remembering the overlooked and underrated

Park Avenue’s Sexy Red Secret

In Chewing on January 24, 2011 at 8:24 pm

I found something quite surprising on a visit to Artisanal Bistro’s cheese counter — something red, sleek, and dangerous. Sadly, it was not a beautiful woman who found my puffy winter coat and discussion of comic books and cheese utterly irresistible. But it might have been the next best thing.

ARTISANAL BISTRO

This is not a cheese shop. It is a cheese counter inside a bistro. Behind the counter is a lady in her 50s wielding a large knife and looking at me skeptically. Is it because my puffy winter coat is very unstylish and out-of-place here at Artisanal Bistro? Possibly. It could also be because most of her job consists of cutting cheeses for ordered plates; dealing directly with customers is, I’m guessing, less common.

The bistro, which opened in 2001, is the creation of Chef Terrance Brennan. The restaurant is located just off Park Ave., on 32nd St. The menu is enticing and the cheese counter is attractive. Take a look:

Not bad, right? This cheese counter, rumor has it, was once staffed by knowledgeable cheesemongers, but over the years they were pushed away by the bistro’s management style. I don’t know about any of that, but I can say that the cheesemonger helping me fits the profile of most New York cheesemongers (so-called) I’ve run into thus far: moderately friendly and knowledgeable, but not exactly enthusiastic or able/willing to engage customers. To her credit, when the cheesemonger cut a piece of cheese for me, she did ask if it was all right if it was a little bigger than I asked for. A surprising number of places don’t do this. Also to her credit, she did smile once or twice. Smiling–even a small, polite smile–seems to be an alien concept to most NYC retail businesses. I’ve heard some people say they like this, that it’s more genuine. I like people to be genuine. But if genuine means the person that I’m trying to give my money to is going to be disinterested or rude, then please, I’ll take a little fake politeness.

Oh well. Onto the cheeses.

Artisanal boasts around 30 cheeses. This low number further suggests to me that most of the cheeses are sold to restaurant guests as opposed to people coming in solely for cheese. Most are what you might expect. The prices are a little higher than other places. This is also to be expected, given the address. I’m very pleased, however, to report that they carry Barely Buzzed, from Beehive Cheese Co. in Utah. This is a nutty cow’s milk cheese rubbed with coffee (the Turkish grind comes courtesy of Colorado Legacy Coffee Company; this is their not unpredictably named “Beehive Blend”). Is it a gimmicky cheese? A little. But it’s strange and, even better, delicious.

What really caught my eye was the vintage manual meat slicer. The woman behind the counter is surprised that I have such a keen interest in the machine. Fortunately, she is kind enough to let me take a closer look at it. They use it for slicing prosciutto, she tells me. Is it wrong that the candy-apple red slicer excites me more than any of the cheeses? I think she can tel. She’s clearly amused that I’m so fascinated by the machine. I manage to refrain from blurting out how sexy the slicer is. Calling a slicer sexy is, I’m guessing, not something to exclaim when standing in a busy restaurant at lunch time. Is there a good place to say such a thing? Does anyone else know what I’m talking about?

Anyway, Artisanal hosts a perfectly fine cheese counter that will meet all your needs if (a) you don’t mind shopping for cheese in a restaurant; (b) great customer service is not a top priority; or (c) you don’t have the time or inclination to visit a more extensive cheese counter. Snide comments aside, I’ll probably go back. Not for the cheeses, mind you, but to see that beautiful red slicer in action. Already I’m concocting a plan to make friends with the people there. It might take weeks. But eventually I’ll talk them into letting me try it out.  Talking them into letting me take it home might be trickier. And, just possibly, weird.

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  1. “Calling a slicer sexy is, I’m guessing, not something to exclaim when standing in a busy restaurant at lunch time. Is there a good place to say such a thing? Does anyone else know what I’m talking about?”
    Jeremy, my friend, I know what you’re talking about. And, to answer the former question, Yes!.

    On my recent trip to San Fransisco I stumbled across this style slicer twice. Once at the Fancy Food Show, where an elderly Italian was churning out slices of prosciutto. And once the next day I witnessed it at Boccalone (originators of the meat cone), where they used it to slice me a sample of head cheese.
    For lack of more insight, let me say simply: I, too, am in love (…and lust).

    • Thanks, Mike, it’s a relief to know I’m not the only one. But I am stunned that there is actually a specific origin for meat cones. I hope they don’t put head cheese in them.

  2. Wow that was great! Sexey, well not even going to say anything on that. But do enjoy so much hearing of all the cheese places and People. When we come back to visit, will try to take time to go see the slicer.

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