by Eileen Weber
Ever consider crafting cheese by hand? If you think cheese comes in the form of an orange brick wrapped in plastic with a sell-by date, this article is not for you. If, however, cheese is something you drool over—even dream about—then you’ve come to the right place.
Caseus Fromagerie Bistro on Whitney Avenue in New Haven is a playground for cheese lovers. It is simultaneously a cheese shop, bistro, and culinary paradise.
I watched the head chef, John Nauright, become giddy over the amaranth microgreens delivered that morning from Gilbertie’s Herb Garden in Westport. With a smile from ear to ear, it was clear he couldn’t wait to use them.
“I love that. That’s what keeps us going,” Nauright said, grinning. “That feeling of ‘What’s next?’”
I watched the owner and cheese expert extraordinaire Jason Sobocinski get a little heated over the topic of molecular gastronomy. (He emphatically dislikes any kind of foam on his food and don’t dress his plate with pretty little squiggles. Just give him good food, straight up.) He waxed rhapsodic about the variety of cheeses he has to work with and, frankly, how yummy they all are.
These are people who truly care about the product they put on your plate. “If it’s not fresh, it’s not worth doing otherwise,” he said.
I met with Sobocinski, a 35-year-old father of two, to have him teach me how to make burrata. If you’re not familiar with it, burrata is essentially a mozzarella purse with cream and mozzarella cheese curds inside. It is soft, succulent, and luscious. If Parmesan is the king of cheeses, this one is certainly queen.
He explained how most people find the idea of making cheese intimidating. Of course, it can be if you want to make hard cheeses and age them in your own cellar. That’s a much more involved process.
But making fresh cheeses like ricotta, mozzarella, and queso fresco are super simple. Barbara Kingsolver, probably best known by foodies for her Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, once said that mozzarella “takes less time to make than it does a cobbler.” Sobocinski certainly proved that.
“There’s an art to it, but it’s a science,” he said, comparing it to bread baking from his experience at Formaggio Kitchen in the Boston area during his college years.
He brought me to a back kitchen nook to work in. He had simple equipment: a cassette burner, two stainless steel bowls, a ladle, a ramekin, a one-quart pot covered in plastic wrap, a cutting board, a cheese knife, Farmer’s Cow cream and mozzarella cheese curds from the Calabro Cheese Corporation in East Haven.
The water must be brought to 185 degrees—no more, no less. That’s what Sobocinski called the “sweet spot” for heating the curds. He cubed the curds for the outer purse of mozzarella placing them into a stainless steel bowl and filled it with enough heated water to soften it. The filling was made from curds milled in a food processor. He added cream and a little salt to the filling and set it aside.
Once the cheese curds became pliable, he pinched off a ball with his forefinger and thumb and twisted. Placing it on the cutting board, he used the pot to flatten it. Placing it back in the water for a few seconds to keep it warm and elastic, the flattened piece was then placed over the ramekin. Making a little dent in the center and filling it with the creamed curds, he pinched and twisted off the top. With a little extra warm water, he pulled the top a bit to knot it off. He then placed it in cold, salted water until it is ready to use.
While Caseus (pronounced KAY-SEE-US) is known for its cheese, the kitchen crew can’t make all the cheese all the time. (They do however make their own cheese called Melville and they’ve just started a manufacturing company called Mystic Cheese to produce it.) But where they may lack in making copious amounts of their own, their cheese shop has plenty to choose from.
They carry local cheeses—like Cato Corner in Colchester, Arethusa Farm in Bantam, and Butterfield Farm in Suffield—to anything and everything European. Need an aged Gouda or a slice or two of Raclette? No problem. Looking for a little Asiago, Pecorino Romano, or Castellano? You bet.
But wait, there’s more! Charcuterie from Spain. Italian olive oils. Spices, salts, jams. Organic chocolates. Artisanal crackers. You name it; they’ve got it. But don’t mistake them for a place that’s snooty and unapproachable.
“I don’t like fancy, fou-fou places. I just like fancy, fou-fou food,” Sobocinski joked. “We’re a laid-back, dressed-down place.”
And if you’ve had a visit or two to New Haven, you may have seen their food truck. Specializing in just one menu—grilled cheese and tomato soup—they scour the city for hungry people everywhere. When asked if there was crossover between customers eating at the food truck and the restaurant, Sobocinski said that happens all the time.
“The truck is great P.R.,” he said. “It’s street food. That’s it. I definitely appeal to the ‘less is more’ approach.”
While he said he likes the small, homey bistro atmosphere of Caseus, that hasn’t stopped him from expanding. Just this past spring, he opened another restaurant, Ordinary, in the old Richter’s bar. (Richter’s opened in 1983 and boasted traditional German beers that came in yard glasses. There was no way to walk out of there without needing a cab home.)
He’s also got a cookbook, Caseus Fromagerie Bistro Cookbook: Every Cheese Has a Story, and a show on the Cooking Channel. To him, each venture is its own project. So rather than feeling like he’s spreading himself too thin, he sees each component of his cheese business as its own small endeavor.
Beside the cheese shop, restaurant, and food truck, Caseus offers cheese-pairing workshops, too. They are open lunch only on Mondays and Tuesdays and lunch and dinner Wednesdays through Saturdays. They say the menu changes constantly, so clearly you need to visit often. It is highly recommended to call for reservations ahead of time.