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Review Mon May 24 2010
Most of the places I eat these days are of the small plates, upscale, gastropub sort of persuasion. (Probably because most places these days are of that persuasion.) Which means I get two things when I go out to dinner: cheese, and an ever-increasing probability of contracting gout. But let's focus on the former. I'm not sure who invented the magic that is the modern cheese board -- probably the French. Bless them.
For me, the sheer multiplicity of it all is just exciting, and so sensual: combinations of blocks, smears and slabs of cheese in every imaginable texture, flavor, odor and origin. Chalky Fleur de Marquis sheep's milk from France with a juniper-terroir rind? Meet gooey, sumptuous, ultra-funky creamy gorgonzola--and voila! Fast friends. Cheese can stand on its own. (Cheese can stand alone, in fact, heigh ho the merry-o.) But what makes the cheese plate is as much the surrounding constellation of spreads, breads, jams, hams, fruits, nuts, pickles, and adorably delicate micro-salads as the main dairy protein itself. And this, to me, is where it gets really interesting. Let's take a few cases in point, shall we? (After the jump...)
To the west, in West Ukrainian Village/South Humboldt Park lies Rootstock. I cannot believe I haven't written this place up yet. My first visit was this past winter, and I'm just now posting the photo I then took of...their cheese board! A more recent trip (to secure a lottery button to The Girl and the Goat's pre-opening dinner--which ended up a winning lottery button, by the way! More on that in the near future) reminded me of their undivided excellence. The cheese board is no exception -- especially in the accompaniments. For last week's, the main stars were a grassy, fresh sheep's milk (the menu noted a custard flavor, which was totally there!) with a putty-like consistency and slight crumble; and a rich, creamy goat's milk with wonderfully distinct regions from rind to center. But the supporting cast was equally strong and surprisingly bold, including tangy, zippy-hot house-pickled baby radishes, a sweet-then-scorching apricot-habanero jam, and hot grainy mustard. I could quibble with the portioning of the cheese, which could have been a bit more generous at $4.50 per portion. But with such interesting and innovative accoutrement, as well as such well-priced top-notch beers on tap at the bar (Goose Island Sofie anyone?), it's a minor complaint. And if the prospect of such a board gets you there, by all means go, and go often. Rootstock is a gem.
New Palomar Hotel anchor Sable, bestill my heart, could put just about anything on a plate in front of me and I'd probably devour it, swoon, and not even realize I'd just ordered another $13 cocktail. (Particularly those little corn-scallion hush puppies. Oof.) Their cheese board is up to the task of satiating an unstoppable nibbler like myself and simultaneously keeping vegetarians and light social drinkers happy. A generous spread of oozy bleu, a half-moon of goat's milk cheese, a Parmesan-like wedge full of densely crystallized crunch, and two small slabs of a soft, Brie-ish finale were further augmented with plump blackberries, toasty pine nuts, a bright salad and jewel-like daubs of apricot and candied cherry preserves. Like some sort of beautiful Renaissance still-life, it was similarly plundered by our table. At $15, it's only a few bucks more than a drink, and certainly stretches farther on a communal table. The corn-scallion hush puppies are a particularly nice accompaniment as well...
The Purple Pig, my downtown go-to for above and beyond gourmet in a section of town that often doesn't feel the need to rise to the gustatory occasion, offers a broad selection of both cheeses and price options, allowing a little extra flexibility in your foraging. Single selections are around $5 each, but the price goes down for three choices, or a chef's selection. The board comes with toasty bread toeing that line between crusty and chewy and a well of wine-infused sweet fruit compote. My first visit was some sort of red wine and cherry creation, and more recent trips have featured something figgy and citrusy. The cheeses themselves also seem to reflect the Pig's earthy-but-sumptuous sensibility. Creamy mainstay Camembert cuddles up next to a crumbly, smoky and remarkably fresh Capriole O'Bannon, a goat's milk cheese aged in bourbon soaked chestnut leaves and named after a former governor of Indiana. Kind of sums up the Purple Pig right there, actually. Or the archetypal cheese plate, for that matter -- a simple spread that can quickly grow complex, meant to be shared but understandably hoard-able. Earthy-but-sumptuous. Amen.
954 N. California Avenue
Kitchen open until 1am always (always!)
505 N. State Street
Not sure how late the kitchen's open -- call them at 312.755.9704
The Purple Pig
500 N. Michigan Avenue
Kitchen open until at least midnight