Murray's Cheese Bar
264 Bleecker Street, New York NY 10014 (b/n Cornelia and Morton; map); 646-476-8882; murrayscheesebar.com
Service: Spotty—warm and enthusiastic on some visits, short and uncommunicative on others
Setting: Sleek, reasonably spacious West Village bar
Compare It To: Casellula
Must-Haves: Classic Melt, Haloumi, Butternut Squash Kugel, Burger
Cost: Around $25-30/head for food
"I'm glad we're here with you," whispered a dining companion on one of our visits to Murray's Cheese Bar, as they she stared down her menu. "Because I have no idea how I'd decide what to order here."
That was our thought, too, when first approaching Murray's Cheese Bar. It opened a few weeks back as the long-awaited restaurant companion to the legendary fromagerie Murray's Cheese—easily one of the best places in New York to taste, learn, and buy whatever cheesestuffs strike your fancy. The shop sells sandwiches and a few prepared foods, but there's nowhere to sit and it's not somewhere you'd get a full meal, other than maybe a grilled cheese to eat down the street at Father Demos Park. So a standalone restaurant is a huge step for them.
But of course, they were faced with an immediate quandary: how do you make whole meals out of cheese?
There's a massive cheese list, of course, but then every imaginable category of cheese-inclusive eats. Cheese sandwiches, griddled cheeses, cheesy pastas, cheese spreads, straight-up fried cheese. Some salads come cheeseless, but others incorporate mozzarella or chèvre or smoky blue. There's a burger. It's a cheeseburger. You get the idea.
So looking down the menu, it's easy to get disoriented. What comes together as a meal: a cheese plate, fondue, and a burger? Can I just order fried cheese curds and fried Gruyere for dinner? (Will I regret it later, if I do?) Calculations of portion size, richness, and ultimate cost can be quick to confuse.
Thus we ordered as much as we could from across the menu, to give you an idea of how to construct a meal here. And there were plenty of highlights. It's a fun place to spend time, one that captures the sort of goofy-nerdy-delicious spirit of Murray's—food that we get excited to eat. The atmosphere is often genial and the food is well thought out—and occasionally, downright delicious.
Globally-minded Spreads ($12 for 3) top the menu. Of them, the Kopanisti is as good a start to the meal as any cheese plate. The Greek dip of whipped Bulgarian feta, minced pepperoncini, and dill is a study in fatty, herb-studded tanginess, bright with lemon up front and pickled heat on the way down, with the smoothness of butter studded with bits of naked feta. Pimento cheese is as pimento cheese does: rather sweet with pimento and paprika, sharp from a bold Prairie Breeze cheddar; a dressed-up pimento cheese that could still appear at the church social. Skip the Obatdza, a bland pot of Romadur and butter, which is moody and slick but lacks the promised punch of horseradish and caraway.
Or, of course, you could start with a cheese plate. Murray's has 40-odd cheeses listed on the front page of its menu, logically divided with helpful descriptions and the suggestion to try a "Cheesemonger's Choice"—to let a knowledgable Murray's cheesehead choose your selection for you. We asked for a range of textures and milks—one soft and one less so, at least one cow and one sheep, we like raw milk, we like a little funky—and were more than happy with what arrived. What's more, one of Murray's cheesemongers came out to present the plate: like when you order wine from your waitress but the sommelier shows up to talk you through it. Her eager explanation of each selection gave us happy context for each one: why the hazelnutty Italian cheese Nocciolo was paired with candied baby walnuts, why the creamy goat cheese Petit Eric with sour cherries.
That said, we ran into service problems elsewhere. On one visit, our waitress asked us every two minutes or so, from the moment we sat down, whether we were ready to order; when we finally did, she wrote the order down without comment or break in glum affect. "Can I keep a menu?" Carey asked as the waitress collected them, thinking that the list of cheeses would come in handy when presented three that would be a total surprise.
She scowled. "Why?"
"...Well, I don't know what cheeses I'll be getting. and it'd be nice as a reference."
"I mean, you can keep it for now, but I'll have to take it back before any food comes."
Rather taken aback, we looked around at the mostly-empty dining room, and at the simple paper menu itself. What exactly did these menus have to be preserved for? Or protected from? We weren't sure, but occasional moments like this made the experience less pleasant than it could've been. Part of what we love about Murray's is its excitement; you go there to eat cheese but to learn something, too, to chat with cheese nerds in silly T-shirts. At times, we found that, but at times were met cold with stony service that didn't do the meal any favors.
But back to the food. The Classic Melt ($12) grilled cheese is formidable enough to share but excellent enough to hoard. Gruyere, Tickler, and buffalo mozzarella cheeses flood from thick-cut white bread with a shellacked crust, extra slick and buttery, to give a well-made grilled cheese the textural contrast it so deserves. A smoky, creamy-but-light tomato soup is slurpable, bowl-lickable—with what's that?—cumin on the finish, beguiling and totally appropriate all at once.
Indian spices also shine, this time as a garam masala-type blend, in the Butternut Squash Kugel ($10), a half cup of sunflower seeds away from coming out of your Californian Jewish grandmother's kitchen. When's the last time you've seen kugel on a posh Manhattan menu? Heck, when's the last time you've enjoyed kugel at all without a grimace from the sweetness? Tender squash adds that sweet here, but it's a tempered one, made mature and interesting by those curry spices and playful by a cornflake topping. Not really a cheese dish, and your bubbie would scoff at the price for the portion, but a gleeful nostalgia trip delivered without (too much) irony.
Under the "Green Market" section of the menu, Heirloom Tomato Salad ($14) can be something of a gamble. On one night the crunchy, tasteless tomatoes, watery buffalo mozzarella, and meager spotting of balsamic screamed for salt, acidity, anything to stand up to bossy shiso leaf. On another, the tomatoes were riper and juicier, the mozzarella firm but supple, and the balsamic and olive oil well-proportioned.
Perhaps a better bet is the Grilled Artichokes ($9), with charred leaves so crisp they might as well be fried. The perfectly tender hearts and stems are so bright and intensely flavored as to make this one of our favorite dishes, notwithstanding the unremarkable buttermilk dressing on the side best ignored.
Another favorite: Haloumi ($12), tender and meaty without the grainy squeak of nearly every other griddled haloumi in New York. Murray's respects that haloumi isn't a giant cheese curd, and dresses it up with mint, olive oil, and the citrus glow of lemon for a simple hunk of cheese transformed into something wonderful. Greek cooks all over town could learn from this. We felt it worked better than the Champlain Valley Triple Creme ($12), with the spreadable appeal of any rich, warm cheese on grilled bread, but didn't quite hang together with the mushrooms as a complete dish.
Speaking of cheese curds, Ellsworth Creamery Buffalo Cheese Curds ($10) are too good to be true—they're really too-fried hunks of tangy anything. And to make the old joke: in such small portions! We didn't care to finish our tiny pot of curds, but balked at the four slender spears of celery on the plate, which felt stingy for both the price tag and the general happy go lucky Murray's spirit.
In terms of crazy golden-brown indulgence, the Gruyere Malakoff ($12) is a better bet: crisp fried discs of the nutty, funky cheese fried to a shattering crisp, such that when you slide your fork in Gruyere oozes out. Baby greens, mustard, and cornichons attempt to balance the richness, but can't, of course (and that's part of the fun). It's indulgent as hell, and we admire the person who could finish an order alone, but as a shared plate? Sign us up.
But the Rarebit Cheddar Burger ($16) is one you'll want all to yourself. It's fun and gutsy that a cheese shop didn't just go the cheese-draped burger route, which we might have predicted. Instead, it's made with a classic English rarebit, a thick sauce of cheddar (here, Prairie Breeze) and beer (Left Hand milk stout), poured in a dripping, irresistible stream over a thick burger patty and slice of heirloom tomato perched on a substantial, butter-and-bacon-fat basted piece of Balthazar 7-grain Pullman bread. The 8-ounce patty, a Ottomanelli's blend done for Murray's, is grilled to a drippy medium-rare, its juices running into that already-meaty bread base; rarebit sauce, meat, and bread are a very tasty thing indeed.
And while after all that, you probably don't need dessert, there are a few on the menu. Skip the diminutive Ch'More ($8), a clumsy, overpriced pile of dry oat cakes, decent chocolate, and not-enough Gallego cheese. Try the Yogurt Sundae ($8) with Maple Hill Creamery maple yogurt instead.
What would we go back for? The burger, the grilled cheese, the kugel, those artichokes. Perhaps Murray's is best for a few shared plates at the bar—something between a snack an a meal. And for that, it helps that there's an extensive (and reasonably priced) selection of wine, beer, and cider too; Carey enjoyed a juicy, well-balanced grenache rose from Terra Alta, Spain, for $32—and this is the West Village, where plenty of wine lists kick off in the mid-$40s.
So: grab a friend, share a bottle of wine, and a plate of haloumi? Sounds like a good time to us.
—Max Falkowitz and Carey Jones