Once upon a time, my parents lived in Chestnut Hill, a neighborhood in Northwest Philly where trolley cars still run down the cobblestone main street. There was a cheese store. Since our westward migration, that cheese store has taken on mythic proportions in the family lore: their subterranean network of walk-in refrigerators was the largest storehouse of fine cheeses on the eastern seaboard; the prevalence of ESP amongst the staff enabled them to select cheeses perfectly suited to the needs of their customers, a bit like the Mistress of Spices; the building itself was a kind of cheese mold, constructed as it was with casein-infused brick and spritzed nightly with unicorn’s milk.*
In twenty years, the Cheese Store of Pasadena may grow into a similar magic. Tucked into the back of the withering Commons shopping complex, a few strides from the Wine Detective and across the road from the Counter, the Cheese Store certainly has highfalutin ambitions. The shelves and displays are brimming with expensive gourmet foodstuffs—rainbow pappardelle, zebra tortellini, European chocolates, truffle oils, rhino horns,* tapenades, fresh breads, huge jars of olives and peppers and, and, and.
The cheeses, however, get a room of their own, a large glass chamber behind the counter, climate-controlled and strictly off-limits to customers. They sit, ever so daintily, on grated steel shelves, casually arrayed treasures in a vault. Their numbers are not overwhelming. One gets the sense that a cheese collection grows slowly, not unlike a wine cellar.
I take it for granted that the cheese selection is well curated. It might not be, but finding out would require expertise beyond my ken. The important question, then, is service: how adept are these cheese experts at translating the stammered desires of their customers into an appropriate selection of cheeses? In brief, and given a small sample size, let me simply say: These cheese experts are fairly excellent translators. Given very little information (“what are you having for dinner? do you like the smell of gym tube socks? do you like how this tastes?”), they will produce an assortment of cheeses which will stand a very good chance of being just what you were looking for.
To be fair, my fellow cheese-hounds and I made it easy: We like stinky cheese. If you ask for stinky cheese, they will sell it to you. All of the seven or eight stink-bombs we tried were interesting, but none could compare to the Stinking Bishop, a British cow’s milk made famous by, of all things, Wallace & Gromit. It really does smell like a gym sock. And it’s a wonderful thing.
On our third visit, we tried another approach, and were less successful. “We want a balanced cheese course,” we said, and ended up with a grab bag of cheeses that, while good, didn’t really have much to do with each other, and were in general not as exciting as the stinkers. Strange as it may sound, however, this was our fault: There was dissension in the group, we weren’t clear about what we wanted, etc.—a failure to communicate. A house divided against itself cannot stand.
There’s a larger principle here: If you don’t really know what you want, letting yourself be guided by an expert salesperson is a good idea; if, on the other hand, you have a fairly strong notion of what you want, you’d better be able to communicate that. The employees of the Chestnut Hill Cheese Shop not withstanding, salesclerks are not psychics. Great ones can clarify a muddled idea for you, but even good ones aren’t going to be able to do much more than stand there patiently while you try to explain yourself.
The cheese clerks (a phrase of which I’m growing fond) of the Cheese Store of Pasadena are, at the least, very good. Time will tell if they are great. They are knowledgeable and passionate about cheese, and supremely attentive to their clients. If there’s a crowd, you may wait some time for your number to be called. It can be grueling, watching other people scarf down sample after sample. If you’re close to the counter, you can often snag some of your own from someone else’s demo cheese. Aside from this acknowledgment, however, you won’t catch the eye of a cheese clerk until she is completely finished with her current customer.
This is a virtue, plain and simple. If you like cheese, you owe it to yourself to check this place out. Prep your wallet, though; high-end cheese and high-end service come with a hefty price tag. Four moderately sized pieces are likely to cost at least $50. But unless you’re a complete cheese glutton, those four pieces will likely do for a good long while—long enough to last until your next trip to the Cheese Store.
The Cheese Store of Pasadena, The Commons, 140 S. Lake Ave. Suite 107, Pasadena, 626.405.0050, cheesestorepasadena.com. Mon.–Sat. 10 a.m. – 7 p.m., Sun 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
*I may or may not be embellishing slightly.