Ray Bair Tours New York's Best Cheese Shops
A Tale of 2 Thursdays, part 1:
A few weeks ago I took a quick trip to New England for a family vacation. My final destination was the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, although my travel hub was NYC. I had 1 day to commute into Manhattan from Brooklyn (where I was staying with my nephew, Chase) and visit my favorite cheese and specialty food retailers there. It had been a few years since I was able to visit NYC, and in the meantime a number of former Cheese Plus staff members had made their move east and were now slinging cheese in New York's finest shops. I was pumped with anticipation and excitement! Armed with a Metro Card, Google Maps on my phone, and an appetite for All Things Delicious I hit the ground running on a pleasantly warm Thursday morning.
First Stop, Eataly
I had heard nothing but great news about this new large all Italian wonderland since it's opening last year. I've always been a big fan of Mario Batali and the Bastianich family. Unlike their other celebrity chef colleagues they've always seemed authentic, and I've never been disappointed in their establishments. Furthermore, my buddy Greg Blais (formerly of Cheese Plus) is the buyer for the Cheese and Charcuterie there. Greg, beyond a doubt, is the best Cheese Monger I've ever met. So let's taste some cheese!
Greg tells me he does a lot of direct importing of cheese there. With easy access to the ports, Manhattan is in an enviable position to receive fresh cheese almost daily from Europe. The glass case is striking - a rectangular refrigerated "vault" of cheese stacked atop one another in a multilevel display. All of Italy is represented, from Sicily to Alto Adige, every famous and noteworthy cheese is here... even Bagòss;
Satellite Studio - Bagoss, the alpine cheese - MANIVA
the rarely seen firm and nutty Alpine cheese from Brescia made with saffron. Then Greg slaps some delicious creamy snow-white cheese on a patty paper for me to taste "this one's killer" he says "Robiola Pura Capra, made a few days ago in Piemonte". And so it continues, one after another. He samples, I taste and nod to him "Yes please, I'll take that one, too."
A few customers roll in and I decide to step back and take it all in. Greg's colleagues at the fresh mozzarella counter next door pull me over and demonstrate who they stretch their mozzarella. Between demonstrations they feed me a few warm mozzarella balls. This is the way to eat fresh mozzarella - fresh from the pot, arms to your side, butt extended and back arched down a bit so you don't drip the warm milk on your shirt - not unlike how you might approach a Philly cheesesteak or Chicago hotdog!
Back at the cheese and charcuterie counter Greg slices a beautiful Mangolista (Hungarian Wooly Pig) Lardo for me then some Cotechino from Salumi in Seattle. "Here, try these" as he hands me slices of 18, 24, and 36 month Prosciutto d'Parma from Salumeria Rosi. "Have you had the new stuff from Creminelli yet"? Greg's got me cradled in joy. My basket is almost full and this is my first stop of the day.
I bid Greg farewell and venture into the rest of the 50,000 square foot Italophile's wonderland. I'm not really into these large format stores anymore. After 6+ years of 1500 square feet at Cheese Plus, small intimate stores are more my style. Eataly however was relatively comfortable because each section is set back a bit from the others. There were many sections to visit including the Bakery, the Fish counter, the seafood grill where you could dine and enjoy a glass of wine, Chocolate and sweets, Coffee, Butcher, a Pasta "shop" within the center of the store that was almost the size of Cheese Plus, a serious Oil and Vinegar counter, rooftop Beer garden, etc, etc, etc. I met the Olive Oil "ambassador" there, who each year travels to Tuscany to oversee the olive harvest. He sampled a number of delicious oils for me and described the olive varietals and unique terroir of each producer. Load her up - I've got a little more room left in this basket here!
Next stop, Salumeria Biellese which is just around the corner. This is their original factory location, now turned in to a restaurant. I'll stop in for a taste of some great Salumi. But wait, it's not at all what I expected - Chicken Parmesan from a steam table? No thanks. I see a few salami stacked in a far case but they don't offer a charcuterie tasting.... Oh well. FYI - we offer excellent salami from Salumeria Biellese - all natural Berkshire pork, hand chopped and very best quality.
Next stop, Murray's Cheese on Bleecker Street
For many years, Murray's old location on Bleecker was one of my favorite cheese shops in Manhattan. It was small and every inch of the store was filled with delicious food. In many ways I tried to model Cheese Plus from my impression of the old Murray's. A few years ago Murray's expanded, capitalized, moved across the street and became a much bigger fish in the Manhattan (and USA) cheese scene. But for me the charm and authenticity stayed in the old location across the street. While a nice and very busy store, it felt a bit like "corporate specialty" where everything is there, but it just isn't personal. But all is not lost because I do like their other location, and in addition to cheese, I'm also into music and this neighborhood has a great guitar store ('57 Goldtop Les Paul, please) and great record stores too!
OK, I've got to stay focused, off to Dean and DeLuca
When I told my wife I was going to Dean and DeLuca she asked me if was still relevant after all these years. "Yes, absolutely. Don't you remember that movie with Annabella Sciorra and Matthew Broderick where he is the cheesemonger there?" And yes, Dean and DeLuca is still relevant to me. Not so much for the cheese, and not for the service, but for the merchandising. Those glass cases, marble countertops, and high ceilings are stunning. So much bread, perfectly pampered produce, and a darn tasty chocolate chip cookie on my way out the door.
Next stop, Despaña
Despaña is Spanish specialty food store. Similar to our own Spanish Table locations in Mill Valley and Berkeley, but smaller and more European in style. I'll be travelling to Spain in a few weeks and wanted to brush up on my Spanish food knowledge. Despaña features plenty of Jamon and Salchichon, and a small yet impressive cheese selection. The back wall features many canned and boxed products sure to please any homesick Spaniard. Nice shop!
Next Stop, Murray's Grand Central
Grand Central Terminal is a beautiful, yet bustling place. Many years ago my wife introduced me to the Oyster Bar restaurant there, and the food hall there is pretty spectacular. The charm and authenticity missing at Murray's Bleecker is here at Grand Central. Maybe it's the layout, or the throngs of commuters, but I really like the vibe here. Same cheese and charcuterie as their other location - just better! The food hall also is home to Penzey's spices - the best spice store around. There's also great seafood, produce, bread, coffee, chocolate - you name it it's here in one hallway. Ok, it's 6PM and it's BUSY in Grand Central Station. I got to go.
Last stop, Beecher's
Beecher's recently opened an outlet in the Flat Iron district. The store has only been open about 6 weeks, and a former monger from Cheese Plus, Colter, just started working there. Unfortunately he had left for the day so no personal guided tour, but his colleagues were convivial and friendly. Overall the store, cheese factory, and restaurant were too new and fresh for me. It didn't feel "New York" enough for me, but I'm sure that will change with time. I did however enjoy their Flagsheep Sheep Cheddar they were featuring. And the Portland based Olympic Provisions Salami I purchased there will be available at Cheese Plus soon.
My arms and feet are tired. I've been shopping and walking all day. It's time for a glass of wine and dinner with my wife and nephew. While at Eataly earlier in the day, I met chef David Pasternack, the chef of ESCA restaurant, who is also the proprietor/chef of the seafood grill (Il Pesce) at Eataly - he suggests we dine at ESCA and I took him up on his offer to reserve a space for us outside on the patio. It was great seafood dinner, and a great night.
Day 2, the tour continues...
I have a couple of hours before we leave for the Berkshires, and I just couldn't squeeze Saxelby Cheese into yesterday's tour. It's the first stop on the F train from Brooklyn, and I arrive at opening time. Saxelby Cheese is a TINY shop inside the Essex Street Market that features only USA cheese - mostly New England cheese. What a wonderful little shop jam packed with dozens of tasty morsels. I brought a new bag with me today to load up more supplies for the weekend, and promptly filled it with stinky, soft, and squishy offerings. After about 30 minutes I must have tried every cheese available and ventured off to check out the rest of the market. Formaggio Kitchen (Boston) has a small shop there too, and I know they're the only source for these great Miguel Gorry Basque Cherries I love so much (If I could only find out how to get these to Cheese Plus!!!!!!!). There's also a nice bakery there, amongst the more ethnic food markets, electronics repair shop, and a lunch counter with an owner who's reputation is equal to Seinfeld's soup-nazi.
But I'm missing one quintessential New York food experience - no it's not bagels, or hot dogs, or smoked fish at Zabar's or Russ and Daughters - my desire is a Corned Beef Sandwich on Rye. My favorite has always been 2nd Ave Deli, but I'm closer to Katz's and my subway station to Brooklyn. So Katz's it is. I still think 2nd Ave is better, but the pickles are tasty and the Brooklyn Brown Ale sure tasted good at 11 AM!
Last stop, Bedford Cheese Shop
The subway station is just a couple of blocks from Bedford cheese. Mast Bros. Chocolate is nearby, but unfortunately they're only open in the evening. What's this just around the corner? Blue Bottle Coffee? OK, a quick taste of San Francisco with an iced New Orleans coffee, then let's get more cheese!
I fell in love with Bedford Cheese a few years ago. It's a picture perfect shop - corner location with windows, air-conditioned cold (good for the cheese), wooden shelves, charcuterie case, cheese case, a wall of dry goods - maybe 500 square feet, maybe less. Former Cheese Plus cheesemonger, Nate McElroy, provides a guided tour of the best cheese, charcuterie, and dry goods. My bags are pretty full but he thrills me with a raw goat cheese from Neal's Yard Dairy I had not tasted before, and some great salami from Biellese. His colleagues there tell me "although Mast Bros is famous for their hipster chocolate, this stuff from Zoe's is better". Ca-ching, put it in the bag.
OK, it's getting late and I've got to get across Brooklyn to meet my nephew on a Friday afternoon as we navigate through the tunnel and across Manhattan (thanks, Chase!) on our way to Lake Ashmere in the Berkshires. All tallied up we have 21 cheeses, almost a dozen cured meats and salami, breads, crackers, honey, bags full of pasta, chocolate, olive oil, and other goodies. It's going to be a great weekend!