In these midwinter days, we often find ourselves gravitating toward comfort food — and nothing says comfort food better than cheese. In Chicago, cheese-focused dishes are taking many forms this season, from a cheese board sporting selections from near and far to a surprising cocktail infused with pecorino.
Whether you want tradition or innovation, and whether you seek flavors sweet or savory, we’ve got you covered. These are the seven dining experiences every turophile needs to savor in Chicago.
1. Tuck into a cheese board at Beautiful Rind
Beautiful Rind is a specialty cheese shop and restaurant serving up a simple selection of sandwiches, salads, charcuterie and, of course, cheese.
“Our philosophy is to highlight good cheeses from good people,” says owner and cheesemonger Randall Felts. “Basically, we look for cheeses that we really enjoy and are made by creameries we want to support. If we don’t have a passion for the cheese and a belief in the people that make the cheese, we don’t carry it.”
Within those confines, the shop offers a wide range of cheeses at different price points and boasting different origins, anything from French Brillat-Savarin and Tête de Moine to Spanish Manchego or Iowan Prairie Breeze — an American cheese he’s cautious not to label as “local.”
“Some grocery stores define ‘local’ as being made in the Midwest or within a certain mile radius,” he says. “I wouldn’t say I’m going to my local pizzeria in Madison…but I’ve seen plenty of cheeses from Wisconsin labeled ‘local.’ We usually prefer to say where it is made and let the customer decide if it’s local.”
On Beautiful Rind boards, each individual cheese is paired with its ideal accompaniment, which may be inspired by regional tradition: caramelized onion jam with Comté reflects the flavors of French onion soup, and a classic pairing like Bleu des Causses with a ruby port ganache evoking the traditional port-and-blue so beloved in England. And some pairings are simply based on flavor.
“Tete de Moine, for instance, is paired with pickled beech mushrooms that are made with a lot of wine,” says Felts. “Since the cheese has secondary notes of forest floor and a bright acidic fruitiness, the pairing is one of my favorites.”
“Cheese for Dinner” is a five-cheese offering where mongers pick five choices to sample; “All the Cheese” does what it says on the box, with a $68 platter boasting all twelve cheeses currently on offer.
2. Sip a cheese-infused cocktail at Vol. 39
If the idea of a “cheese board in a glass” whets your appetite, pull up a chair at Vol. 39, where a cocktail called the “Perfect Bite” sees aquavit, gin, vermouth, sherry and brandy infused with the sheepy, salty flavor of pecorino. It’s a cocktail inspired by bartender Nicole Yarovinsky’s childhood memories.
“My mom would always bake pears with different cheeses,” she says. “This one is truly a liquid imitation of a combination of flavors you’ll find on a well-balanced cheese board.”
And while Yarovinsky’s mom tended more towards bloomy-rinded choices like Brie and Camembert, she and beverage director Guillermo Bravo eventually settled on pecorino for this particular tipple.
“It brought a sharp flavor and salinity to the drink that was needed,” he says.
Aged aquavit, he says, emulates rye bread, thanks to the presence of caraway, and the juniper in the gin serves to “chill out the aquavit a bit.” The vermouth and brandy represent the grapes and pear present on many cheese boards, and a little square of membrillo recalls the quince paste and burgos pairing Bravo grew up enjoying with his grandparents.
“Basically, the cocktail started as a cheese board martini but ended up being a collaborative liquid narrative of nostalgic memories that celebrate our different pasts and cultures,” he says.
3. Dig into a French onion éclair at the Loyalist
French onion soup is classically served topped with a heaping helping of molten Comté cheese, and it’s this comfort food delicacy that inspired the Loyalist’s chef John Shields to create a savory spin on one of France’s most beloved pastries.
An éclair typically sees a finger of choux pastry, which bakes up eggy, buttery and hollow, filled with pastry cream — usually chocolate or coffee. But in the Loyalist kitchen, Shields has taken the pastry for several savory spins, including a recent foie gras banh mi iteration that proved as innovative as it was delicious.
The inspiration for the French onion version struck Shields “on a whim.” It sees the éclair filled with caramelized shallot and whipped cream and covered with a snowfall of nutty mimolette cheese for a decadent but playful spin on tradition.
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4. Enjoy a French-style cheese course at Le Select
If a more traditional French approach to cheese is what you seek, chef Daniel Rose’s spanking-new brasserie Le Select is the place to be. The owner of New York’s Le Coucou and Paris’s La Bourse et la Vie has brought Parisian dining to his hometown with this new venture, where among the dessert options is a short and sweet menu of fromages to enjoy before or in lieu of dessert.
Despite the French-style ambiance, however, don’t come expecting French cheeses.
“When a ‘local’ product is available with the qualities of things we love from France, we privilege them,” Rose explains. “French cooking and eating ‘the French way’ is not about importing things from France, but using local ingredients and products that have the same quality and integrity of the ones we love to cook with in France. We think it is more important to eat an excellent American cousin of a French triple cream cheese with its own personality than an average version imported from France.”
It’s for this reason that Rose has selected two excellent American cheeses, Cowgirl’s Mt. Tam and Capriole’s Sophia, for the inaugural cheese course.
5. Gorge on a “Chef’s Whim Board” from Liva at Chicago Winery
At Liva at Chicago Winery, executive chef Andrew Graves is all about modernizing Midwestern menus, a philosophy that’s perfectly executed on his Chef’s Whim Board, which features a variety of meats, cheeses and vegetables in an ever-changing offering perfect to share.
“The Chef’s Whim almost always has a cheese on it that represents a local cheesemaker,” says Graves, noting nevertheless that there’s only one creamery with which the team has developed a special relationship with: Port Washington, WI’s Blakesville Creamery.
“It’s been a long while since I’ve been excited about a cheese coming to market, and the Afterglow checks all the boxes for me,” says Graves. “It’s local, coming from about 100 miles north of the restaurant. The dairy is produced on site, so the whole product is overseen by a small group of individuals that put the attention and care into their craft so they yield a product they fully stand behind.”
The creamery and winery have even collaborated to craft a unique version of Afterglow, a soft-ripened goat cheese, which has been washed in Chicago Winery Riesling to add a subtle, sweet finish to the final product. At brunch, it features on the Chef’s Whim board paired with two glasses of Chicago Winery Blanc de Blancs bubbles.
6. Rip into a Croatian burek at Rose Mary
The menu at chef Joe Flamm’s Rose Mary is inspired by a combo of the chef’s Italian heritage and the bright, bold flavors of Croatian cuisine — evoked by one of the most popular dishes on the menu, Burek Soparnik.
Flamm was inspired to create this play on a Croatian Swiss chard pie both by Split’s street food scene and by bureks he’s enjoyed in Chicago. His version sees dough filled with chard, parmesan and mozzarella for a rich, gooey pastry perfect to enjoy with a crowd.
“All of our food is meant for sharing,” says Flamm. “It’s more fun to rip apart with friends, but I could definitely put down a whole one myself.”
He recommends pairing it with a pilsner-style Zlatin Medvjed, a microbrew from Zagreb. With its light, refreshing flavor, he says, “it would complement the rich burek really well.”
7. Enjoy cheese for dessert at Michelin-Bibbed Mama Delia
At Mama Delia in Wicker Park, executive pastry chef Shannah Primiano puts cheese on the dessert menu with a sweet and savory Basque-inspired tarta vasca.
“I wanted to make a Basque cheesecake, or tarta vasca, that was unique and different,” she explains. “One that had a savory cheese course element to it that used Spanish pantry ingredients to complement the creamy cheesiness.”
The resulting dessert is a mashup of a cheesecake and a cheese board, made with a toffee Primiano crafts from Galician San Simon cheese and paired with a sherry vinegar-spiked membrillo red onion chutney. From the “sweet tang” of the chutney to the “salty maltiness” of the cheesecake, it results, for Primiano, in “a delicious bite.”
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