Cheese purists prefer a cheese platter at a restaurant, or perhaps a single favorite cheese served with a few crackers or slices of hard pear. But the rest of us like the transformations cheese undergoes when incorporated into a recipe by an inspired cook. And we don’t mean things like cheeseburgers, Philly cheesesteaks, or lasagna, in which cheese takes an accessory role. Here are five of my favorite cheese dishes in the city and environs — and gosh, were these choices difficult to make, given the ubiquity of cheese and my affection for it. As a friend once told me, “I’d never date anyone who doesn’t like cheese.”
5. Yellow snowing cheese fries at Pelicana Chicken
Fries dressed with painfully yellow cheese food product are not difficult to find, especially at fast-food restaurants and in Jersey, where they’re known playfully as disco fries. Often these fries are a means to disguise second-rate and chalky french fries. Not so at Korean chicken chain Pelicana, where the gooey cheese, dubiously identified here as cheddar, is bolstered with lots of crumbled bacon. The result is a salty, smoky, and creamy basket of joy. 52 E. 8th Street, between Mercer and Green streets, Greenwich Village
4. Cacio e pepe at Marcus B & P
At Marcus Samuelsson’s downtown Newark restaurant Marcus B & P, a tile-floored gastropub that feels a hundred years old, he’s worked wonders with mac and cheese, locating his version somewhere between Roman cacio e pepe and the traditional soul food rendition. It’s gooey and salty, sharpened with cracked black peppercorns and topped with extra shaved pecorino and bread crumbs. Served as a side dish, it instantly becomes the center of attention. 56 Halsey Street, between New and Bleeker streets, Newark
3. Cheese blintzes at Katz’s Delicatessen
No one would suspect a Jewish meat deli to have the best cheese blintzes in town, but Katz’s does. The elastic wrappers are stuffed with a lavish amount of sweetened pot cheese, a light and crumbly fresh cheese midway between cottage cheese and farmer cheese. The tops comes dusted with powdered sugar, with any combination of sour cream, applesauce, and blueberry compote on the side. Or, ask for all three. 205 E. Houston Street, at Ludlow Street, Lower East Side
2. Cheese and tomato sandwich at Usha Foods
Grilled cheese sandwiches made from American or mild cheddar are so common and so similar, it would be hard to distinguish them. But add a couple of twists and you can have something not only good, but magnificent. Such is the case with Usha Foods’s grilled cheese, which comes with a double layer of Indian amul cheese — a canned, saltier processed cheese — with a moisturizing stratum of tomato in the middle, and a slight slather of mint chutney on both slices of bread. It comes with additional mint chutney on the side, for dipping. 255-03 Hillside Avenue, between 255th and 256th streets, Floral Park
1. Imeruli khachapuri at Mtskheta Cafe
The cheese-oozing breads of Georgia in the former Soviet Union have attracted a lot of attention lately, but more often than not, it’s the version with the handles, cheese, egg yolk, and butter. Even for cheese lovers, that’s almost too much extraneous dairy, with the cheese taking a back seat to the egg and butter. For real cheeseheads, the imeruli khachapuri is the real prize, with a filling of pure imeruli cheese that not so much oozes as thickly flows, especially this brilliant version found at Brooklyn’s Mtskheta Cafe. The optional walnut sauce, found elsewhere on the menu, makes a wonderful dip. 2568 86th St., at Stillwell Avenue, Gravesend
Check out previous 5 Faves: octopus, duck, egg, and bacon.
Disclosure: Marcus Samuelsson is host of No Passport Required, a show produced by PBS and Eater.