Phil Vettel/Chicago Tribune
Many years ago, my wife and I dined in an ultra-elegant restaurant in Versailles, France. When it came time for the cheese course, we watched in amazement as not one, but three multi-tiered carts were wheeled to our table. There was one cart just for goat cheeses.
I've been a sucker for cheese courses ever since. Left to my own devices (that is, not overruled by professional duty), I'll forgo dessert in favor of cheese, especially if the offering appeals.
I've yet to find a cheese assortment to rival that magical experience in Versailles, but that may be just as well: I can't eat as much cheese as I used to. But a quick tour through a few restaurants (I deliberately skipped easy picks such as Spiaggia or Les Nomades) uncovered a few places that fly the fromage flag proudly:
Avec: The menu here features eight cheeses, spread among French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and domestic varieties. Each selection is $5, but add the “cheese accompaniment” (wild-flower honeycomb, quince paste, sliced pear, almonds, fruit compote) for an additional $6. Definitely worth it. Served on a well-worn wooden board with a nice crusty hunk of toasted country bread, the presentation has a rustic feel that matches the cheeses perfectly. 615 W. Randolph St., 312-377-2002; avecrestaurant.com
Bar Pastoral: Maybe this pick is too obvious, but I'd never been to this cozy cheese and wine bistro, and I wasn't about to pass up the chance. The menu lists 14 cheeses, divided more or less equally between U.S. and European varieties, priced at $6 apiece (any three, $16; any five, $25). The menu offers flavor descriptions (you'll get more detail from your server), and for the indecisive, there's a preselected three-cheese flight. “What we try to do is create a gateway of appreciation amongst our customers, taking them from comfort zone to exploration,” said co-owner Greg O'Neill. The cheese flight include a crusty baguette, accompaniments specific to each cheese, cornichons and stone-ground mustard. Every Sunday (now through April), the bistro features a raclette dinner from 5 to 9 p.m., with melted Vermont raclette cheese slathered over pork shoulder, fingerlings and roasted vegetables. Seconds permitted/encouraged. And it's just $35 ($30 for the vegetarian version). 2947 N. Broadway, 773-472-4781; pastoralartisan.com.
Bellemore: Sometimes you just want to focus your attention on a single, noteworthy cheese; lurking on Bellemore's dessert menu is the featured cheese ($8) — at present, tete de moine, a cheese from Switzerland that's thinly shaved into curls using a device called a girolle. Tete de moine is pretty intense, so thin makes sense. The curls form pretty florets, which sit atop nori-flavored pastry, sliced grapes and cashew butter. A very nice single-cheese experience. 564 W. Randolph St., 312-667-0104; bellemorechicago.com
Brindille: Bring an appetite to Carrie and Michael Nahabedian's intimate French restaurant in River North. Brindille's cheese assortment ($32) includes a dozen French cheeses, laid out like a clock face around fruit compote, accompanied by seeded raisin ficelle (crusty bread; think really small baguette). “We wanted a cheese course that represented France, to best showcase the artisans,” said Carrie Nahabedian. “Each cheese stands on its own, but as a group, the textures and flavors work so well together. We sell a great deal of cheese, and on occasion, someone will ask for only specific cheeses, but that's rare.” 534 N. Clark St., 312-595-1616; brindille-chicago.com.
Vie: I always save cheese for the end, but at this west-suburban outpost, the cheese assortment can be found on the appetizer menu. Three cheeses go for $21, and each cheese gets a specific accompaniment. “Jam, or something savory,” said pastry chef Angelyne Anicosa. “It depends on the flavor profile.” Selection varies, rotating every few weeks. 4471 Lawn Ave., Western Springs, 708-246-2082; vierestaurant.com