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Favorite Cheese Shop?

Limster Jan 1, 2001 04:15 PM

What's your favorite cheese shop in SF?

I'm very parital to Say Cheese on Cole (at Carl), but that's mainly because it's the best one walking distance from where I live. I love shopping for cheeses there - there's a guy who works there that is very opiniated about cheeses and food but makes excellent recommendations if you leave it to him. When I went there the first time, I remember asking for X cheese and he would gently shake his head with disapproval and say "this is what you want" and proceed to show off what he thought was better.

BTW, I just got a fantastic triple cream blue cheese from them yesterday to go with sliced pears and walnut, and it was gone in a jiffy.

  1. m
    Melanie Wong Jan 1, 2001 06:48 PM

    Say Cheese is my favorite in SF, and I have to drive a ways to get there and try to find a parking space. Prices are very good there too. I also buy a lot of cheese at Whole Foods which has a very good cheese dept. too and is a bit more convenient for me. Draeger's in San Mateo (which has a cheese cave like Say Cheese) and of course the venerable Cheese Board in Berkeley are great too.

    If you're fond of Petit Basque cheese (Brebis), I know a wholesale price source close to your neighborhood. by appt. only.

    22 Replies
    1. re: Melanie Wong
      Limster Jan 2, 2001 12:21 AM

      I really don't know much about cheeses, which is why like to have the guy at Say Cheese make recommendations.

      I've had more cheeses than I can remember names or regions, and I'll have to ask what are Petit Basque cheese like?

      1. re: Limster
        Melanie Wong Jan 2, 2001 02:39 AM

        I've always loved cheese - learned from my parents who are somewhat unusual among Chinese who typically can't stand the stuff. But it wasn't until I put myself in the hands of a former employee at Say Cheese that I took it to another level of appreciation and knowledge. This was about 5 years ago when I went in there asking for raw milk cheeses from the Burgundy region for a dinner I was planning. The air shipment from France was due to arrive in a couple days and he suggested that I come back for a sampling of everything! I brought a bottle of Pinot Noir and we went to work spending over two hours (long after the doors closed) tasting through the shipment, discussing aroma, body, flavor and finish (the same terminology used for wines) and how they worked with Pinot Noir. We learned a lot from each other about sensory descriptors and cheese/wine matching.

        Petit Basque comes from the western Pyrenees and is an aged sheep's milk cheese with a 400 year old history. It's almost crumbly, a bit salty and very richly flavored, a little stinky too.

      2. re: Melanie Wong
        Janet A. Zimmerman Jan 3, 2001 10:13 AM

        Melanie, where exactly is the Cheese Board? I've looked for it (albeit only in the car passing where I thought it was located) and haven't yet spotted it. I was told it's on Shattuck near Chez Panisse -- which side of Shattuck and which block? Thanks.

        1. re: Janet A. Zimmerman
          Caitlin Jan 3, 2001 11:16 AM

          The Cheese Board is about one block north of Chez Panisse on the west side of Shattuck. In the afternoons, they also have a imited selection of very good pizza.

          1. re: Caitlin
            Janet A. Zimmerman Jan 3, 2001 12:06 PM

            Thanks. I'll give it a try.

            1. re: Janet A. Zimmerman
              Melanie Wong Jan 3, 2001 02:11 PM

              As Caitlin said, which puts you on the opposite side of the street and up a block from Chez Panisse.

              While you're cruising the East Bay, the Pasta Shop on Fourth St. in Berkeley or the one in Rockridge also have great cheese selections. Priced higher than Cheese Board. Friends recently discovered the Pasta Shop cheese selection and in no time had spent $85 or as the wife said, "worse than 15 mins. at the cosmetic counter at Nordstrom". But it was a very nice platter of about 6 different cheeses, including a perfect Reblochon, which the 5 of us polished off in one sitting with 4 bottles of wine! One of our group mentioned that she's been buying a lot a place on Solano Ave. with better prices than the Pasta Shop.

              1. re: Melanie Wong
                Alexandra Eisler Jan 3, 2001 04:04 PM

                Which place on Solano??

                1. re: Alexandra Eisler
                  Melanie Wong Jan 3, 2001 05:05 PM

                  That's your neighborhood, I was hoping you could tell us. (g)

                  Up for a field trip to Cowgirl?

                  1. re: Melanie Wong
                    Alexandra Eisler Jan 3, 2001 06:53 PM


                    And I'll track down the Solano cheese store tomorrow. (as soon as I'm done eating my Vietnamese grilled pork lunch in Emeryville).

                    1. re: Alexandra Eisler
                      Melanie Wong Jan 3, 2001 07:19 PM

                      Super! Maybe after the FF show hub-bub has died down?

                      Big responsibilities, but you're the cowgirl for the job. (vbg)

                      1. re: Melanie Wong
                        Alexandra Eisler Jan 4, 2001 10:55 AM

                        Ugh, embroiled in FF joy as we speak...

                        So nice to have a cheese event to look forward to!

                2. re: Melanie Wong
                  Janet A. Zimmerman Jan 3, 2001 04:13 PM

                  I have been to the Pasta Shop (both of them) but only on a quick browse. I'll have to plan on a more leisurely visit. I second Alexandra's question about the shop on Solano -- all I can think of is Andronico's, AG Ferrari, and a deli much farther down (near Happy Produce) which never seems to be open.

                  1. re: Janet A. Zimmerman
                    Melanie Wong Jan 3, 2001 04:51 PM

                    I'll have to ask Ms. Kimberly. I doubt she meant Andronico's or AG Ferrari.

                    1. re: Melanie Wong
                      gordon wing Jan 4, 2001 12:00 AM

                      The store on Solano Ave. might be Zarri's delicatessen.
                      It's an old family owned place with very reasonable prices and a pretty good selection of Italian items.(Olive oil, olives, cheese, pasta, sweets, etc...) I remember getting a real good price on dried porcini mushroooms. They also have bacala (salted cod). It's not a fancy place at all but I enjoy shopping there. The counter folks are very helpful and professional. It's been in the neighborhood for many years. Has a strong local following.

                      1. re: gordon wing
                        Melanie Wong Jan 5, 2001 01:51 AM

                        Sounds great.

                        If you don't usually check out the General Topics board, you might be interested in a current thread on favorite cheese.

                        Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

                        1. re: Melanie Wong
                          gordon wing Jan 6, 2001 09:57 AM

                          Thanks for the link to the General Topics board. Sometimes there is so much to read on the SF Bay Area Message Board that I forget how much else there is to explore. As if I didn't already spend enough time in front of my computer! Thanks again, I think.

                          1. re: gordon wing
                            Melanie Wong Jan 6, 2001 06:43 PM

                            I know the feeling, Gordon. And, it seems like I can't stop talking about cheese on this board or General Topics!

                            Thanks for all you've shared on cheese and other chowhounding activities.

          2. re: Melanie Wong
            Christine DiBona Jan 3, 2001 11:06 AM

            Say Cheese is fine if you need to cover a lot of ground cheese-wise. But they're not my first choice if I'm looking to put together a cheese plate for a dinner - see recommendations below.
            I don't know how the main branch of Whole Foods in SF is, but I talk with the head cheese at the Palo Alto branch regularly, and at least at that branch, there's been a decision to clear out a lot of the more interesting(ie slower selling) cheeses, and reallocate the space to the crowd-pleasers. It's not really the fault of the counter-people - they've generally been helpful and well-informed; I just think it's an unadventurous crowd down here.
            Drager's SOTA rating (SOTA is our polite shorthand for stick-up-the-a**) is just too high for me to bear; if by circumstance I HAVE to shop there (my husband invites two more people to dinner, and I've only got enough quail for six) I end up walking away from the register in a high temper because of the insanely inflated prices and poseur service. The cheese counter at the Los Altos branch is an embarrassment - the cheese visibly over-the-hill and mislabeled, the counter-help arrogant and uninformed ( "Fontina? Never heard of it..") Can't say anything nicer about the Menlo Park branch. In fairness I haven't been to the San Mateo branch, which I understand is the flagship and the one to which Melanie is referring.
            So, after all that bitching, where do I go to buy cheese?
            1) For Parmesan and Grana Padano at the best prices in town: Lucca Delicatessen (corner of Valencia and 22nd, SF)Also best price (need to cross-reference with Berkeley Bowl) for cans of Sicilian anchovies in salt.
            2) For fine and unique cheeses: Artisan Cheese (just off the corner of Fillmore and California)
            I think my cheese shop standards were set when I opened Mad.61 in Manhattan with Steve Jenkins,a legendary cheesemonger, where he was responsible for the retail cheese counters, and a cheese tasting menu. Artisan Cheese is the shop most closely related in attitude and knowledge to what Steve creates at his places. They are associated with the Cowgirl Creamery people, who make cheese from Straus Family Dairy milk (organic), but also bring in Neal's Yard choices from England, and other nice, small producer cheeses from France and Italy. Small shop, so selection is not huge,but if you let them make the recommendations rather than go looking for specific cheeses you'll walk out with nice choices, and maybe some new discoveries..
            3) Odds and ends:
            Cowgirl Creamery has a stand at the Embarcadero Farmer's Market, and you'll find stuff there that you don't often see in the retail outlets: crecenza, their fresh ricotta, and another one I'm banging my head to remember - a not-as-aged-as-usual sheep's (?) milk cheese, shaped in a basket, barely still creamy, barely becoming tart, REALLY good!
            If you need fresh ricotta for ravioli, get the stuff in the milkshake-like can at Whole Foods. It comes from NYC, so maybe some of our New Yorkers will remember and name this product for me. It's fluffy, with large curds, and delicately sweet - no need to hang it, as it's not too wet.

            Hope this helps


            1. re: Christine DiBona
              Melanie Wong Jan 3, 2001 04:43 PM

              Great post, Christina! I didn't know you were local. I had to take a lunch break before diving into your meaty, or rather, cheese-laden message.

              Say Cheese ranks high with me for the condiitoning of the product. The cheeses are ripened gently in the cave and are well cared for. Combined with great passion of the employees and not the broadest but a thoughtfully chosen selection make for a great cheese store. Also, they'll unwrap the small oozing rounds for me so that I can see the condition of the rind and smell them, not just squeeze through the paper to confirm ripeness. Last month I needed Bleu de Causses (from the Languedoc) for a grand aioli party, and Say Cheese was the only shop in SF with it in stock when I called around. Some beautiful Vacherin had just come in when I was there. I do think they are weak on Italian and Spanish cheeses with their Francophile focus.

              That's too bad about the Palo Alto Whole Foods. I did notice that the SF branch has far fewer French goat cheeses and seems to have replaced them with artisanal American choices. My favorite counterwoman at SF WF hasn't been there my last few visits, wonder whether she's moved on. She sold me Steve Jenkins book (my bible) a couple years ago - btw, why is he controversial? SF WF has 4 different truffled cheeses to choose from, whereas other purveyors may have one or two only. When I fell in love with Spanish cheeses at the FF Show 3 years ago, I was elated when they soon showed up at SF WF.

              The best Whole Foods in NorCal are probably the two branches in Sonoma County which have the legacy of Food for Thought which started the stores. The cheese lady (is that a French accent?) at the Yulupa store in Santa Rosa is awesome - where else can you get 8 different farmhouse goudas? On NYE we had a delicately flavored Colummier (sp?) and an ash-covered pyramid of goat cheese with just the right amount of chalk and runniness from there. The Sebastopol store also has a very fine selection.

              I agree completely in your assessment of the Los Altos Draeger - the cheeses are in aweful shape. I haven't bought cheese at Menlo Park. The San Mateo store is a little friendlier to me in feeling, maybe because they're new in town there. Lots of Spanish selection here, and love the Serrano hams and selection of prosciutto (I'm very fond of San Daniele). I recently met the new sommelier at Viognier (restaurant upstairs) and will be doing some tasting with him soon. Maybe this will be an opportunity to reacquaint myself with the San Mateo store. Yet, fwiw, when I met him in Oakland he was heading over to the Berkeley Cheese Board. (g)

              A few of my friends in SillyValley prefer Oakville Grocery in the Stanford Shopping Center over MP Draegers for cheese. I've only bought there a few times. Smaller well-chosen selection, good conditioning, high prices.

              Btw, to de-Draegerize your life, the next time you need quail, check with a Chinese butcher. The ones in SF Chinatown have fresh or frozen quail all the time.

              For "cooking cheeses", I'll often buy at Trader Joe's. Good prices on Reggiano and Grana. Got some raw milk Comte to top a gratin for $6/lb.

              I buy my salt-packed anchovies at Ratto's in downtown Oakland. Since it takes me a couple years to go through a can, I can't remember how much it costs. But it was about 1/3 less than Oakville Thievery. Also very good prices on black or white truffle oil. Unfortunately the cheese selection has been whittled down considerably. Too bad, as Marty offered me my first taste of Cabrales here 5 years ago.

              For Italian table cheeses, I've had good luck at AG Ferrari in the Castro. Some real beauties from Piemonte.

              Since I so love to discover new types of small soft-ripened oozy cheeses, I'll have to check out Artisan. Pasta Shop is also good for these little gems, as is Leonardo 2000 on Polk/Pacific in SF. Leonardo almost always has some too old hard cheeses like Cantal or Comte marked down that I'll get for pennies for grating.

              A field trip up to see the Cowgirls is still on my "to do" list. Bellwether Farms Crescenza is one of my favorites. It's really wonderful with peak of the season tomatoes sliced over top while still warm from the sun.

              And one more for good measure, Dean & Deluca in St. Helena has a really nice cheese counter with good selection, good condition, good staff.

              1. re: Melanie Wong
                Christine DiBona Jan 16, 2001 12:33 PM


                Thanks for all the information! And I apologize for my tardiness in replying; we're buying a house and moving this month, and I'm shocked at how quickly my email/mailing list/bbs stuff piles up when I'm not looking. Who says that the internet is making people less sociable?!?

                Yes, I'm a local girl, in more ways than one (4th generation Bay Area, but spent a chunk of my childhood in Hawaii). While I remember great trips out to Sonoma for runny Teleme, back in the 60's, it's only recently that I've simultanously owned a car and lived in (or close to) San Francisco.So Napa and Sonoma are still nearly virgin territory for me. I've been up numerous times - cooking for the wine auction, on meandering drives etc., but it's different when YOU get to do the driving, and pick when to stop...It sounds like it's time for a tour, with maybe Cowgirl Creamery as the apex. I have heard rumors of their wonderful ice cream, which only rarely appears at the farmer's market, so maybe I'll plan for the summer.

                Your mention of quail brought back great memories of working in restaurants in the 80's. I owned a little 50cc scooter, and so got to bop around, on the clock, picking up stuff for the restaurant, because even then NO ONE wanted to try and park in North Beach/Chinatown. Quail was often on the list, and chinese sausage (different colored string for different seasoning) for the staff dinner, and fresh noodles...mmmmm.

                Unfortunately, it's the car/distance thing that keeps me from shopping in Chinatown as often as I used to. Also I forget that it's been about 10 years since I lived full-time in SF, and that stuff changes. I walk to a spot I was sure was there just the other day and wander morosely in circles, like an old dog, abandoned by my memories. Back in reality, I get quail as a treat from the Hoffman booth at the farmer's market, and since it comes in six-packs, use a couple of packs as an excuse to invite people over. I try and keep the SF trips down to once a week, so I need to find my last-minute ingredients down here. I don't know of any Chinese meat shops/butchers down here, but I'll admit that I haven't really been looking. The car's navigation system cannot handle all the freeway changes going on around the 99 Ranch down here any better than I can, so I haven't been there either in about 6 months. It may all become moot, as we're moving to Placerville at the end of the month and I will be looking in the Sacramento area for new resources, and driving to SF a couple of times a month.

                I'll check out Oakville in Stanford - the tradeoff of money vs.travel time to SF may be not too miserable. We have a relatively new branch of AG Ferrari in Los Altos, but I think the cheese selection may suffer the same fate as the PA Whole Foods - the customers seem to be most interested in the prepared foods, and fancy packaged stuff (and the staff's SUTA rating is beginning to rival Drager's). It's a rare day in Silicon Valley that you're offered anything more adventurous than brie/pepper jack/swiss when a host/ess puts out a cheese plate for their guests - and always as hors, never AFTER a meal. Only thing that will jostle them out of the rut is a recipe calling for an unusual cheese, and even then you should hear what I am asked about substitutions!

                As to Steve Jenkins, I don't know why he's considered controversial, exactly, except that he's, well, _STEVE_! Meaning that he's a full-blown character, and, I think, quite conscious of the upkeep of his brand-name/image. This is in no way a slam, it's just the kinda distasteful reality of making and keeping a name and reputation for yourself in the food world. Steve is smart, deeply knowledgable, worldly, passionate, driven, obnoxiously charming when he wants to be, and in-your-face if he thinks you're an idiot. The last bit may be why he's considered controversial, as he runs into lots of idiots. There is NO gain in one-ups-manship with Steve, but some New Yorkers (I am only picking on them because NY is where I saw him in action) are stupid enough to try and outdo and impress him - very, very bad idea! Most of us mortals would be best served by just shutting up when in his presence, and soaking up as much of his knowledge as possible. That said, he is kind and reverent with those people he respects - the cheese makers he writes about, customers equally passionate about cheese, employees who listen and learn from him. The Mad.61 project was a Pino Luongo creation, and the two of them had a lot in common in their attitude towards food, and I still adore and admire them both, years after working for them. One of my defining memories of that time is of the two of them both tilted back in their chairs, cigar smoke curling through a slice of late August sunlight, a low, laughing conversation about something sensual and good...


                1. re: Christine DiBona
                  Melanie Wong Jan 17, 2001 02:50 AM

                  Congrats on the new house, hope you still have time to catch the FF show. I noticed that the discounted registration deadline has been extended till Friday. Maybe you want to join Alex and me for a chowhound field trip to Cowgirl?

                  One of the mysteries of life is why fresh pasta is so expensive and variable in quality when fresh chinese noodles are so cheap and reliable.

                  Can't help you Chinese food wise in Sacto - my auntie there doesn't cook at all (my mother's mystery of life to ponder). I'm sure you already know about Corti Bros. don't know about the cheese selection but the other stuff in the newsletter I used to get was fascinating.

                  Thanks for the info on Steve Jenkins. I was curious after seeing some scathing comments about his book on amazon.com when I was doing some Christmas shopping.

              2. re: Christine DiBona
                gordon wing Jan 3, 2001 11:51 PM

                Enjoyed reading your posting about the state of cheese retailing. Cowgirl Creamery is worth a trip over to Marin .... not the biggest selection but everything is well chosen. I particularly liked some of the Neal's yard selections. If you are ever in London, the Neal's Yard retail shop is quite impressive.

            2. j
              Janet A. Zimmerman Jan 3, 2001 10:18 AM

              I used to love Say Cheese when I lived in that neighborhood. When I moved to Noe Valley, I found the cheese place on 24th to be pretty good too (I can never remember the name; I always called it the Stinky Cheese store, after the memorable occasion when a friend and I were standing outside its open door and my friend started checking the soles of his shoes to see what he'd stepped in).

              Have you been to Artisan Cheeses on Fillmore? I've heard and read great things about it but haven't visited yet.

              3 Replies
              1. re: Janet A. Zimmerman
                Limster Jan 3, 2001 11:59 AM

                No, I've not been to Artisan Cheeses. What's the cross street?

                1. re: Janet A. Zimmerman
                  Melanie Wong Jan 3, 2001 02:00 PM

                  I haven't been to the one on 24th - love your story! Think it's just called 24th St. Cheese.

                  Artisan is owned by Cowgirl Creamery. Haven't been there yet either. Have called a couple times when I was looking for something in particular, and since they didn't have it, ended up somewhere else.

                  1. re: Janet A. Zimmerman
                    Debbie Aug 17, 2001 07:41 PM

                    Artisan is a lovely shop. They are right by my house, and a favorite Saturday morning activity (when I can wake up early enough) is a trip to the farmer's market with my best food buddy and then a stop in the Fillmore to visit Boulangerie (for yummy fresh baked bread - try the walnut and green onion ficelle) and Artisan Cheeses. Then it's out for a hike in the hills, armed with bread, cheese and a Nalgene bottle full of wine.

                    The staff at Artisan are really friendly and knowledgeable. They have all the gossip on local cheeses -- apparently, Cowgirl only makes their scrumptious herb wrapped cheese in the summer, which means sadly, I will have to wait until next year to try them, despite all the fervent recommendations. They even turned us on to the whacky herb guy at the farmer's market who grows the most beautiful arugula (without a single leaf marred by bug or transport). Most importantly, though, they let you sample to your hearts content, and even join you in trying their favorite cheeses, when it is not too busy.

                    If you haven't been there, you should definitely stop by...

                  2. e
                    elise h Aug 11, 2001 06:27 PM

                    I went to the Say Cheese recently and was disappointed at the service. I walked in ready to buy several french cheeses. I was very interested in learning about the different cheeses, where they were from, and why they were special. The first salesperson was totally uninterested in answering my questions. The second salesperson was more helpful, but not very knowledgeable. Which salespersons do you find helpful and knowledgeable? I'll ask for them next time. Although, really, a specialty cheese shop that charges on average $15/pound should have consistently good salespeople.

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: elise h
                      Limster Aug 11, 2001 06:59 PM

                      The person that I usually interact with is a caucasian guy that's a bit older, with a short beard and moustache. I think he goes by Rob or Bob. I've heard "complaints" from other's that he's quite a "food snob," and I know for a fact that he does have very strong opinions about cheese and wines. But the stuff he's suggested have always been quite interesting and good. I hope things work out better next time. :)

                      1. re: elise h
                        Ruth Lafler Aug 11, 2001 07:01 PM

                        I agree, when you shop at a specialty shop of any kind, one of the things you're paying for should be the expertise of the staff.

                        That's why I love the Cheese Board. No matter how busy they are (and they are always busy!) when they are waiting on you, you get their full attention for as long as you need it. They *insist* that you taste everything you are interested in, even if you've bought it there before, and they always cut a taste for themselves at the same time. So you can be sure that everyone there has personally tasted the cheeses.

                        1. re: Ruth Lafler
                          Melanie Wong Aug 11, 2001 09:53 PM

                          It's kind of a running joke with some of my friends that they hope someday they'll become knowledgeable enough to work at the Cheese Board the next time a slot comes. The process to become a shareholder/worker there is apparently very rigorous.

                          1. re: Melanie Wong
                            Ruth Lafler Aug 12, 2001 02:33 AM

                            I suspected that, since it's a collective, not just anyone can work at the Cheese Board. The commitment of their employees shows.

                            Thanks for giving me a new fantasy aspiration (g).

                      2. n
                        Nancy Berry Aug 12, 2001 01:50 PM

                        I'm glad to see this thread resurrected. Our favorite cheese shop in SF is Creighton's on Portola near Tower Market. The folks at Creighton's are extremely knowledgable and helpful and the cheese is stored very well. Tower Market also has a good cheese selection, but the people there don't know as much about cheese as the salespeople at Creighton's.

                        As for Cowgirl Creamery, I actually got to go on a field trip there with the Baker's Dozen -- that's the group of professional and amateur bakers headed by Flo Braker, Carolyn Weil, and Marion Cunningham. We got a tour and tasted their cheeses, all of which were quite good. My favorite of all their cheeses was the cottage cheese -- it was really wonderful, very delicate and fresh tasting.

                        By the way, we also toured a woodfired bakery right next door to the Cowgirl Creamery. These folks bake excellent breads -- they sometimes sell them at the SF Ferry Building Farmers' Market.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Nancy Berry
                          elise h Aug 12, 2001 02:48 PM

                          Nancy, thanks alot for the tip on Creightons. I called and spoke with one of the owners, who was very friendly. What is noteworthy is that Creighton's offers cheese tasting classes! There is a basic course (3 sessions)that just began (will be repeated in January) and an exotic cheese classe beginning 9/24. Sounds fun.

                        2. m
                          Melanie Wong Aug 15, 2001 08:14 PM

                          Here's a link to a mention in today's food section of the Chron for a new place, The Cheese Course, that's opened in Healdsburg.

                          Link: http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi...

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