Stick me on a desert island and the one food I’d probably request is cheese. From a simple slice of deli provolone to a nutty manchego to a rank roquefort, I love cheese. I’ll even admit that I used to melt Tillamook cheddar on my leftover pad thai when I was a teen.
Lucky for me, I now live in a town that is almost as fromage-obsessed as I am—delectable examples dot pizza and pasta, are shaved over salads, and find themselves smeared on sandwiches, but the purest presentation, of course, is the hallowed cheese plate.
Portland may offer a plethora of these smelly, salty, creamy, dreamy plated trios, but here, dear readers, I have narrowed them down to my top three. My selection process was far from scientific and I won’t even pretend that I’ve partaken of every cheese plate in town, so I happily invite folks to comment and tell me why I am wrong.
Cheese Bar (6031 SE Belmont St)
It’s a spare space at the base of Mt. Tabor, but proprietor Steve Jones is the man about town for just plain tasty American artisan cheese—and just about every other cheese on the planet, too.
On my recent foray, the ever-changing Cheese Plate (high marks for range and portion size; wish there were more condiments and the crostini weren’t razor sharp; $9) included Curio Bay Pecorino (a sheep cheese from New Zealand), Tomme des Bois Noirs (a raw goat from southern France), and Schmidhauser Le Cousin, a slab of raw cow produced by one cousin in Switzerland and aged by another in France. This last cheese was Steve’s “favorite cheese in the case” that day, and I could see why—it’s a harder cheese, but with a creamy mouth-feel and tons of rich, almost buttery umami flavor followed by a slight kick. The pecorino was also delicious—firm texture, almost crystal-y, but not at all dry, with a salty, uber-mild flavor. The dense, herbaceous goat, which was almost gelatinous or spongy in texture, had a slight bitter tang reminiscent of olive juice, and paired well with the pear chutney, as the sweet spice balanced the muskiness.
Bonus: an extensive selection of boutique beers and food-friendly wines, and a short menu, including awesome sandwiches like the raclette mixed with potatoes, mashed, and spread on wheat levain, covered with crisp cornichons, and grilled to gooey, tangy perfection ($5).
The Sapphire Hotel (5008 SE Hawthorne Blvd)
Supposedly a former place of business for ladies of the night, this warm, dark den now peddles a near-perfect Cheese Platter, which, at $15, is worth every penny.
Like many establishments in town, the cheese itself comes from none other than Steve Jones. Sapphire offers five—you get to pick three. I selected the creamy, earthy French brie (served warm and drizzled with an addictive balsamic reduction), Fairview Farm “Carried Away” (a firm, sour, and slightly sweet raw goat from Dallas, Oregon), and Rockhill Creamery Belvedere Tomme, a firm, salty, pungent, and ripe raw cow from Richmond, Utah. They were all tremendous on their own, but the real magic of this platter is the perfectly toasted bread and exploring the way the cheeses interact with the cornucopia of accompaniments—purple grapes, pear, granny smith, dried black figs, candied walnuts, and a bulb of roasted garlic. The buttery brie is elevated by the sour-sweet grapes, the goat is enhanced by the tart apple and mellowed by the garlic, and the flavor of the raw cow is exaggerated by the sweet pear and figs.
Bonus: Amazing service from a battery of friendly, knowledgeable hipster chicks who lack pretension of any kind.
Bar Mingo (807 NW 21st Ave)
I crave this Cheese Plate ($8) for three reasons: the unnamed cast of characters always includes one cow, one sheep, and one goat; it comes with two slices of a divine pressed-fig “salami;” and the cow always gets a drizzle of wildflower honey.
Alas, on my recent visit the cow was a French triple cream that was denser, darker, and muskier than it has been in the past. When the triple cream is a sweet, white, liquid delight, it positively sings with the honey; but in this case it fell a little flat. However, the salty, mild, smooth, almost creamy sheep pecorino was the perfect dance partner for the fig, and the soft Humboldt Fog goat was (no surprise here) the best on the plate. Always a goodie, this rich, sweet, earthy treat fills your mouth like a fine wine and pairs well with the fig, turning it into something new, almost like a caramel-y dessert.
Bonus: They offer Happy Hour every day from 4-6pm—try the cheese plate for five bucks.
Honorable Mention: Liberty Glass (938 North Cook St). It’s unlikely you’ll find a plate more rustic—and you’ll (tomato) relish every bite!