On Restaurant Cheese Plates

DSC_0029 Ordering the cheese plate at a restaurant can be something of a dicey proposition. Last night at a restaurant in the Portland area, we were told the three cheeses on their artisan cheese plate were Rogue River Blue (it wasn't), a smoked Gouda (it wasn't) and a cheddar from Switzerland (I'm not even sure there is such a thing). A mess, right? Though the blue cheese had no leaf wrapping, we were assured that, indeed, this was the one that had just won that big award (I suspect it might have been Rogue Caveman Blue instead). The 'smoked gouda' turned out to be, of all things, Rivers Edge Astraea, a distinctive aged goat's milk cheese from Oregon with a cinnamon dusted rind. I didn't bother pursuing the mysterious Swiss Cheddar; perhaps they were attempting to communicate that it tasted like a cheddar. Too much work, you know?

I've lost count of how many times this type of thing has happened when I order a cheese plate at a restaurant. Quite often servers confuse sheep with goats; once a server insisted that an obviously non-blue cheese was in fact blue. One related the story of a cheese that was actually the story of another dairy in another state (that person gets credit, at least, for being in the ballpark). And more often than not, the cheese presented on a cheese plate is cold, straight from the refrigerator, when it should be warmed to room temperature. While many of these same restaurants treat wine with such reverence that they hire specific people with advanced educations (sommeliers) to serve it, they seem to approach cheese as if it is a mysterious substance from, perhaps, another planet. And don't get me started about cheese carts...

I know running a restaurant is a tough business. But restaurants, I think there are some things you can do to improve this sad state of affairs. First off, consider whether you have the time, money or even the interest in serving a cheese plate or cheese course. Because, like many things, if you can't do cheese well, there is no point in doing it at all. Second, if you are going to serve cheese you have a few obligations: one - learn about your producers, whether local or european; two - learn to take care of the cheese you buy; and three - educate your staff and make sure the right messages are making it on your menu and being communicated to your customers. The cheesemaker who works 18 hour days milking animals and making cheese that you buy expects and deserves to be represented well. And if, like many restaurants these days, you want to project the image that you're committed to local products and local farmers, you have to be able to back it up. Your customers will recognize the difference.

Here's some free advice: one of the simplest things you can do to improve the situation is to list the cheeses you're serving directly on your menu. So, for example, you might say you are carrying Valdeon (cow/goat, Spain), Tomme de Savoie (cow, France) and Rivers Edge Sunset Bay (goat, Oregon). Front load your menu so that you aren't putting the burden on your servers, who already have too much to do. This way you're ensuring that the right information gets to your customers directly. You will eliminate a lot of questions that way and if customers do want to ask for more information, you can pursue these questions individually and with more authority. Here's an example of what I consider a simple, well executed cheese menu from Lark in Seattle.

Do you have a story to tell about an experience with a restaurant cheese plate - whether from a server, chef or customer perspective?