NOT TOO LONG after Chizu opened downtown, Steve Jones—Portland's pre-eminent cheesemonger—added three words under the bright red window sign: "A Cheese Bar."
It's not surprising Chizu needed a bit more explanation, as the concept is one I can't capture in 140 characters or less. Here goes: It's a sushi-joint-inspired cheese bar, where you can order slabs of heady, salty, and bloomy cheese like you would sashimi. (The name Chizu is Japanese for cheese.) Order piecemeal ($3-6) or go for the name-your-price omakase (chef's choice), and watch Jones expertly flay his assembled collection of blocks and wheels into manageable tasting portions.
It's all a bit precious. Yet to sit at the 11-seat bar and ask Jones to "take us for a cheese walk" is one of the best returns on investment I've had all year.
Part of it is Jones' charm—the glimmer in his eye when you ask for a $35 omakase and place no restrictions on his selections (this provided seven distinct offerings, more than enough for three cheese obsessives, especially with another snack or two). You'll be trotted around the globe with a cheese arrangement made with the same care that top-tier sushi restaurants present their wares. With sushi, you eat the fish from lightest to oiliest; at Chizu, you eat the cheese from creamiest to stinkiest.
This is serious business: Staff rotate the cheeses, stored in glass cabinets at the bar, into a cooler every 15 minutes or so to keep them at optimal level. It was the best way to get my mitts on a slice of Washington's Cascadia Creamery Glacier Blue, a raw blue cheese that spread over crostini like butter and went down with a bacony funk.
But it's not stuffy, either: In a jolly Swedish Chef manner, Jones won't hesitate to repeat the name Sternschnuppe, a positively silly-sounding and totally great raw cow cheese from Germany. The tasting notes promised a hint of tonkotsu ramen—and by God if that wasn't correct. Here lies a cheese with meaty depth and umami.
On another visit, a Spanish Don Mariano raw goat was the smelliest thing in the room, with early undertones that rose up on the palate even after swallowing.
Wine, cheese's longtime BFF, is pared down to a Spartan (or "well-curated," if you prefer) selection. I was urged to try the Jasper Sisco Clara Estelle Riesling ($9 a glass)—a varietal I tend to avoid—and could not get over the sublime way the softly sweet Willamette Valley grapes pinged off raw sheep and cow milk cheeses. Perhaps fitting with Jones' recent partnership with the new Commons Brewery tasting room in Southeast, the beer list is more robust and heavy on Belgian styles. (A sign that Steve the Cheeseman is beholden to no one: Commons' delightful ales were nowhere to be found on a recent beer list.)
Jones has said he wants Chizu to be a pre-meal spot, where someone can come in, drop $20, and then go out for dinner. I don't know if it's because I'm a glutton—do not ignore the house pickles ($4) or the duck board ($14)—or because I'm ever-so-slightly lactose intolerant, but each visit was more than enough to top me off for the rest of my night.
At first blush, it's a bit tough to grok the Chizu concept. But after the first cheese plate, which could only have come from an impassioned mind like Jones', it's hard to understand why he didn't do this years ago.
Sun-Wed 3-10 pm, Thurs-Sat 3-11 pm. No reservations. Don't bring more than four or five souls.