The Set Up
We had dinner at Cafe Lalo on West 83rd St. last Saturday night. Now, I love this restaurant. It feels very Parisian, but also says “Upper West Side” to me. It was in “You’ve Got Mail”, one of my favorite movies. It’s across from the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, one of my kids’ favorite haunts when they were little. The crowd is always fun to watch, a great mix of young and old. The waitresses are really, really nice. And, I love the women’s bathroom.
So, let’s talk about the food. Overall, it’s a casual menu, heavy on veggie choices, and that’s fine with me. We’ll start with the desserts, because that’s the best part. Simply, they are to die for. The breads, pastries and tarts? Equally delicious. (Great brunch place, by the way.) The drinks? Good choices. Great coffees, teas, Italian syrup drinks, wonderful spiced hot cider, and I really like their big coffee cups. Sandwiches? Excellent. (My daughter had an avocado, cheese and veggie sandwich on good bread with a nice house vinaigrette.). Interesting salads and sides, nice fish plates. My husband had a goat cheese and onion tart with a salad – it was yummy.
The Let Down
All of which is to set you up for just how unexpectedly disappointed I was with my own dinner at Lalo that night. I ordered the cheese plate, which is presented on a separate menu card, so I assume it is a house specialty. A plate for one includes 3 cheeses that you get to select from 20 or so, a tiny glass of homemade house wine, a pressed fig, some quince jelly and bread. The cheese selections include several goat’s and sheep’s milk cheeses, which I like.
First they served the blackberry wine, which was delicious and came in an interesting little wine glass, my only complaint being that the thimble-sized serving was too small. The cheese plate itself was attractive. The quince jelly and fig were really tasty. The bread was fresh and warm, and came sprinkled with spices and drizzled with olive oil. I liked that.
So what was the problem? They served the cheese right out of the fridge! It totally ruined what could otherwise have been a marvelous food experience. A “buttery” cheese I selected was buttery, all right. Just like hard butter from the cooler, but worse, in that it crumbled when I cut it. The hard sheep’s milk cheeses were flavorless – no shiny drops of dew glistening on the surface, no odor to enhance the palate, just cold hard cheese.
I asked the very sweet waitress to at least have the chef pop the buttery cheese in the microwave for just a sec to take off the chill. The chef refused, telling her to tell me that “cheese has to be served at 41° Fahrenheit”. (I knew he didn’t mean Celsius, because 41°C is 107°F.) The waitress apologized profusely, and I just finished my dinner, thinking that maybe I was wrong.
The Critic’s Analysis
I was not. From the California Cheese Makers site, this info: “For restaurant service, cheese is best when served at room temperature, so it needs to be removed from refrigeration an hour or so before serving. (The exception is fresh cheeses, which should be treated like fresh milk and kept refrigerated until use.) Whether a cheese selection is offered at the beginning or at the end of the meal, the kitchen staff should estimate how many cheese courses will be served and set out the cheese to allow it to come to room temperature (but not hot kitchen temperature).”
Max McCalman, New York’s cheese maven and author of “Cheese: A Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Best” is quoted in Newsday Magazine recommending to “always serve at room temperature, 65 to 75 degrees. Take cheeses out of the refrigerator at least an hour before serving.” He bemoans that “Restaurants often dish out precut cheese plates straight from the fridge, a temperature at which little can be tasted.”
Here’s what I think happened at Lalo. The chef was more worried about food spoilage than serving great food. It’s hard to keep cheese at the right serving temperature in a restaurant and stay ahead of the food inspectors. One has to estimate correctly the amount of cheese to be served, or keep up with the demand by moving cheese frequently out of the fridge to sit on the cutting board. Who knows, there may even be a requirement to waste uneaten cheese that has come to room temperature.
I understand the dilemma, but as a diner, I have no sympathy. If you are not prepared to serve a cheese course properly, it may be best to take it off the menu. Christ, did I just write that? Somebody stop me – I’m becoming such a goddamned gastric snob… What I meant to say was that I still love Cafe Lalo, and that you should not hesitate to eat there. Just don’t order the cheese plate unless you like your Cleese (I mean cheese) served cold.