Six places with great cheese programs
Avec This nationally acclaimed small-plates spot is tiny, looks like a sauna, has communal seating, doesn’t take reservations and is as loud as hell. But it works, and at six years, still has one of the best Mediterranean cheese lists in the city, with selections like the Italian Montegrappa (cow’s milk, aged eight months) and pata cabra (the unbeatable goat’s milk cheese from northern Spain). 615 W Randolph St (312-377-2002). El: Green, Pink to Clinton. Bus: 56, 125. Dinner. Average small plate: $10.
HotChocolate At Mindy Segal’s Bucktown restaurant, desserts are usually a requirement (can anybody resist Seedling Farm apple parfait with caramlized Honeycrisp apples and cider doughnuts?). But the cheese list—with the raw-sheep’s-milk cheese Roxanne from Prairie Fruits Farm (Illinois) and the pepper-spiked Bridgewater from Zingerman’s Creamery (Michigan)—is just as tempting a way to end the night. 1747 N Damen Ave (773-489-1747). El: Blue to Damen. Bus: 50, 56, 72, 73. Brunch (Sat, Sun), lunch (Wed–Fri), dinner (closed Mon). Average main course: $20.
Marion Street Cheese Market Obviously, cheese is the focus at this deli/café/retail store, and the menu of small plates offers it in myriad forms: on thin, charred pizzas; straight-up, in themed flights (such as the “Midwest” flight of local cheeses or the “Moody Blue” featuring the hard-to-get-in-Chicago Stichelton), or in desserts like the goat cheese cheesecake. But the best vehicle by far is the cheese puffs, which are crisp and light on the outside but give way to a molten interior. 100 S Marion St (708-725-7200). El: Green to Harlem. Bus: Pace 307. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Average small plate: $9.
North Pond Okay, so technically you’re not eating outside, but when you’re only a few feet from a pond in the middle of Lincoln Park, you are as close to nature as it gets in the city. Even more so when you’re sampling from the list of artisan, handmade cheeses, like the not-to-be-missed Capriole Mont St. Francis cheese (an earthy, washed rind wheel from Indiana) or the Prairie Fruits Farm Ewe Bloom (similar to Camembert, it is soft-ripened and made from sheep’s milk). 2610 N Cannon Dr (773-477-5845). Bus: 76, 151, 156. Brunch (Sun), lunch (Tue–Fri), dinner (Tue–Sun). Average main course: $30.
Quartino The Gibsons folks went rustic Italian with this cavernous dining room, and nothing says Italian as well as Parmigiano-Reggiano (cow’s milk, piquant, salty and hard) and the pecorino Romano (aged 180 days; olivey, nutty, semi-hard). 626 N State St (312-698-5000). El: Red to Grand. Bus: 22, 36, 65, 156. Lunch, dinner. Average small plate: $5.
Terzo Piano Like the rest of the Renzo Piano–designed Modern Wing, the restaurant at the Art Institute is a beautiful space: sleek, pristine and awash with light. But the artisanal cheeses can steal the show, if just for a bit, with selections like Hook’s ten-year aged cheddar (Wisconsin) and Rogue Creamery’s Smokey Blue. 159 E Monroe St, Art Institute of Chicago (312-443-8650). El: Brown, Green, Orange, Pink, Purple (rush hrs) to Madison. Lunch (daily), dinner (Thu only). Average main course: $20.