By Hannah Howard

SCOOP DU JOUR is a weekly column by food enthusiast  Hannah Howard about eating, cooking, and exploring her way through New York.  From a visit with the City’s greatest grocer to discovering the “umami” of love,  Fridays are packed with the unique flavor only Hannah can coax out of a culinary experience.

I interviewed for my job at Casellula — the totally charming, perpetually packed cheese and wine bar in Hell’s Kitchen — before it was Casellula. We sat on crates on the floor, the restaurant a construction project around us, thick with wood smell. A vendor came in to do a cream and milk tasting, so I joined the owners in sipping raw milk from little glass jars; silky, sweet, grassy, good.

They hired me, and shortly thereafter, Casellula opened. It was adrenaline-filled and slammed from the start — the stink of cheese, the buzz of service, the no-joke knowledge of the professionals I worked beside, the regulars who came for their midnight goose breast rueben fix, the blistered Peppadew peppers oozing with buffalo mozz, the late nights, the purple joy of sparkling shiraz. I was 19; I was in heaven.

A few months in, I “trained” Jamie Mayne. The quotations are because Jamie already knew her way around fine dining, serious cheese, esoteric wines, and the organized chaos of a slammed service. She taught me a lot more than I her. Still, I showed her this little, new restaurant, the way you had to squeeze around the dishwasher when you went to pour some Carmenere at the bar.

Jamie was wonderful to work with in every way. She had my back, had the loveliest strange sense of humor, kicked major ass and exuded talent, yet didn’t take herself too seriously. Jamie sometimes showed up with tasty munchies — salty prosciutto and chunks of honeydew and fat cashews. But when Jamie came to work carrying a big, round tin, life was good. Inside the tin: her grandma’s nut brittle. Crack. The night went a lot faster between bites of nut and butter goodness, crunchy yet meltingly rich. Jamie’s grandma is a brittle genius.

Sometimes Jamie’s husband, Brian, would come by after his own restaurant job, and we’d drink whatever was open and laugh until my throat tickled and my eyes watered.

I left Casellula to move to LA for a restaurant management boot camp. But no visit to New York was complete without a visit to Jamie and Casellula. She’d make me a plate of the funkiest cheeses with pairings like wasabi pickled green beans, blood red beet marshmallows, and kettle corn. We’d have chocolate cake and giggle like the good old days.

Then, Jamie left. And I mourned. But my mourning was misguided. Jamie and Brian were up to something entirely exciting. They were opening up their own place.

The bad news for me is that it’s in Jersey City. They live there, upstairs. New Jersey is more a mental block than an actual one. Third & Vine is not prohibitively far away — it’s an easy PATH ride to Grove Street, then a short jaunt past a charming, gentrifying spread of bookstore cafes and dark-windowed bars. And then: Third & Vine, their baby.

What a happy place. Jamie’s cheeses sit proudly in ornate antique cabinets, the star of the show. There are three dozen and counting, so I leave it up to Jamie, always a good move. A just-oozy-enough Robiola, made in small batches from the milk of the rare Roccaverano goat in Piedmont, gives me goose bumps. I’m a sucker for stink — Jamie mellows out the gamy, not-messing-around Zimbro, a sheep’s milk beauty from Portugal, with parsnip puree. Brilliant. There’s Le Cousin, which I’ve never before laid eyes on. A cousin Jurg makes the cheese in Switzerland, then it is shipped to France and impeccably aged at the Haute Savoie dairy near Lake Annecy. It’s from Switzerfrance, Jamie writes on her menu, because duh.

cheese list

Image courtesy of New York Natives, photographer Hannah Howard

I’m late to the party — they’ve been open a year, and the place is full on a Sunday night. Their bar and high tables are gorgeous, from reclaimed wood found after Hurricane Sandy. The lighting is low, all sexy. I feel like a terrible friend, that it took me a year to get here, but there’s nowhere else I rather be.

It’s not just about the cheese, either. Brian knows what he’s doing with cool cocktails and an affordable but sophisticated wine list. (It’s his day off so he’s sleeping. You don’t get much sleep, opening and running your new restaurant.) Smoked salmon devilled eggs (!!), absurdly, perfectly rich pate with onion balsamic marmalade that I want to suck down by the spoonful, house smoked duck breast sandwiched with melty Gruyere and pickled serranos…yes, please.

For dessert: maple bacon cheesecake with a cloud of fresh whipped cream…and because Jamie still must love me, despite my neglect, some hazelnut brittle. Her grandma’s recipe, but this rendition is covered in white chocolate. My friend contemplates smuggling the rest of the brittle home in her purse, Jewish grandma style, but it’s everything I can do not to eat every last transcendent bite, sweet and salty.

Jamie has it, and so does Third & Vine. I’ll be going back to Jersey City, and that’s saying a lot.

For more SCOOP DU JOUR, click here.

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