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Got cheese?

Americans are demanding greater cheese variety and excitement, and menu makers are milking the possibilities.

In the last few years, specialty cheeses have shown up in every menu category, sprinkling appetizers, soups, salads, sandwiches, entrees, and desserts with rich flavor and intrigue. While the more commonplace mozzarella, cheddar, Swiss, and Parmesan still lead in restaurant usage, feta, blue, ricotta, and Romano are closing the gap. And more unusual types, such as Asiago, fontina, Gorgonzola, Gouda, and goat are among the fastest growing varieties, according to a survey conducted by a dairy industry trade association.

Growing consumer appreciation of specialty cheeses is driving production, especially on the domestic front.

"Customers recognize flavor nuances and their palates have become more discriminating," says Dan Carter of the Dairy Business Innovation Center, a Wisconsin nonprofit group. "Chefs, restaurants, and even some fast-food purveyors are reaching out to satisfy their clientele."

Many operators are seeking out ever-more distinctive cheeses to differentiate their menus. Pasture-grazed cheeses with herbaceous notes, ethnic cheeses for authenticity, and tangy raw milk cheeses are now available from American and imported sources to add value and flair to dishes. And some chefs are even making cheese in-house to add a personal stamp to the dining experience.

At the 80-seat upscale Cosmos restaurant in Minneapolis (avg. check, $65), executive chef Seth Bixby Daugherty incorporates specialty cheeses into both conventional and out-of-the-ordinary menu applications. A bestseller is his Arugula Salad with pear conserve, gorgonzola fritter, and creamy red wine vinaigrette ($10). To make the fritters, he wraps red grapes in creamy Gorgonzola and freezes them. The frozen grapes are then breaded and deep-fried to create a juicy-tangy-crunchy salad garnish.

Guests who quickly become fans of this treatment may then "graduate" to Daugherty's Blue Cheese Ice Cream—a more esoteric application that may take a bit longer to embrace. "I offer it as a special with almond Neufchatel biscotti and vin santo grilled pears," says the chef. "It's my way of educating the public to think outside the box about cheese."

For a gentler indoctrination, Daugherty serves flights of artisanal cheeses accompanied by local honeys. "I might feature a trio of aged cheddars or triple creams with single source honey, honeycomb, and bee pollen," he explains. "This encourages customers to try something new that they may go back to."

On Cosmos' spring menu, cheeses enhance several dishes, including a Poached Lobster Salad ($14) composed of Fuji apples, frisee, citrus, aged ricotta, and truffled dwarf peaches, and Grilled Lamb Chop with watercress, preserved lemon, currants, aged balsamic, and Humboldt Fog goat cheese ($29). Other Daugherty favorites include fresh mascarpone (which he pairs with black pepper brioche French toast and seared foie gras) and Pleasant Ridge reserve, a Wisconsin cheese that he subs for grated Parmesan in risotto.

Executive chef/owner Edward Lee of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, KY, menus exclusively domestic cheeses; imported Parmigiano-Reggiano is the only exception. "I'm on a mission to support American cheese makers so I can serve the freshest cheese possible," he says. "The American cheeses come wrapped in cheesecloth, while the imported ones are enclosed in plastic to last the journey. Cheese is a living thing that needs to breathe."

At first, 610 Magnolia's clientele didn't believe American products could compare to the French and Italian cheeses they had grown to love. But Lee soon won them over by bringing in quality cheeses from small producers in Indiana, Virginia, Minnesota, Wisconsin, California, and Texas. Many of his "finds" end up in the cheese course on his $115 tasting menu.

While the farm-fresh cheeses are a big selling point, it's also their unique presentation that has garnered popularity for 610 Magnolia's cheese course. The restaurant uses custom-made 8-in. square butcher blocks set on tiny legs. The wood's surface is rubbed with walnut oil, which imparts a trace of flavor to the cheeses.

"Certain cheeses are works of art, and should be served on their own," Lee believes. But he likes to add an interesting accompaniment or two, like lavender-soaked watermelon or candied angelica, for contrast. Other cheeses are ripe for experimentation, and Lee transforms them into an eclectic array of dishes. Capriole Goat Cheese Salad with pumpkinseed oil dressing and Root Vegetable Napoleon with miner's lettuce, spiced pecans, Everona, and pistachio oil are two recent creations. Everona is a hard grating cheese from West Virginia.

Lee's spring menu is partial toward goat cheeses, which are especially sweet and savory this time of year—it's when baby goats are born and the mother's milk is flowing. At the 124-seat Coach House in the Harbor View Hotel in Martha's Vineyard, MA, the start of milking season assumes even greater importance. Executive chef Ryan Hardy relies on goats from a nearby family farm to provide unpasteurized milk for his hand-crafted cheeses. His signature is Hardy Christiantown Chevre—an ash-dusted, slightly runny goat cheese. He also makes a creamy, fresh pasteurized chevre, an aged grand chevre, and caprotto, a semi-soft Italian cheese.

Hardy offers these and other choices au natural on his cheese menu, which appears in a sidebar on his regular menu. "People here like to share a cheese course both at the beginning and end of the meal, so I make it easy and unintimidating for them," he says. A plate of six to eight cheeses is $24. "When guests order the cheese plate, the chef comes with it," Hardy jokes. "I stand tableside and explain the different varieties. We've developed a niche as 'the cheese restaurant' on the island."

The Coach House cheeses also find their way into seasonal preparations. An appetizer now on the menu is Goat Cheese Caramellas ($10)—homemade pasta stuffed with a blend of Hardy's own soft goat cheese, lemon zest, toasted fennel seed, and cayenne, rolled up into Tootsie- Roll shapes, and topped with an arugula and dandelion green pesto. Thursdays are barbecue nights, and the menu starts off with "Cheesy Beginnings." These include a Tartiflette (baked gooey Robiola cheese over potatoes and bacon; $6), Homemade Goat Cheese Gratin (melted with tomatoes, olives, and crusty bread; $7), and Arugula Grand Cru (Belgian Chimay Grand Cru cheese with celery salt and ham; $8). "If you take time to seek out something that's better and different, cheese can really add value to the menu, and guests are willing to pay for it," Hardy believes.

Stephen Lewandowski, executive chef at New York City's Tribeca Grill, agrees. "I search for small producers who can offer uniqueness," he says. "I now have 25 choices on my artisanal cheese list that change seasonally." About 32 cheese plates ($12-$24) are sold nightly; two years ago, Tribeca Grill offered four cheeses and sold just a few plates a night.

Like his colleagues, Lewandowski taps into his cheese stock to enhance menu items. One of his spring entree selections is Black Trumpet Crusted Rack of Lamb ($32) with caramelized beets, favas, and aged goat cheese. On the appetizer side is an Heirloom Tomato & Goat Cheese Bruschetta ($13), a riff on the classic. Grilled baguette is incorporated into a composed tomato and goat cheese salad that's drizzled with sweet corn syrup and opal basil vinaigrette. "The sweetness of the syrup, acid from the tomatoes, and fat from the cheese complement each other perfectly," the chef explains.

Two cheesy signatures that are always on the menu are the Arugula & Buffalo Mozzarella Salad ($13) and Garganelli Pasta ($19). The former features "incredible" mozzarella shipped from Campagna in Italy; Lewandowski contrasts its sweet, mellow flavor and creamy texture with grilled eggplant, roasted sweet peppers, black olive garlic vinaigrette, and tomato fondue. The Garganelli is served with short rib Bolognese sauce, pancetta, and fresh ricotta cheese mounded on top. Guests get to mix it in themselves for an interactive experience.

"Using cheese in a dish makes it sound so much more intriguing," explains Lewandowski. "It definitely upsells an item, but it has to complement it. I don't add cheese just to add it."

A fast-casual concept that has judiciously added specialty cheeses to its menu with good results is Boston-based Au Bon Pain. Under the leadership of executive chef Thomas John, the bakery-café chain has upgraded its cheese program, sourcing product from small farms and artisanal cheese makers. Currently, John is using Vermont-made Shelburne Farms raw milk cheddar and a unique Wensleydale cranberry cheese from Yorkshire, England, and a changing roster for his artisanal cheese plates.

"We have a direct agreement with Shelburne Farms to keep our demand low so they can fill our order," he says. "We use about 700 lb. of the cheddar a day." The Chili Dijon Chicken Sandwich ($5.99) with tomato, romaine, chili Dijon spread, and sun dried tomato is one of its popular end uses. For the holiday season, John created a parchment-wrapped baked turkey sandwich ($5.99) combining the cranberry cheese, roast turkey, Dijon mustard, and almonds on rosemary focaccia. Its enthusiastic acceptance gained it a permanent menu spot.

"Five years ago, you didn't see all these cheeses and this quality on menus," says John. "Now there's lots of great cheese available and we can offer a changing variety to meet customers' demand."

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