At the end of a year of travel, time spent entertaining family and friends seems particularly precious. And there is little I enjoy more than preparing for the festivities. The following stores are mandatory stops for stocking the Harper larder and cellar.
An annual treat is a generous wedge of aged Stilton. My cheese monger of choice has long been Murray’s on Bleecker Street. Long a fixture in the predominantly Italian neighborhood of the West Village, Murray’s acquired an enhanced reputation in the late 1990s when owner Rob Kaufelt began systematically expanding and upgrading the varieties of cheese for sale. His most innovative change was creating the shop’s own aging caves, right below Bleecker Street. You can now find more than 300 cheeses, from all over the world.
Happily, among them is my favorite Stilton, produced by Colston Bassett ($28.99 per pound). It is creamy and earthy with a little mineral tang. While convention demands that walnuts be served to accompany Stilton, I much prefer almonds, which complement the richness of the cheese more effectively. And Murray’s sells the lightly roasted, gently salted Largueta almonds from Spain that I like ($6.99 per half-pound). Murray’s also stocks the finest Cheddar in the world: Montgomery’s, from Somerset in southwest England ($29.99 per pound). 254 Bleecker Street. Tel. (212) 243-3289.
In my view, good Stilton requires an accompanying glass of Port. Invariably, I find myself heading to Park Avenue Liquor Shop (confusingly located on Madison Avenue) because it has not only an admirable range of Ports but also an extraordinary selection of single malt whiskies. Currently, 115 bottles of Port are for sale, with prices ranging from $18 to $3,600. You will find examples from the great vintage years—’63, ’70, ’94—that are ready for drinking, as well as those from more recent vintage years—2000, ’05 and ’07— that can be laid down. I find Warre’s 2000 ($65) extremely appealing.
For those who aren’t already malt whisky connoisseurs, I recommend the 12-year-old Highland Park, made in the Orkney Islands, a bargain at $56. It is readily accessible, whereas the peaty malts from the Hebridean island of Islay are an acquired taste. Among the Islay malts, my current favorite is Bruichladdich Classic. Park Avenue Liquor also stocks an outstanding range of 147 Champagnes, plus around 50 sparkling wines from all over the world, including the best made in the United States, Roederer Estate Brut nonvintage, a steal at $18.99. 292 Madison Avenue. Tel. (212) 685-2442.
Good caviar is an extravagance, but I indulge myself from time to time. You will find an extraordinary array at Petrossian, both in its gorgeous restaurant, adorned with Lalique fixtures and Erté mirrors, and at its charming boutique-bakery. (The restaurant is a delightful spot for a pre- or post-performance meal when you go to Carnegie Hall, which is just a block away.) In light of the severe pressures put on sturgeon in the Caspian Sea by overfishing and rampant poaching, Petrossian has been proactive in identifying alternative sources. I have greatly enjoyed the Royal Transmontanus caviar, which comes from sustainable California white sturgeon. (Prices start at $69 for 30 grams, or one generous serving.) And although many look down on it, I have always liked pressed caviar for its intense flavor. A smooth, dense, salty paste, it is made from the eggs that break during the packing of traditional caviar. It can also be rolled and cut in a variety of shapes. 182 West 58th Street at Seventh Avenue. Tel. (212) 245-2214.
I cannot pass the holidays without smoked salmon, for which I head downtown to Russ & Daughters. This is not an elegant place like Petrossian, but it sells the best smoked salmon I know of. Open since 1914, this Lower East Side institution has remained in its original location, even as the neighborhood around it has thrived, declined and rebounded once more. The refrigerated cases display smoked salmon in iterations from Canadian Gaspe Nova to Irish organic. But in deference to my roots, I generally opt for the Scottish, which has been smoked over cherry and apple woods ($38 a pound). 179 East Houston Street. Tel. (212) 475-4880.
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