Caseus, New Haven

Caseus ★★ (Very Good)

93 Whitney Ave., New Haven (203/624-3373)

Lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 to 4. Dinner Wednesday and Thursday 5:30 to 9:30, Friday and Saturday till 10. Handicapped access. Major credit cards. Price range: Smaller plates $7 to $11, larger plates $14 to $22, desserts $5 to $7.

Dinner in a cheese shop? Sounds a bit limited but not when you've read the menu. Crab and grapefruit salad with frisée, shallots and pink grapefruit dressing. Roasted organic Bell & Evans chicken with cured lemon and braised vegetables. Fried oysters, zucchini soup, duck, fish, steak. Caseus (kay-see-us) appears to be a fromagerie with illusions of grandeur. We shall see.

What we see when we get there is a quirky patchwork of small eating spaces a few steps up, a few steps down, with mismatched tables and chairs strategically arranged to utilize every nook and cranny. Idiosyncratically decorated, too clean to be called funky, Caseus marches to its own drummer.

"We use peanut oil," the menu announces rather startlingly, alongside a more reassuring mission statement: "Our goal is to pamper you while eating at Caseus. Any request will be considered with the utmost importance." A note on the restroom mirror advises hand-washers to "clean, clean, clean-really scrub."

On a Thursday night, the place is packed. It's a talkative crowd but the noise level is fairly civilized. The no-nonsense menu, neatly arranged, features Smaller Plates and Larger Plates, but the actual sizing is a bit capricious. For example, our crabmeat salad is huge, consisting of lump crabmeat and grapefruit sections heaped on top of a deep bowlful of frisée and caramelized shallots. Ordered as a starter, it could easily serve four. The greens, crisp and fresh, are embellished with only a splash of pink grapefruit dressing. As our meal progresses, we note that chef-owner Jason Sobocinski and his cooking team handle vegetables and greens with considerable respect. A beet salad, for example, is the essence of simplicity: slices of garden-fresh red and yellow beets are displayed like crown jewels framed with arugula leaves lightly brushed with cured-lemon dressing.

Salads shine at Caseus. My favorite is Bibb and bacon, whole leaves of buttery Bibb lettuce, layered with heirloom tomatoes (purple, yellow, red) and sprinkled with diced bacon lardons.

At this point, I take the plunge and order poutine, a dish I put in the same category as haggis and poi-foods you probably have to have been weaned on to fully enjoy. Caseus makes a traditional Quebec-style poutine with mozzarella curds from a local cheese-maker, french fries and a classic velouté sauce. Don't be daunted if what arrives looks like a bit of a mess. It's supposed to look like that. Whether or not you consider the mess ungodly or divine is decidedly a matter of taste. If you like it, you adore it, and Caseus has a coterie of customers who do, but it's not for me. I must say the Caseus version is infinitely more appealing than poutines involving meat gravy or tomato sauce, often called disco fries and popular in parts of New York and New Jersey.

At Caseus the array of salads and small plates is so alluring we get a bit carried away, ordering all of the above plus a chilled zucchini soup-completely dairy-free, our waitress offers-and a tiny quiche made with roasted eggplant. White eggplant from a local garden, we find out later. "A lady brings in a few every other day-when they're the right size."

This passion for artisanal ingredients and devotion to local sources means that the menu at Caseus changes not only with the seasons but from day to day. Duck, a special on Saturday nights, is a case in point. On a return visit, it turns up in the form of orange-herb risotto topped with duck confit and paired with seared moulard duck breast in thin, ruby-red slices. Not your farmhouse Saturday night, although much of Caseus' food is.

Roasted chicken, for example, couldn't have been homier, crisp-skinned, running with chicken jus, and plated with braised vegetables. It's a bit pricey at $22. A better buy is steak frites at $19, exceptionally tender hanger steak, with the smoky taste of fire grilling that I love. Served with great french fries and house-made mayo, it's bistro fare at its best.

Desserts leave something to be desired. For one thing, only three are offered: A sliver of cheesecake is good enough to make us wish for more. But the blueberry bread pudding, a huge hunk, is heavy and curiously tasteless. Foamy custard sauce might improve it. Or fresh peach compote? Never mind. Pot au crème, usually served in a demitasse cup, arrives topped with whipped cream in a large footed beer glass-more than enough for four-and is so outrageously rich we defy each other to eat more than three spoonfuls.

We expect the cheese board to be equally opulent. After all, the menu describes it as "selected by our mongers for seasonality and peak ripeness, accompanied by our best preserves, nuts and local breads." In lieu of opulence, we get excellence in the form of rustic, wheaty cranberry-nut bread from Fabled Foods in Deep River, a dab of ginger preserves, and small-very small-samplings of rich and rare and intensely tasty cheeses: Mimolette, an heirloom cow's milk cheese that looks and tastes like aged Gouda; Brebirousse d'Argental, a soft sheep's milk cheese covered in a red-and-white mold rind from the Lyon region of France; a Cato Corner cow's-milk made in Colchester, aged three-and-a-half months; and Payoyo, an artisanal sheep-and-goat's-milk cheese made in the south of Spain. We love every bite.

Caseus boasts a full-service bar and a collection of small brewery beers and sub-appellation wines described with such verve we find ourselves reading aloud. "Have this one with our mussels," the list commands, referring to "Clos des Briords Muscadet 2006 made from a single vineyard of 75-year-old vines grown on deep topsoil over granite."

But Caseus is for connoisseurs with a taste for the unexpected, not for wine snobs, trenchermen or bargain hunters (that meager cheese plate is $14). What Jason Sobocinski and his crew are doing is admirable, and costly: Supporting local farmers, serving organic food and wine, recycling, eschewing plastic and paper. And making the whole enterprise easy and fun, not to mention delicious.

(This article was originally published on a different platform. Some formatting changes may have occurred.)

This article appeared in the October 2008 issue of Connecticut Magazine

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