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Cheese Whiz

New York diners are discovering the cheese course -- yet another place to explore the intricacies of flavor and geography.

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Saying you don't like dessert in New York City is a bit like saying you're not all that sure about statehood for Israel. Conversely, saying you prefer cheese is likely to peg you as yet another wild-eyed Atkins Diet nut who claims to have lost 148 pounds in three weeks eating nothing but deep-fried tripe.

The myth prevails that eating dairy somehow fires cholesterol directly into your bloodstream, but long before the Fat Wars, cheese had an ambiguous rep, as in "cheesy" and "cheesed-off." (And we do not refer, do we, to "toe-dessert"?) At best, cheese has found its way onto American menus as an appetizer: odd, considering its appetite-curbing acidity and bulk. (An evolution, no doubt, from that hideous fifties custom of serving cubes of cheddar with cocktails.) Yet in countries like France and Italy from which we have learned so much other food wisdom, cheese has always been a staple course served after the entrée -- not an alternative to dessert but a prelude to it, the intermezzo between meat and sweet.

For whatever reason -- high-protein high-rollers, retro Eurocentrism, or fromage chic -- the classic cheese plate is appearing in more and more New York City restaurants. Cheesianados, once a reviled and ridiculed and always hungry bunch, can finally go to bed replete.

One speed bump on the road to cheesetopia is the federal law requiring that raw-milk cheeses, generally tastier than the same cheeses made from pasteurized milk, must be aged for 60 days to be imported into the U.S. This means that raw-milk versions of short-lived, soft, ripened cheeses (e.g., Brie, Camembert, and their relatives, Saint-Marcellin or le roi de stinky cheese, Époisses) are officially illegal. But, nudge-nudge-wink-wink, far from unavailable. This may be the Age of Cheese Prohibition, but whenever bootleg raw-milk stuff appears in town, it's immediately snapped up, to reappear later the same day at your local cheese-easy.

Picholine (35 West 64th Street; 212-724-8585) is the one to beat, with its four-star European-grade grand plateau de fromages. Some 50 cheeses perfume the trolley at any given time, up to 60 in a cornucopian week.

Max McCalman, Picholine's cheese manager, moves his product "very briskly." This helps storage problems with soft cheeses, which peak for only a few days. McCalman keeps his fromages in a proper "cave," temperature 48 to 50 degrees, humidity an all-important 85 percent: "There's some happy cheeses in there."

McCalman avoids the obvious, hunting instead for the exquisitely odoriferous; it's this as much as the size of his selection that makes Picholine No. 1. His faves are artisanal cheeses from Iberia and Britain, e.g., Torta del Casar from the Estremadura (wavering vegans should know it's bound with thistle, not rennet); Azeitao from Portugal; and Ruth Kirkham's Lancashire, which "looks innocent but isn't." There are cheese gems from Switzerland, Ireland, and Austria also; it's a regular European Union on that trolley.

McCalman is as missionary about the benefits of cheese as he is about its welfare. He claims that the digestive system of many adults can't handle milk but can handle cheese, which, since it's undergone fermentation, creating lactic acid, actually aids digestion. "Cheese will make your tummy happiest after a meal," he says. The course price is three cheeses for $15.

Chanterelle (2 Harrison Street; 212-966-6960) has long been a haven for quesophiliacs. It offers fifteen to twenty cheeses on its unerringly superb menu, mainly from France, Italy, and these United States, notably Sally Jackson's chèvre from Washington and the yummy Massachusetts blue Great Hill. Blues are especially excellent: always a Stilton, Gorgonzola aged or dolce, and Spanish Cabrales (in my opinion the best blue in the universe). Chanterelle charges a $15 supplement for cheese to the $75 prix fixe, or $8 for cheese instead of dessert.

At Gramercy Tavern (42 East 20th Street; 212-477-0777), Danny Meyer's bottomless capacity for the customer-friendly makes its plateaux the most accessible of all. Manager Kevin Tyldesley provides a printed list of the thirteen-to-fifteen cheeses available, carefully organized into groups (cow, sheep, goat, soft-ripened, blue, triple-crème, etc.). There's an emphasis here on North America, notably chèvre like Humboldt Fog from California, Capriole from Indiana, and an Époisses-esque washed-rind baby from Chicory Farms Louisiana called Catahoula. Dat some stinky stuff, eh, cher? Prices are three for $6.50, five for $9.50, seven for $12.

As Tyldesley confirms, cheese courses are rapidly increasing in popularity, and a large number of places now offer anywhere from four to thirteen cheeses. These establishments range from the multi-starred (Lutèce, Le Cirque 2000, Le Bernardin, San Domenico) to bistros (Le Périgord, L'Absinthe, JUdson Grill). You will also find cheese at Union Pacific, Patroon, and '21.' Even places that don't list cheese will often rustle up an acceptable plate (e.g., La Fourchette). At some restaurants, the plate is preselected, as at Veritas (43 East 20th Street; 212-353-3700; five cheeses), where the wide selection of dessert wines gives you a fascinating number of combinations to play with. What to drink with cheese? If you stick with the red from the main course it will overpower mild cheeses and be overpowered by stinky ones. Some Loire Valley chèvres actually prefer dry wines (e.g., Sancerre). In general, a lightish dessert wine like Coteaux de Layon or Beaumes-de-Venise is sublime with most things but blue. With blues, drop predictable port and Sauternes for once; try subtler combos like Commandaria (from Cyprus) or a nutty full sherry (oloroso).

An intriguing one-size-fits-all companion is one of the rich dark Belgian ales like Chimay from the good Trappist fathers or even the dry, deep-flavored fruit lambics from Lindeman.

Shun sugar! Cheese is on the move.


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