Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain said that one must “be a romantic to invest yourself, your money and your time in cheese,” and if indeed that is the case, then Brian Keyser fits the hopeless category when it comes to coagulated milk proteins.
His hotly anticipated homage to fromage, Casellula @ Alphabet City, a cheese-centric restaurant, will open Friday on the North Side at the old Masonic Hall on West North Avenue. It’s part of City of Asylum’s Alphabet City project and the Pittsburgh offshoot of his Casellula Cheese & Wine Cafe, which opened in Manhattan in 2007 to bring handmade cheeses from around the world to New Yorkers. Beaver Falls native Andrew Hill, most recently sous chef at Station in Bloomfield, will be doing the cooking. A graduate of Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, he also has cooked at Ten Tables and Craigie on Main in Boston.
Casellula proved successful enough that in 2015, Mr. Keyser decided to open a second restaurant. He was negotiating a deal in Nashville when he stopped in Pittsburgh for dinner with a friend. That led to a meeting with City of Asylum co-founder Henry Reese and the beginning of a conversation that led to Casellula @ Alphabet City.
“I didn’t know Pittsburgh at all. Now that I’m spending a lot of time here, and getting to know the neighborhoods, it’s a great city with great people. I’m really happy to be here,” Mr. Keyser said.
It’s the same kind of happy accident/twist of fate that took the California native from a film industry career in Los Angeles at age 27 that made him miserable to one in fine dining in New York. There, he found his true calling, although at the time he said, “I really had no interest in cheese. I didn’t get cheese on my sandwiches. I didn’t really like cheese. Or I thought I didn’t like cheese.”
He’d quit his job and moved to New York and through a friend secured a server position at the iconic Union Square Cafe. That led to a position at Chanterelle, where he got his first crash course in cheese, and then the Modern, where he directed the cheese program. A few years later, he developed his plan for Casellula.
As in New York, Casellula @ Alphabet City’s focus will be on cheese plates drawing from at least 25 varieties at any one time, and they’ll be paired with more than 70 fine wines. The 60-seat restaurant also will feature small plates, salads and sweets. Much of the product comes from a Cleveland-based distributor, but he has discovered and will incorporate local products such as Goat Rodeo cheeses from Indiana Township.
For those who think that a cheese might sound a little highfalutin, Mr. Keyser insists that’s not the idea.
“The restaurant environment is not fancy or formal, it’s casual, and we want it to be as unintimidating as possible,” he said. “I know that the cheese world is like wine in that it can be incomprehensible to people who don’t know anything about it. What we try to do is give people a cheese plate that is beautiful and enjoyable just on its own but can give people an opportunity to learn. We’ll answer any questions you have about cheese.”
Besides, he added, “I’ve been the guy who just looked at the cheese list and said ‘I don’t know’ and moved on. I know where they’re coming from — I’ve been there.”
Dan Gigler: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter @gigs412.