CHEESE is in. Granted, it was in last year, and the year before that, and several thousand years before that. But here, now, cheese is in-er, more in, at its in-est since the 1970s rage for fondue and French onion soup. Restaurants are laying in humidified glass boxes, which they grandly call cheese "caves." They have cheese menus, maitre fromagers and one of these maitres, Max McCalman of the New York restaurant Artisanal, has even written an excellent new cheese book.
It is all too fabulous -- if you are rich. No ordinary mortal can afford to routinely eat cheese this way, and without eating cheese all the time, it is impossible to learn about it. For the man on the street, mastering cheese by ordering it at swank restaurants is about as affordable as tackling metallurgy by shopping at Tiffany's.
Rather, the time-honored classroom has always been a good cheese shop. As you enter, the proprietor might look up from tasting a new Emmental, and ask if you'd like a sample, then offer a contrasting bite of Gruyere. You're about to discover real "Swiss" cheese. You came in for sea salt, but you leave with Gruyere, bread, wine and plans to serve asparagus soup, grilled cheese sandwiches and Gewurtztraminer.
What a great fantasy this might seem, since shops like this are rare in this town. But several new ones have opened in Los Angeles in the last two years. In a chronically underserved field, this doubles the ranks of dedicated shopkeepers intent on selling cheese the way it needs to be sold: by knowledgeable staff offering plenty of free tastes.
Any discussion of Los Angeles cheese shops must start in an almost hilariously elite clime, at the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, which has been run for 25 years by a Swiss man, Norbert Wabnig.
The first thing that signals the shop's quality is smell, that arresting lactic funk that can be overpowering when you first unwrap a cheese but that soon clears. Cheese is like fruit -- it is constantly ripening and it needs to breathe -- so Wabnig carefully unwraps, trims and turns many of them every day to keep them in premium condition. This is no small task. He's not sure how many cheeses line the crowded counter. "Six hundred?" he wonders aloud.
There is an overstuffed case of American and French goat's cheeses, from loose new chevres to aged pyramids. There are excellent selections of slightly elastic and nutty-tasting Alpine-style cheeses, and a surprising store of luscious cheeses of Normandy, right up to the aged, orange and perfectly tangy Mimolette, whose slices look very much like petrified cantaloupe. This is a cheese-lover's cheese shop, whose rare specimens include a young Tuscan pecorino -- a sheep's milk cheese -- with a bloomy rind and delicately flavored interior and abiding, milky sweet finish.
The store has only one obvious shortcoming. It is not the place to buy British cheese, a small school of unique cheeses as full of character as any out of France and archetypes for some of our best-loved cheeses. An Appleby Cheshire here, though, looks like a dog dug it up, and Stilton is Brand X.
If going to Beverly Hills strikes you as an odd way to economize, it should be stressed that the prices here, from $15 to $22 per pound, are no more than most shops around Los Angeles charge, usually for a lot less skill and care.
However, no small thanks to Wabnig, the real cheese movement is slowly branching out to humbler manors.
Two months ago, Chris Pollan, a former apprentice of Wabnig's, opened the Cheese Store of Silverlake. Wabnig helped him build a stock of about 200 cheeses, with a respectable selection of Spanish sheep's milk ones, which are priced at $13 to $18 per pound.
The location stinks: It's up a courtyard off a gritty intersection and parking is on steep, rutted side streets. Inside, Pollan is the big man with the lugubrious expression. It's up to you to ask for samples, but they will be cheerfully given. In fact, Pollan will brighten noticeably if you ask him to design an entire party platter, and he may select a cow's, a sheep's and a goat's milk cheese, to take you up and down the saltiness and richness scale.
As a final welcome note, Pollan's new shop is well poised to give the nearby store Say Cheese a shot of competition. Service here can be so blithe that customers can feel like intruders interrupting gossiping staff.
Another new shop, Stroh's Gourmet in Venice, takes a smart, less-is-more approach. On display are no more than two dozen cheeses, but almost all are in perfect condition, including one of the most singular and straight up buttery cheeses out of the British Isles, Mrs. Kirkham's Lancashire. From France, there is a surprisingly respectable industrial double-cream blue, St. Augur.
A request for tastes results in a faintly comic ballet. An already high counter is stacked yet higher with various Easter sweets and delicacies, and the staff has to circle around to the front of the display case to hand over small smudges of cheese on paper. But they cheerfully do it, and all of the cheeses, save the California goat cheese, Humboldt Fog, are in excellent condition. Prices are as much or more than Beverly Hills, from $14 to $22 per pound.
In South Pasadena, a beloved shop among locals, Nicole's Gourmet Foods, is settling in nicely after a move from Pasadena proper two years ago. French expatriate Nicole Grandjean and her son, Steven, have cheese tastings on Thursdays, to coincide with the farmers market next door. Otherwise, customers choose for themselves from a refrigerator bearing a handsome selection of French cheeses, including what seem like a fanatical fan's concentration of two types of Roquefort, their most expensive cheeses from roughly $13 to $15 per pound. Those interested in expert help from the owners are well advised to go outside of lunch time, when the proprietors and staff are run off their feet by the sandwich trade.
Campanile restaurant in mid-Wilshire deserves a special Let Them Eat Cheese trophy. It was among the first to cross the restaurant-shop divide by opening La Brea Bakery next to the dining room. In the last decade, it has become the best source in the city for English artisanal cheeses: Stilton, Caerphilly, Cheddar and Cheshire, which are reasonably priced from $16 to $18 per pound. In a funny instance of a working-class dish insinuating itself onto a posh menu, the restaurant now serves Welsh rarebit -- cheese on toast -- for its raucous Thursday sandwich nights.
But La Brea Bakery is called a bakery for a reason. Its staff is gracious and competent but not expert about cheese. As such, they are not likely to offer you a taste without your asking first. Most supermarkets seem to think that all cheese needs is a tight coating of plastic, a bar code and a refrigerated cabinet. Granted, sometimes that's true. Most of these places sell factory or "commodity" cheeses, high in water weight, rubbery in texture, low in price.
However, some high-end grocery stores, led by Whole Foods Market, also sell handmade farmhouse cheeses, pre-cut, shrink-wrapped and stacked high in chill cabinets, as if they were sneakers on sale at Shoe Pavilion. The cheese suffocates, and the chain has the temerity to charge Beverly Hills prices for it.
For consumers buying cheese by appearance alone, some tips: Beware of discoloration. The paste of Stilton should not be dark brown and slimy. This spells oxidized surfaces and rancid flavors. A touch of blue veining in a Cheddar is fine, even desirable, but a darkening outside paste is not. Also look for disproportionate amounts of rind, which is inedible, but still costing you from $15 to $20 per pound.
Better yet, take your business to a store that earns it. You'll not only leave knowing what you've bought actually tastes like, if the shop's worth the bell over its door, you'll leave enthused.
Eat. Read. Taste.
The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, 419 N. Beverly Drive; (310) 278-2855.
The Cheese Store of Silverlake, 3926-28 W. Sunset Blvd.; (323) 644-7511.
Stroh's Gourmet, 1239 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice; (310) 450-5119.
Nicole's Gourmet Foods, 921 Meridian Ave., Unit B, South Pasadena; (626) 403-5751.
La Brea Bakery, 624 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 939-6813.
* "The Cheese Plate" by Max McCalman and David Gibbons (Clarkson Potter, $32.50).
* "Cheese" by Juliet Harbutt (Willow Creek Press, $29.95).
* "Cheese Primer" by Steven Jenkins (Steven Jenkins, $16.95).
* Tonight at 6:30 at Sur la Table, 6333 W. 3rd St.: Wine and cheese pairings from Normandy and the Loire Valley. Cost: $55. To register: (866) 328-5412.
* Sunday, June 1, at 2 p.m. at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd.: Sacramento provisioner Darrell Corti presents "The History of Cheese" with tastings. Cost: $30. To register: (323) 655-8587.