July 1, 2011 | Short Order

Seattle’s Beecher’s Cheese Braves Manhattan
by Alissa Merksamer

A case of Beecher's signature Flagship cheese in all its varieties. Photo: Alissa Merksamer

        “May I cut you some of the pork terrine to try?” A grandmotherly lady in a soft white smock asks me as I peer at the fat-slathered loaves while munching a sample of raw milk Flagship cheese. “Oh, and the duck rillettes are delicious too. I’ll cut you some of that.” The rilletes looks mushy and sat on, like baby food, but I am the Glamorous Snacker, so I don’t turn down free food and I can’t move a foot in this place without someone offering me a taste.

         I had wondered about this famed Seattle cheese shop daring to play in Manhattan. Then I passed its lofty storefront in the Flatiron district a week ago on opening day and ran into a crowd stabbing toothpicks into a tray of odd little something. Those “somethings” turn out to be cheese curds, salty, squeaky bites that look like tofu but taste like flavorful bits of mozzarella, commercial grade.

         Beecher’s Cheese’s opening gambit is all about passing out tastes. Am I imagining it or is there a whiff of Western American innocence? Don’t they know the more calculating locals can make a meal of tastes. Still they are clearly hip enough to stock Dickson’s Farmsteads excellent charcuterie alongside their own dairy creations.

The ricotta that changed one cheesemonger's life. Photo: Alissa Merksamer

         Inside, the shop consists of a downstairs wine bar called The Cellar and a main floor divided into three parts: Cheese and charcuterie display cases; a production facility where visitors can watch through glass as cheese makers prepare the shop’s signature Flagship cheese, a semi-hard cow’s milk variety that comes in different flavors and states of aging; and a grab-and-go café that sells pressed sandwiches, coffee, soup, and bowls of the hallowed mac and cheese made famous for its induction into the 2010 list of Oprah’s Favorite Things. An aproned twenty-something is handing out plastic cupfuls, so I take one. I’m shocked to see there is no breadcrumb topping crunch. Maybe Oprah tried a different batch, because even the house’s earthy Flagship and creamy Just Jack don’t save a bowl of mushy penne.

         A staircase leads to The Cellar, open only at night, to serve gussied-up versions of the macaroni and cheese and playful drinks like a Rittenhouse rye with fig bitters dubbed “Stanford White.”

         Over by the foggy display cases, which an employee continually wipes with a cloth, cheery cheesemongers are stuffing customers with samples of Caveman Blue from Oregon’s Rogue Creamery (divine!), nutty Tarentaise from Spring Brook Farm in Vermont, and a triple cream Mt. Tam from Cowgirl Creamery in San Francisco. Beecher’s sells only domestic cheeses, which means you’ll find SarVecchio Parmesan from Wisconsin instead of Parmesan Reggiano and Nancy’s Camembert from the Hudson Valley rather than a French import.

         I ask the enthusiast who’s been feeding me what she would buy if she could only take home one cheese. She snatches a carton of Salvatore Bklyn ricotta and hugs it to her chest. “This ricotta changed my life,” she says. She’s so emphatic I feel I have no choice but to purchase it. So maybe it’s not exactly life-changing. But it is impeccable with a texture that approximates mascarpone, and since I choose the smoky variety, a flavor heady with cherry wood.

         When I feel as if I might explode, I force myself to leave this world of free cheese. Avoiding eye-contact with the cheese curd tray by the door, I escape to Broadway, pull out my phone, and text my friend that I’ll afraid I must cancel our dinner reservation. She’s furious…until I promise to share my ricotta.

900 Broadway at 20th Street., 212.466.3340

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To read more by Alissa Merksamer, visit her blog, Glamorous Snacker

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