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 four-month-old neighborhood bar so discreetly located some of its closest neighbors barely know it’s there.
The U.G. only recently learned of the joint’s existence via a Greenmarket tweet: Ardith Mae, the Pennsylvania goat-cheese dairy, had suffered the snow-weighted collapse of two barns, and Earl’s was throwing a brunch benefit to help the mom-and-pop owners and their herd of does get back on their feet. If nothing else, this act of charity demonstrated as deep and abiding a love for local cheese as one might hope to find in a beer bar where the mascot is a pig with antlers wearing a top hat.
In fact, though, on several forays to this northern hinterland, we found much more: an ebullient but civilized young crowd mercifully free of frat-house yahoos, good tunes played at conversation-friendly decibel levels, and a bar-food menu that never failed to surprise or satisfy. Having said that, culinary pilgrims should note that the space is tight and, unlike most of the city’s so-called gastropubs, 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 daily-changing tap selection. (There’s also a rotating roster of craft cans with a few nostalgic quirks thrown in for fun, like the Genny Cream Ale the underage U.G. and some juvenile-delinquent friends used to guzzle by the bucketful.)
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 an elegant seasonal-pickle plate, the hearty reliance on pork and eggs, and the canny integration of Asian flavors on an otherwise all-American comfort-food menu.
But Cova—who, fittingly, given the size of this place, also did time cooking in a Navy submarine—has managed to carve out a unique identity for Earl’s. Cheese is the thing, and it is everywhere: whipped with spuds in the sticky, stretchy cheese-curd potatoes; blended with Sriracha into an outrageously tasty beer-cheese spread; combined with shredded chicken in a mug of tangy mac and cheese; or presented au naturel, on a cutting board, with each specimen’s name scrawled by the chef on a piece of brown butcher paper. Beyond a bowl of mildly spiced tomato soup—no, wait, that has cream in it—the lactose-intolerant have little recourse. Even the roasted half game hen—Earl’s most complete meal, with its hefty slab of pork belly, fried egg, and pickled broccoli rabe—gets a few shavings of Landaff, a New Hampshire cow’s-milk cheese cave-aged at Jasper Hill. 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.