Good cheese shops are few and far between, but a cheese restaurant is really rare. In fact, I only know of one: Caseus Fromagerie Bistro in New Haven. It has long been on our list for a destination lunch.
We love to visit New Haven, with its Ivy League ambiance, world-class architecture and cultural attractions. It’s also a great restaurant town, with eateries ranging from special occasion to authentic ethnic.
Caseus falls somewhere in the middle, unique because of its culinary philosophy, but comfortable and pubby – not at all a dress-up place.
Before there was a restaurant, there was a cheese shop. After banging around the restaurant business for a while, Jason Sobocinski took a degree in gastronomy (sounds like fun, doesn’t it?) at Boston University. He returned to New Haven and opened up Caseus. With his carefully chosen cheeses from around the world and the idea that, “every cheese has a story,” the shop was a hit.
The Caseus Fromagerie Bistro followed soon, incorporating top-notch cheeses from the shop into the menu.
The shop is in the basement of an historic building at the corner of Trumbull and Whitney, down a flight of stairs from the sidewalk. The rich cheese-cave aroma hits you as soon as you walk in.
We got a warm welcome from Jason’s mother, Sylvia, the enthusiastic cheese monger. She gave us a quick tour through the 100 or so cheeses from both America and Europe, liberally giving out samples along the way.
From the cheese shop, a low doorway leads into the Bistro dining room.
Past the crowded tables, stairs lead up to the bar at the street level. The wood paneling, brick walls, and gently arched ceiling have an old-world feel.
We snagged the last high-top table opposite the bar and considered the menu. You won’t be surprised to learn that almost every dish features cheese.
Chef Alex Lishchynsky explained that the menu has three main sections: Boards, Seasonal, and Classics. “The classics are always the most popular,” he told us. “You can’t beat mac & cheese (made with at least 6 cheeses) or a grilled cheese in a cheese restaurant. They’re always the top sellers.”
The four boards include: cheese, of course, selected by Sylvia and her fellow mongers; charcuterie; Anson Mills cornbread with local cheeses; and house-made sausages.
In addition to the two top sellers in Classics, there is cheesy poutine, steak frites with smokey blue-cheese marrow butter, and the cheese burger with Painted Hills grass-fed beef and your choice of cheeses.
My grilled cheese included a half pound of assorted cheeses (gruyere and cheddar for sure, plus lots more) on thick-cut, locally-baked Lupi Legna seedy rye bread. A heap of sharp cornichons and a handful of green salad rounded out the plate.
Marsha opted for the tart du jour, an individual house-made pastry shell – today baked with flavorful broccoli and Twain cheese from the Mystic Cheese Company.
I wanted to try almost everything on the menu, but stuffed from the generous portions, I really couldn’t.
I asked Chef Alex to name his favorite cheese. After a thoughtful pause, he said, “I’m not sure I can, but I’ll tell you the cheese I’m most excited about right now.” He pulled out a block of Edun, a farmstead cheddar from Wisconsin with a fresh, rich, buttery flavor and firm texture. “I’m putting this on the dinner menu with tagliolini pasta, smoked rabbit, smoked black pepper and spring pesto.” Yum!
Not able to restrict himself to just one cheese, he also picked up a chunk of Lincolnshire Poacher, a delicious, firm English cheese that’s a cross between farmhouse cheddar and an Alpine style.
My kind of guy.
We like to round out our destination lunches with a museum visit – it helps to walk off the lunch. New Haven has lots of options: The New Haven Museum is right across the street from Caseus. On view now is, From Clocks to Lollipops: Made in New Haven. The famous Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History is two blocks down Whitney Ave. The stunning Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library is just a few blocks up Temple behind Woolsey Concert Hall.
We should get a cheese restaurant of our own in Fairfield County. In the meantime, I’m happy to make the trip to New Haven.