On a trendy stretch of Alder Street in downtown Portland, Ore., this cozy cheese bar looks to Japan for inspiration. Along the wooden bar at Chizu, beneath a ceiling strung with origami cranes, you’ll sit along a row of glass displays—but instead of fresh fish chilling inside, you’ll find several cheeses on display. Take a seat—there are only 17 of them—then grab a menu and check bites off the list, or go omakase and let the monger behind the bar be your guide. It might evoke a sushi spot, but cheese is the star here—chizu, after all, is Japanese for cheese.
For owner Steve Jones, Chizu was born from a bite of mackerel. “I was eating sushi with my family one night and I thought, hold on, this could be cheese,” he says. “For a couple of bucks, you can try a bite of almost anything. The lightbulb went off in my head.”
He opened Chizu in 2015, but while the concept may be new, Jones is no stranger to cheese. With over two decades in the industry—and even more in specialty food before that—Jones also runs the nearby shop Cheese Bar, which has been a go-to for Portland foodies since 2009.
While Jones hoped the sushi-meets-cheese-bar concept would catch on quickly, it took a bit before the space found its footing. In its third year, though, it’s thriving: Chizu has become as much a must-see for food-focused tourists as it is a weekly haunt for locals.
Following the chef’s-whim dining style of counter-focused sushi bars, Chizu’s omakase leaves it all up to the monger. (“We do ask if there are any no’s in their cheese world,” Jones says.) Curious eaters simply pick a price point and the monger meets it, serving up a swath of slices matched with standards like nuts and dried fruit, or more adventurous accompaniments like Japanese-inspired pickles that are fermented in-house. Sips of beer, cider, wine, and sake round out the tasting.
Like the clientele, the menu is an equal mix of Oregon and Europe. Wary of putting Chizu in a “local” box, the team is careful to balance Portland products with foreign options. And with more than half of customers opting for omakase, Jones doesn’t want to play it safe, describing their cheese choices as “fairly esoteric.”
“When people give us that trust, we love to really blow their minds,” Jones says. With 30 cheeses on the menu at all times, Chizu changes at least five of those per week. “We want people to be able to come in two times a month and have a very different experience.”
It’s a plus for the mongers, too, who have “complete freedom” with their pairings and are constantly creating different combinations. Jones likes to keep the mongers excited: “If you had the same 30 cheeses every day, it would get boring pretty fast, so it’s fun to give them new challenges.”
No matter who makes up the mix inside Chizu, the close quarters make for a focused intimacy, the type of place where you learn and laugh while luxuriating in a spread of cheese. “It’s super intimate,” Jones says. “Everyone is chatting with each other. They’re comparing cheese and talking about where they’re from. It’s so small that it can be that really easily.”
Top Pairing Picks for 2018
Mara Seaweed Applewood Smoked Dulse Flakes
Try it with: “Really ripe Camembert,” says Jones. “It’s really visually striking, but it’s also a super umami boost.”
Purely Artisan Dehydrated Honey
Try it with: “A really fatty blue cheese like [Shepherd’s Way Farms] Big Woods Blue or Roquefort,” Jones says. Try chopping the honey and layering between cheese for crunch: “You get the honey flavor but with a totally different texture.”
Try it with: Goat Lady Dairy Providence. “The salt in the beer latches on to the salt in the cheese,” says Jones. Plus, the beer’s sourness finds a fine match in the zippy goat’s milk.
Yakami Orchards Yuzu Marmalade
Try it with: A dense, fudgy chèvre like Vermont Creamery Bijou. “I really like this marmalade with fresh goat cheese to play off that tangy citrusy note,” says Jones. Add an Effie’s corncake for crunch.
Drink of choice
“Cider is a secret weapon,” says Jones. “If you don’t know what to bring, bring cider. Off-dry or semi-dry will work with almost any cheese.”
What’s great about cheese in 2018?
“There’s a lot more technical expertise to be had, and a lot of sharing,” says Jones. “The willingness to share, that wasn’t there 10 years ago; it was more keeping people at arm’s length. I find that very refreshing.”