On Trumbull Street, Caseus was preparing for the lunch rush. In the cheese shop downstairs, a cheesemonger weighed chunks of mild, melty Saint D’Agur, runny Mont d’Or, and young, still-timid Manchego for a steady stream of customers.
Scents rose as they inspected jars of hard-to-find preserves and flaky sea salt, wrapping the room in a cheesy, nutty fog.
Blocks away on Chapel Street, Ordinary sat silent for a moment, its wood-paneled walls, stocked bar, and slick floors still recovering from the night before.
Meanwhile, in the tasting room at Black Hog Brewery in Oxford, things were just starting to heat up. At the bar, Raymond Grabowski served the day’s 20th full slate, a generous sampling of the brewery’s 10 most popular beers, from light to dark. At a long wooden table, a group of friends conquered plates of tender pulled pork, shrimp and sausage gumbo and smoked macaroni and cheese from a friendly vendor outside. In front of them, the Black Hog trademark Jenga set sprawled out like an invitation.
At the middle of it all — sometimes literally, as he drove from one place to the next — was Jason Sobocinski, owner of Caseus and co-owner of Ordinary and Black Hog. On this particular Saturday, he was out at the brewery, winding around vats of Easy Rye Da IPA and Ginga’ Ninja’ beer, his phone pressed close to his ear as he listened to an unfolding saga of a goat farm, the inhumane practices of which warranted Sobocinski pulling its cheese from Caseus.
The problem, explained Sylvia Sobocinski — Jason’s mother and the master cheesemonger at Caseus’s cheese shop — was that the farm was still advertising their goods as sold at Caseus, while the shop had pulled them earlier in the year. It fell to Sobocinski, who among many other things is hesitant social media guru for the three establishments, to make sure New Haveners knew they were eating the cheese of happy goats, a philosophy that translates to his ceremonial hog roasts and painstaking choice of which marbled cuts of meat to sell, cook, and consume. He listened patiently, waving to familiar customers as they filtered in.
For some business owners, this might be the end. Too much pressure. Too much to handle too quickly. Too many hurt feelings. Those tricky politics of the digital age. But for Sobocinski, who deftly juggles the titles of chef, professional cheese enthusiast, and king of bedtime storytelling, it was just another Saturday at the three establishments on which he has built a mini cheese empire (cheesepire?) with his younger brother Tom, associates Mike Farber and Tim Cabral, and most recently, brewmaster Tyler Jones.
In The Beginning Was The Cheese
Sobocinski is full of delicious secrets, like what makes a good barley wine, how his Valentine’s Day menu at Caseus makes people swoon, and not over their dates, and why the inside of Ordinary smells like the best tarte tatin this side of Paris.
But — although he admits to being able to eat Comté cheese for breakfast, lunch, and dinner — it never has been just about the food. It’s about the people who make the food.
Caseus, Sobocinski said, felt like a natural continuation of his career after degrees in Providence and Boston and time at both Chestnut Fine Foods and Formaggio Kitchen, largely because he couldn’t envision not coming home. For him, a New Haven native, the Elm City is resplendent with tasty memories: his nana’s eggy rice and meatballs, the latter studded with raisins and chunks of milk-soaked bread; boiled vegetables and an unending flow of blueberry muffins on his father’s side of the family; his vegetarian parents’ occasional penchant for bacon. Now he’s making similar memories with his wife and sons, the youngest of whom has taken to banging on the refrigerator looking for cheese.
“I really got into cheese, and my mom got into cheese, working at Caseus. I like cooking with cheese. The stuff is amazing, and you can make stuff amazing by adding little bits of it,” Sobocinski said. “I think my mom really wanted to work with us. Wanted to be part of the business. I could have opened Caseus up anywhere, but we had to open up in New Haven, because that’s where mom is.” Then he added exuberantly: “Dad too!”
“We have cheese in our blood,” added Tom Sobocinski, Jason’s younger brother, business partner, and self-proclaimed goudamaster. And they do: over table five on Caseus’s wall hangs a picture of their great-grandfather and great-uncles in their specialty shop on Wooster Street, hoisting a 750-pound torpedo-sized block of provolone.
With nightly specials like warm farro salad, deconstructed burgers, and braised short rib, a menu that changes seasonally, and themed evenings like beer night and skillet Saturdays, Caseus has always sought to open its doors to a wide range of customers.
“As a restaurant, you need to continue to reinvent yourself,” Sobocinski said. “You cannot be the same place over and over again, and we cannot rest on our laurels at Caseus. We’ve done some great things ... but we’re learning along the way. We learn something new about the business every day. The passion is there, and every day we’re trying to find something new ... a new cheese, a new technique, a new customer to appeal to or a new story to tell people.”
Which is also the idea behind Caseus’s cheese truck, now entrusted to Adam Major and Billy Wallen. What began as a trip to check out a truck from a Craigslist ad in New Jersey, both Sobocinski brothers say, ended in several grilled-cheese trial runs to produce their melty, salty sea of white between hearty slices of local bread, dipped in grainy mustard with a sweet, glistening cornichon on the side.
Going Whole Hog
But Sobocinski didn’t feel like he was done. Enter Ordinary, his project with Tom and Cabral. Whether ordering Four Roses from one of the bartenders or marveling at the stuffed moose head while noshing on grilled cheese, fish tacos, or pork in the warm, wood-paneled back room, visitors are meant to feel at home.
That was also his idea behind Black Hog Brewing Company, born when the Sobocinskis’ family friend Rachel married now-brewmaster Tyler Jones around the time Tom was getting into home brewing. When Cavalry Brewing in Oxford went up for sale, it seemed to the Sobocinskis and Jones that there was only one logical thing to do.
“It was a perfect opportunity, exactly what we were looking for in terms of size,” said Tom.
“We had been buying beer for Ordinary from Cavalry, and it all kind of fell into place,” Jason added. “The price was right, the infrastructure was what we wanted, and in doing a lot of the research ... New Haven is our home town — we love New Haven — but we couldn’t find a facility that we could afford as a startup for the scale that we wanted to work off of.”
The solution — to plant the brewery in Oxford, finance it with a “nontraditional board” of silent equity share partners, and cross their fingers and toes that visitors would follow — is working. When visitors arrive, they are greeted by a tasting room where the nuts and bolts of the operation are all out in the open. Vats of brewing beer glint from the walls and industrial shelving units. Brew tubes and thermometers line the floor behind a rope that visitors cannot cross. It’s what Jason, Tom, and Jones all intended: a tasting space where the process is exposed while the product is consumed.
So far, their vision, which includes small batches of beers like CT Love Bomb and some perfected, well-loved libations like Ginga’ Ninja’, Granola Brown, Strawberry Goose, and others is making people happy. Or at least it was that recent Saturday ...
... with some drinking ...
... and conversing with old friends and new.
Even the goat farm decision is easier with some drinking buddies, cheesemongers, and brewmasters in tow.