Wondering where you can find an amazing cheese board in San Francisco? We turned to two local experts: cheese lover and James Beard award-winning author [The All American Cheese and Wine Book], Laura Werlin, and Cowgirl Creamery‘s co-founder, Sue Conley. According to Werlin, a great cheese plate is marked by two things — the selection and quality of the cheeses and what comes with it. She is quick to point out that age and care can affect the taste of the cheese and that “chefs are getting more creative with their accompaniments,” think housemade pickles and crackers instead of the standard nuts and dried fruit, “so people mean business about their cheese boards.” Conley is on the same wavelength as Werlin. She enjoys places where “the people are really paying attention to cheese.” Adding, “It’s a plus when they put time and energy into creating a thoughtful plate.”
There are three different types of cheese courses a restaurant can offer. The first and simplest is a cheese plate with a selection of three to five types of cheese and complementary fare. The second and more complex cheese course focuses on one perfect pairing of cheese and food. Werlin describes this as an “unusual pairing of one cheese and an inventive delicious accompaniment that is hand-selected and really special.” The third and most formal type of restaurant cheese board is the cheese cart. Often seen on prix fixe menus, the handcart is rolled out as one of the courses and diners are invited to pick and taste a variety of fromages presented.
For the best classic cheese plate, both Conley and Werlin recommend Mission Cheese. This tiny Valencia Street gem is all about American artisan cheeses. One wall is lined with coolers where neatly stacked wedges of pale yellow and bright white cheeses live. Select a flight of cheese off their list (regional flights change every day), or let the Mission Cheese merchant put together an arrangement for you with the Monger’s Choice. Tell them what you like and dislike in cheese (Do you prefer creamy mild styles of cheese, like a triple crème brie, or more pungent and funky cheese like the Spanish blue Cabrales?) and the attentive and knowledgeable staff will provide you with a plate that tantalizes your taste buds. There’s also tasty charcuterie (the Salumi Plate, which is a must-have item, offers three options from Olympic Provisions with a side of house pickles), pressed sandwiches, and other traditional cheese dishes such as raclette melted over roasted taters, and macaroni and cheese. And since this popular place does not take reservations, we encourage you to go early and snag a seat. As locals know, it can get quite packed on nights and weekends.
If you’re looking for a mind-blowing bite of cheese and a little something that was created to be the ideal companion, there’s only one place to go, Zuni Café. This San Francisco institution serves cheese on its dessert menu and each cheese choice comes with a pairing such as caramelized Black Mission figs. Werlin says that the late Judy Rodgers, former co-owner and chef of Zuni, “wrote the book on unique pairings.” On a visit, you may enjoy a truly creamy and memorable semi-hard cheese, like the one by Pennyroyal Farm that was paired with hazelnuts, plump golden raisins and honey — it’s virtually unlike anything you may have previously tasted. The wonderful thing about Zuni is that it is open from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, until midnight on Friday and Saturday and open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Sunday, which makes it easy to pop in for cheese when your afternoon meeting has wrapped or before you head out of the house to do some late-night dancing.
Acquerello, on Sacramento and Polk streets, has been serving the neighborhood with refined Italian food (think ricotta-filled tomato raviolini or smoked potato gnocci) for the past two decades. The prix fixe-only menu offers diners three-, four-, or five-courses with the cheese cart being one of the options. The cart, which has almost 40 Italian cheeses (like Erborinato, a cow’s milk cheese from the Lombardy region, Bigio, a sheep’s milk cheese from the Tuscany region, and Ubriaco di Capra, a goat’s cheese from the Veneto region) that are chosen by executive chef Suzette Gresham, comes with an assortment of housemade goodies such as tomato-citrus marmalade. During the meal, the pushcart is wheeled over to the table so guests can choose as much cheese as they want based on smell, appearance and the server’s insightful description.
Photos courtesy of Page Bertelsen for Mission Cheese