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.
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.
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.
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.
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 & 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 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.
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.
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.
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.