IT'S ESTIMATED there are around 1,500 varieties of cheese being produced in the world (with anywhere between 324 and 750 coming from France). Of the astounding variety of cheeses on this globe, one shop in Southeast Portland stocks over 200 at any given moment. It's a temple to the grand fellowship between human and microorganism. It's a sandwich shop; it's a pub; it's a place called the Cheese Bar.
The name works. In terms of stating what it is, empirically, the Cheese Bar is exactly that: a bar, with the added benefit of cheese. The establishment divides its duties effectively between liquid refreshment and lactic delights, offering six rotating taps, as well as an impressive bottled beer and wine list to accompany your Stilton or Brie or what have you. It's all available for immediate consumption (the cheese sliced and plated with a minimum quarter-pound purchase) right there at the broad wooden bar or at one of the tables occupying the comfortably sleek dining room with its mellow mid-century-modern aesthetic.
But the Cheese Bar is also the standard for cheese excellence in Portland—in which case, the bar is set high. Helmed by constantly affable cheese monger Steve Jones, it'd be difficult to visit his shop/eatery and not walk away with a greater understanding of wedge and wheel. The man beneath the mop of curly hair, his eyes smiling behind black-rimmed glasses, is fantastically knowledgeable about his area of expertise.
Not only that, Jones has managed to surround himself with staff people who appear enthusiastic at all times. Enthusiastic about what? Well... cheese, and bread, and beer, and music, and technology, and "Wow it's just such a beautiful day out there! Isn't it great?" Which makes spending time at the Cheese Bar an uplifting experience if you're willing to go along with the general upbeat vibe and lust for life, both macro and microbial.
The enthusiasm plays out particularly well on the short menu of rotating sandwiches and assorted morsels, available six days a week for lunch and dinner. While certainly cheese centric, the options offer, almost without fail, a wonderful balance between ingredients. Sometimes the effect is simply pleasant, other times it's eye opening.
In terms of pleasant, a sandwich of capicola, fontina cheese, and tomato-basil mayo on Pearl Bakery baguette works well with fairly mellow cheese and fatty cold cut blending nicely. The best part is the tomato-basil mayo soaking the baguette interior as it sits, making the last few bites most flavorful.
Also pleasant is a fatty pork rillette that finds its full expression when combined with pickled prunes and bold rustic mustard. It could use more crostini, but they're provided gratis should you prefer to spread thin.
Better is a sandwich of fresh sheep cheese with olives, prosciutto, arugula, and herbs. Again, flavors are balanced but the ingredients are more lively—spicy arugula meets fatty ham, soft cheese, and tangy olive, between chewy bread.
On the pretty side of things is a strata combining cremini mushrooms and "five corners" cheese. Creminis imbedded in the springy egg custard work well with flavors of nutmeg and savory cheese.
Mini shortcakes, flavored with a breath of lemon and filled with strawberry and poached rhubarb, are light and delightful. They are best when loaded with homemade whipped cream.
A salad of fingerling Yukon gold potatoes, bacon, leeks, and peas strips potato salad down to a fatty, delicious, rustic mélange that serves to make the bed of fresh arugula it's piled on nothing more than a forgettable garnishment.
To be warmed at the Cheese Bar is a matter of ordering a carrot, coconut, and ginger soup. Though a tad grainy, the balance of texture is toward the smooth, with a decidedly equatorial flavor.
All of this is perfectly satisfactory until you eat something like the grilled Muenster cheese sandwich with ham and rhubarb mustard. It's a fantastically delicious creation, which works to showcase the best thing about Cheese Bar: knowledge not just of cheese, but also of what most pleases and excites the palate.
There may be 1,500 cheeses in the world, but thankfully Portland has at least one place where the people not only know their cheese, they know how to use it.
Those interested in experiencing more of Steve Jones' cheese wizardry can attend the 101 Cheeses event on Monday, June 21, at Ten 01, 1001 NW Couch, 6-9 pm. A selection of 101 cheeses from Cheese Bar will be paired with wines selected by Ten 01 sommelier Jeff Groh. Tickets are $39 advance at brownpapertickets.com, or $49 at the door.