Restaurant Review - Say cheese

From stinky to sublime, gourmet fromage entices diners

As a full-fledged cheese head, it does my cholesterol-laden heart good to find so many Atlanta restaurants now offering tempting, thoughtfully conceived cheese courses. Though Americans have traditionally eaten cheese before their meals (often cut in cubes and stabbed on the ends of toothpicks, I might add), the European tradition of eating le fromage after the entree, either before or in lieu of dessert, is slowly catching on here in America.

Cheese can be an excellent way to extend a meal if there's wine still left in the bottle. With so many distinct and exceptional varieties now being made within the country and available for import from around the world, it also makes a great conversation topic at the table. Yes, cheese can be fattening, but when you're eating the good stuff, a little bite of several different kinds is all you need to be sated.

Atlanta's Big Three fine dining restaurants — Bacchanalia, The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton and Seeger's — each offer sumptuous cheese courses as an addition to their prix fixe menus. After seeing the cheese cart or tray being rolled around the room, catching bits of commentary as the server describes in hushed tones a runny French Vacharin or a goat cheese handcrafted in Vermont, it's hard to resist. With formal cheese service, there are usually four to eight selections on a plate, depending on diners' tastes (servers typically choose a variety of cow, goat and sheep's milk cheeses, ranging from pleasantly mild to harrowingly pungent). Tasty accompaniments adorn the plate, including bread, dried or fresh fruits, and nuts. Another typical companion is membrillo, a delicious, brick red jelly made from quince that is traditionally served with Spanish Manchego and Mahon cheeses.

The cheese course is not just for those once-a-year celebratory meals: Many restaurants around town offer affordable, original cheese plates that demonstrate their chefs' creative impulses. These are some of my favorites. One final note: Don't be intimidated by the fancy or foreign names of cheeses. Best to simply trust your taste buds and jump in. You'll soon find favorites.

The folks at Aria procure their cheeses from the famous Murray's in New York, one of the oldest cheese shops in the country. They typically serve a perfectly ripe specimen from each of the four "cheese groups" — cow, goat, sheep, and a blue made from the milk of one of the aforementioned animals ($9). Served with delectably chewy date-walnut cake, this is definitely a place for sharing the cheese plate. 490 E. Paces Ferry Road, 404-233-7673.

Fishbone's Richard Blais, who is responsible for turning this once forgettable endeavor into a noteworthy seafood restaurant, pairs several easygoing cheeses with seasonal fruit accompaniments ($15). Current offerings include fresh figs with buttery Hudson Valley Camembert, and butter-poached pears with Point Reyes blue. The sweet, creamy duets on this cheese plate make it a great substitute for dessert. 1874 Peachtree Road, 404-367-4772.

Owned by Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison of Bacchanalia (and its adjoining market Star Provisions, Atlanta's Artisanal Cheese Central), it's no surprise that Floataway Cafe's cheese plate is one of the best in the city. Choices on a recent visit included a gloriously stinky Camembert and a tangy Irish blue (three cheeses for $8, six cheeses for $14). Also be on the lookout for cheese whimsically incorporated into desserts, including their signature pairing of fresh dates and parmesan, and watermelon soup with French sheep's milk feta. 1123 Zonolite Road, 404-892-1414.

Sidle up to the swanky marble bar during food-serving hours (5-10 p.m.) at fashion-forward Midtown watering hole Halo Lounge and order the aptly named "Bad Ass Cheese Plate" ($12). Chef Stephen Leeds proffers 10 to 12 well- selected samples, ranging from a mild Morbier to an edgy Muenster, and all points in between. 817 W. Peachtree St., Suite E-100, 404-962-7333.

At Spice, Chef Jonathon St. Hilaire focuses on cheeses from Georgia's own Sweet Grass Dairy, outfitting each of the four different varieties on the plate with their own unique accompaniments ($10). On a recent visit, the pairings included pecan-crusted goat cheese with yellow beets (an earthy pairing that was a superb match to my glass of Pinot Noir), another soft goat cheese served with roasted peaches, and a creamy, mellow Tomme paired with a mixed olive salad. Friendly bartenders make this an ideal pit stop after work when you've got a hankering for a hunk (or two) of cheese and a splash of vino. 793 Juniper St., 404-875-4242.

Though I've sampled the full menu at Vinocity, Midtown's newest wine bar/restaurant, thus far I'm most impressed with its two cheese plates. One is designed to be served with white wine, the other with red ($13 each). The white wine plate was bedecked with fresh raspberries, nectarines and champagne grapes; the red came with cured meats and bracing olives. Ordering cheese at the bar with one of the restaurant's frequently changing flights of wine is a splendid way to continue the evening after a play or concert at nearby Woodruff Arts Center. 36 13th St., 404-870-8886.

Ogle the night's selection on your way to your table as you pass by the wood-framed cheese cabinet at Cheshire Bridge newcomer Woodfire Grill. Currently under the direction of cheese guru Raymond Hook, the pairing of nightly changing cheeses (three for $9, six for $15) is a model example of what fromage aficionados refer to as the "sacrosanct rule of crescendo" — a progression of flavors that builds from mild to strong, simple to complex, light-bodied to full. The restaurant also offers an affordable, engaging menu of dessert wines by the glass. 1782 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-347-9055.