There are sweets people. And then there are cheese people. Lucky for mold-lovers, more and more city restaurants have heard their cravings and put cheese plates on menus, in some instances rolling out gleaming carts of the stuff right to the tables. But a good cheese course, like a good bottle of wine, can add a lot to a check. We asked maître fromager Max McCalman of Picholine and Artisanal (where he shares the job with Peter Kindel) how to craft an affordable, restaurant-quality plate at home. McCalman's first rule is shop at a specialty store, not your local supermarket. Tell the cheesemonger when you plan on eating the cheese -- that day or the next -- to make sure you will be serving it at its peak. Variety is also key. "Different animal types: a goat, a sheep or two," says McCalman. "People will often go for the soft, ripened, runny types because they're just so easy -- you don't have to chew, you can just open you mouth and swallow. But you miss out on a lot of great cheese by doing that. I'd also go with something stinky, something hard -- a mountain cheese like a Gruyère. It's fun to mix up countries. Definitely include something from America. It's important right now."
As for serving size, you'll need an ounce and a half of each cheese per person. At the Ninth Avenue Cheese Market, Ltd. (615 Ninth Avenue, at 43rd Street; 212-397-4700), a sharp and salty Manchego ($9.99 a pound) goes nicely with an Old Amsterdam aged gouda ($8.99 a pound) and semi-soft Swiss Emmenthal ($4.99 a pound). At Murray's Cheese Shop (257 Bleecker Street; 212-243-3289), Vallee d'Aspe ($12.99 a pound), a Pyrenees sheep's cheese, works well with Bella dry Jack ($11.99 a pound), a hard, medium-flavored cow's milk from California, and Cashel Blue ($14.99 a pound), a creamy blue cheese from Ireland. At Joe's Dairy (156 Sullivan Street; 212-677-8780), pick up a firm-textured Asiago from Italy ($5.99 a pound) to accompany a buttery Danish Havarti ($4.29 a pound) and a triple-cream French brie ($5.09 a pound). At uptown Fairway Market (2328 Twelfth Avenue; 212-234-3883), Roncal ($11.98 a pound), a nutty, aged raw sheep's milk from Spain, goes well with Époisses ($7.99 for 250 grams), a stinky cow's milk from Burgundy, and Great Hill Blue ($11.38 a pound), an intense blue cheese from Massachusetts. When should the cheese plate be served? "Most people have it after their meal, but sometimes it's the only thing they eat," adds McCalman. "That's okay, too."