Thursday, December 20, 2007

Cheese, Chocolate and Cream

creamThree of my favorite delights! Indulgences? Sure. A little naughty…I always hope so. A meal comprised of all three? Yes, please! In fact, I had just that, at a new place in Hell’s Kitchen on Saturday night.

Casellula is an easy-to-love place with a hard-to-say name. Whatever. A place that traffics almost entirely in luscious dairy-driven fare is alright by me, no matter what it’s called. What’s special about this spot is the vacancy it fills for cheese enthusiasts in the city who, like me, not only want to take their curds to go from Murray’s, but want also to enjoy the creamy, caramelized, or custardy goodness in a restaurant that doesn’t require seven expensive courses to get to the good stuff. Now, I love Artisinal as much as the next curd nerd, and there are other good places around town to enjoy a nice cheese plate (Inoteca, Otto, Wine Bar come to mind), but what Casellula aims for, according to one of the owners with whom I chatted across the bar the other night, is to be that place where the setting, service and prices are casual, but the fromage is taken very seriously. Where cheese stands front and center on the menu and on the tips of the tongues of the servers.

One of those lovely servers, my friend Hannah, is the reason I made my way up to try out the restaurant in the first place. Hannah has been with the spot since its opening several months ago, and her enthusiasm for what the place is offering New York diners comes from her conviction (which I share) that there’s never enough to learn and love about artisinally-produced cheeses. She is even trying to convince me that there are some American cheeses out there that I should consider as rivals to the European big shots. I don’t know. I can get excited about Coach Farm and Cowgirl Creamery, but on balance, I crave the complexity, stinkiness, and unusual textures of the European producers more. And that is where we looked when it came to selecting cheeses when I’d settled into the warm-hued, little glass box of a restaurant with Celest last weekend.

We sat at the bar, which was prime seating as far as I’m concerned, since Casellula is one of those now oft-spotted places where the “kitchen” consists entirely of a few hot plates and toaster ovens in the service of a pair of skilled hands behind the bar. It’s the European tapas bar way. And it can produce great results.Settling in for the show in front of us, Celest sipped her fino and I found a $9 glass of Zinfandel that, if a bit watery for my taste, was drinkable and certainly smooth on the wallet. We were famished from a day of holiday shopping, so we immediately ordered something to munch on, while we contemplated the jewelry case of fromage before us. We were so excited for homemade pretzels and cheddar and ale dip; something warm and chewy sounded perfect.

“Oh. The pretzels are crunchy,” said Celest. “I thought they were going to be soft.”

“Me, too. And the dip is cold, like a spread. I assumed it would be a fondue. I was so looking forward to hot;” we were disappointed. But not in the flavors, just the departure from what was expected.

So I resolved to make the soft/warm pretzels and beer dip at home. Maybe around Superbowl Sunday…

From there, the richness of the meal increased exponentially. Five cheeses, including Serra da Estrela from Portugal and Casa Madalo Barilotto, a water buffalo’s milk cheese from Campania, Italy were served with inventive accoutrement such as toasted coconut, crisped onions and a shot glass of ale, and a buffalo milkcake from India that was dense, sweet and pungent. A sinfully sticky and stringy mac n’ cheese baked in an individual, mini iron skillet, and laced with chewy lardons followed. We shared an open-faced mushroom sandwich which was tough to eat because all we had were cheese knives and was, surprisingly, a little stingy on the chevre! And then, because it had been taunting us all night from it’s perch in the that jewelry case that houses the cheeses and some deserts, we said “fuck it,” and ordered the six-layer chocolate cake, over which was ceremoniously poured fresh Meadowbrook Farms cream, straight from a cold, glass bottle. This reminded me of my London days, when ordering “pudding” always meant the option of fresh cream as a “topper.” I swear they would put cream on a PB&J over there, if requested. My nostalgia was tempered by a deep feeling of satiation at having spoiled my taste buds with a meal so rich, (though the cake could have had a deeper flavor with more salt, maybe more cocoa, to contrast with the fresh, sweet cream—I’ll be making this at home soon too).

Celest is easily my most eagerly indulgent gourmet partner (she’s also pretty indulgent with her credit cards, as evidenced by her shopping receipts from the day!), so this was a perfect outing for the two of us.Maybe you’ve got to be of the “too much of a good thing isn’t possible” mentality to fully enjoy all of Casellula’s offerings. But hey, New Years resolutions are still a few weeks away, better get in your big indulgences now!

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