Wine bars with cheese programs are cropping up everywhere, but even more exciting to a cheese freak like me are the places that put the proverbial cart before the horse, or, in this case, the cheese plate before the wine bottle. The year-old Casellula (a bad, impossible-to-spell pretentious name that has something to do with the Latin roots of house and cheese), actually calls itself a cheese and wine bar, so you know what its owner, Brian Keyser, considers most important. Amen, Brian.
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The kitchen that turns out the extremely tasty and carefully thought-out cheese-based food here is actually located behind the bar, and in fact it's not really a kitchen at all. It's a carefully laid-out mise en place with a sandwich press and a small convection oven. What they understand here is that cheese is so powerful a flavoring agent that this set-up produces plenty of delicious, complex, elemental flavors and dishes that could satisfy anyone, especially anyone who likes cheese and is willing to construct an entire meal around it.
Casellula Cheese & Wine Cafe
401 West 52nd Street, New York NY 10019 (b/n Ninth and Tenth; map); 212-247-8137; casellula.com
Must-Haves: Domestic Darlings cheese flight, chistorras in a blanket, stuffed Peppadew peppers, endive salad, goose breast reuben, mac and cheese, goat cheese hazelnut truffles
What You'll Spend: $25 for two courses, not including wine
You can get your cheese fix many different ways here. Six dollars gets you one cheese from the constantly rotating list of 40, served with really good bread from Tom Cat Bakery and a seemingly endless variety of house-constructed condiments. Tia Keenan, who oversees the cheese program, is uncommonly gifted when it comes to cheese and condiment pairings.
When I ordered the Domestic Darlings flight ($18), the Green Hill from Sweet Grass Dairy was served with candied pecans, the 5 Spoke Creamery Tumbleweed was served with a tomato relish, and Faribault Dairy's St. Pete's Select Blue was served with a surprisingly felicitous chocolate wafer. All thoughtful, wonderfully realized pairings.
Four dollars gets you four little Spanish chistorra sausages wrapped in tortillas, in a pool of Mexican crema (sour cream), arranged like Lincoln logs. Even better are the stuffed Peppadew (cherry peppers; $7) wrapped with speck (smoked prosciutto) and stuffed with buffalo mozzarella. These are so good that you will be disinclined to share them once you've had your first.
Did the duck confit and fava bean crostini ($10) really need the Lively Run Goat Dairy feta? Probably not, but, damn, that feta is good. The endive salad ($13) consisting of perfect little endive boats with Roaring Forties Blue (King's Island Dairy), pear, and toasted macadamia nuts in a balanced sherry vinaigrette had me thinking I should try making this dish at home.
Sandwiches are the equivalent of entrées here. The Pig's Ass Sandwich ($12) is Casellula's Cubano. It's a silly, slightly randy name for a fabulous sandwich of slow-roasted pork butt, Fiscalini Farmstead cheddar, Fol Epi (a sweet French Emmentaler-like cheese), and housemade bread and butter pickles. Just as good if not better (and certainly better-named) is the Goose Breast Reuben ($12), made with satiny, silky smoked goose breast, a great fontina, spring slaw, and a horseradish aioli sitting in for the mustard.
If you call yourself a cheese bar, you better make a killer mac and cheese. Casellula's mac and cheese may currently be my favorite mac and cheese in New York. Made with the aforementioned Fol Epi, Comte, chevre, lardons, and caramelized onions, Casellula's mac ($13) is equal parts tangy, creamy, and crunchy. It's the ultimate fancy-pants mac and cheese with a completely down-to-earth, elemental appeal. The grilled cheese sandwich, alas, is a little bit of a let down. It's made with good bread and great cheese (chevre, Fiscalini cheddar, Fol Epi), but it doesn't have that great caramelized buttery exterior a great grilled cheese sandwich should have (See Bouchon Bakery). A pesto-ricotta tart is a dull-edged skip, the only eminently skippable savory item I sampled here.
Desserts were hit and miss. A pineapple corn cake ($7) with candied jalapeño and cream cheese ice cream didn't coalesce at all. Coconut lime sorbet was the absolute winner among the sorbet selection ($7), though the pear-lavender wasn't too shabby, either. Both were better than the icy, indistinct rhubarb vanilla. The ricotta cheesecake ($7) wasn't good enough to make you forget any of the other good ricotta cheesecakes in town (like Pepolino's), and the chocolate cake was a slab of reasonably moist chocolate layer cake ($7) that your server pours Meadowbook Farm cream over. Perhaps most fittingly, the best dessert at Casellula is the goat cheese hazelnut truffles ($10). They're crunchy, creamy, and chocolaty, and are wisely made with a fresh goat cheese that doesn't fight the chocolate.
Casellula has the unmistakable vibe and glow of a place fueled by passion, knowledge, and a strong point of view. It also has the kind of homespun charm and kinetic energy that I associate with eateries in Portland and Seattle. Most important, the folks at Casellula don't take themselves too seriously. And that's what makes it so much fun and such a pleasure to eat here. Now if they'd just do something about that name.