Cheese Across the Board

Monica Parpal |
Food And Dining

It wasn't long ago that a typical American perception of cheese was limited to square of orange American cheese on a grilled beef patty. Dining on artisan cheese and wine was almost akin to an act of snobbery. But cheese has become so much more than a burger accompaniment, and so much greater than its cultural misconceptions. In fact, this gustatory delight has become central to the gourmet dining experience. And although French, Italian, and Spanish cheeses may be our ultimate inspiration, restaurants are increasingly looking to local artisan sources—or even making their own—in order to offer guests a fun, delicious way to approach cheese. We've hand-picked several local restaurants that put together notable selections. The next time you dine out, we encourage you to open your mind, sharpen your palate, and cheese it up.

 

Pops for Champagne

{601 North State Street; 312.266.7677}

This Champagne bar has been noted as one of the best in the country, with top-notch nightlife to boot. With over 200 selections of the bubbly, as well as seasonal, Champagne-friendly small plates, Pops knows its cheese. Here, the art of crafting the perfect cheese plate has to do with proper proportions (thin cuts of firm, aged cheese, and larger cuts of soft, creamier cheeses) alongside accoutrements that highlight the characteristics of each. For instance, Pops pairs their four-year aged Gouda from Holland with a coriander cashew butter for an elevated flavor experience that, well, pops. Order cheeses à la carte (priced by the ounce), or tally six selections of cheese or charcuterie to pair with your wine or Champagne. In the Watershed (the downstairs bar) many of the cheeses come from the Great Lakes Region. Overall, pairing each cheese successfully with Champagne is the priority. popsforchampagne.com/watershedbar.com

Stand-out cheese: Montchevré Honey Goat Cheese from Belmont, WI (“The honey is mixed in perfectly to balance the sweetness and saltiness of the goat milk,” Executive Chef Luke Creagan says.)

Try this: Order a Cheese and Charcuterie Board (six cheeses or charcuterie) for $32

 

Bistronomic

{840 North Wabash Avenue; 312.944.8400}

At Bistronomic, a modern-day French bistro with an ambience that aims to charm, one might feel intimidated expecting a menu of foreign French cheeses. Bistronomic is, after all, Executive Chef and native Frenchman Martial Noguier's interpretation of a modern French bistro. But it's Noguier's goal to balance charm with approachability, and all the cheeses served at Bistronimic are local to the Midwest (except for one). Noguier sources local, sustainable ingredients for a sophisticated farm-to-table appeal, and the cheese selection is no exception. All cheeses available à la carte for $6 each, or on a plate with six options of the guests' choosing for $28. Cheeses are served with caramelized walnuts, fresh apple marmalade, Mizuna salad, and baguette croutons—perfect as a sharable appetizer. bistronomic.net

Standout cheese: Uplands Cheese Company Pleasant Ridge Reserve (an artisan farmstead cheese, comparable it to its French counterpart, Gruyère de Comté)

Try this: Capriole Farms Herbed Goat Cheese, served warm in an individual stoneware cocotte and perfect with a glass of white wine

 

Quartino

{626 North State Street; 312.698.5000}

At Quartino, Chef John Coletta takes his cheese seriously. The restaurant offers Italian-inspired eats, so part of the cheese selection—like the Parmigiano-Reggiano, Taleggio, and Asiago Vecchio, for instance—naturally comes straight from the boot. But when it comes to the melty mozzarella, the rich ricotta, or the creamy burrata cheese so popular at Quartino, that magic happens in the kitchen. Chef Coletta produces four of the restaurant's five soft cheeses in-house daily, using local milk and cream to make burrata (served with a roasted beet salad and wild arugula); Fior di Latte (housemade mozzarella that tops most pizzas); and both cow's and goat's milk ricotta. All the cheeses are available à la carte, and many of the soft cheeses are also used on pizza crusts and in pasta dishes. And of course, pairing cheese with wine makes perfect sense. Ask your server which Italian wines would pair most successfully with both hard and soft cheeses—and get eatin'! quartinochicago.com

Standout cheese: Goat's Milk Ricotta

Try this: The Salumeria Tasting, with two salumi, two formaggi (cheeses), and three spuntini (snacks) for $25

 

DOC Wine Bar

{2602 North Clark Street, Lincoln Park; 773.883.5101}

At DOC Wine Bar, cheese plates aren't just created; they're engineered. According to Managing Partner and Wine Director Tony Burger, cheese plates should include the three big players: cow, goat, and sheep. When it comes to the milk, the animal has a lot to do with the final flavor. Textures can range from hard or firm to semi-soft or creamy. Choose à la carte cheeses, charcuterie, or bruschetta by checking your selections on a “sushi card-inspired” checklist. All the cheeses come from nearby Wisconsin, New York, and California. “We're currently offering a beautiful Triple Cream Brie made right here in Illinois,” Burger says. “It's delectable.” Another beauty, the Canaria, is a sharp, crumbly white Wisconsin cheese blend of cow, sheep, and goat's milk. The cooler season promises heartier, richer options, all designed to pair beautifully with wine. We suggest ordering a wine flight and asking your server for the best cheese pairings. docwinebarchicago.com

Standout cheese: Yarra Valley Feta (Made from cow's milk, this Australian feta is silky and creamy, served in a ramekin with extra virgin olive oil and fresh herbs

Try this: The DOC Butcher's Platter—a choice of four ($16) or eight ($27) pieces of bruschetta, cheese, or charcuterie served with apricot Merlot jam, roasted Marcona almonds, lavosh crisps, and a warm baguette

 

The Boarding House

{720 North Wells Street; 312.280.0720}

It almost seems obvious that The Boarding House—a new restaurant brimming with wine-inspired cuisine and an impressive wine list—would have a cheese program. At the first floor wine bar, guests can belly-up for a glass of wine alongside a thoughtful selection of cheese, charcuterie, shellfish, and artisan pizzas (no reservations required). Pastry Chef Julie Fitting is responsible for the restaurant's cheese program. “It's important to offer a variety of cheese, in terms of look, texture, and taste. Any accoutrement should be exciting and bring out the best in every cheese.” Five cheeses are available, including a soft aged goat cheese, a Cheddar, the Point Reyes Toma, and a Wisconsin Ménage (a blend of sheep, goat, and cow milk). “Proprietor and Master Sommelier Alpana Singh can pair a wine with any type of cheese beautifully. I pick the cheeses for their own wonderful flavors and textures and the wine follows,” Fitting says. Each cheese plate arrives with an array of fresh baguette slices and housemade semolina crackers. Soft cheeses, like the Vermont Creamery's Coupole, come with roasted almonds. boardinghousechicago.com

Standout cheese: Blu di Bufala from Bergamo, Italy, accompanied by a seasonal berry compote (“It's made from Water Buffalo's milk—not commonly seen in cheese. It has a wonderful sweetness and tang, along with a nice blue flavor,” says Fitting.)

Try this: The Boarding House Cheese Platter, featuring all five cheeses, including the Carr Valley Ménage and a Point Reyes Toma—two of Chef Fitting's favorites

 

DIY Cheese and Charcuterie

When hosting a party, venturing out for a late fall picnic, or building a gift basket, cheese and charcuterie top the list of tummy-warming choices. Add a bottle of vino, a jar of preserves, and your favorite crackers, and you've got it made. These two local shops can help you assemble your own cheese board, meat plate, or picnic basket, whether for a special occasion or just because.

 

West Loop Salumi

{1111 West Randolph Street; 312.255.7004}

Made by hand in small batches, the salami and meats available at this Old-World Italian salumeria are some of the best in the city. Salumi is the Italian word for salted meat—usually pork. West Loop Salumi uses 100-percent heritage Berkshire, Iberian acorn-fed, and whole raw milk-fed Berkshire hogs, and grass-fed or Wagyu beef, all of which are butchered, cured, trussed, and dried on-site. One thing's for sure—West Loop knows its meat. westloopsalumi.com

For a charcuterie plate: West Loop recommends salami, pancetta, guanciale (an unsmoked Italian bacon) and lardo (strips of fatback cured with rosemary) for approachable charcuterie at home. “Salumi always goes best with a spumante wine, like the traditional dry Lambrusco or Champagne,” says Owner Gregory Laketek.

For a picnic: The ciauscolo is a spreadable salami, perfect for picnics. “It's excellent served with toast, wine, cheese, and olives from Ascoli,” Laketek says. “When choosing a cheese with this, I would go with a thinly-shaved 24-month Vacche Rosse Parmesan.” Another popular option is West Loop's bresaola (tender, sweet cured beef), sliced extremely thin and served with Stracchino cheese, salt, olive oil, and a drop of aged balsamic.

For the holidays: For serving alongside the holiday meal, try the culatello (similar to prosciutto) served with Italian fried dough and drizzled with balsamic vinegar.

 

Goddess and Grocer {multiple locations}

At this local sandwich shop, café, and bakery, guests are encouraged to stay and nosh or pack a gourmet picnic to go. Choose from a wide variety of cheeses, crackers, olives, and antipasti. goddessandgrocer.com

For a cheese plate: Choose from a wide variety of cheeses—hard, aged, soft, stinky, creamy, and more. Notable varieties include the Purple Haze from Cypress Grove in California, and the Grafton Cheddar from Vermont. Or, Goddess-selected Spanish and Italian cheeseboards can be put together at a moment's notice, with a selection of crackers, preserves, olives, peppers, and nuts. “The Saracino is my particular favorite,” Goddess Restaurant Group spokesperson Megan Shank says. “I put it on a cheese board with some quince paste, paprika almonds by Mama's Nuts, Fermin Iberico ham, Wisconsin Natural Acres honey, and Nicole's Simply Sumptuous salt crackers. This tray pairs particularly well with Le Pousseur Syrah from Bonny Doon.”

For a picnic: The Goddess antipasto tray includes prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, salami, olives, and caprese salad with fresh mozzarella.

For the holidays: Keep on the lookout for Fromager d'Affinois with truffles—great with a bottle of bubbly!