Raising the Bar

Murray’s Cheese Bar LIC opens a Long Island City flagship restaurant combined with a retail store and its first full-service bar.

Murray’s Cheese has expanded greatly since it was first opened as a single-store retailer located in New York City’s Greenwich Village in 1940.

Today, in addition to its original location, it has added a second site in New York City’s Grand Central Station; a wholesale business with more than 600 restaurant and hotel customers; an e-commerce site; Murray’s Mac & Cheese, a fast-casual restaurant; a catering operation; and an education department that typically hosts classes and a cheese Bootcamp in New York City, along with a newly launched virtual classes program in spring 2020.

And this past August, the company opened its flagship restaurant and cheese shop site, Murray’s Cheese Bar LIC at 28-30 Jackson Avenue in Long Island City, NY.

According to Cara Siegel, Murray’s Cheese director of hospitality, who helped open the original Murray’s Cheese Bar on New York City’s Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village eight years ago, the Long Island City restaurant and retail location was about three years in the making.

“With this new venture, which was planned pre-COVID, we saw an opportunity to tap into cheese plates and wine,” Siegel says.

It was determined a holistic approach was needed to combine the foodservice and retail components into one space.

“The retail store had a lot more transitions as far as where we started and ended with the concept,” Siegel explains. “This was a first of its kind for Murray’s, since it involved all precut cheese and grab-and-go offerings.”

In addition to specialty cheeses from around the world, Murray’s has created more than 35 original and unique cheeses as part of its Cavemaster program, including Cavemaster Original Stockinghall Cheddar and Cavemaster Reserve Annelies.

Location and Logistics

If not for the timing with the pandemic, the Long Island City location would have been ideal, as it was situated among many businesses and high rise residential housing.

“Our fantastic location gives us access to a lot of people in the neighborhood as well as our home base, with Murray’s caves, warehouse, commissary kitchen and offices nearby,” Siegel says.

Greg Cochran, general manager, who oversees both the new restaurant and retail space, describes the shared space “as if you had two spaces and blew out the wall between them.” The restaurant has 50 seats, with capacity for 12 at the bar. The retail shop plan, which includes 120 different types of cheese and specialty grocery items like jam, honey, crackers, pasta and sauces, didn’t change much from its original ideation. However, the same didn’t hold true for the restaurant offerings.

It turned out that although combining the restaurant and retail space was beneficial given the trying circumstances last summer, adjustments still needed to be made to accommodate state COVID mandates on the foodservice side.

Initially, the restaurant menu was driven by small plates for sharing, but that needed to be reworked temporarily.

“Since our opening, the menu has gone through a number of changes to better serve the community [during the pandemic],” Cochran says. “To keep up with compliance, right now it focuses on items we can provide for takeout and delivery.”

A section of the restaurant also was converted to house a winter market.

Murray’s wine and spirits sales are strong, as there aren’t many options in the neighborhood for these items.

“We’ve also developed our own meal kits with dishes customers can make at home, along with make-at-home cocktail kits,” Siegel says.

Attention to Detail

When one walks into the Long Island City space, there are marble bars hugging each side of the door, which include displays of wine and spirits. Off to the right is the retail store with coolers along the wall—one for fresh dairy and two for cheese. A charcuterie counter in front displays almost two dozen items. On the other side of the store is a wide selection of shelf-stable grocery items.

“The retail shop is a precut concept, where we cut cheese beforehand so customers can easily pick it up on the spot,” Cochran says. “We wanted to focus on having our mongers on the same side of the counter as the guests, [rather than behind the counter cutting cheese], so they can really be able to walk customers through our cheese and provide a unique experience for every shopper.”

Murray’s Cheese worked with New York City-based Rockwell Group to create the restaurant design, which was inspired by its cheese cave.

“Rockwell did a lot of auditing of our brand as well as touring our facilities and caves,” Siegel says. “They took a lot of inspiration from this experience.”

While the restaurant was influenced by the cave’s colors, aromas and textures, along with the molds growing on the cheese, the retail side emulated the main ingredient of cheese—milk.

“The store has clean, white marble and takes its inspiration from linen and brass and copper taken from other tools used in making milk and cheese,” Siegel says. “The store transitions with an archway into the restaurant that blends bright teal, purple and orange colors. There are lots of plants and energy in the place, which is beautiful and vibrant.”

Of course, because it’s Murray’s, the cheese focus is evident throughout the facility.

Due to the fact that the original small plate concept that encouraged communal dining and sharing wasn’t COVID-appropriate, the test menu was temporarily scrapped. Clare Malfitano, Murray Cheese LIC’s chef de cuisine, was forced to start from square one.

“We wanted to make a big splash in Long Island City and the dining scene here, so it was a turnaround for us,” Malfitano says. “We were able to salvage some items but wanted to appeal to everyone and highlight outdoor dining.”

The original menu featured cheese-adjacent dishes, which did not always translate well to delivery. This has limited the current foodservice program to support Murray’s mac and cheese business.

“We’re acting as an expansion for Murray’s Mac & Cheese, so our new customers can get to know us and be more exposed to us through our mac and cheese, which is what we’re famous for,” Malfitano says.

Currently, the restaurant offerings have shifted to include Murray’s signature mac and cheese, along with cheese plates and charcuterie plates featuring Murray’s cheeses.

Guests can speak with mongers and benefit from their cheese knowledge and pairing advice.

“Every dish has some element of cheese or dairy in it,” Cochran says. “In some dishes, cheese is the focus, while in others it will highlight the ingredients. It’s more about how cheese can complement fresh vegetables and flavors. We don’t want people to feel inundated with just cheese.”

Unlike the original Murray’s Mac & Cheese, which is located by New York University and has more of a comfort food vibe with its mac and cheese and grilled cheese, the Long Island City restaurant is designed to encourage guests to experience cheese in different ways with pairings and creative dishes.

“Because of Greg’s background in the New York restaurant industry, the original menu featured raclette or fondue and a deconstructed cheese bar that still included the classics of our original location, but in a different way,” Siegel explains.

The team is now looking to engage in a summer menu that includes chicken salad topped with feta and eggplant parmesan with burrata on top.

“Our menu is more playful, but when indoor dining resumes, we can play up the presentation,” Malfitano says.

The restaurant is still offering some of its items that were featured for indoor dining, including kale salad with Murray’s Alp Blossom cheese shaved on top. Its rind is used as a garnish for the dish.

Because this was the first time Murray’s Cheese had a full liquor license, the restaurant is able to leverage Cochran’s expertise as a former bartender and beverage program creator.

“Everyone pairs cheese with wine, but there’s a whole world of spirits, and I wanted to step into that, as well. I put together a cocktail menu that highlighted and complemented cheese as well as ingredients that go with cheese,” he says. “For example, one cocktail has mascarpone in it, while another is infused with cheese rinds. I also created cocktails that pair well with cheese.”

Post pandemic, the plan is to meld all the concepts together.

“We want to maintain an elevated dining experience that we originally sought to cultivate with our cheese-adjacent menu,” Malfitano explains. “We had a positive response to the original menu and want to have fun with cheese.”

In the meantime, for those not in the area, its frozen mac and cheese is available for shipping nationwide through Murray’s e-commerce site, murrayscheese.com.

Malfitano says the team is continuing doing creative projects in the caves with its cheesemaking.

“My current favorite is Finocchietto, an original blue covered in fennel,” says Malfitano. “We’re finding a happy medium between our menu now with cheese- centric dishes and balancing it out with those looking for something outside the box.” With the current COVID restrictions in place at press time, Murray’s Cheese newest venture seeks to get back to being more versatile and working with cheeses to highlight them in different ways.

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