Tucked away on 52nd Street just off of Hell's Kitchen's raucous 9th Avenue lies Caselulla: an intimate, hip, and always-bustling gem of a restaurant. The spot has redefined the typical over-the-top, over-priced cheese plate and brought it down from the often pretentious heights of fine-dining and into the mouths of lactose-happy New Yorkers.
There are a number of ways to navigate the menu. Create a plate of three, five or eight cheeses or chat with Caselulla's in-house fromagier for a personalized experience. Each dish comes with accompanying bites ranging from spicy peach mustard puree to charred, balsamic-drizzled baby asparagus.
Beyond cheese, Caselulla offers a stunning array of international and local wines (including a spicy chili mead from South Africa), as well as small plates, large plates and charcuterie.
Brian Keyser, Caselulla's man in charge, sat down with Joonbug to to talk about the chessy side of life.
Joonbug: What is the significance of the name of your restaurant?
Brian: Casellula is a Latin slang word meaning "a little hut or house." It shares the same root as caseum, which is the word for cheese or curd. So we think of it as “The Little House of Cheese” or “The Little Cheese Hut.”
JB: How did you do it? On your website you mention living in a van—seems a big leap from “mobile home” to restaurant ownership.
Brian: As for the van, while I was working on the plan for what became Casellula, I bought a 1987 VW Vanagon and drove around the West Coast for a few months visiting cheese makers, wineries, breweries, farms and restaurants. It was a great way to do research. I love living out of a van [sic: he still has it] and would do it more often if I could get away.
After learning a great deal about cheese while working as a waiter at Chanterelle and then running the cheese program at The Modern I decided that I wanted to open a small, casual, cheese-focused restaurant. I bought "Small Businesses For Dummies" and spent two and a half years learning, writing a business plan, raising money, finding a space and researching before getting Casellula built.
JB: Why Hell's Kitchen?
Brian: HK at the time was under-served in terms of affordable but high quality restaurants. It's centrally located. The demographics are great for us and the real estate was fairly affordable by insane New York standards.
JB: What was your original concept and how has that evolved since you opened in 2007?
Brian: I wanted to create a place where people could eat the best cheeses in the world, drink wine and talk without spending too much money. We have a deeper food menu than we planned because people really come in for dinner, not just a snack. Otherwise we have stayed surprisingly close to the original vision.
JB: Why cheese? And where do you source it from?
Brian: Cheese is awesome and it seemed silly to me that the only way to get a beautiful, well curated cheese plate in this town was to pay for a $100 prix fixe in a fancy restaurant. I wanted to bring the best cheeses in the world to the proletariat. We get it from many different sources - importers, distributors, farms.
JB: You serve a "Pig's Ass Sandwich”. What's that about?
Brian: I worked with consulting chef Ben Granger and came up with this idea for a sort of snout-to-tail pork sandwich that we called the “Whole Pig Sandwich.” It was going to be ham, roasted butt, bacon, fat back, pancetta, cheek; everything we could think of. Predictably, it was awful. So we started taking away elements until it was just two kinds of butt. The day we opened we were typing up the menu and I said, “What are we going to call the pig's ass sandwich?" Once we realized that we weren't working for corporations anymore, there was no one to tell us we couldn't call it whatever we wanted. So we did. It was an instant hit.
Caselulla is located at 401 W. 52nd Street. And check out Elsewhere, Brian's newest creation on 43rd.