Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Cheese Store of Pasadena: Why Its Not Worth It

A few weeks ago, while having an indulgent solo lunch at the burger joint The Counter in Pasadena, I noticed that The Cheese Store of Pasadena was opening in a little store front across the alley, next to the newly (well, in the last year) opened Wine Detective.  All these stores are in a little alley behind Lake Ave, The Counter having taken over what used to be an Indian Restaurant next door to Green Street Cafe, which has been in Pasadena forever. 

The shopping center it is set in is most noticeable to me, for what has failed in those now-empty storefronts in the last few years.  Back in the day (meaning when I was in high school), the Crocodile Cafe occupied the Lake Ave front shop, and several shops catering to Old Pasadena money (aks stodgy and expensive) occupied the central plaza area.  In the six years since we moved to the top of Lake Ave, most of the central plaza shops have closed, the coffee shop became two more coffee shops before finally closing, the Crocodile Cafe has become Cafe 140 (with the exact same menu), and Michael Chiarello's Napa Style store (which only ever had 4 people in it at a time) closed within 2 years.  The only thing that has lasted is the Williams-Sonoma store, no doubt held up for a period of time by my wedding registry.

The cheese store we usually frequent is Say Cheese in Silverlake.  We like it for several reasons: they have a great cafe with good sandwiches and salads, even if the service is a little slow.  It is across the parking lot from a Trader Joe's, which is great for picking up a par baked French baguette or a par baked mini ciabatta loaf and some tomatoes for slow roasting.  They often have imported white anchovies from Italy, which my husband covets, even if they are $80/lb.  They are great about tasting and recommending cheeses and accompaniments, and best of all... they are not pretentious.

But we don't often want to travel to Silverlake and struggle with parking, especially now with a 16-month-old toddler you can't exactly let loose in a cheese store with wine displays.  So I was rather excited to see the Cheese Store of Pasadena opening, no less, 3 miles down the street from my house.  I bought a french baguette, and with a craving for a good white cheddar, W and I went to check out the new cheese store.

Its a lovely store.  Its bright and clean and the displays are beautiful.  To the left are shelves of gourmand goodies, accoutrement for your cheese experience.  To your right and near the corner of the tasting counter are large glass jars of several different olives, cornichon, walnuts.  Behind the tasting counter is what can only be called a huge, glass-walled room of cheese. 

Here's my problem with it:  its cold.  Its cold and pretentious.  On the marble tasting counter were soft cheeses on the left counter, hard cheeses on the right.  There were people at the soft cheeses, so we made our way to the other counter.  There was the big closet of cheese behind the woman there, filled with large wheels of cheese, but there were no signs, nothing to tell you what kind of cheeses they had.  What kind of cheeses they were.  Same for the olives, which I would have purchased had I been able to discern what kind of olive each jar held without asking someone.  The woman at the counter made some chit chat, and I mentioned that I was looking for a good cheddar.  She happened to have a French cow's milk and cut sliver for us to taste.  It was excellent. 

She asked what else we were looking for.  W said maybe something soft - our cheese plates usually consist of a soft cheese, a blue, and a hard cheese, maybe a cheddar or a manchego, or something new we've tried at the Say Cheese (they have an excellent Whiskey Cheddar, btw).  I had mentioned to him that I had a blue at home already, and we had some heirloom tomatoes, some grapes, some prosciutto.  The cheese woman asked if we had ever tried a Brillat-Savarin and scraped a little out of the center of a wedge.  I picked up a cracker to scrape it off the edge of the cheese blade - it was extremely soft - and she recommended that we just scrape it off with our fingers to better sample the cheese.  I have to admit, I found this disturbing.  Who else had scraped something off this cheese knife with their finger?  Did they lick it off and then scrape/try something else off this same knife?!?!  I was a little grossed out.

But here's the kicker: hey cheese lady, when I say the Brillat-Savarin is a little too tangy for my taste right now, I don't need the little snide look that says I clearly don't have the ability to appreciate a fine French cheese.  I - probably unlike the only other 3 people in this snooty shop - actually know who Brillat Savarin was.  I also don't need your entire attitude to change because I say I want something a little less sharp today, perhaps a little more mild.  Did you notice I'm 16 months pregnant and should maybe regulate my intake of unpasteurized snooty French cheeses?  Oh, and btw, I also don't need you to get even more cold and pretentious because when I did decide to take some of the more mild brie you finally brought me (saying the word "brie" with the same disdain as Alice Waters might say "iceberg lettuce") I wanted a smaller piece than the HALF WEDGE you tried to sell me.  It is also not my fault that when I asked for a small wedge of the cheddar, you cut the top to the right size and then widened the slice as you brought the knife down, so in the end the slice of cheese was almost twice the size of what I had asked for.  And I made you re-cut it.

I truly had not meant to write this much about my 15 minutes in the Cheese Store of Pasadena, but clearly, I am long overdue for a rant.  Needless to say, we were disappointed.  I had high hopes, there are well enough foodies and gourmands in the Pasadena area to make a cheese store successful, but I won't be going back.  Maybe it works for the blue-haired old Pasadena money, but I'd rather go to Say Cheese in Silverlake, or make random selections of cheese I can actually see in my hand (not through a glass closet door) at the Whole Foods.  At least there are labels on the cheese at Whole Foods so I know what it is.   And I'd rather debate Alice Waters about the merits of iceberg lettuce than talk to the snooty cheese lady anytime.