Eating Out: It’s All About the Cheese

Barthelemy on rue de Grenelle is like going to church. 

Cheese, fromage, fromaggio.  There are countless ways to relish the food and the whole dining ritual in a new place. On a recent trip to Paris, it was all about the cheese. I was ready to abandon entire meals to cheese.  Not the cheese course, not trying a new cheese with my wine … just cheese.

Eating out is the scary part of travelling alone for some of us. It can be hard especially when it’s a new experience.  Some venues are a less daunting. My favorite travel guru, Mary D. Bowman, introduced me to the ease, variety and people-watching-wonder of museum cafes. (The logic is brilliant – your feet hurt, the exhibit map is usually inscrutable and requires decoding, and they almost always have fancy desserts.)

Museum cafes, busy cafeterias and bakeries are easier than four star, full-scale restaurants; lunch is friendlier than dinner; fixe price is a bargain.  In any case, it helps to have a plan. I like to go not only with a plan but with a mission and a purpose.

Back to the cheese.  On the first morning in Paris, I dressed carefully (for confidence) and set out to worship at the temple of gourmet condiments, Fauchon.  I was ushered into the cool, elegant dining area early enough to feel like I had a backstage pass as the servers set up tables and prepared for the lunch crowd to come.  I had a perfect cheese tray and a glass of crisp white wine. There was time for the server to explain the choices on the tray, time to think about how all the different garnishes complemented the cheese – the honey, nuts, tapenades. Something carmelized that I never figured out.  Better, there was time to think about what I liked best.

I compared the chorus of cheeses to what I read in my guidebook about designing a cheese plate. Here indeed was a sharp, dry cheese,  a softer, creamier almost sweet cheese, a militant, strident blue and one with fresh herbs.  It was an event – I left feeling totally cared for, inspired and sated. My hand had been held on the first step of exploration.  It also blew my food budget for that day – I was relieved when jet lag sent me to bed without supper.

Later in the week, I visited three cheese shops and practiced my college French (merci, Madame Choate) choosing perfect trios of cheese from white-coated cheese gurus. Barthelemy on rue de Grenelle was indeed like going to church.  With fresh bread and yogurt from the corner shop, I had picnics with a view across the city. You begin to get adventurous – one cheese was rolled in herbs and dried currents and one had a fragrance that would scare a junior high gym coach.  The cost of these shop visits was much less than Fauchon but the cheese was excellent and I was more confident and more creative.

When I could put down my cheese knife, I experimented with when I dined and and where I sat.  Going early (not so early that the staff said, ‘you must be American’) felt less daunting – date night hadn’t started at 730.  Sitting at the bar or outside was also very comfortable.

But what if you want to truly dine in style?  When going to a fine restaurant in the evening, I go around and make my reservation in person. I introduce myself, tell them why I want to dine there, and ask for advice about when to come and what the specials might be that are planned for the week. It’s not always great but sometimes it is fantastic.

What I Learned

  1. Invest in some education – the expensive lunch taught me a little more about my favorite subject.
  2. Never give up.  I chickened out at the first gourmet shop – I just got confused and felt silly and left. But, after another try, I had my camembert. I had to try three times just to find the tapas bar I wanted in Venice actually open.
  3. Prepare for the kindness of strangers.  I learned to say in French “I love cheese, I know nothing, can you help me?”  Cheese gurus couldn’t resist helping a doltish but self-aware American.



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