One of the best things about New Haven’s most exciting new restaurant in a decade is that it doesn’t act the part. Caseus, which inhabits the old Haya space, looks at first like it’s just the city’s best cheese shop. And it is that. But then you notice a few casual tables set up around the bar—and a few squeezed in by the shop below. And then, if you’re there around lunch or dinner hours, you notice that you can’t have one, because they’re all reserved. (Clearly, the word is out.) There’s bustle and warmth, but the prices aren’t particularly high, and there’s no pomp, no circumstance, no tablecloths, and certainly no calling you sir.
The relentlessly modern, well-edited menu—along with the expertly constructed wine list that’s equally at ease in Alsace, Rioja, or the better nuggets of the New World—is the first real clue to how special this place is. And then there’s the food. Oh, the food. Poutine comes with french fries crisped to such an ideal deep brown that they stand up to the moisture of cheese curds and the thickly reduced brown gravy. A brioche cheeseburger is honest and direct. Pig’s foot, the “offal special” at one visit, had richness seeping from every crevice of melting cartilage. Macaroni and cheese is anchored by gruyère, but that cheese works in complex tandem with several others; unfortunately, the dish suffers from undersalting, one of the few consistent problems here. A creamy plate of homemade pappardelle with lemon zest and Parmigiano exists at the very intersection of richness and lightness, but it, too, is undersalted. Lamb sliders have come a touch overcooked, but still bursting with flavor and moistness. Caseus is not perfect—yet.
The kitchen’s early versatility is impressive. These guys have almost as much of a way with mussels, with crab-and-grapefruit salad, and with fish as they do with the organ meats. Zeppole—crisp, melting balls of fried dough, sprinkled with powdered sugar—come in a brown paper cone, like something you once tasted at the county fair, only much, much better. Your memory has been scanned in, the pubescent haze Photoshopped out, the image sharpened and saturated.
Caseus inhabits that subjunctive place, that anachronistic childhood, that counterfactual culinary space-time. Its haute nostalgia is for a pastoral American cuisine that never really existed, so it had to be invented. As this restaurant matures, it will be an exquisite pleasure for us to have the chance to watch its kitchen change, grow, explore the further reaches of its prodigious potential, and continue to rewrite the early chapters of America’s fictional culinary biography.
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