Spice in the Big Easy
It’s a rainy Wednesday night in New Orleans, and the cheese shop is packed. We’re here at St. James, a retailer located on the edge of the city’s business district, sandwiched between a surf-themed dive bar and slick, remodeled hotels. Inside the glassy front of St. James, well-appointed New Orleanians, from girls on a night out to older couples, sit at a couple dozen tables, their attention focused on a tray of four cheeses in the middle of each table. It’s a full house at the Alpine cheese tasting night, and a great night to be a cheese connoisseur in New Orleans.
Everyone knows New Orleans has a major reputation as a food city. From the beignets to the jambalaya to the crawfish to the muffulettas, no trip to the Big Easy is complete without a deep dive into all the flavors the city has to offer. From Michelin-starred restaurants to James Beard award winning chefs to 50-cent oyster bars, the city brims with culinary delights. But these days, food lovers are being treated to yet another treat in New Orleans: the heart of the city is beating with a newfound cheese love.
From workday cheese tastings to fine-dining cheese boards to cheesy happy hours under the stars, if you’re in New Orleans, you’ve never had more options to satisfy your cheese cravings. You heard it here first: in New Orleans, 2016 is the year of the cheese.
Leading the charge to turn New Orleans into a cheese city is a store called St. James. What started as a humble little cheese shop in the European tradition is now a booming two-store franchise in New Orleans. Today, St. James’ original location, in the oak-lined uptown neighborhood the streetcar runs through, is regularly packed with wide-eyed folks surveying the cheese selection, while downtown busy business folk bring their clients over for a quick lunch. Here, the sandwiches are savvily designed to highlight fine cheeses; there’s the smoked pork tasso softed by a Point Reyes Toma, a turkey avocado sandwich elevated by Hooks Cheddar, and a caramelized onion and cave-aged Swiss Gruyere sandwich that would make even the best French onion soup throw a side-eye.
The staff at St. James is well-versed in what they’re selling, and they’ve got the patés and marmalades and oils to take any homemade cheese plate to the next level. And St. James has got some talented firepower behind them, too. The company’s cheesemonger, Justin Trosclair, won the title of top cheesemonger in the country at the 2013 Cheesemonger Invitational in New York.
But although St. James has led the way in New Orleans’ cheese movement, they aren’t the only cheese game in town. From fine-dining restaurants to Parisian-style pick-up stores to lowbrow grilled cheese shops, increasingly New Orleans is being inundated with interesting cheese opportunities for any visitor.
When I asked where I could find New Orleans’ best fine dining cheese board, Trosclair and many others pointed me to the restaurant Domenica. There, two big names in the New Orleans culinary world have combined: celebrity chef and New Orleans native John Besh and Domenica’s executive chef, Alon Shaya, the 2015 James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: South honoree. One fruit of their synergy is a salumi and imported cheese platter that is both visually compelling and thoughtfully paired, from a creamy Robiola Rochetta to a duck prosciutto.
Other fine-dining restaurants across New Orleans are also stepping up with fine cheese boards of their own. At the Delachaise, where a rounded, shaded porch looks out onto the streetcar tracks, diners can choose from excellent options like a rich Tommette de Savoie to funky Herve Mon’s St. Nectaire. In the heart of the historic French Quarter, at acclaimed restaurant Sylvain, the popular cheese board is paired with marcona almonds and microgreens.
And even if you don’t want to get dressed up, there are plenty of options for cheese lovers around town. A lowbrow underbelly of cheese delights has popped up over recent months. One option is a little storefront in the Uptown neighborhood called “The Big Cheezy,” where grilled cheese sandwiches stuffed with everything, including crawfish meat, are the name of the game. And on the other side of town there’s a new store called The Cheezy Cajun, where beer-soaked bellies will be delighted to encounter fried cheese curds, made from curds shipped down from Wisconsin. And at the super-casual High Hat along Freret Street, that southern favorite – pimiento cheese – becomes a mac and cheese that people cross town for.
All of this attention to cheese might lead one to be surprised to discover that New Orleans doesn’t really produce any cheese of its own. Even the state of Louisiana doesn’t offer much in the form of cheese. It’s too hot for the cows, and the culture simply isn’t there. In fact, Trosclair has begun dabbling in cheesemaking himself in earnest, to try to fill that gap; the results are still pending.
Instead, St. James and other cheese sellers buy their goods from the smaller producers in the U.S., like Jasper Hill and Cowgirl Creamery, and they tap their old connections in Europe to bring unique, difficult to find cheeses to their customers.
At the Alpine tasting night, for example, four cheeses were on the tray in the middle of the tables, but five cheeses were listed on the menu. Sure enough, as the tasting entered its final round, Casey Foote, the tasting’s lecturer, drew the crowd’s attention to a wooden crank contraption. He placed a round of cheese in the middle, and began turning the crank, which pushed a razor around the top of the cheese, slowly slicing off thin peels. The peels folded in on each other, creating small rosettes – an unmatched presentation that drew gasps from the crowd. Foote explained that the cheese had been brought over from a monastery. It was a cheese that, if it weren’t for St. James, New Orleans cheese lovers might never have tasted.
But perhaps my favorite New Orleans cheese experience happens across town from St. James and Domenica, on the other side of the French Quarter and on the very end of an increasingly hip neighborhood called the Bywater. There, on any given night, you might hear the sounds of music drifting along the riverbanks. Across the street from rusty train tracks and old depots, and behind a nondescript door, another New Orleans cheese hotspot thrives. Bacchanal stands as an oasis on humid summer nights in the South. Behind the door is a dark wine shop that is dotted with refrigerators.
In a no-frills business concept matching the no-frills neighborhood, customers peruse the wine racks and fridge themselves, pulling together tannin-heavy Italian reds with tickly Asiagos. Arms full of foodie goodness, they drop their foragings onto the front counter; they’re given a number and directed out the side door toward the backyard. There, a scene of southern bliss appears: white Christmas lights twinkle over garage-sale furniture in a lush garden setting, where, on most nights, a small band plays local music from a stage in the back. The result is a happy hour scene that would be difficult for any place in any city to compete with. And just as you hear the blasted horn of a riverboat making its way down the ageless Mississippi and think the setting can’t get much better, a waiter appears and drops a plate in front of you that overflows with the cheeses you gathered inside that have now been supplemented by heaps of crusty bread and tiny piles of olives and jams. Though a stripped-down version of what Domenica offers, Bacchanal offers New Orleans residents and visitors the cheese-tasting environment they deserve and increasingly desire.
So while it might be easy to get swept away by the rich cuisine and punch-packing drinks of the Big Easy, cheese connoisseurs who save room for cheese will be handsomely rewarded. And really, what could be better than picking up your favorite hard-to-find cheeses and a bottle of wine, and spending an evening at a park called The Fly, where you can watch the sun set over the Mississippi River?