Editor's note: Sunny weekend or no sunny weekend, comfort food season isn't over just yet. We sent contributor Maggie Hoffman all over New York in search of the very best macaroni and cheese—and on this gloomy day, she's here with the results. Take it away, Maggie!
Comfort food is still having its day in New York: everywhere you look, it's another meatball, another fried chicken, and another macaroni and cheese. Nothing wrong with that—some of us happen to be a little bit mac and cheese obsessed.
In order to sort the middling mac from the winners, we tasted around town and considered the following criteria:
- Sauce: Was it well-distributed and plentiful? Or did it veer toward soupy or dry? Was it creamy and luxurious, not gritty or greasy?
- Cheese: Is the cheese flavor prominent? Is the use of high-quality cheese apparent?
- Noodles: Do the noodles add character and texture to the dish? Do they cradle the sauce well?
- Topping: Is there a topping that improves the overall flavor and texture of the dish?
- Price-Value Proposition: Was it a good deal considering the quality of the dish, the care that went into cooking it, and the setting in which it's served?
Just the good stuff, after the jump.
S'MAC (Buffalo Chicken Style)
Sauce: While some of the other versions at this all-macaroni restaurant are a little bland, the Buffalo-style sauce bursts with tangy, spicy flavor. Lovers of Frank's Hot sauce should try this immediately. The moist chunks of chicken aren't even really necessary.
Cheese: American cheese and cheddar add the requisite gooeyness.
Noodles: Slightly soft elbows.
Topping: Order it with half breadcrumbs and half blue cheese for an additional crazy blast of flavor.
Price/Value: $7.25 for a gut-busting mini-skillet is a pretty good deal.
Schiller's Liquor Bar
Sauce: The luxurious béchamel in this dish may taste more of cream than cheese, but it's delicious, plentiful, and perfectly smooth (though it might be even better with an extra dash of salt.) We did notice a little unsightly grease in the bottom of dish.
Cheese: Gruyere and parmesan—most of the cheese flavor is in the topping.
Noodles: The elbow noodles are a little soft, but in a comforting, sauce-soaked way.
Topping: Instead of bread crumbs, this mac is topped with nutty Gruyere and parmesan, broiled until a little crispy and a little stringy.
Price/Value: A generous Staub skilletful will cost you $14.50, with or without bacon. Luckily, the carafes of tasty Côtes du Rhône are cheap.
Casellula Cheese and Wine Café
Sauce: This is not a mac for sauce-lovers; only a trace of liquid binds together the cheese and pasta. But what it lacks in moisture, it makes up in fancy-cheese flavor.
Cheese: The Casellula folks are serious about cheese, and this dish is no throwaway. Fol epi (which is a bit like Emmentaler) and earthy Comté make for a musky, grown-up mac studded with sweet caramelized onions and lardons. It practically begs for a glass of wine.
Noodles: The fluted pasta has a nice texture, sturdy enough to stand up to real cheese.
Topping: Generously topped with crunchy, garlicky crumbs.
Price/Value: I'm not going to lie—It's tiny for $13. If small plates annoy you, skip this one.
Sauce: Chef Marc Meyer's brunch cookbook gives away one of his mac and cheese secrets: instead of a standard roux-based bechamel, he melts cream cheese into a sauce that includes evaporated milk. The sauce is delicate and smooth, but we could have used a little more of it.
Cheese: Good cheddar flavor with a hint of Gruyere for balance. Not stringy—this is a mac and cheese to be eaten in polite company.
Noodles: Tender elbow-shaped noodles blend into the sauce for a silky mouthfeel.
Topping: The buttery breadcrumb topping has a hint of lemon zest, which struck us as slightly out of place.
Price/Value: For $12, it's an elegant dish, and cheaper than several of other wood-oven baked options at this spacious brunch spot.
Jack the Horse Tavern
Sauce: Velvety and rich, perfectly smooth and intensely flavored.
Cheese: Smoked gouda and fontina add creamy, smoky flavor without the distraction of bacon. I'm a little surprised this combination isn't more commonly used—it's brilliant.
Noodles: The sauce manages to get inside the cavatappi noodles, so you get extra creaminess in each bite.
Topping: A little heavy on the breadcrumbs. A deeper dish would help the crumb-to-mac ratio.
Price/Value: It's $9 for a dainty appetizer-size portion, but we were left wanting more, just because it's so delicious.
The Best of the Best: It's A Tie!
Ok, so we couldn't choose. Messy, cheesy, oozing mac and cheese—yes, please! But we were also blown away by a pungent yet delicate penne version, with gruyere-infused sauce and a crackling crust. The solution: go try both of our favorites, and let us know what you think.
Sauce: Thick and plentiful cheddar-laced béchamel. Deeply flavorful and rich.
Cheese: A mountain of oozing gruyere and cheddar make this dish almost like eating noodle fondue. Strings of cheese stretch from your fork and crispy bits stick to the sides of the ceramic dish. Despite the inclusion of bacon lardons, cheese is the star of this mac.
Noodles: We were worried that we wouldn't like the radiatore pasta, but the ridges really carry the sauce well.
Topping: We love how cheesy and crusty the topping is--this beats plain breadcrumbs any day.
Price/Value: For $10, the small version of this dish will probably tide you over for a few days. If you don't like sitting at barstools, perch outside or check out their sister restaurant, Dumont. (Warning, the more formal Dumont doesn't serve mac and cheese during brunch.)
Artisanal Fromagerie & Bistro
Sauce: Deep cheese flavor in a beautifully silky béchamel. Perfect sauce-to-noodle ratio.
Cheese: Mostly gruyere (with a bit of parmesan), and intensely flavorful without getting stringy.
Noodles: Al dente penne pasta doesn't get lost the way elbows sometimes do, and the sauce gathers inside the noodles nicely.
Topping: An exceptional melted-cheese and crumb crust, broiled to crisp perfection—the most flavorful topping we've had.
Price/Value: This delicious mac (offered as a pretty generous side dish on the dinner menu) is $9.50, and plenty filling. It might be the best value on Artisanal's menu.
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