Mon-Tue, 4pm-midnight; Wed-Thu, 11am-midnight; Fri-Sat, 11am-2am; Sun, 11am-midnight
6 at 96th St.
American Express, MasterCard, Visa
Unless the Underground Gourmet is experiencing a medical or cooking emergency and speeding posthaste to Mount Sinai hospital or Kitchen Arts & Letters (the great cookbook shop), we find little need to venture to the East Nineties intersection of Carnegie Hill and East Harlem. To those exigencies of life, we can now add a third: a bite to eat at Earl’s Beer & Cheese, a neighborhood bar so discreetly located some of its closest neighbors barely know it’s there. The young crowd is ebullient but civilized (and mercifully free of frat-house yahoos), good tunes are played at conversation-friendly decibel levels, and the bar-food menu never fails to surprise or satisfy. Having said that, culinary pilgrims should note that the space is tight and it’s decidedly a bar rather than a restaurant. You are kindly asked to order from the bartender, and depending on the night and the hour, if you’re not lucky enough to wriggle into an inside seat at the single communal table (fashioned from a slab of an old bowling alley, no less), you might have to scarf your snack standing along a narrow ledge, all the while being gently and apologetically jostled by an off-duty Mount Sinai resident, or a bespectacled beer geek singing the praises of the frequently-changing tap selection. (There’s also a rotating roster of craft cans with a few nostalgic quirks thrown in for fun.)
Still, despite the place’s super-convivial vibe and tasty beer, the Underground Gourmet is always most motivated by the victuals, and Earl’s Beer & Cheese had us at the Calabro-mozzarella grilled cheese on a Thomas’ English muffin. The crazy-genius idea behind this concoction is the inclusion of dill-pickle slices, potato chips, and a hearty slathering of miso mayo smooshed into the sandwich. It sounds horribly wrong, but tastes incredibly right. Nearly as delicious is another seemingly loony-bin invention featuring New York State Cheddar melted over braised pork belly with kimchee and a fried egg on griddle-toasted sourdough. Man, is it good. Both sandwiches are the inspired work of chef Corey Cova, who comes to Earl’s from earlier stints at Michael Symon’s Lolita, Morimoto, and, perhaps most tellingly, Momofuku Ssäm Bar, whose presence is felt in the hearty reliance on pork and eggs and the canny integration of Asian flavors on an otherwise all-American comfort-food menu. But cheese is still the thing, and it is everywhere: blended with Sriracha into an outrageously tasty beer-cheese spread or combined with shredded chicken in a mug of tangy mac and cheese. (The beer cheese also makes an appearance in “Earl’s Torpedo,” where it’s smeared in a potato hot dog bun along with blue cheese, buffalo chicken, and lettuce.) Beyond a bowl of mildly spiced tomato soup—no, wait, that has cream in it—the lactose-intolerant have little recourse. Which, you have to admit, is just as it should be at a place called Earl’s Beer & Cheese, an excellent ambassador for all things hoppy, malty, and dairy, in a neighborhood where those pickings are particularly slim.
Beer cheese, mozzarella sandwich, bread pudding