Cheese Stands Alone
Whether it supports a dish or headlines the plate, cheese is giving restaurants plenty to smile about.
Two years ago when Empire opened in Providence, R.I., a classic fondue landed a spot on the menu.
As an appetizer for two, it was considered a statement, but the expectation was that it would not stay long. At the 140-seat fine-dining restaurant, space on the menu is competitive and tight, and apt to change daily if not with the seasons.
But to the staff's surprise, the creamy pool of Emmentaler and Gruyère, sprinkled with green onions and served in a white crock with crisp garlic crostini on the side would not budge.
"People like it so much we couldn't take it off the menu," says Chef-owner Loren Falsone. "We go through 40 pounds of cheese a week just for that appetizer."
Considering the seemingly infinite ways the ingredient finds its way onto menus, the popularity of such a simple dish poignantly illustrates cheese's many sides. Chefs and operators are indeed harnessing the power of cheese, adding more of it to everything from sandwiches to entrees. By making cheese the draw, Wendy's Cheddar Lovers' Bacon Cheeseburger is among its most successful limited-time sales boosters.
Cheese plates and cheese courses that supplant desserts are also growing in popularity, a trend experts say has the appeal to spread far beyond fine dining.
"Like so many trends, it starts with fine dining and there is a trickle-down effect into casual and then to family," says Bill Briwa, chef-instructor at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, Calif. "Cheese definitely has that potential."
Unlike so many trends, cheese already has a strong presence beyond restaurants. Grocery stores, specialty shops and other retail outlets, like the Dallas-based Eatzi's Market & Bakery, sell quality domestic, French, Spanish, Italian and other cheeses. Its full impact, however, has not been felt perhaps because of the lean toward lower-fat foods in past years.
But that is changing as indulgence in rich foods, low carbohydrate diets and interest in meatless meals have taken hold. Offering cheese as a course or an appetizer also provides chefs with yet another tool to build check averages and enhance the total dining experience.
"Cheese doesn't have to be a specialty item," says Ross Brown of Absinthe in San Francisco. "People are discovering cheese. Three years ago we couldn't sell any and now we can do $100 to $300 a night."
TIME IS RIPE
When Charlie Trotter of the eponymous Chicago restaurant opened an upscale takeout concept last December, he made room for more than a dozen top-flight cheeses alongside organic eggs only a few days old, highly allocated wines and cookbooks. "People have traveled, especially to Europe--Italy, France and Spain--and know the standard cheese course and see other possibilities for presentation and preparation," says Trotter.
A recent weeklong seminar on cheese at Greystone sold out quickly and although Briwa thought that spreading the word of cheese might be a hard sell, he quickly found that he was preaching to the choir. He also was surprised at the caliber of participants, representing such California restaurants as Gary Danko, Campton Place, Charles Nob Hill, Spago and Bouchon.
The objectives of "The Contemporary American Cheese Course," included pairing wine and cheese, selecting complementary condiments, creating a cheese course, finding menu parts to introduce cheese, and learning a new lexicon to describe texture and flavor.
"There was a lot of interest in purchasing and storing cheese as well as ideas for cheese courses," says Briwa. "What I try to get across is that you can feature high-quality cheese across the menu."
Terrance Brennan, chef-owner of New York's Picholine, was a pioneer in introducing artisanal and top-quality cheese to American diners. Brennan is breaking ground again with the recent opening of Artisanal, a contemporary Manhattan bistro, wine bar and fromagerie designed by Adam Tihany.
Max McCalman, maître fromager at Picholine, who has been instrumental in bringing the restaurant international acclaim for the cheese program, and fromager Peter J. Kindel have compiled Artisanal's list of more than 200 cheeses. They offer 12 flights of cheese nightly, from classic to the unusual. Cheese and wine pairings and cheese headlining a dish also highlight the menu.
But what sets the restaurant apart from the usual New York, French-inspired bistro is a description of each cheese categorized by the milk source (cow, goat and sheep). For example, Serra de Estrela from Portugal is a sheep's milk cheese described as "soft, grassy and complex," while Queso Majorero from Spain is goat's milk-based and characterized as "mild, hard and nutty." Bleu de Termignon from France is a cow's milk cheese that is "Stilton-like, mild, nutty and rare."
If customers are indecisive or just want to know more, Kindel is on hand, eager to dispense information on his passion. "The response has been unreal," he says."
PLAIN AND SIMPLE
Kindel is not shy in proclaiming himself a cheese purist. Camembert is French and, like Champagne from the region that gives the bubbly drink its rightful moniker, a version of the cheese from a different place shouldn't claim the name, he insists. Likewise, he believes that cheese should be enjoyed on its own--no condiments or even bread, unless the cheese is so soft that it is almost liquid.
Following the standard approach to cheese courses, Kindel recommends choosing an assortment that introduces different textures and milk sources. "For a composed plate, I would recommend one from each animal and then suggest different textures--soft, semihard. Then you would eat them from mild to strong, goat before cow and the blues last," Kindel says.
Traci Des Jardins, chef-owner of Jardinière in San Francisco, also presents cheese on its own but with some bread. A temperature- and humidity-controlled cheese-aging cellar is visible from the dining room and is highlighted by mostly raw-milk French and British cheeses.
Some restaurants prefer accenting cheese with seasonal fresh fruit or other fruit component like chutney or house-made preserve. Patti Dellamonica-Bauer, pastry chef at Bradley Ogden's One Market in San Francisco, created a fig marmalade with candied lemon to accompany a strong California cow's milk blue-mold cheese. For a California chèvre, she prefers fresh Bartlett pears as a partner.
A variety of condiments shares room on the cheese cart at Campton Place in San Francisco, from cherries soaked in port and quince paste to walnut honey and Provençal green olives. "People really enjoy seeing the cart and picking and choosing what they want," says Jacob Niya, a sous-chef who oversees the cheese program with Executive Chef Laurent Manrique.
An offshoot of the cheese course is the composed cheese plate, which typically features one cheese with other supporting elements. Driven by a seasonal approach, this dish is usually found on the appetizer section or offered as an alternative to dessert. At one sixtyblue in Chicago, its new chef Martial Noguier shows his fondness for cheese by expanding its role via composed presentations. Options include Camembert de Normandie with mâche salad, summer black truffle and aged balsamic vinegar, Roquefort Carles with poached fresh figs and port wine reduction, and quenelle of goat fromage blanc with baby beet salad and white truffle oil.
Traditionalists stick to offering the cheese course after the meal, typically in place of dessert. But restaurateurs are willing to rebel against the European tradition.
"The trend I see is that people are more inclined to eat cheese and not the bread," says Falsone. "When we have a cheese coarse, we will offer it as an option for dessert but at the same time, this is America so we will offer it as an appetizer. I love cheese so much that I want people experience it. If that means accommodating the guest, we will."
Because of the nature of Empire's ever-changing menu, Falsone and husband-pastry chef Eric Moshier rely on a Boston cheese shop to send the most interesting options when a cheese course rotates back on the menu. "We know what we like but this source can also tell us what is different and new and what they may have just gotten in."
Under the appetizer category at Caprial's Bistro in Portland, Ore., owner-chef Caprial Pence offers an Andre cheese--a double crème served with cherry-infused balsamic syrup and savory crackers. In Boise, Idaho, at Doughty's Bistro, beer-battered Brie is served with strawberry and orange sauce and crushed pistachios.
Artisanal takes cheese-starring dishes to another level in more than one area. Four types of fondue are offered, from chèvre Provençal with English Cheddar, bacon, vacherin and porcini to the fondue dinner consisting of air-dried beef, fingerling potatoes and pickles. Onion soup has three varieties of the underground bulb and three types of cheese. For dessert, Brennan lists a poached pear with honey Gorgonzola mousse and Sauternes gelée.
INTEGRATING THE MENU
Chefs are increasingly treating cheese like any other ingredient: to add flavor, texture and richness. Because Manrique prefers a creamy risotto, he adds the expected Parmigiano-Reggiano but also stirs in mascarpone for the spot prawn rice dish. For his roasted pepper tart, ricotta is the base to even out flavors while comté, a member of the Gruyère family, is added to a sautéed morel and asparagus appetizer because the two woody flavors pay homage to one another, says Niya.
For richness, goat cheese is added to polenta served with braised lamb shank at Artisanal.
At Red Fish Grill in New Orleans, mushrooms are sautéed and served with goat cheese and presented in a phyllo cup with warm red pepper coulis.
Salads are also a natural spot to put cheese's enthralling attributes to work. At La Cachette in Los Angeles, French Roquefort is served with Belgian endive, hearts of romaine and roasted walnuts in white truffle dressing. Seeger's in Atlanta offers seasonal greens with baked Asian pear, fresh goat cheese and pecans.
"Cheese, no matter what, is very compelling," says Ron Savelli, vice president of product research and development at Einstein Bros. Bagels. It's hard denying the allure of cheese when the company's No.1-selling bagel is Asiago.
In the company's effort to expand day parts, satisfy the craving for a bold flavor profile and offer a twist on comfort food, Savelli came up with the Ultimate Cheese Sandwich. Recently introduced, the sandwich unites jack, Cheddar, mozzarella, Swiss, chive cream cheese and tomato on thick slices of buttermilk bread.
"We were thinking of a meatless option but you can add anything--grilled veggies, ham, bacon, turkey," Savelli says. "Cheese is the star, but I wouldn't be surprised if there was a line extension."
Like a knee-jerk reaction, many restaurants suggest port to accompany cheese. At one sixtyblue, Noguier sees more appropriate drink pairings.
To entice customers to order cheese as a way to enjoy and enhance whatever wine they have left from the meal, he offers suggestions on the menu. To finish a bottle of white wine, the menu suggests a Brillat Savarin (cow) or a Petite Basque (sheep). To complete a red wine, choices are Roquefort Carles (sheep), Camembert de Normandie (cow) and Fourme de Montbrison (goat).
"Because the after-dinner drink can so drastically enhance the cheese, we want to make sure the guests have the best options," he says.
Cheese aficionados like Kindel and Briwa believe that the variety and complexities of cheese will come to appreciated in the way wine has gained such a following.
"It's a natural segue," says Briwa, referring to what is often regarded at the "holy trinity"--wine, bread and cheese.
Cheese parallels wine in many ways. Milk type, the breed of animal and what it eats influence flavor the way soil impacts grapes. The role the environment plays in the aging process - such as climate - also effects the outcome. Like wine, cheese has an entire lexicon to describe flavor and texture, including words borrowed from the bottled beverage. Wine has sommeliers, while cheese has the maitre fromager and fromager.
"The awareness of cheese is still in its infancy," says Kindel. "Its full reach is yet to be felt."
Turbot with Comté Crust in Champagne Sauce