The Vegetarian Option: Earl's Beer & Cheese
Tucked into a narrow stretch of Park Avenue, where the Metro North Railroad disappears underground, is where you'll find Earl's Beer & Cheese. The menu at Earl's changes seasonally, and currently features dishes like Mac and Cheese, Asian Gnocchi topped with cheese fries, and Earl's Eggo, a gourmet waffle with cheddar. You can wash down your food with any of the craft brews on tap or in cans; Earl's Beer & Cheese takes its name seriously. But the Mac & Cheese features shredded chicken, the gnocchi has ground beef, and that waffle is topped with foie gras and bacon along with those cheese fries. What is there for vegetarians?
The menu isn't long, but there are some real gems. Any trip to Earl's would be incomplete without an order of their beer cheese (pictured above, $6 small, $11 large). New York State cheddar is blended with a "house lager" and served alongside some toasted bread and a raw garlic. When I saw raw garlic on the menu I assumed it was blended up with the cheese, but not so. There were two whole cloves in a small dish in the basket. It only took a moment for me to figure out the best way to approach the dish: rub one of the raw cloves onto the crusty, olive oil soaked bread to get the aroma of garlic onto it before spreading the beer cheese on top. The result is creamy and tangy, with a bite from the garlic and cheddar hitting the back of your throat at the end. The small order is more than enough for two people to share.
There are three grilled cheese sandwiches on the menu, all $6 each, and two of them don't have any meat in them. The double-cream brie features a blackberry mostarda and is served on brioche. I was disappointed in this sandwich—it was all soft textures, and none of the ingredients really stood out. The brie was indeed creamy but very mild, and the mostarda was not very sweet. I was expecting something akin to baked brie with jam, what I got was less than the sum of its ingredients. Of all three dishes I tasted, this one was the least beer-friendly.
My first thought when biting into the calabro mozzarella sandwich was "home run". The piece of mozzarella was thick and chewy, slightly melted, and topped with miso mayo (which squirts into your mouth when you bite into the sandwich) and dill pickle chips (adding some crunchy texture and just the right amount of acidity). I was initially put off by the fact that it is served on an English muffin, since I don't usually like them, but it's a match made in heaven in this case. The chewy texture of the muffin works quite well with the cheese.
Just as Earl's exists in the place where the Upper East Side transforms into East Harlem, it exists in the special place between restaurant and bar. You could go for some great beer and not get any food, but you'd be missing out on some fantastic eating. Though it may sound like typical bar food, nothing about the food at Earl's is an afterthought. One word of caution: after filling up on beer and cheese you'll realize that you may be paying for it the next morning. In my opinion, Earl's is worth it.
Earl's Beer & Cheese
About the author: Howard Walfish is a Virginia native who has been living in New York since 2003. He is, in fact, a vegetarian, and is the co-founder of Brooklyn-based Eat to Blog.