As a D. C. Foodie generally and a cheese lover specifically, I am often tempted by the cheeses on offer at restaurants throughout the city. For some, cheese takes the form of a 'cheese course' (either a la carte or as part of a larger tasting menu). For others, it's a simple 'cheese plate.' And for those who want you to know just how much attention they have given to the curds, it is a 'Chef's selection of artisanal and farmstead cheeses.'
Regardless of the name, I have found cheeses at restaurants to be an uncertain proposition. It's not a question of quality - any establishment that offers cheeses is doing so to highlight them, after all. It's a simple question of value. At one restaurant in Northwest, the menu offered a selection of cheeses for $12 without identifying them or indicating what else, if anything, would be served. I received a selection of four delicious Italian varieties including Tallegio, a personal favorite. At another restaurant downtown, I recently opted for a sampling from their artisan cheese selection, which was clearly listed so I could make my own choices. For the same $12, I received three small samples of cheese with a diverse spread of accompanying fruits, nuts and crackers. The cheeses were great, but the portions definitely left a bit to be desired for the price.
But there are definitely restaurants out there that tailor their offerings toward real cheese lovers. Dino immediately comes to mind - their Formaggi di Dino list offers seven cheeses from across Italy and one American option, with detailed descriptions and individual price points for each. They don't indicate the size of the samples, but they are generous enough to allow for a true tasting. And I was pleasantly surprised to find an unexpected gem last week: Central Michel Richard.
This bistro-style offering from the man who brings us Michel Richard Citronelle (I'll give you one guess what that man's name is) is billed as offering creative, upscale fare such as lobster burgers and one of the most delicious versions of fried chicken you will ever taste. But the best value and most pleasant surprise on the menu may very well be their 'Daily Cheese Plate,' which offers no description but carries a $13 price tag.
The lack of description made me a little wary at first, but I decided to give it a try because of a truly wonderful Roquefort I tasted at Citronelle last December. (As it turns out, they don't say anything specific about the cheeses in question because they really do change from day to day.) When the cheese plate came out, I was stunned. Six impressive samples crowded a cutting board that was loaded with cheeses, grapes, and nuts. There was easily a pound of cheese on the board, and the quality was equally impressive. On the night of my visit, I received:
- Epoisses - A pungent, unpasteurized and creamy cow's milk cheese that has a rich, almost meaty flavor
- Le Chevrot - A French goat's milk cheese with a soft, bloomy rind and a mild tangy flavor
- Le Chatelain Camembert - A pasteurized camembert from France with that traditional smooth and creamy taste
- Roquefort Vieux Berger - One of the best blues I have ever tasted, this raw sheep's milk version has peppery and salty notes with a slightly chewy texture
- Petit Ardi Gasna (Petit Basque) - A firm, raw sheep's milk cheese that tastes nutty and sweet
- Cantal - A firm, cow's milk cheese from the Auvergne region of France, Cantal reminded me most of mild cheddar with grassy flavors as well
By themselves, the Roquefort and the Petit Basque frequently retail for as much as $30/pound, and the Chevrot, the Epoisses and the Camembert are sold in their own packaging (preventing sales by weight). If I were to try to duplicate this cheese plate at home, I could easily expect to spend almost $50 on the cheese alone!
Despite the value, however, Central's approach to the cheese did have room for improvement. The cheeses were served without any crackers or bread, despite the creamy and spreadable nature of both the Epoisses and the Camembert. A question to my server about the cheeses on the board resulted in a response that identified them only by type (Camembert, Roquefort, Petit Basque, etc.), instead of by producer. When I asked again, I was informed that they didn't have that information available at the time, but that they purchased all their cheeses from Murray's Wholesale in New York - a legendary fromagerie, to be sure. It was only after a call to Scott in New York that I was able to identify which Roquefort and which Camembert I had been served. A subsequent mid-afternoon call to Central put me in touch with someone who was able to confirm the specific cheeses that Scott and I had identified. This lack of specific information seems to be a common theme at Michel Richard's restaurants - it took requests to my server and the maitre d' (who then asked the chef) before I could find out the name of the Roquefort I fell in love with at Citronelle last year.
If you are planning to visit Central Michel Richard in the near future, I would highly recommend leaving room for their cheese plate - at only $13, it's a great deal. Just remember to ask for bread, and be prepared to do some sleuthing if you taste something you truly love and want to find again later.