Thursday, February 20, 2020

Cher Amies en Fromage, or Dear Cheese Friends

To the couple seated next to us at dinner on Saturday evening at L’Albatross in Cleveland, OH, I want to extend my sincerest apologies.  If it appears that my husband and I were eavesdropping on your entire evening, I have the simplest of explanations…we were.  We were hanging on every single word you were saying.  I think you know why.  It seems, after all, that we have a very specific interest in common. Yes, yes, you know exactly what I am talking about:


From the moment you sat down next to us on the little banquette, our tables separated by the barest 6 inches, I knew that we were true companions at heart.  You, with your funky cats-eye glasses and your husband (Don maintains that you were unmarried but had been together for several years, but I know better) with his more practical CPA style frames.  You accidentally threw your fork at my foot while moving your water glass, and I laughed it off so casually because my Olive Suede Thursday boots could never be troubled by a mere salad fork. Don’t give it another thought, I said.  

And then the magic between us truly began.  Then you began to talk about cheese.

For those of you who have never had the pleasure of dining at L’Albatross they offer a titillating surprise for the uninitiated.  Their menu features a small inset on the bottom left side outlining a cheese course, an Assiette de Fromage offering your choice of three, five or seven cheeses.  A simple enough offering, very often looked over I am sure.  But not by you, learned companions.  You knew better.  You were initiated.  You came to L’Albatross for this very reason.  You came for the cheese.

After you made your drink selections, you fell to discussing the menu with true vigor.  Two hors-d’oeuvres, or a potage and salade?  Well, the onion soup gratinée, of course (!), and then a salad perhaps so as to not get too heavy too quickly (one should rarely get too heavy too quickly, both Don and I agree!).  And then, of course, the fromage.  Should we get three or…no definitely five.  But not seven, that is too much.  Five.  Definitely.

By this time Don and I were riveted.  I fear our own conversation was coming in fits and starts because we were so enthralled by the intensity of your discourse.  I mean, cheese is exciting (believe me girl, I do my share of drooling at a wedge of Humboldt Fog or Mt. Tam or a nice goats milk Gouda) but I have never before seen people more excited by cheese outside of an actual creamery. 

You placed your order, finally, and Don and I fell back into our conversation. We laughed.  We ate prodigious amounts of liver pâté and pork belly and skate wing.  We looked forward to our concert date to follow, and wondered if our girls were behaving well or if they had locked their Uncle Dainty in the basement and taken over the house yet.  Then your our server came to clear away your first courses and we remembered: after the first comes…the cheese!

Dearest dining companions, I can tell you now, it was everything we hoped it would be.  And more.  So much more.

Minutes after your table was cleared, a man entered the room with an enormous cheese board.  You knew this was coming, of course.  It was what you were waiting for, after all!  But, you see, Don and I had no true comprehension of the Assiette de Fromage before this moment.  We assumed when you ordered your selection of five cheeses that the selection would be made for you, in the kitchen, by the chef or one of his more cheese obsessed underlings.  We assumed these selections would be sent out to you on a stylish board, perhaps a slate or a live edged hardwood, along with their house baked bread and some garnishes and jams and a whole grain mustard.  Oh no, such a thing is much too pedestrian for L’Albatross.

It was an enormous wooden board with twenty to thirty cheeses on it.  The gentleman, tattoos running up his arms, placed the board on a waiting tray stand right next to your table and proceeded to discourse on the cheeses with you for the next fifteen minutes.  I know because I propped my chin in my hand, elbow gauchely on my table, leaned forward toward your table and just watched.  All pretense of conversation between Don and I was lost, as I myself was lost to the magic of the cheese board presentation.  Fresh goats milk cheeses, soft French cheeses, washed rind cheeses, your blues, your hard cheeses and sheep milk cheeses.  Cheese cheese cheese cheese cheese YES!

Assiette de Fromage 26 October, 2016 - contributed by Yelp user Sheena W.

“Where do you think we should start?  Oh, never mind I know…let’s start hard and then work our way back around.” You proclaimed your plan with delight, your husband nodding excitedly and Cheese Man nodding sagely and markedly more sedately.  An excellent idea, m'am.

Don and I shared a pregnant glance.  Start hard and work our way back around.  A wise plan in any circumstance — we nod sagely as well.

You made your selections, and I will be honest in admitting to you, since we are so close, that I did not fully agree with all of your decisions.  The fresh goats milk, absolutely!  The nutty, aged manchego, clearly.  The full and heady Maytag, you go girl!  However, as much as I love cheese, I have never been able to get completely behind the washed rind cheeses.  I know, I know.  Do I even really love cheese if I can’t do a washed rind?  Jesus, what a poseur!

Funky, gooey Red Hawk, photo courtesy of

Believe me, I have tried.  I just can’t.  The Red Hawk defeated me utterly.  

In fact, I am ashamed to admit to you, I once returned an entire round of Red Hawk to a store because I was convinced it had gone bad in the wrapper after I opened it and cut my first slice.  I hadn’t bothered to look it up and research it, and I hadn’t asked the cheese man at the store about it when I purchased it.  I love Cowgirl Creamery's Mt. Tam and Devil's Gulch, so I just went balls to the wall and bought an entire round, convinced that I was enough of a cheese lover to fully embrace anything short of a casu marzu.  After opening it up at home, ready to use it as the centerpiece to my epic Friendsgiving cheese board, I completely panicked.  As a Red Hawk lover (I know this because that is the washed rind cheese you picked) I know that you relish the funky, beefy aroma that I was met with when I unwrapped it, but perhaps you will forgive me when you realize I was not expecting the reddish brown color and moist texture of its rind.  I had another 30 minutes before picking up the kids at school, so I wrapped it back up, hopped back in the car, determined to get justice for myself and my obviously incorrectly stored cheese.

What followed was the most embarrassing customer service exchange I have ever had the misfortune to initiate.  They were patient.  They were kind.  They tried to explain the cheese without fully calling me an idiot.  In the end it is my belief that they just wanted my crazy bourgeoise cheese returning ass to go away since it was a holiday weekend and they had too much shit to do to bother with me.  I called my sister-in-law, the chef, on my way out of the store and sent her pictures I had taken and she soon set me straight.  Um, Crystal....Red Hawk is a washed rind cheese.  Washed rind cheeses grow extra funk, because, you know, moisture.  Red, funky and moist is exactly how Red Hawk is supposed to be.  Now excuse me while I laugh my ass off at the thought of you self righteously returning this expensive cheese to a Whole Foods on a holiday weekend!

Yup.  I think the only thing more bourgeoise than eavesdropping on someone else ordering five pounds of cheese at a sumptuous French restaurant is returning a full pound of cheese because you don’t understand what you bought in the first place.  Le sigh.

But I digress.  I wanted to share this little anecdote with you the other night, but didn’t dare take the chance that it would diminish your enjoyment of your own funky assemblage de fromage!  You see I feel we shared a certain simpatico that even our differing opinions of washed rind cheeses couldn’t diminish.  I was even willing to overlook your apparent interest, as I do for so many of my juniper scented friends and family, in gin cocktails!  In hindsight it is probably all for the best that I was unable to bring myself to interrupt your dinner and regale you with my own cheese themed stories -- I can only imagine the blog post you yourself could have written the next day: Dear Woman Who Continually Interrupted Our Valentine's Celebration With Stories About Cheese...

Alas, all good things must come to an end.  Don and I eventually finished our main courses, and were far too stuffed to contemplate either a dessert or, dare I even suggest it, our own cheese course.  We paid our bill and departed.  I presume you luxuriated in the absence of two other human beings seated six inches from you and visibly intruding on your romantic evening for the five minutes it took the staff to clear off, change the linens, and reseat our table.

For our part, we think of you often, dear cheese friends, and we wish you only the best in life.  We pray that life does not get too heavy too quickly for you, and that you are always able to start hard and then work your way back around.  We should all be so lucky.

Your Amies en Fromage,

Crystal and Donald Zimmer

P.S. For your delight, a selection of pictures featuring L'Albatross' Assiette de Fromage:

Assiette de Fromage 29 August 2018 - contributed by Yelp user Philip R.
Assiette de Fromage 1 May 2019 - contributed by Yelp user Philip R (this guy loves cheese too!)

P.P.S. For your comparison, a selection of cheese boards that suck compared with the Assiette de Fromage:
Ooohh, four types of cheeses, some dry salami and a
half ass bowl of mixed olives!  Pathetic.

It's a nice attempt at a linear presentation,

What is this peasant fare, a midmorning snack for an infant hobbit? 
There is barely an ounce of cheese on this plate.  Go home.

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