‘Tis the Season to be Cheesin’
Vaughan cheese counter offers fresh fare & personalized pairings
Writer: Rick Snider | Photographer: August Selckmann
If spending an afternoon or evening enjoying a savory artisan cheese along with a glass of wine or a specialty cocktail with your favorite people, then make plans now to head the newest option in Southern Maryland dining – Vaughan Cheese Counter & Bar.
Megan Vaughan wanted to create a comfy neighborhood cheese shop where locals gathered in a renovated old home just a half block from the Chesapeake Bay. A place to mingle for a quick bite or simply enjoy the evening by drinking wine from outside tables. Where visitors coming off the beach or wandering from their BnB could shop for a tasteful reminder of a weekend getaway.
“People want an escape,” Megan says. “They want to be transported a bit. They want to celebrate, they want local places to shop. If we can do that here with great cheese and wine…”
And so the native New Yorker, who attended the Culinary Institute of America and worked in restaurants for nearly a decade, relocated her husband Tyler, children Evelyn and Parker and beloved dog Annabelle to North Beach to open Vaughan Cheese Counter & Bar that debuted in September.
Megan spotted an opening in the market after learning many Mid-Atlantic cheeses were transported to New York warehouses before sent to Washington area restaurants. The double commute seemed excessive. After determining North Beach was well situated between major clients in Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis, Megan settled on the small town just north of Chesapeake Beach where being local means everything.
There are often 75 artisan cheeses greeting customers as they approach the counter decorated with old red wood repurposed from a nearby demolished barn. Nearly all of the cheeses are from regional farms, the outlier coming from Tennessee. The cheeses offer exotic names like Bearded Lady, Noah’s Arcade and Sofia, often aged five to seven years for peak flavor. The Pimento cheese dip is probably the only one coming close to heat as hot sauce seekers can find their thrills over wings elsewhere.
Freshness is crucial ingredient in Megan’s fare from sandwiches and salads that melt in your mouth to a charcuterie board that includes cheddar from New Jersey, ham from Virginia and pears from Maryland. The sampler offers wild berry jam and blue cheese to provide a base for deciding what the customer likes.
And what each customer likes becomes an open question Megan and her staff of seven try to solve much like pairing people with the proper wine. They offer cheese and wine or simply Cheese 101 classes in the 2,600-square foot restaurant that includes indoor and outdoor tables, private room and newly-renovated deck.
“Cheese is super personal and what you like is super important,” Megan says. “Your favorite thing to smell might not be mine and that’s OK. It’s OK to just put cheddar on your burger, but the thing we tried to instill is get to know the cheesemonger. Let them know what you like and they will guide you to what’s [available] right now.”
Smell the cheese, ingest what Megan says is a “breathing, living thing.” That cheese may smell like bacon or chocolate becomes a siren’s song for the sinuses. Don’t be afraid of the mold that may resemble colorful creases in marble. It’s good for you.
“Eat it – as long as the cheese has been cared for properly, mold and cultures and microbes are what make things taste good,” Megan says. “Cheese is the original protein bar.”
Cheese became Megan’s passion when realizing its connection to people and places made the difference. Just as local wines and craft beer have become popular, so are cheeses with a local connection, which is why she doesn’t stock European fare.
“I love cheese. I got more excited about certain foods, but I love cheese,” she says. “I love the human side of it.
With cheese, the cheesemaker lets the cheese do its thing like wine. Cheese is so much about the animals, the people, what’s going on in environment. I like taking what people think is a super exotic product and making it humble.
“People are very used to thinking of European cheese as a benchmark because it has been around so long, but the American market is growing.”
Megan even makes her own mozzarella cheese, which when shaved on salads is wonderfully fresh. Cheese and salads go well together whether it’s Big Leaf Caesar, Late Season Tomatoes or Mediterranean. Or, maybe try sandwiches like Ham and Appalachian, Muffuletta, Red Peppers and Maryland Goat Cheese or picked vegetables.
There’s a reason to buy cheese from a wine shop rather than a vacuum-sealed bag hanging in a large grocery store.
“It’s two different cheeses,” Megan says. “Our cheese is not mass produced in dairies using artificial milk. Ours are made on farms and made with care.”
Of course, you’ll combine cheese with a list of wines, sherry, beer, cider and cocktails that run down the menu. That’s Tyler’s side of the business along with developing the menu to soon include more standard dinner fares including steak and chicken so Megan can concentrate on cheeses and have time to speak with local farmers.
Indeed, the menu’s winner comes from the dessert list of Brulee Pineapple where a quarter pineapple lies beneath whipped cream and mint. Megan was at first skeptical of Tyler’s combination, but it’s so delicious that customers exit with a smile and a desire to return.
“The past weekend saw regulars, people from Annapolis here for the day, people from D.C. renting an Airbnb,” Megan says. “We converted from wholesale to online during COVID. Regulars we shipped or delivered to we’re now seeing in shop.”
Megan is one of those people who never seem to stop moving. Her eyes regularly scan the dining room as she chats with customers so intimately it feels like watching old friends reconnect. A certified scuba diver with love of percussive instruments, running and spinning, Megan is always moving forward. Future growth may include more shops or a larger menu.
For now, the cheese shop nestled inside a growing restaurant district offers a quick connection for those seeking a new experience that will delight and enlighten. Maybe make a new friend and a new appreciation for cheese. At an old home that has found new life. •
Vaughan’s Cheese Counter & Bar is located at 4116 7th St. in North Beach. For more information, call (410) 474-9050 or visit vaughancheese.com. Open Wednesday-Sunday.
Vaughan-made Mozzarella & Tomato Salad
Enjoy the super sweet late-summer tomatoes with your own fresh-pulled mozzarella. This simple and bright dish is refreshing yet decadent, and it is a great showstopper for a fun gathering. You can find mozzarella curd online or at your favorite local cheese shop.
.75 lbs. mozzarella curd for pulling, salted and mixed
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1 large tomato, cored and sliced into wedges
4 T. extra virgin olive oil
4 basil leaves, chiffonade
Salt & pepper to taste
Medium-size bowl for warming the curd
Small ladle for moving water
Large spoon for stirring
Large bowl of ice water
Lidded container for storing the finished mozzarella
Your serving bowl or plate of choice
PULLING THE MOZZARELLA:
1. Bring 2 quarts of heavily-salted water to a boil while you gather tools for pulling the mozzarella.
2. Arrange tools near your pot of boiling water for easy access during pulling.
3. Tear the measured curds into penny-sized pieces and distribute evenly in the bottom of your bowl.
4. Ladle enough boiling water onto the curds to completely cover them, and then immediately stir quickly to ensure they heat up evenly. You’ll start to see the curds become stringy and loose.
5. Hold your hands in the ice water for a few seconds to numb them from the hot water.
6. Use the spoon to gather up all of the curds into a ball in the bottom of the bowl and, with your chilled hands, collect them in your hands. Holding one hand above the other, allow the melting curds to slowly fall to your lower hand. Once all curds have fallen, gather them again to your upper hand and allow them to fall once again. Continue to do this process of stretching out the curds between your hands until there are no more lumps in the stretched curds. If the curds begin to get too hard to stretch, warm them up by ladling more hot water over them. If the curds get too hot to touch, place them back into the bowl and chill your hands for a few moments in the ice water. Only pull the curds until they are just homogenous. Over pulling will result in a tough ball of mozzarella.
7. When there are no more curd lumps, gather the mozzarella into a small ball and place it into the ice water to cool it down. Pour the pulling liquid into the container you will use to store the finished curds. Allow the ball to chill for at least 2 minutes to fully set.
8. Pull as many mozzarella as you have curds for. Place the finished balls into the container of pulling liquid for storage before enjoying.
9. While the mozzarella is chilling, place all of the tomatoes in a mixing bowl and dress them with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and salt and pepper to taste.
10. Place the ball of mozzarella in your serving bowl. Place the dressed tomatoes beside it, allowing them to pile high. Pour the remaining olive oil directly on top of the mozzarella ball, allowing it to pool at the bottom of the bowl. Scatter the chiffonade basil on top of the tomatoes, and salt and pepper the top of the mozzarella.