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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Say Cheese a Cafe to Smile About

March 26, 1993|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Say Cheese, best known as a purveyor of fine cheeses and high-end gourmet items in Silver Lake, is now a coffeehouse-luncheonette. The small storefront, with its handful of tables, is just what this pocket of the city needed: a place to get decent coffee and simple, delicious food.

Say Cheese, pretty near the heart of local activity, feels more like a San Francisco or SoHo coffeehouse than most in Los Angeles, which are filled almost exclusively with the young and trendy. Here, in this no-frills setting (concrete floor, sheet-steel tables), you see women and their babies. Men and their babies. Sisters having lunch. Friends. Couples.

Breakfast here consists of variations of bread, cheese and fruit. Caffe lattes come in big cups and are made just right, with minimal foam. Scones are yellow, sweet and bready, rather than crumbly, and are served toasted with jam and a convincing daub of Devonshire cream. Good croissants and bagels are available.

Goat cheese is served on walnut toast with a side of fresh fruit: melon balls, berries and grapefruit. There's also stewed dried fruit, pretty as a dark still life. La Brea Bakery granola, full of seeds and dried fruit, is almost a confection.

Say Cheese has offered sandwiches-to-go, made with La Brea Bakery bread, for a long time. Now, when you come in for lunch, the sandwich brochure is handed to you along with the newer handwritten lunch menu.

This menu is divided into salads, specials and sandwiches, although virtually everything I tried from this menu came on a big bed of good, fresh lettuce.

Smoked trout salad came with the greens, dressed lightly, and a generous amount of smoky trout. On the Chavignol salad, the greens came with two fat slices of good white toast topped with warm, tasty goat cheese. Turkey, excellent ham, Swiss cheese and a light balsamic dressing topped the greens on the chef salad.

Every now and then, when I ate at Say Cheese, a pungent aroma would fill the cafe; it smelled of very strong, steamy cheese and invariably signaled the fact that someone had ordered the special Rustica sandwich: Gorgonzola melted on rustic bread and criss-crossed with sweet peppers. You have to adore the powerful "gorgon" cheese to appreciate this sandwich, which was also served aloft a mound of green salad.

If it's an old-line Say Cheese sandwich you want, there are more than 15 to choose from, all served with a variety of salads from Say Cheese's deli case: pasta salad, shredded celery root or pea salad.

I liked the Bombay Classic, curried turkey on rye, and the Paparazzi, smoked mozzarella and sweet red peppers on remarkable walnut bread.

For dessert, there are some nice individual fruit tarts laced with marzipan but I prefer the individual bowls of mousse. The raspberry is creamy and lovely and good but the chocolate is a knockout.

If Say Cheese were in my neighborhood, I'd consider making it my office. As it was, I ate at Say Cheese so many days in a row, I began to feel a little self-conscious about it.

"Can you believe I'm back again ?" I asked the waitress.

"Oh sure," she said. "Almost everyone in here is a regular." She pointed to two men sitting by the window. "They're regulars." She pointed to a man reading a book by himself. "He's a regular." She pointed to a young couple and their baby. "They're regulars. Hey--it's that kind of place."

Say Cheese, 2800 Hyperion Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 665-0545. Lunch and brunch seven days. No alcohol. MasterCard, Visa. Lunch for two, food only, $11 to $35.

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