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Cheese course

Now that we're infatuated with cheese, we're also more than a little confused.

March 26, 2003|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

CHEESE is in. Granted, it was in last year, and the year before that, and several thousand years before that. But here, now, cheese is in-er, more in, at its in-est since the 1970s rage for fondue and French onion soup. Restaurants are laying in humidified glass boxes, which they grandly call cheese "caves." They have cheese menus, maitre fromagers and one of these maitres, Max McCalman of the New York restaurant Artisanal, has even written an excellent new cheese book.

It is all too fabulous -- if you are rich. No ordinary mortal can afford to routinely eat cheese this way, and without eating cheese all the time, it is impossible to learn about it. For the man on the street, mastering cheese by ordering it at swank restaurants is about as affordable as tackling metallurgy by shopping at Tiffany's.

Rather, the time-honored classroom has always been a good cheese shop. As you enter, the proprietor might look up from tasting a new Emmental, and ask if you'd like a sample, then offer a contrasting bite of Gruyere. You're about to discover real "Swiss" cheese. You came in for sea salt, but you leave with Gruyere, bread, wine and plans to serve asparagus soup, grilled cheese sandwiches and Gewurtztraminer.

What a great fantasy this might seem, since shops like this are rare in this town. But several new ones have opened in Los Angeles in the last two years. In a chronically underserved field, this doubles the ranks of dedicated shopkeepers intent on selling cheese the way it needs to be sold: by knowledgeable staff offering plenty of free tastes.

Any discussion of Los Angeles cheese shops must start in an almost hilariously elite clime, at the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, which has been run for 25 years by a Swiss man, Norbert Wabnig.

The first thing that signals the shop's quality is smell, that arresting lactic funk that can be overpowering when you first unwrap a cheese but that soon clears. Cheese is like fruit -- it is constantly ripening and it needs to breathe -- so Wabnig carefully unwraps, trims and turns many of them every day to keep them in premium condition. This is no small task. He's not sure how many cheeses line the crowded counter. "Six hundred?" he wonders aloud.

Huge selection

There is an overstuffed case of American and French goat's cheeses, from loose new chevres to aged pyramids. There are excellent selections of slightly elastic and nutty-tasting Alpine-style cheeses, and a surprising store of luscious cheeses of Normandy, right up to the aged, orange and perfectly tangy Mimolette, whose slices look very much like petrified cantaloupe. This is a cheese-lover's cheese shop, whose rare specimens include a young Tuscan pecorino -- a sheep's milk cheese -- with a bloomy rind and delicately flavored interior and abiding, milky sweet finish.

The store has only one obvious shortcoming. It is not the place to buy British cheese, a small school of unique cheeses as full of character as any out of France and archetypes for some of our best-loved cheeses. An Appleby Cheshire here, though, looks like a dog dug it up, and Stilton is Brand X.

If going to Beverly Hills strikes you as an odd way to economize, it should be stressed that the prices here, from $15 to $22 per pound, are no more than most shops around Los Angeles charge, usually for a lot less skill and care.

However, no small thanks to Wabnig, the real cheese movement is slowly branching out to humbler manors.

Two months ago, Chris Pollan, a former apprentice of Wabnig's, opened the Cheese Store of Silverlake. Wabnig helped him build a stock of about 200 cheeses, with a respectable selection of Spanish sheep's milk ones, which are priced at $13 to $18 per pound.

The location stinks: It's up a courtyard off a gritty intersection and parking is on steep, rutted side streets. Inside, Pollan is the big man with the lugubrious expression. It's up to you to ask for samples, but they will be cheerfully given. In fact, Pollan will brighten noticeably if you ask him to design an entire party platter, and he may select a cow's, a sheep's and a goat's milk cheese, to take you up and down the saltiness and richness scale.

As a final welcome note, Pollan's new shop is well poised to give the nearby store Say Cheese a shot of competition. Service here can be so blithe that customers can feel like intruders interrupting gossiping staff.

Another new shop, Stroh's Gourmet in Venice, takes a smart, less-is-more approach. On display are no more than two dozen cheeses, but almost all are in perfect condition, including one of the most singular and straight up buttery cheeses out of the British Isles, Mrs. Kirkham's Lancashire. From France, there is a surprisingly respectable industrial double-cream blue, St. Augur.

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