The Big Cheese
In France, it's as natural as a flaky croissant in the morning: When dining in a restaurant, a cheese course in her preface to is served after the entree and before dessert.
But, alas, some things are lost in the translation. Though the American taste for cheese has grown more sophisticated, we prefer to eat our cheese at home. In restaurants, Americans tend to head straight from the main course to a sweet dessert.
"Our chief current lack seems to be in the service of cheese in restaurants. Partly, this is due to, antiquated American health codes that insist that cheese be refrigerated, and patrly to economic reasons," wrote Barbara Kafka, food writer for the New York Times in her preface to "The Ideal Cheese Book" (Harper & Row Publishers). "Restaurants that have tried to present glorious cheese assorments, like the ones that are the pride of good French restaurants, have found that they have to 'throw out enormous quantities of cheese as Americans do not have a habit of a cheese course. Maybe they are reluctant to pay a restaurant for a bought product or maybe we are just greedy to get on to dessert."
The book was published in 1986, and though Kafka may not yet have to eat her words, a number of Central Jersey restaurants are offering cheese selections either as a separate course or as a light alternative to a heavy dessert. Though the patrons who ask for cheese are not great in numbers, they seem to be among the most enthusiastic and experimental food lovers--the kind who will try exotic cuisines, boutique wines and premium liquors.
A Food Adventure
"A few years back people were a little self-conscious about cheese and a little intimidated. Today, in the last couple of years, people are becoming more adventurous," said Carmine Cabell, owner of La Fontana restaurant in New Brunswick, which used to offer an extensive cheese selection from a multi-tiered cart.
When the cart selection proved to be overwhelming to patrons, La Fontana scaled back its selection and presentation.
"The restaurant now offers more than a dozen cheeses on a marble tray covered with glass to contain the odors. The less-is-more-approach seems to be working, Cabill said.
"For years America has been having a flirtatious relationship with cheese. Department stores and supermarkets have been building up their cheese departments. But it's been more of a flirtation than a romance with cheese. But now America is embarking on a full romance with cheese," said Cabell.
La Fontana sells between 75 and 100 cheese and fruit courses each week, at about $9 a pop, said Cabell, adding that the number of customers ordering cheese is growing.
The restaurant's strategy is not to make customers ask, "Why should I order cheese?" but to make them ask themselves, "Why not order cheese?"
To this end, La Fontana stocks 106 vintages of port, a sweet fortified dessert wine that is very cheese-friendly.
"If you pair the correct cheese with a port, or on its own, it's a great way to finish a dinner," Cabell said.
Wine and cheese
The affinity between cheese and wine is strong. Have a little red wine left over from dinner? Polish it off with cheese, suggested Cabell.
"We pair wine and cheese together very closely," said Marc Pascal, co-owner of Stage Left: An American Cafe in New Brunswick, which offers one of the largest selections of cheeses in central New Jersey. "We find that it brings people together. People share a bottle of wine, they share a plate of cheese--it's more intimate."
To Pascal, cheese was a part of growing up. Raised in the French-speaking Canadian city of Montreal, Pascal remembers family dinners that ended with cheese. He also remembers outings to cheese shops with his French father.
"My family would make a trip to the cheese shop a weekly event," Pascal said.
Pascal and partner Francis Schott treat cheese the way they do balsamic vinegar, honey, wine and premium spirits, searching out small artisanal producers in this country and Europe. These small dairies can do what the large producers generally can't: create cheese with character and quality.
You may find goat cheese elsewhere, but you will probably find Sally Jackson's Goat Cheese, wrapped in grape leaves, in no other restaurant in New Jersey. You will probably have to go into Manhattan to find Bianco Sottobosco, a richly-flavored Italian cheese studded with pieces of black and white truffles, or for a Cabriole Banori, made by a small producer in Indiana, which wraps it in chestnut leaves that have been soaked in eau-de-vie.
You can get a good Stilton at a lot of restaurants, but you will not find Irish Gubbeen, a semisoft cow's milk cheese with an over-powering taste and smell. It is, as Schott put it, "not for the faint of heart."
Stage Left regularly stocks eight to 10 gourmet cheeses and a like number of other cheeses used in cooking. A cheese course includes six or seven servings.
Stage Left regularly sells between 15 and 20 cheese courses a week, and the number is growing, Pascal and Schott said. The course costs $13 for one person, and $10 each for two or more people.
The serving staff at Stage Left has been trained in the ways of cheese and they refer any questions they cannot answer to either Schott or Pascal.
At Stage Left, the serving staff advises customers of the cheese selection at the time the meal is ordered. If the customer places an order, the cheese is taken out of the refrigerator to get to room temperature.
Traditionally, customers are given a blue cheese such as Stilton, a semisoft, a soft, a sheep's milk, a cow's milk and a goat's milk cheese, with flavors ranging from subtle to rich and ripe.
The Ryland Inn in Whitehorse believes cheese is so important that its offering of 20 French frommages and fruit leads off its dessert menu. At $12.50 for six cheeses, it is the second most expensive dessert at the highly acclaimed nouvelle French restaurant. Only a sampling of the other desserts, at $15, costs more.
Maitre d' George Liloy believes cheese helps digestion after a heavy meal, and it has not been difficult to get customers interested in cheese.
"When they see the tray they get very impressed," Liloy said. The Ryland Inn's cheese selection is completely French and includes Blue d'Auvergne, Pont l'Eveque, Brie e Meaux and Brie de Coulommiere.
The Ryland Inn sells between 40 and 50 cheese platters a week and has an extensive offering of French Sauternes, ports, and other dessert wines to go with the cheese, Liloy said.
Panico's in New Brunswick regularly sells between 15 and 20 cheese and fruit platters a month, even though it is not on the menu, Chef James Weaver said.
And demand is rising, he added.
"Unlike Europe, the people (in this country) are more openminded about food," he said.
A lunch thing
Panico's offers a selection of goat cheese from Coach Farms in New York state, a sweet Gorgonzola dolce, aged provolone, Parmeggiano Reggiano and others. The cheese and fruit platters cost $15 for two people, Weaver said.
About 10 percent of the people who eat at Quilty's, a Provencal bistro in Princeton, order the cheese and fruit platter for dessert, said Keith Lalor, the sous chef. For $7, Quilty's offers five or six cheeses and seasonal fruit. Quilty's usually stocks a French Brie, Derry and Stilton from England, smoked Gouda from Holland and a French goat cheese.
Lalor said most of the cheese platters are ordered during lunch. "For dinner, people get cake and coffee," he said.
Not all "serious" restaurants find a need to keep cheese on the menu. At the Frog and The Peach in New Brunswick, there is little call for cheese. if a customer requests it, the F&P will put together a selection of cheese, fruit and bread for $7.50, said Betsy Algar, a co-owner. She said the restaurant gets about one request a month and has dropped it from the menu.
But cheese is often on the menu when the F&P puts together a special dinner pairing food and wine, Algar said.
Culinary Renaissance in Metuchen stopped stocking cheeses for dessert.
"No one would buy it," said chef Frank Faicinelli. "They only wanted Brie and Rondele," he said.