A late start, to say the least… Feeling blue about the ‘cue… The subterranean life of cheese… Clowning around in caves… Bubbly at a Bleeker Street staple
It was about 2:30 in the afternoon when Bluegrass Barfly finally got around to having a breakfast of barbeque. Brisket, to be exact, at Blue Smoke, a Danny Meyer creation in the Flatiron District, a barbeque joint above a jazz club. He sunk his teeth into a sandwich, soggy from the drippings, and let out a sigh.
Blue Smoke was cool, quite refined, but almost too smooth. The food seemed to sink into the background, like elevator jazz—not striking enough to grab your attention; but innocuous and pleasant enough to fill your ears (or stomach). The house made sauces were simple, not spicy. The bartender largely ignored us.
Now I’m not saying the Doctor and I were dissatisfied. We cleaned our plates and left content. But something about Blue Smoke seemed lacking in character. The dining room was clean, but too clean, immaculate, even. The brisket was buttery soft, but bland. The slaw seemed sparse on the seasoning. I want my ‘cue joint to be a bit messy, gritty, dirty. But we didn’t even need the complimentary wet towel at the end of the meal. Maybe it was the time of day—2:30 in the afternoon is a restaurant dead zone. Or perhaps it was us—our senses dulled from the previous night of debauchery. Either way, Blue Smoke seemed inauthentic, just smoke and mirrors.
Murray’s Cheese, however, was the real deal. Donning lab coat, booties, and hair net, we were led by Cavemaster Brian Ralph to the caves beneath the Bleecker Street shop. We shuffled in and out through the narrow vaults, ogling the cheese, looking absurdly like clowns vacating a miniature vehicle, the smell of ammonia strong in the air from Geotrichum candidum and Penicillium candidum, microflora that help ripen the cheese. Making and caring for cheese is a living, breathing process, or like Brian put it, “Each cheese is like a little ecosystem that we can eat.”
Murray’s doesn’t make cheese, but they do purchase, store and ripen cheese in their five cheese caves one story below Bleeker Street. The caves, Brian said, are like “a day spa for cheese. They get to hang out, sometimes they get flipped over, sometimes patted, sometimes brushed.”
It sounds simple, but our Cavemaster, with all the rigor and knowledge of a scientist—he studied neurobiology in college, after all—tests various iterations of cheeses to perfect private orders for some of the best restaurants in the city. Over a three-month process, Brian said, his eyes lighting up at the prospect, he plays with variables like pH, moisture, salinity, temperature, and time to create the desired product for his customer. “R and D is the most fun part of my job,” Brian said. “I love to dork out and do that stuff.”
At the tasting after the tour, we were lucky enough to try a specially aged Jasper Hill Harbison called Greensward, which, brined and babied by the Cavemaster, recently made its debut at the 11 Madison Park, a swanky French joint with three Michelin stars in the Flatiron District. The Greensward had all the Brassica flavors of the original Harbison—cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower notes—but amid a slightly tart taste and a more substantive structure that didn’t run like the Harbison. It was delicious—perfect with the Blanc de Blancs we had sparkling quietly on the tabletop.
On my way out, I lingered by the cheese case, fully twenty-five feet long and packed with the stuff. I felt like a kid in a candy store, but this was the version for folks without a sweet tooth. Here and there were cheeses from our own case at V—Landaff, Bonne Bouche, Colston Bassett Stilton, Robiola Bosina—and I realized how special it was that our own little market in Danville could keep pace with Murray’s. Head stuffed with information and belly with cheese, I walked out onto the rainy Greenwich Village street with a smile on my face.