Dining on a Shoestring: The Cheese and Wine Bar at Cheesetique

Cheesetique, a cheese and specialty-food shop in Alexandria’s Del Ray, has always been a food lover’s paradise. The cheese counter is one of the best sources for hard-to-find wedges and wheels from around the world, while the shelves are stocked with an array of imported products, from genuine finds ($1.75 fennel salamis from New York) to all-out fripperies ($50 bottles of antique balsamic vinegar).

Now the fromagerie has moved two doors down and expanded to include a wine-and-snack bar, so it’s part restaurant, part shop. The store isn’t exactly bargain territory, especially if you’re susceptible to seductive marketing—say, if you could be talked into spending $13 a pound on oven-roasted tomatoes because a card says the owner’s husband would eat them every day if he could—but in the restaurant you can graze lavishly for modest sums.

The smartest place to sit is at the Carrera-marble-topped bar, if you can snare one of the comfortable red leather chairs. That way you can ask owner Jill Erber or one of her savvy servers for advice on the ten or so blackboard cheese specials, which might range from Green Hill, a rich double-cream from Georgia, to piave vecchio, a caramely, slightly crystalline cow’s-milk cheese from Italy. It also could include a less-than-thrilling Belletoile Brie or a fine if ordinary-tasting aged cheddar from Wisconsin.

One night I asked about Grinzing Tilsit, a cheese from Austria described on the board as “buttery, mild.” Erber gave a ho-hum shrug. Okay, how about the smoky blue from Oregon? “It’s awesome!” she cried, rhapsodizing about the aroma it gets from a light toasting over hazelnut shells. It was the best cheese in that night’s rotation.

You can order accompaniments such as fig spread and dried apricots, but the wooden cheese boards come with such a bounty of grapes, cornichons, quince paste, crackers, and breads that there’s no need to.

There’s a lot to like beyond the cheese boards—though much of it involves . . . cheese. That includes one of the best grilled-cheese sandwiches around: a golden, panini-pressed melding of runny, slightly pungent Taleggio and fontina cut with tangy onion jam. It’s an odd match, though, for its pairing of Tabasco-spiked gazpacho, which is much better on its own.

There’s a darkly burnished quiche, spicy-sweet with Peppadew peppers and rich with Emmenthaler. A pita stuffed with nicely seasoned hummus and alfalfa sprouts is elevated by the earthy brine of feta. And the best dressing for the salad on the side of all the main courses is the bleu cheese, not the too-sweet Champagne or balsamic vinaigrette.

The only real misfire is the Street Cleaner sandwich, its good ingredients—shaved pecorino, fennel salami, roasted yellow peppers, and marinated artichokes—undermined by both a thick ciabatta and a heavy smear of grainy mustard.

The biggest problem you may face is overdosing on everything raw-milk and runny, stinky and sublime. And though you probably won’t do much damage to your credit card at the bar, you might in the shop up front, where you’re likely to find something you can’t live without—like that smoky blue from Oregon and a quince paste to go with it. And hey—what’s for sale over there on the wine rack?

This review appeared in the July, 2008 issue of The Washingtonian.  

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.