Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Cheese Bar

Friday evening Carla and I made an accidental stop at the Cheese Bar, a new, uh, cheese bar at about 60th and Belmont. I had heard about the place, and we happened to pass it after two different moviegoing plans fell through.  It filled the bill perfectly for us: we needed a light dinner, and I needed another taste of Upright's Oyster Stout since I had given away the first bottle I bought and Beermongers was sold out when I checked there. Actually, that's kind of funny: in addition to beer bars and cheesemongers, Portland also has a cheese bar and a beermonger.

As the name indicates, the main attraction of the Cheese Bar is its dairy case, with a hand-picked selection of artisan cheeses from around the world.  You can buy cheese to go, or sit at the bar or one of the five or six tables and enjoy a small snack.  But the Cheese Bar also has a nice selection of beers -- 6 taps and about 30 bottles.  The space is nice, it's a comfortable place to hang out in, especially if you can get a table (it's a little hectic to sit at the bar).  After our oyster stout, we split a pint of the nice Chinook Single-Hopped IPA from Terminal Gravity.  There's a lower "take-home" price on the beer bottles, though I'm pretty sure the prices are higher than those at most bottle shops and groceries in the area.

Let's talk about those prices.  Some of them are a little high -- $4.30 for a 12-ounce Terminal Gravity ESG?!? -- but some of them are almost charitable: $2.70 for a Firestone Walker Pale Ale.  Hold on a second, on further reflection the problem is that the beer prices are just weird.  Take a look at the "here" prices on the menu below.  There are 25 beers on that side of the menu, and 19 different prices!  That's pretty delicate bookkeeping.  The take-home discount also varies from beer to beer, it's either $1, $1.50, or $2; that doesn't make a damn bit of sense.  Some order to the listing would be nice also, if not by style, then good old American alphabetical order.

The food prices are on the high side, for example $8 for the daily cheese plate with three small tranches of cheese, or $9 for the charcuterie sampler, but those are kind of typical for Portland, and not unreasonable considering the quality and uniqueness of the meats and cheeses.  On the other hand, the menu also has a $6 sandwich and a $4 salad (exact ingredients change day by day), so there is a way to economize.  That is, unless you're an unfortunate wine drinker: wine bottles are mostly about $35, within a range from $20 to $80.  And the only by-the-glass price on the printed menu is $10, though maybe they have some daily specials.

I have two gripes about the food at the Cheese Bar.  First, the sample plates come with 4 little coins of dried-up bread -- excuse me, crostini -- which is not really enough to do the job.  Each additional order of 4 crostini is $1, which is quite simply a laughable price for something so small, hard, and flavorless.  A better option would be to offer a couple of choices of baguette or roll; heck, if you want people to buy more $30/pound cheese or meat snacks, just give them some bread for free, and don't bother drying it out first.

My second issue with the food sounds a little silly, but it will be familiar to beer fans: the cheese is served too cold.  Like good beer, you want to taste the flavors in your good cheese, but that means it can't be right out of the fridge.  You could sit there a while and let it warm up, but that kind of goes against the owner's stated goal of a place to have a quick bite, shop for some cheese, and be on your way.  I don't know if there's really a solution to that problem: of course they need to keep their perishable wares cold.  Maybe some portions of the daily special could be kept out at room temperature during busy times, or the cheese could be served on a warm plate.

The place is pretty new, so maybe some of the pricing issues will get tweaked as they go.  It is a nice place, and definitely worth a visit, especially if you get a hankering for some cheesy comestibles.  By the way, I was hoping to be the first to report the factoid that it's a favorite hangout of Oregon Brewers Guild CEO Brian Butenschoen, but Portland Monthly stole my scoop in their review.


  1. Sounds like you would have been happier with a Frito Pie Covered in Government Cheese and downed it with Widhook Hefe-Porkin'.... ;-}

    Great article! Would have liked some examples of cheeses served and preferred a better beer list to Pair with cheeses, but it sounds pretty good. Made me want to go there, I need a good laugh.

    So.... The Cheese is too cold and hard. The Crostini are too crostini. They have a good selection of cheese and meats, none of which you list. They have a $6 mystery sandwich and $4 mystery salad. The beer selection is fair at best for Cheese pairing and Bill doesn't want to pay a buck for stale crusty bread.

    OK.... A food critic you are not, but I got the message loud and clear.

  2. Yeah, I guess I could have provided more cheese details, but this is a beer blog. The standout cheese for us was the Neal's Yard Stichelton, a rich, gamey version of Stilton. I don't recall what else was on the plate -- the unfamiliar cheese names went in one of my ears and out the other.

    The "mystery" sandwiches and salads change, so even if I told you what was on the blackboard Friday, it would be different when you visit.

    As for the beer/cheese pairings, there were about 10 more bottles on the other side of the menu that might appeal to you more -- including Orval, Duchesse, Rochefort 6, Lindeman's. I didn't scan that page because I didn't want to pull a Dr. Wort and make my entire post be pages and pages of menus with no commentary :-P

  3. I've been to the cheese bar twice. The first time I got a cured meat sandwich which came with 4 or 5 different meats, some cheese, greens, and oil on a rustic crusty roll. It was delicious, and a good value for what I paid, I thought. Along with the sandwich, I had an upright dry-hopped four on tap. Overall, I was really pleased with this visit.

    The second time I had the cheese plate of the day. It came with a peyronies mountain sheep's cheese, a bleu cheese, and a peyronies mountain cows milk cheese, as well as the crostini and a chutni. I thought all the cheeses were great, but not being much a cheese nerd, I think it was hard for me to feel like I really got my money's worth from the plate. I don't think it wasn't a good value, but rather that I just don't yet know enough about cheese to fully appreciate it like others do. It's kind of like giving a big stout to a bud drinker - they might like it, but probably not enough to wrap their heads around the difference in price. This time around I had an Orval.

    Overall, I like the place. I've been really interested in learning more about cheese lately, and I think this will be the place that I'll do it. I'd love to see beer and cheese pairing events there in the future. It would be nice to have someone that knowledgeable walk you through it.