Surdyk's Cheese Shop
303 E. Hennepin Ave., Mpls.; 379-9757

"Perhaps I should go shopping--a married person's version of dating," writes Lorrie Moore in her 1994 novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? And I think that if shopping is dating, then shopping for cheese is a married person's version of an orgy. All those chubby, fleshy drums and discs and wedges crowded in one long, chilled column, all cunningly devised to titillate our oral selves. Elementally they pleasure the tongue with artful combinations of our most basic cravings--salt, fat, and sweet. More significantly, they excite the adult part of the soul, drawing as they do on cultural heritages and trends from all over the world, and requiring some amount of study and a nurturing of personal taste; after all, the T-shirts say the brain is the biggest sex organ.

Hereabouts, the best collection of these sustaining stimulants is to be found at Surdyk's Cheese Shop, where the clever creations are overseen by a bashful, pink-cheeked, curly-haired culinary master: Sally Witham. A Culinary Institute of America-schooled chef who spent 18 years running kitchens at Baci, Linguini and Bob, and the New French Bistrot, Witham came to Surdyk's cheese shop in 1996. "It is something of an adult playground, a sensory playground," she agrees--and with more than 200 options here, you could put your senses through Olympic rigors.

Dina Kantor

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Surdyk's

303 E. Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55414

Category: Restaurant > Deli

Region: University

Consider the Saenkanter aged Gouda ($10.99 per pound), an amber-colored cheese that's as rich and satisfying as chocolate; slipping a slice into your mouth, you can make out hints of butterscotch, honey, whiskey, and glory. Or the Papillon Bleu ($17.99 per pound), an imported Roquefort made from sheep's milk and aged in the Cambalou caves--11 levels that head a mile and a half into a limestone mountain in France. It's a peppery, lively cheese that moves from bite and tang to salt and saturation and bows to a delicate finish in its brief time on your tongue.

And don't forget the Rouzaire Brie de Meaux ($10.99 per pound), from the appellation-controlled district around Paris. Brie's dirty little secret is that even when it's not any good, it's still pretty good--like ice cream and canoodling--owing mostly to its enormous butterfat content and creamy texture. Which is why the prepackaged triangles of Velveeta-esque goo fly off the shelves at lesser stores. Yet at Surdyk's the easy fix is bypassed: This is Brie that's made by the famous Robert Rouzaire, Brie that's born in a white velvet cloak, Brie that exudes the faintest mushroomy, beefy perfume and oozes like a wet summertime kiss. Best of all, the large wheels are scrutinized by staffers able to tell exactly when they're ripe. Brie ripens from the outside in, and sensitive cheesemongers can discern the stage of ripeness a wheel has achieved just by pressing on it a bit: Unripe Bries are hard and chalky, overripe ones are squishy, but ripe Brie bulges a bit when ready, and feels like a perfect peach.

(While researching this article, I went to another local cheese shop where a well-meaning staffer tried to convince me that unripe, cut, plastic-wrapped Brie will continue to ripen in your refrigerator. It won't. Worse, as soon as it's cut it starts to lose its balmy character, and it gets ammonia-smelling if allowed to sit around for too long after being opened. A spot like Surdyk's, where they know of what they speak, where they go through several 6-pound wheels of Brie de Meaux a week, is without a doubt your best bet.)

Sally Witham is fascinated by cheese: "The history of cheese follows the history of the world," she says, launching into a hurried yet detailed explanation of why we are now living in one of the great ages of cheese. To make a long story short: All the peace and prosperity in the third of the world that eats cheese has allowed European cheeses to return to their preindustrial glory, while at the same time American artisanal cheesemakers are also beginning to make their presence felt. This is taking place against a backdrop of the near ruination of cheese that arose from the devastation of the world wars, coupled with agricultural industrialization.

Asked to pick a favorite, Witham scans her case with evident worry, like a proud kindergarten teacher more afraid of who will get passed over than who will be picked. (Ask Jim Surdyk to pick a favorite and you get the judicious on-the-one-hand-ing that has inspired the Surdyk clan to stock more than 11,000 different beverages in the liquor store. He would admit that his 12-year-old triplets really like the French triple-cream soft cheeses.) When Witham finally settles on something, it's an American treat that didn't exist even 10 years ago: an aged goat cheese from Coach Farm flecked with green peppercorns ($14.99 per pound). It comes in a fuzzy-jacketed polyhedron about the size of a loaf of sandwich bread, and it's a cheese full of the sprightliness of goat's milk, with a fresh, chalky, creamy texture and a spray of springy pepper. Envision some alchemic halfway point between watercress and a cloud.

When someone behind the counter reverently slices off a piece of this precious cheese for you, they nearly always mention that it's made by the same Coach family that built, and then sold, the famous leather goods company. Such an exchange provides a good example of what a swell place Surdyk's Cheese Shop is; staffers can nearly always offer suggestions to help you put together the cheese array of your dreams (or the best choice for a specific beverage), and they generously offer tastes of nearly all the cheeses in the case, beyond the moment when you think they'd lose patience. Once you've picked what you want, the Surdyk's computer prints out a nifty label that tells you what you've got and what it goes best with, so you can carry your cheese into the liquor store and conduct your own cheese class. (Sex ed for married people?) In response to this sort of treatment, several cheese-tasting groups have sprung up, getting together and sampling five or six cheeses and an accompanying wine. I imagine it's like a book group but with less advance preparation.

Witham and Surdyk say the secret of their success with the staff was stocking the break room with cheese literature, encouraging employees to taste things they haven't tried, and hiring from the eager nearby population of University of Minnesota students. "I used to think I didn't like blue cheese before I got here," affirms Amy Ketterling, a U of M theater major who's been working at Surdyk's for about a year. "But now I can eat Roquefort with the best of them."

But eating Roquefort has a bad rap these days. Doesn't it? Svelte dancer Susan Scalf, an Antioch grad who's worked at Surdyk's cheese shop for six years to supplement her income as a dancer with the Minnesota Dance Alliance, Concrete Farm, and several other local troupes, scoffs at the very notion. "Cheese is protein, calcium, and people need some fat in their diet to survive anyway," she says. "I'd rather eat an eighth of a pound of Montbriac than a half-pound of nonfat mozzarella, because I love it. I love it! The combination of the mustiness, the gaminess--with a piece of good bread you feel full all day. So what if you eat a couple of grams of fat?" (Susan's favorite, Montbriac, a tangy, soft, ripened cheese with a hint of blue injected into it through its ash-rubbed gray rind, costs $14.99 per pound.)

I agree with Susan. What's a couple of grams of fat when it's wed to so much pleasure? The average American eats 30 pounds of cheese a year. That could work out to 240 portions of joy in eighth-of-a-pound slices. Parceled out daily, that would be eight solid months in which one could indulge in a private, quiet oasis of bliss for half an hour--or just the quantity of extramarital abandon to keep the happily married happily married.

Surdyk's offers a series of wine education classes in which pairings with cheese will be featured. Each class, which starts at 6:30 p.m. and runs for about two hours, costs $25. Call 379-3232 for reservations or further information.

TABLEHOPPING

Musical Toques

Are the moves of this town's French chefs making you dizzy? Here's a quick roundup: Inventive Patrick Atanalian has left the New French Café for the Vintage in St. Paul, where he's revamped the menu to include dishes like halibut in a ginger-grenadine emulsion with catnip cornichon pineapple salsa. At the New French Café, Thom Lowe, after a long stretch as chef at the now-defunct New French Bistrot, is back at the prestigious Café location.

Also, onetime Bistrot chef Alexander Dixon has opened his own place, the Zander Café (525 Selby Ave., St. Paul), featuring dishes like grilled chicken with a green-olive tapenade and taleggio cheese. Perhaps most remarkably, café un deux trois has recently welcomed Vincent Francoual (a native of southwestern France) a chef with a dazzling background: Since 1993 he has worked in New York, first as chef de partie at Lespinasse, and then as sous chef at Le Bernardin. un deux trois says Francoual will be reworking the bistro menu this fall, and seafood lovers can expect wonders. To get a sense of Francoual's direction, consider that he celebrated Bastille Day a few weeks ago with an appetizer of moules à la Mouclade--steamed mussels in a light lemon curry broth.

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