There are plenty of narrowly focused New York restaurants these days, announcing their one-track intentions in cheeky monikers (Macbar, Brooklyn Crab). Specialization breeds high expectations, though. The latest meatball spot better have the best meatballs around, the new lobster bar a chef who’s spent summers in Maine, the fried-chicken joint a secret recipe actually worth locking away.
Murray’s Cheese Bar, the new offshoot of the esteemed cheese shop a few doors down, would seem to have an edge in its particular niche. Its sibling stocks the city’s most impressive selection of cave-aged cheeses, along with bespoke beers, cured meats, pickles, olives and artisanal chocolate. A few years back it installed a “melt” station, offering fancy grilled cheese sandwiches to grab and go. With experience preparing cooked food and so many great raw materials to work with, a sit-down annex must have seemed like an easy win.
But restaurants and food shops are different animals entirely. Acoustics and lighting, a waitstaff and line cooks, patrons who expect their food to be consistent and arrive promptly—these are just a few of the challenges the Murray’s team has fumbled so far. The slim white-tiled space roars with conversation under the glare of overhead lights. Servers behave like bored shop clerks, friendly but passive—chattering together in corners waiting to be flagged down. The food, which can take forever to emerge from the small open kitchen, often arrives lukewarm and limp.
Digging a cracker into a pungent mix of white wine, shallots, and Bleu d’Auvergne or spicy pimento and cheddar—two of the exceptional cheese spreads—you might be inclined to excuse some of these things as opening jitters. The Buffalo cheese curds, a fun innovation—fried squeaky curds drenched in classic spicy wing sauce—ought to earn some goodwill, too. But these sorts of dairy delights are far too rare for a venue affiliated with the city’s best cheese shop.
Head chef Tia Keenan, a trained fromager, goes too easy on excess here—you don’t come to a cheese restaurant to watch what you eat. Her macaroni and cheese is neither the most interesting nor gluttonous in town: The elbow pasta—tossed in a mellow mix of mozzarella, Gruyère and cheddar—is served in modest snack portions. Her fondue, a pretty run-of-the-mill—and not particularly generous—crock of Alpine cheeses, comes with pepperoni and focaccia hunks, Italian dippers that clash with the melted Swiss blend. A cheese enchilada is even more off the mark, its corn tortillas layered like lasagna sheets over stringy mozzarella, with a fried egg and watery green salsa on top.
Except for the knife-and-fork burger—a thick, juicy patty on toast topped with rarebit sauce (a gutsy mix of cheddar and stout)—it’s hard to make much of a meal out of any of the cheesy fare. And the seasonal salads and vegetable sides, including excellent grilled artichoke hearts with buttermilk dressing, won’t fill you up either.
With a more solicitous staff and a warmer atmosphere, you might pop in here for a glass of wine, or to sample something stinky you’ve been eyeing next door before taking a hunk home. But instead of a great wine bar with serious cheese, Murray’s is a cheese restaurant with too few triumphs to pass muster. In 2012 NYC, that’s just not good enough.
Eat this: Pimento and fromage fort cheese spreads, Buffalo cheese curds, rarebit burger
Drink this: You might need sommelier help with the impressive selection of cheese-friendly beer, wine and ciders (but it’s hard to get anyone’s attention). Try the Bernabeleva Grenache, a velvety red from Madrid ($14 a glass), or the De Ranke Bitter in a bottle, a complex, effervescent Belgian IPA ($13).
Sit here: The best seats for a quick bite and a drink are the tall stools that line the long counter that runs the length of the restaurant, particularly the ones near the cheese case up front. If you’re lingering for awhile, you might grab one of the low-slung white tables for two along the wall.
Conversation piece: The waitstaff all wear Murray’s own cheese-humor T-shirts—big cheese, less is morbier, straight outta comte—which are for sale online and at the cheese shop.
By Jay Cheshes