We started with the seasonal cheese flight, pictured below. Unfortunately I didn’t realize their seasonal menu isn’t available online, so I can’t tell you the names of those cheeses (blogging lessons — both camera and notebook necessary). Murray’s flights all include a soft cheese, a semi-firm, and a hard cheese. I ended up liking the soft cheese covered in rosemary in the back, although I think it might have been the heft of the herbs, rather than the actual flavor of the cheese that appealed to me most. I tend to like really funky, strongly flavored cheese, and none of the cheeses below were powerful enough to really stick with me. The cheese plate came with paired accoutrements — a jelly, a honey, and pickled carrots. We also got a sizable bag full of crackers and slices of bread, seen emptied in the back. I would say their flights are definitely enough food for a satisfying snack if you’re looking for something to nosh on with your wine, beer or cider. It was nice to get something fresh and in-season, but if you’re searching for a more memorable flight, I’d look into the options Murray’s offers year-round.

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The Seasonal Cheese Flight

We then picked a number of items to share: the Burrata crostini, which the waitress had praised, the Classic Melt (aka grilled cheese and tomato soup), the Beets and Blue salad, and a couple pieces of charcuterie (beef and clove and a prosciutto).

Burrata with roasted tomatoes

Burrata with roasted tomatoes

The Whole Shebang

The Whole Shebang

Note the charcuterie on the far right side.
Despite my attempts at being classy (cough black coffee cough), what I ended up liking the most was the Classic Melt. Murray’s describes it as being made with their “secret blend” of cheeses, so I can only guess at what was actually inside. My bet is on Gruyere being one component, but whatever the blend is, it made for a sandwich that was decadent, but somehow still reminded me of the white bread and American Cheese wonders my old babysitter used to whip up on Friday afternoons. The tomato soup was unbelievably thick and smoky — we all decided it was almost like a dipping sauce rather than soup. I would say the “Classic” mantle is a bit dubious, but in terms of experimenting with a tried and true staple, Murray’s succeeded.

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The other standout for me was the salad, actually. I think I’m really warming up to beets, and it was a palate cleansing contrast to the cheese surrounding us. It might be a stretch to call it a “salad,” though, since Murray’s plated it as a clump of beets, a sprig of greens, and a sprinkle of blue cheese. Nevertheless, I’m always excited to discover a change in my palate (ugh I’m such a food dork).

Shockingly, or maybe not so if you know me well, after all of this food I was still game for dessert. And luckily, so were my companions. Thanks to my constant vigilance (or obsession) with NY Local food blogs, I had heard that Big Gay Ice Cream was opening a new location in the West Village, just a few blocks from Murray’s. Never one to turn down ice cream, I suggested we give the new shop a shot, and off we went, for yet another dairy-based dish.

Big Gay Ice Cream Shop

Now here is where I get really excited. I’d been interested in Big Gay Ice Cream since they were just a lone food truck roaming NYC a few years ago. The buzz was that they were basically Mr. Softee on crack — soft serve with ridiculous toppings and flavor combinations that you couldn’t get anywhere else, like ginger-curry milkshakes and nutella-lined cones. Not to mention absurd names like The Salty Pimp and The Bea Arthur. In just a couple of years they’ve moved from food truck to storefront in Alphabet City, and now to a new place in the West Village.

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When we visited the shop, they’d only been open for a couple of days, so the decor was a little spare, but moving in the right direction. There are a few tables at this location (I’ve heard the east side one is basically a hole in the wall), and it has the bright, sparkly feel of a classic ice cream parlor, except for the pink unicorn-adorned chalkboard out front, of course.

I got their flagship cone, The Salty Pimp, which is a dulce de leche lined cone with vanilla soft serve, chocolate hard shell coating, and sea salt. I cannot fully express how delicious this was. The balance of salty and sweet was spot on, with the ice cream providing a subtle vanilla base without tasting just “plain” like some soft serve, and the dulce de leche and sea salt elevating the chocolate shell to a whole other level. My favorite part of BGI’s approach is that they not only put the toppings on the ice cream, but also in their cones, so as you make your way to the end of the treat, you still get the full experience.

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The Salty Pimp

Mike got the other flavor of the day, which was Brownie Batter, and Jacob got the Chocolate Peanut Butter milkshake. I still liked The Salty Pimp the best, but the Brownie Batter was tasty, if not particularly batter-flavored to me, and the shake was like a punch in the face of peanut butter and chocolate. It was as if someone had liquified some Reese’s cups, which I enjoyed a few sips of, but couldn’t imagine polishing off the whole thing. Levain’s cookies still wins the pb chocolate challenge for me.

Brownie Batter

Brownie Batter

(Jacob’s shake just looked like a generic chocolate shake, so I didn’t snap a pic of it.)

Final Thoughts

Overall, it was a pretty spectacular foodie night. I appreciated my experience at both Murray’s and Big Gay Ice Cream, but I don’t think I’ll need to return to the cheese bar. It was great to try something new, but there’s not a lot on the menu I want to explore further, and there are other wine bars that offer interesting cheese pairings and quirky themed restaurants on my list that I’d rather go to. On the other hand, I plan on taking everyone I know to Big Gay Ice Cream. I’d like to make my way through their menu (For example, the Gobbler — pumpkin butter/maple syrup, or apple butter/bourbon butterscotch and pie pieces and whipped cream? Or perhaps you’d like to try a cone topped with bacon marmalade). It’s just unreasonable to expect this slightly adventurous, desperately sweet-toothed gal to stay away.

Murray’s Cheese Bar

264 Bleecker St,

New York, NY

http://www.murrayscheesebar.com/

Big Gay Ice Cream Shop

61 Grove Street
(at Seventh Avenue South)
New York NY 10014

biggayicecream.com