Those of us who would like to sample specialty cheeses at fine restaurants face four big obstacles: First, many restaurants sell cheese that has not been kept in optimal condition. Second, cheese can differ considerably in taste and quality based on variables such as how long it is aged, and many restaurants do a poor job of indicating these variables and an even poorer job of explaining their significance. Third, critical reviews rarely rank restaurants based on their cheese offerings, which makes finding great restaurants in which to sample cheese quite difficult. Fourth, the experience is influenced by how artful the accompaniments are, and restaurants vary widely in the quality and appropriateness of such items.
These points were perfectly illustrated in On a Cheese-Selecting Mission With Alain Ducasse, a recent Bruce Palling on Food column in The Wall Street Journal. Ducasse, the prominent restaurateur, was the first chef to earn three Michelin stars for three separate restaurants.
First Palling pointed out the dilemma. “If you’ve ever noticed, critics rarely rate the greatness of a restaurant based on its cheese selection, which is not only the least-mentioned food component but also the one that can so easily go wrong. Half the battle to serving cheese properly is ensuring that it is kept at optimum condition, a task French chef Alain Ducasse takes great joy in.”
Chef Ducasse and Palling went on a cheese selecting trip. “Our first stop was at La Fromagerie, the specialist cheese store in Central London that supplies many, if not most, of the city’s top restaurants. Mr. Ducasse tasted the cheese offered to him, including a Comté, Sharpham Bloomy Goat, Tunworth and Good Queen Maude. While he made many appreciative noises, there was no indication that he was about to purchase any for his restaurants. He told me when we left that he prefers to purchase a specially aged 48-month Comté directly from France.”
He also revealed a favorite and how serving cheese involves more than the cheese itself. “Then it was on to Neal’s Yard Dairy in Covent Garden, the leading specialist in artisan-style British cheese. Here, it was obvious there was a special affinity between Mr. Ducasse and Colston Bassett Stilton. ‘I adore it — for me, the top two blue cheeses in the world are Roquefort and Stilton,’ he says. ‘We have been importing Stilton from here to our leading restaurant in Paris for the past 15 years.’”
Reward the restaurants that do fine cheese well and don’t hesitate to request information from servers. Don’t be intimidated. You are giving the restaurant an opportunity to demonstrate the expertise of its staff.