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Not long ago, specialty cheeses had a bumpy ride in this town known as the “City of Big Shoulders.” In the mid-1980s, when I arrived at the Chicago Tribune to write about food and wine, cheese was of more than routine interest in only a few select restaurants—mostly French—and the occasional Italian and Germanic food market or wine shop. But things have changed mightily; the city is now ripe with artisanal food and beverage offerings. Not only are Chicago’s talented chefs, sommeliers, and a growing number of retail merchants showcasing exceptional cheeses from around the world, but dairy farmers in rural Illinois and neighboring Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana are handcrafting cheeses of considerable character and charm. Most importantly, consumers on the receiving end of all this good cheese are ordering it with enthusiasm—not just to taste, but also to discuss. Come to Chicago and you’ll find the locals as eager to talk about cheese as they are to eat it.

Cheese Shops and Markets

Fox & Obel

This upscale market in residential Streeterville downtown has matured with the neighborhood over the past eight years. Its spacious fromagerie is “at the heart of the market,” featuring a “diverse collection of American artisanal creations alongside Old World classics.” In-market synergies include splendid bread and rolls from the bakery, a 60-seat café, a broad wine selection, and catering. The arrival earlier this year of cheesemonger Aaron Stek, who honed his marketing skills at Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has led to the addition of more regional Midwest cheeses and provides customers with cheese education opportunities.

Fox & Obel 401 East Illinois Street Chicago, IL 312.410.7301

Green City Market

Sign for the outdoor market

The Green City Market’s outdoor location.

The urban green movement came early to Chicago, but it wasn’t until this decade that a site in Lincoln Park was dedicated to twice-weekly farmers’ markets. Among them, a cheese lover will find several producers from Illinois and neighboring states who deal out samples and are eager to discuss their vocation.

Green City Market Outdoor Market (Wed. & Sat. from 7–1,May 6 to Oct. 31): Lincoln Park, 1750 North Clark Street Chicago, IL (south end, between Clark Street and Stockton Drive)
Green City Market Indoor Market (Wed. and Sat., 8–1, Nov. through April): Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 2430 North Cannon Drive Chicago, IL

Green Grocer Chicago

Cassie Green is queen of all she surveys, even if it’s only a 900-square-foot storefront in the old West Town neighborhood. Green seasons her locavore and organic-focused foods—largely Midwest offerings—with humor (“Owner/ Stockgirl,” reads her business card). There’s a serious side as well, evidenced by a dozen-plus cheese selections and a recent partnership with Next Generation Organic Dairy, a Wisconsin producer.

Green Grocer Chicago 1402 West Grand Avenue Chicago, IL 312.624.9508

Marion Street Cheese Market

The western suburbs are well served by this retail shop and very attractive café. Pride, ecological concerns, and a quest for knowledge shape a selection of more than 150 cheeses sourced “off the beaten path, all over the world.” Potables include a cheese- friendly wine selection and locally brewed craft beers on draft. (The café’s dinner menu offers five plates of geographically linked cheeses plus half a dozen à la carte selections.) Cheeses are cut to order and patrons enjoy a Cheese of the Month Club.

Marion Street Cheese Market 100 South Marion Street Oak Park, IL 708.725.7200

Pastoral

Pastoral's co-owner stands next to a giant half-wheel of cheese

Pastoral co-owner Greg O’Neill shows off one of their giant wheels of cheese.

“Artisan cheese, bread & wine” reads the understated message on cards for this fast-track, two-store chain. There has to be more to it than that to win a national Outstanding Retailer of the Year award after only three years in business—and there is. The flagship store, located on a block of small retail shops in the Lakeview neighborhood, is all of 382 square feet, yet, in the tradition of neighborhood cheese shops in Europe, Pastoral offers wine, charcuterie, olives, and freshly baked bread. (Salads and sandwiches are also available for carryout.) The selection is cleverly displayed; servers are alert and informed. But cheese, international and domestic and mostly artisanal, comes first. Co-owner Greg O’Neill describes the venture as “an Marion Street Cheese Market adult candy store for those who love food and wine.” A second Pastoral, located in the Loop business district, is somewhat larger and has tables for in-shop dining.

Pastoral 2945 North Broadway Street Chicago, IL 773.472.4781
Pastoral 53 East Lake Street Chicago, IL 312.658.1250

Trotter’s To Go

At chef Charlie Trotter’s small-scale food emporium in the Lincoln Park residential area near the DePaul University campus are original treats for takeout or catering and displays of cheese and wine. The cheese case usually contains 30–35 pre-wrapped selections, most of them from Europe.

Trotter’s To Go 1337 West Fullerton Avenue Chicago, IL 773.868.6510 (TROTTER’S TO GO HAS CLOSED AS OF 2013)

Whole Foods Market Lincoln Park

The ecologically conscious Whole Foods chain has markets scattered throughout the Chicago area, but none generates the energy and excitement of this recently opened giant. The cheese department features a display of about 300 selections against a backdrop of mammoth wheels. Both the cheese and the wine inventories show a heavy American influence. Immediately adjacent is the 28-seat Da’Vine Wine & Cheese Bar, where three-item tasting plates, cut to order, are $9. Just over the horizon is another bar dedicated to beer and spirits. Customers are invited to forage for take- home items or stroll and consume, glass in hand. Conversations with staff are encouraged.

Whole Foods Market Lincoln Park 1550 North Kingsbury Street Chicago, IL 312.587.0648

Eating Out

Bin 36

bin 36 cheese bar

The cheese bar at bin 36

No restaurant in Chicago has been more successful in marrying cheese and wine for a diverse audience of diners, daters, and wine fanciers than Bin 36. From numbered bins located throughout the expansive space comes a panoply of vintage bottles, many of them served in three-wine tasting flights. Five years ago the concept was broadened dramatically with the introduction of a sit-down cheese bar, which displays about 40 cheeses for individual consumption or service in tasting flights. Fromagier Antonio Ramirez is responsible for the purchase, care, and serving of the international selection, which includes the top-selling flight Six Cheeses You Can’t Live Without ($18).

Bin 36 339 North Dearborn Street Chicago, IL 312.755.9463

Blackbird

This restaurant and its ex-executive chef, Paul Kahan, have earned awards and citations for developing a distinctive form of affordable modern fine dining. Consider the cheese course: five stellar cheeses are avail- able on the dinner menu for $8 each; a tasting portion of all five is $15. Seasonality is a factor in choosing both the cheeses and the garnishes, which might include local breakfast radishes, house-smoked almonds, and rhubarb mostarda. Cheeses might include triple-cream Picolo from California, Wisconsin’s Ocooch Mountain aged sheep’s milk, and Saint Auger Bleu from France. (“While we like using domestic products, we often highlight French cheeses, as some have no peer,” comments pastry chef Bryce Caron.)

Blackbird 619 West Randolph Street Chicago, IL 312.715.0708

Boka

When executive sous-chef Carl Shelton returned from a cheese- making excursion under the tutelage of Wisconsin dairy farmers, he was empowered to refocus the international cheese plate program at Boka to a list with seven Wisconsin-made artisan cheeses. A 20 percent increase in cheese plate sales followed six weeks of serving only local varieties. Three favorites are Burning Nettle Gouda from Holland’s Family Farm, Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Up- lands Cheese Company, and Carr Valley Cheese Company’s Coco Cardona. A selection of three cheeses is $12; six is $20. Presentation includes accompaniments such as balsamic reduction, cranberry-ginger chutney, fig paste, hickory nuts, and quince preserves.

Boka 1729 North Halsted Street Chicago, IL 312.337.6070

Café des Architectes

The French Sofitel Water Tower hotel and its personable French chef, Martial Nougier, have built a coterie of admirers in Chicago, in part by welcoming locals and putting them at ease. A recent Fromage Menu in the café offered ten cheeses—five French and three American. In addition are three-cheese flights, one “So French,” the other “So American.” À la carte cheeses ($3 for each one-ounce portion) are generously garnished; a seven-cheese tasting, meant for sharing, is $26.

Café des Architectes Sofitel Chicago Water Tower, 20 East Chestnut Street Chicago, IL 312.324.4063

The Gage

A plate of elk ribs with a balsamic glaze

Roast saddle elk at the Gage.

It’s standing room only at this 300-seat gastropub with a prime location on Michigan Avenue directly across from Millennium Park. A fan of artisanal cheeses, inventive chef Dirk Flanigan offers his versions of fondue and goat cheese risotto as well as a daily three-cheese tasting plate ($16).

The Gage 24 South Michigan Avenue Chicago, IL 312.372.4243

Hot Chocolate

Widely recognized as an outstanding dessert chef, Mindy Segal surprised her many fans when she opened Hot Chocolate in funky Wicker Park as a full-service restaurant. She recognizes cheese in an evolving ten-item selection ($12 for three), which features primarily Midwest producers but also may include those from Oregon, Virginia, and Louisiana. Equally appealing are dishes cooked with cheese that appear elsewhere on the menu, such as tuna-and- cheddar melts; Krema Kasa and lamb sausage; and a better-than-mom’s macaroni and cheese.

Hot Chocolate 1747 North Damen Avenue Chicago, IL 773.489.1747

Les Nomades

“Notable French cheeses,” announces the menu at one of the city’s most admired restaurants. The cheeses, offered as part of a four- or five-course prix-fixe dinner or à la carte ($22 for a selection), are carefully tended, arriving at the table on a classic board upon which they are cut to order by a well-informed server. The restaurant’s remarkable wine selection offers the possibility of experiencing a truly memorable pairing.

Les Nomades 222 East Ontario Street Chicago, IL 312.649.9010

North Pond

This antique, romantic dining destination is set beside a tree-lined pond in Lincoln Park. Thanks to chef Bruce Sherman, it’s also a showcase for a spectrum of vibrant sustainable and organic foods, many of which—cheese included—are offered at the Green City Market. Cheese is presented as a separate course and typically consists of four selections plus breads with nut and fruit garnishes.

North Pond 2610 North Cannon Drive Chicago, IL 773.477.5845

Spiaggia

A pile of cheeses wrapped in herbs and flavorings.

Spiaggia’s botanical cheeses

Perhaps the Midwest’s premier luxury Italian restaurant, this second-floor palazzo displays the depth of Spiaggia’s commitment to cheese for all to see. Posed next to the reception stand is the Cava di Stagionatura, a climate-controlled cave dedicated to maturing a unique selection of 30 to 40 artisanal creations imported from Italy, such as Robiola Tre Latte from Piedmont and Pecorino Nero di Pienza. A handful of American-made cheeses sleep elsewhere. A single cheese and garnish is $8; tasting portions of three to thirteen cheeses are $21 to $45; and Cava cheeses are also available next door at Café Spiaggia.

Spiaggia 980 North Michigan Avenue 2nd floor Chicago, IL 312.280.2750

Terzo Piano

The Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing, open since May, offers the proverbial feast for the senses. Taste reigns in the third-floor Terzo Piano restaurant, where patrons enjoy artistic sandwiches, fresh pasta creations, salads, and sculptural desserts. In addition, chef Tony Mantuano has installed a climate-controlled cheese cave similar to the one in his luxury Italian restaurant, Spiaggia (see p. 28). Here, however, the emphasis is on cheeses forged by artisanal American producers such as Capriole Farmstead Goat Cheese and Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, a dozen of which are available at $4 per selection.

Terzo Piano 159 East Monroe Street Chicago, IL 312.443.8650

Vie

Paul Virant, the personable young chef- owner of Vie, a beacon for fine dining in the southwestern suburbs, has developed strong ties to regional farmers and producers. He presents a trio of his discoveries nightly on a domestic cheese plate ($16) representing different styles, paired with house-made preserves or local honey. In the kitchen, fresh Illinois sheep’s cheese is combined with wood-grilled leeks; aged Wisconsin cheddar flavors beignets.

Vie 4471 Lawn Avenue Western Springs, IL 708.246.2082

Bars and Casual Spots

Avec

This cigar-box-like tiny eatery with communal tables and an internationally inspired palette of treats is a grazer’s nirvana. A dozen European cheeses are offered at $15 for three; carefully chosen wines are agreeably priced. Open daily from 3:30 p.m. to midnight or later.

Avec 615 West Randolph Street Chicago, IL 312.377.2002

Pops for Champagne

Sparkling wine (more than a hundred labels) and live jazz share the spotlight at this sleek State Street nightclub. Sixteen cheeses are available ($3 to $6 for one-ounce portions) with wine pairing suggestions. Open daily from midafternoon to 2 a.m.

Pops for Champagne 601 North State Street Chicago, IL 312.266.7677

Rootstock Wine & Beer Bar

A wooden board that alternates cheese and pairings

Rootstock’s cheese plate, complete with pairings

In May, three wine bar alums opened a cozy storefront bar with mismatched furniture, linoleum floors, and rotating displays of local artwork in the gastronomically under- served Humboldt Park. Head chef Remy Ayesh, a former fromagier from Spiaggia, cooks up tasty handmade delicacies from seasonal ingredients: small plates of bar snacks and charcuterie, a pair of salads, and six domestic artisan cheeses with “crusts” (flatbreads), including one topped with prosciutto, figs in lavender honey, arugula, and homemade minted ricotta. The cheeses ($4 apiece or $18 for all six) are accompanied by a selection of Ayesh’s seasonal jams. Rootstock’s impressive beverage list offers two dozen microbrew beers and a roster of boutique wines—18 by the glass, 65 by the bottle.

Rootstock Wine & Beer Bar 954 North California Avenue Chicago, IL 773.292.1616

The Tasting Room

Tucked away at the west end of restaurant-studded Randolph Street, the Tasting Room is just that—and a retail shop as well. Locals stop by for pre-dinner sipping (100 wines by the glass; $8 to $21) and noshing (15 cheeses; $5 to $6.) Romantics come late-night for views of the downtown Loop skyline.

The Tasting Room 1415 West Randolph Street Chicago, IL 312.942.1313

Webster’s Wine Bar

A fixture on Webster Avenue since 1994, low-key, comfortable Webster’s claims to be Chicago’s oldest wine
bar. Thirty-five wines by the glass (and 500 bottles available) plus beers and spirits complement small-plate appetizers, tapas, and an ambitious list of international regional specialties, plus ten cheeses. Lengthy descriptions of each cheese include suggested wine pairings; three-cheese flights are $12; single, one-ounce servings are $4.50.

Webster’s Wine Bar 1480 West Webster Avenue Chicago, IL 773.868.0608

William Rice

William Rice, the long-time food and wine columnist for the Chicago Tribune, has been a reporter, critic, and editor for more than four decades.