South Lake Avenue in Pasadena has a feel that is—if you squint, blur your vision, and take a prodigious imaginative leap—almost reminiscent of a mid-size, quaint European town with taupe-color buildings and wrought iron embellishments next to street-to-ceiling shop windows decorated with urbane apparel, art, antiques, and fine food.
The first such area is between San Pasqual Street and Del Mar Boulevard at Burlington Arcade, a block-wide row of shops with dark wood bay windows with muntin bars, topped by panels painted sea green and peaked skylights with corral accents.
The second stop on our imaginary European tour is two blocks north, between Cordova and Green Streets at The Commons. The wrought iron, gated entrance is flanked on one side by Williams Sonoma’s regal residence that has a multicolored slate roof, gabled upper windows and lower level show windows shaded by dark green bullnose awnings, and ivy climbing the south wall. The other side hosts Lemonade and whimsy with bright yellow corrugated tin-type planters, yellow outdoor umbrellas, a Hauser green awning, and mod avocado and white patio chairs.
Stroll through the gates and enter a casual, welcoming courtyard with young trees in terra cotta pots, wooden benches, and on chilly days an outdoor fire pit. A dab of the English comes thanks to a chiming town hall clock and two classic, red telephone boxes.
Tucked in the southwest corner is The Cheese Store of Pasadena—imagined, created, and lovingly owned by Natalia Pastis. She is of Greek and Armenian heritage, and grew up over a cheese and gourmet food shop (could this have been the Moirae with a tease of foreshadowing?). For years, she worked in a dress store in Beverly Hills and found herself crossing the street every single day to visit Norbert Wabnig’s renowned Cheese Store of Beverly Hills. Year after year, she stopped in, tasted, purchased, and learned. Sixteen whole years later, Wabnig told Pastis that she should open her own cheese store. And he knew just where; Pasadena.
For years Natalia’s dream store was off the courtyard and along the alley (or Shopping Lane as it is officially named), right across the street from Green Street Restaurant. She recalls being fooled repeatedly when the already dark store would darken even more and she’d wonder if the weather was changing. But no, it was merely a beer delivery truck unloading, blocking out the sun. So when an 859 square foot space became available in the courtyard, Pastis was delighted.
Stepping into The Cheese Store, we are bathed in the golden brown warmth of the wood floor, counter, and walls. A white wire plant holder holds fresh baguettes. A standing chalk board reveals the daily specials. The shelves stock crackers, dried beans, and mustards, “as well as an array of cheese accompaniments, like Spanish quince paste (membrillo) and Dalmatian fig spread.” Pastis also offers a host of tomato-based and truffle sauces to ladle over a wide variety of artisanal pastas.
A side table has large, glass jars of sun-dried tomatoes and a five varieties of olives. A replica of the clock at La Gare de Château-Thierry just north of Paris hangs above a shelf holding glass jars of herbs; a small, wooden, and latched culinary cabinet; and, interestingly, decorative cow horns.
Below that, the cheese case is full and the stone counter is ready with thick, fine wood cutting boards and an array of knives, ready to accommodate requests.
We are introduced to Charlie Witherington who is kind enough to start us off with a sampling of their 5-year vintage gouda that has a wonderfully alluring caramel, buttery color, reminding us of cold winter nights in Vermont in front of the fire (a nonsensical example of “free association”). Charlie picks up an impressively large 14-inch double-handled cheese knife from the 1960s (acquired from local designer Jan Ledgard of Yorkshire Kitchens) and raises it to a 45-degree angle as he begins the cut. He then pushes down very slowly, very heavily, and rolls the high end of the knife towards the horizon, eventually rocking back and forth to nudge the hard cheese to release its gold (note the white knuckles).
Watching someone employ a method that particularly suits the task at hand, followed by the rich, slightly biting, buttery taste of aged gouda is a moment to savor; it was performance art.
Natalia offers a taste of her double crème brie that is, frankly, the best brie our taste buds have ever encountered. Next up, Bleu de Basque. Natalia informs us that blue cheese from sheep’s milk creates a nuttier flavor than one made with cow’s milk, which has a grassy quality. Sheep’s milk, she continues, has a higher fat content than cow milk, and we can’t imagine how that could ever be considered a bad thing.
An instant favorite with us is Pecorino Moliterno al Tartufo, a raw sheep’s milk cheese from Sardinia that is aged for 6-months so that the flavor is well established. Following this period, a quantity of black truffle paste is injected into the wheel of cheese. This creates wide, deep veins, or rather a “truffle motherlode” (CultureCheeseMag). The smell is distinct, even slightly unpleasant, but when the slice hits our tongue our chin dips, our head slowly rolls, our eyes close, and we involuntarily moan—it’s a bit embarrassing, but it is that good.
We buy a slice and later that evening cook for our friends across the street, serving sliced grilled chicken and artisanal pasta. The table is laden with dishes so everyone can build their own meal with choices of artichoke hearts, spinach, black olives, green onions, tomatoes, yellow peppers, zucchini, crimini mushrooms—and a small bowl of Moliterno al Tartufo. A smidgen will do it. This is not parmesan that you sprinkle on with a heavy hand to create a dusting of snow. This is crumbling a half-inch piece over the dish and thoroughly mixing it in. The flavor is a stand out—musty like peat moss, intense like dark chocolate, and rich beyond belief; our friends moan a bit themselves and plates are scraped clean.
The matriarch of our family will officially become an octogenarian later this week and part of our gift to this woman who has fed us so creatively for 6 decades is a gift of cheeses. The problem will be in the choosing. Do we stick to our new-found loves or risk another true love and taste anew. We know Natalia and Charlie will have knives (double-handled for hard cheeses and filet knives for soft cheeses) at the ready, and their love and knowledge of everything cheese will guide us…
Pasadena Cheese Store, 140 S. Lake Ave., Suite 103, Pasadena 91101. CheeseStoreofPasadena.com. 626.405.0050. Hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
Natalia was kind enough to offer samples of their European-style, meaning not 2-inches thick with filling, sandwiches, which we took outside to sit at their cafe tables creatively covered with burlap. The proscuitto, asiago cheese, and balsamic cream on a fresh, crumbly crusted baguette was wonderful, but the house paté with cornichon, gruyere, and mustard was beyond delicious. The paté was perfectly smooth, the flavor melting right onto the tongue, the cornichon provided a sour accent to offset the slight gaminess of the paté, the mustard contributed the bite, and the gruyere added a grainy, nutty, simply cheesy, yummy goodness.
A selection of chocolates are available from Mamas Gone Cacao, even a small set of four attached to the neck of a bottle of red wine—hostess gift perfection, an end-of-the-week personal splurge, so many options…