By Hannah Howard
When Jimmy Coogan texts “we’re having four courses and cheese, come hungry,” I know it’s going to be an epic night.
Cheese people are the best kind of people. Jimmy is my favorite kind of person, which is to say he’s not just a cheese person but a genuine, weird, funny, wonderful cheese guy. Jimmy used to run the show at Ideal Cheese in Midtown East, and then for a while at Fairway Market, where we met. Now, he’s cheese czar at Eli Zabar, and his counter is no joke. Jimmy is married to Bambi, who is a wine guru at Astor Wines & Spirits and lovely, brilliant, and badass.
Also, everyone is meeting Tony, my fiancé, for the first time, even though we’ve been dating for two and a half years. What happened? How have two and a half years—the best two and a half years of my life, by the way—gone by and we haven’t shared a meal? It’s a terrible problem with a delicious solution.
I love dinners in New York City apartments because of the ingenuity required—a big suburban setup would make things too easy. Bambi and Jimmy’s place is cozy, and Tony and I get the seats on the couch. Jimmy brings us a bottle of champagne and a tray of things in tins—calamari stuffed with more calamari, sweet eel, rillettes, bread to sop it all up.
We start sitting up, like respectable human beings, and by the end of the night, which is the next morning, I’m nearly horizontal. Couches: another NYC apartment dinner party perk. We don’t drink from normal sized bottles of wine, they pour from magnums. After the goodies in tins, we eat pasta with tomatoes, Ricotta Salata, and plenty of olive oil. We eat rare steak with greens and perfectly fluffy and crispy potatoes.
And then, of course, the cheese. Jimmy has a philosophy: serve one perfect cheese. He broke his own rule and served us three perfect cheeses:
Cremeux du Lieu: Think half puddle, half cheese. This beauty is made on the French side of the Jura mountains. In summer, it’s blindingly green and all rolling hills, purple wildflowers, and mooing cows. Cheese wonderland. Cremeux du Lieu has all the buttery, luscious ooze of a tripe crème but a mushroomy, cellary funk that makes it solidly unboring.
Cabochon: From the Swiss side of the Jura mountains, right across the border. Without tasting it, Tony says “that’s a Hannah kind of cheese,” which is to say washed rind, gooey, and just the right amount of stinky. The name Cabochon comes from the French term for the crown of a watch—usually a diamond or a sapphire. It’s a jewel of a cheese, made in the style of Reblochon. Its woodsy, beefy, lactic and perfect.
Cinderella: This is perhaps Tony’s new favorite cheese of all time and he 1. Has a serious palate and 2. Is marrying a cheese person. It doesn’t look (or taste) like any cheese I’ve seen before. Its paste is scattered with blue-black spots. Jimmy explains that the pretty dots are sea salt crystals from Cyprus that have been blackened with activated carbon. The whole thing starts out crunchy from the sea salt, but then turns smooth and melting and bright. It makes my whole mouth tingle.
The best part about hanging with cheese people is the people, not the cheese. And yet: the cheese! There was a little left when we couldn’t bear eating one more bite, and Tony and I took home little aluminum foil bundles, which we unwrapped and ate the next day for breakfast sometime late in the afternoon.
Jimmy likes to say, “never underestimate the importance of a cheese man in your life.” Some of the wisest words I’ve ever heard, from one of my favorite cheese men.
Photos: Chia Messina