It’s really rather odd. Ten years ago, finding a restaurant in America serving a selection of fine cheeses was about as easy as finding good Chinese food in Italy. Except at a few old-line French restaurants serving a rudimentary plate of Brie, Camembert and Roquefort — and rarely in very good condition — American restaurateurs saw little profit in appealing to guests who either opted for dessert over cheese or never even thought of the idea of cheese after the main course.
But that has changed radically all over the country. Increasingly, well-traveled Americans are becoming familiar with cheeses as disparate as Spanish goat’s cheese, Italian burrata, English Caerphilly and American cheeses with names like Drunken Hooligan, Constant Bliss, Maytag Blue and Wabash Cannonball.
And their first taste of such cheeses may well have been at a restaurant in the U.S.
Indeed, it has become almost requisite that a new restaurant opening anywhere in the U.S. have a selection of fine cheeses, often with a focus on those from the region. For instance, The Oak Room in the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, which Food & Wine Magazine calls one of the 50 best hotel restaurants in the country, has a service featuring artisanal cheeses from Kentucky and the South. Here, you may find varieties with lovely names like Kenny’s Kentucky Blue, Sophia Capriole and Trappist Mild Gethsemani — this last made by Trappist monks.
“I’d feel silly not having good cheeses if someone asks for it, even if that’s a small number,” says Nitzi Rabin, chef-owner, with his wife Pat, of the illustrious Chillingsworth in Brewster, Mass., which Boston magazine says, "is home to one of the most enchanting dining experiences in all of New England.”
“We serve cheese to guests as part of our welcome to the inn,” says Rabin, “and we buy small cheeses from small producers so that it is always in peak condition. We don’t print them on our menu because we prefer to tell the guests about them at the table. We may have a triple-crème Latour, a Roaring Forties from Australia, or any number of New England cheddars.”
The classic French restaurant La Panetière in Rye, N.Y., proudly rolls over a cart of ten French regional cheeses, all in impeccable condition, presented on a wooden tray. Rarities may include a smoky Auvergne gaperon scented with garlic and black peppercorns, which goes very well with the 1914 Château Latour brought up from the award-winning cellar. According to owner Jacques Loupiac, “An old French saying goes, 'a meal without cheese is like a beautiful girl with one eye only.’ I feel it is part of a classic French meal and is very popular with our guests.”
For a long time, many restaurateurs doubted they could ever serve cheese to Americans. In Healdsburg, Calif., surrounded by Sonoma Valley’s vineyards, Cyrus offers an extensive cheese service that is an important part of its fixed price tasting menu (five courses at $102). “When I was young and wandering around Europe I always thought the cheese course was the best part of any meal,” says partner Nick Payton. “But when I started to manage restaurants in the U.S., all I’d find was some awful Port Salut and salty Roquefort. So when I took the job at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco, I insisted on a year’s trial period for a serious cheese cart; and by year’s end, at least half of the guests opted for it. Now, at Cyrus, 70 percent take cheese. We have about 30 cheeses, with 15 to 20 offered on any given night, and there’s nothing I love more than to describe the varieties to my guests.”
At the famous Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, which Wine Spectator named “The Best Restaurant in the World for Food & Wine,” a cheese course is part of the “Kitchen Table” menu or sometimes as a “spontaneous course” that might consist of as many as ten to 12 cheeses on a plate, served with condiments like tomato jam, yuzu marmalade and olive gastrique.
At The Herbfarm in Woodinville, Wash.,cheese is always geared to eight-course “thematic dinners” with names like “A Menu from the Garden of Eden,” “The Herbal Atelier” and “The Hunter's Table.”
One of the most delightful cheese service carts, at The Inn at Little Washington, in Washington, Va., even has a name: Faira is a charming fiberglass cow, which, as she is wheeled around the dining room, emits a darling “moooo!” Copied from a state fair award-winning cow of the same name, Faira offers guests a selection of up to 25 cheeses as part of fixed menus that range from $148 to $168. While international in scope, the selection focuses on American cheeses, including one from Rapidan, Virginia’s Evereona Cheeses that incorporates the ends and bits of truffles left over from the Inn’s kitchen. The inn itself, opened in 1978 in a converted garage, evolved into one of the most celebrated inns and restaurants in the world.
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Another inn, Cleveland’s charming Baricelli Inn, in an 1896 mansion, has its own on-premises cheese company, with more than 40 handcrafted cheeses kept in a state-of-the-art cooler. Chef-owner Paul Minillo serves them as part of his “Artisanal Cheese Boards”: three selections for $14, five for $17 and seven for $19.
One of the true pioneers of cheese service in Americas was chef-restaurateur Terence Brennan, who, upon opening Picholine on New York’s Upper West Side in 1993, distinguished his menu by offering the largest cheese selection in America (and perhaps the world). Stored in a corner of the temperature-controlled 2,500-bottle wine room is the Cheese Cave, with scores of cheeses ripening or ready to serve in flights of three ($20) from six countries, with three wines ($20).
But Brennan went even further with New York City's Artisanal, a combination of Art Deco-style restaurant and fromagerie, with a cellar that stocks more than 200 cheeses. While the bistro menu features Gruyere-rich onion soup, fondues, macaroni and cheese and at lunch, crusty, oozy croque monsieur and croque madame sandwiche, all of the cheeses are also available for retail sale.
Overseeing Brennan’s fromagerie, Artisanal Premium Cheese, is maître fromager Max McCalman, whose book, with David Gibbons, “Cheese: A Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Best,” has been hailed by wine guru Robert M. Parker, Jr, as “a terrific guide to understanding the world’s finest cheeses.” Says McCalman, “There is a wider range and higher quality of fine table cheeses available every day. Importers and distributors are working hard to move more exceptional product into the country, and we’re seeing plenty of authentic European cheeses that were rarely, if ever, seen in this country four or five years ago.”
There’s nothing quite so expansive as Artisanal in Las Vegas, but Joel Robuchon, with three Michelin stars, is certainly the most lavish of the Strip’s haute cuisine French restaurants. Here, they roll out a grand cart laden with the finest French cheeses. Even after working your way through the six-course $250 menu or the 16-course $385 menu, you may still not be able to resist les fromages. At least no Frenchman would.