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Cheese That Stinks

March 9, 2012

You don’t need to be a fancy restaurant to have a good cheese plate. A long time ago Mrs. Fussy and I stumbled onto one in a small little café in Pacific Grove, CA. You can read more about that here.

How a restaurant handles their cheese course is very telling, because there are many interesting paths that can be taken. Rolling cheese carts where knowledgeable servers help you assemble a selection of ripe and rare cheeses from around the world is clearly the apex of cheese service. But equally charming are individual cheeses listed on a menu, each with its own specific accompaniment.

Far too often in the Capital District I’ve seen a bunch of cheeses seemingly thrown onto a plate with a bunch of random junk strewn around for color and the perception of value. These things include strawberries, grapes, crackers, olives, pickles and pepperoni, just to name a few.

But even this popular local slapdash approach to the cheese plate did not prepare me for what I would encounter on the menu at one of Albany’s fanciest restaurants – McGuire’s. In fact, it is so egregious and shameful that I’m compelled to include a photo. Seriously, check this out.

I don’t know who wrote this menu. But to have this cheese selection as the first thing a patron sees is mind-boggling.

My friend Chef Cory, when he saw this, wrote to say, “I feel for you and your whole community.” And my favorite local cheesemonger Eric Paul concluded a long list of thoughts with the sentiment, “These options are a mess! There is not one cheese that I think either I have to try or I want to pay $15 for.” Eric loves cheese more than anyone else I know.

In theory, with three selections, you could choose one cheese made from each of the major milks (cow, sheep and goat).

However, there is only one goat milk cheese (Murcia al vino – Spain) and one sheep milk offering (Manchego – Argentina). The problem with these options is that Murcia al vino, also known as the Drunken Goat because its rind is washed in wine, is gimmicky and not terribly special. Additionally true Manchego doesn’t come from Argentina, it comes from Spain, so I am not filled with confidence about this option.

The cow milk cheeses are so uninspired they feel like something you might see at any halfway decent deli or supermarket: Sharp aged provolone, Adirondack black wax cheddar and Parmigiano Reggiano.

And we haven’t even gotten to the part about uniformity of textures, colors and flavors.

Amazingly, there are people who I know and trust who have been to McGuire’s and say that it’s really a great place. But my impressions of their cheese plate are consistent with my impressions of the rest of their menu.

They are charging a lot of money for uninspired food that ignores the availability of great ingredients, opting instead for tarting up the familiar. It’s not supermarket cheese, it’s a cheese plate with accompaniments. It’s not lobster mac & cheese, it’s lobster baked with rotini and parmesan gruyere mornay.

It’s ridiculous, is what it is.

This is a restaurant that is direly in need of help. The goal is not to modernize it with foams or seasoned airs. But there should be something about the food served at this fine establishment that justifies the prices charged, beyond trading on their name and reputation. For the record, they do use free-range organic chicken, and should be commended for that. Still, the bar for McGuire’s is pretty low. How about putting anything on the menu that isn’t trite and a caricature of itself?

It’s pretty incredible what you can tell about a place by their cheese plate. Given the prices they can command for their food, McGuire’s seems to be a perfect candidate to bring The Cheese Traveler into their restaurant and retool their offerings.

Even if the restaurant simply called Adventure in Food Trading, I’m sure the guys there would be able to set them up with cheeses ten times better than what they’ve currently got on the menu. The task here is hardly Herculean.

All it takes is a modicum of thought and care. Which apparently is too much to ask.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. March 9, 2012 11:20 am

    When we first tried this particular restaurant, the menu was vastly different. We went back about a year ago and were sorely disappointed. Then last month we tried to convince a friend that it was not the place for his birthday dinner celebration, but he couldn’t be dissauded. It was unfortunate. I’m by no means a true foodie, but even I thought we would’ve been better off just about anywhere else. It was definitely not worth the money we spent on the food, let alone the wad of cash we had to give the babysitter!

  2. March 9, 2012 11:23 am

    Actually, right around the corner at Wine Bar and Bistro, there is a much more interesting cheese plate right now. I know because I sampled from it Saturday evening. It consisted of a Cambozola (a mix of camembert and gorgonzola), creamy and aromatic, a hard, aged imported gouda, and a soft local cows milk cheese. Each was paired with either fresh fruit, nuts, or fruit compote. It’s clear that even a little bit of thought went into the pairing of these items, and you can see the broad spectrum of flavors and textures they wanted to present on the plate, even with just 3 cheeses.

    It’s not to say that any of the cheeses presented by McGuires would be bad, but clearly there’s less thought going into their construction. Maybe they will see this feedback and pay attention to what their neighbors and competitors are doing and strive to improve, but maybe not.

    • March 9, 2012 11:34 am

      The cheese plate at Wine Bar is pretty much one of my favorite things in the whole capital region. We always end a meal there with cheese. I don’t know how you could even consider dessert there when there’s that cheese…

      Um, I love cheese.

      • March 9, 2012 3:42 pm

        I’m with you guys. I get the cheese plate every single time and then usually end up on a quest shortly thereafter to obtain a block of at least one of the cheeses I tried. It’s been different every time I visit, it’s always an adventure.

        Gastropub has a cheese plate too – have either of you tried it? I’m curious to know if they mirror the offerings at both places. I haven’t tried the cheeseplate at Gastropub yet to see if it compares at all in presentation, etc.

      • Darren Shupe permalink
        March 9, 2012 4:51 pm

        Yep, the Wine Bar is one of the few places in town where I’ve had a truly decent cheese plate. The Ginger Man, as some have suggested, is another. Gotta love the Wine Bar… it’s easily one of the best restaurants in Albany, with ambience and service to match its excellent food and good selection of wines.

  3. -R. permalink
    March 9, 2012 11:37 am

    To be fair, I have dined at McGuire’s on three occasions over the years and have always thought the food decent enough, though lacking in both inspired creativity and a broad flavor palate. I do not however feel that McGuire’s necessarily equates itself with being a gastronomic destination, but rather as a destination to be seen in ‘the scene’ so to speak. You take a date there to impress, and mingle with politicos and lobbyists. You might spot a big fish from our small pond of local celebrities. You will be spending a good deal of money. Eating is merely a tertiary function of the place in my opinion, kind of like Jack’s.

  4. Harrison permalink
    March 9, 2012 11:44 am

    I’ve never eaten there- not enough bang for the buck I thought- this confirms it.

    • Harrison permalink
      March 9, 2012 11:44 am

      I will say it’s a nice place to grab a drink, though!

    • March 9, 2012 2:42 pm

      I agree with Harrison. I’ve never been to McGuires as their menu screams overpriced and overreaching to me. The thing that tipped me off was their bottle of Chateau d’Yqem on the wine list. I think that a restaurant such as McGuires should not be carrying that wine. That’s just me though.

  5. March 9, 2012 11:48 am

    Please tell me that the cheese plates for Creo and The Point are a joke. Please.

  6. acw permalink
    March 9, 2012 12:39 pm

    Had a pretty great cheese plate at Gingerman the other night. I agree with McGuires. I enjoy stopping there for a drink or two, but when food gets involved it’s just too expensive. Somehow dropped $100 there the other night with just two appetizers and drinks among two people. Insane.

  7. March 9, 2012 1:03 pm

    Nice post Daniel! The quality of cheese plates in the Capital District needs to be addressed. While I have seen a few cheese plates in the area that are passable I have not seen any that focus on small farmhouse and artisan production cheeses. The best I have seen in Albany are cheese plates that were fashionable in 2000 composed mostly of cooperative and industrial cheeses. This is 2012 and farmhouse and artisan cheeses are made not only locally but everywhere in the world. They are available for us to enjoy and should be at dining establishments whether they be fine dining ones or ones doing a good job featuring artisan products.

    For your reader’s pleasure I have copied and pasted my comments from the photo the other day (with a few edits for typos):

    Eric Paul
    Cheese plates are about balance — balance of milk, balance of cheese families or styles, balance of texture. Breaking down this plate – hard, pasta filata, cow’s milk cheese; semi-soft, uncooked, pressed curd, cow’s milk cheese; hard (typically) sheep’s milk cheese; semi-soft goat’s milk cheese; hard cooked, pressed curd, cow’s milk cheese. Sadly there is very little reason to this selection so that someone could choose a nice cheese plate .

    Additionally, real Manchego is from Spain and I would say that Parmigiano Reggiano is from central Italy because Emilia-Romagna is a northern region in the center of the country region where the Appenine mountains run through the center of it and one of its borders is the Adriatic Sea. To me “northern Italy” are the Alpine regions. But perhaps this is a distinction between northern and southern Italian culinary traditions and not describing the origins of the cheese.
    Wednesday at 11:44am

    Eric Paul I didn’t even notice the price!! I can’t wait to coach restaurants in the area!
    Wednesday at 11:47am

    Eric Paul
    I also look at balance of flavor profile. The first two cheeses are sharp, i.e. high in acidity. Goat’s milk cheese can also be high in acidity although I don’t remember Murcia al Vino being that way. I do, however, I find it boring and think of it as a gimmick cheese (it also known as Drunkin Goat) — give me a good wine with a good cheese rather than a mediocre cheese bathed in wine. Parmigiano Reggiano can be sharp if it is not a good quality one, which from these rest of these cheeses I would wonder if this one is. Lastly, I would make sure the Manchego is not too aged or too salty which would make it is [somewhat] similar to the provolone. These options are a mess! There is not one cheese that I think either I have to try or I want to pay $15 for.
    Wednesday at 12:04pm

  8. Jessica R permalink
    March 9, 2012 3:45 pm

    Honestly, I don’t know why someone DOESN’T use the cart-of-cheese technique. They are no harder than dessert carts, and feel so fancy. I guess many restaurants in this area tend to pack in the tables (Gingerman, NWBB), so moving a cart around is probably not practical. :-( Marche could probably handle it. I’ve never been to McGuire’s (sounds like I should avoid it).

    Also, restaurants should start promoting cheese plates in their dessert options. This could double their turn-around, allowing for more cheese options, and fresher cheeses.

    One of my favorite (and most indulgent) culinary memories is working in France for two weeks, and getting to pick my dessert from the cheese cart every night at my hotel! Yum!

  9. Darren Shupe permalink
    March 9, 2012 4:41 pm

    Daniel, I often wonder why you stay here (or why I stay here, for that matter). You’re going to be perpetually banging your head against the proverbial wall as long as you expect restaurants in this region to be more than glorified Friendly’s (with a few interesting exceptions). Let’s face it: you have around 20-30 dedicated commenters on your blog, from what I’ve observed, and we’re probably the same people who frequent the few gems in this community and keep them open – Rolf’s, the Asian market on Central, et al. …. Sometimes it’s simply better to pay the astronomical rents in a place like the Bay Area and recognize that you only get one life, and it’s better to spend it in a place you truly want to be.

    As for the McGuire’s cheese plate… yep, absolutely uninspired. I think the last cheese plate I ordered was at the Cornelia Street Cafe in the East Village a couple of weeks ago, and that had a great combination of textures and flavors (and, yes, did have the requisite goat/sheep/cow’s milk contrasts). New York has a number of wonderful cheese producers who deserve to be recognized and showcased… why this doesn’t happen in this region, upstate and closer to agricultural heartland, is beyond me.

    • March 9, 2012 6:20 pm

      Why we stay here? Well, it’s not the restaurants/food stores in general I’m hoping that comments posted online have more impact than a sigh and a quiet vow never to return. As, I keep reminding my husband, you can eat badly in France too!

  10. Jazzngas permalink
    March 10, 2012 4:59 pm

    The Wine Bar Saratoga also offers a well thought out cheese course. They offer some nice wines that pair well with the cheeses as well. Why is it that quality and restaurants named

    Wine Bar go hand in hand in the Capital District?

  11. Mirdreams permalink
    March 16, 2012 2:41 pm

    The Wine Bar makes me happy and their cheese plate makes me doubly so. We had just that for dinner the other night when we’d had a late lunch.

    It should be noted that the Epicurean also has a very nice cheese plate, which I haven’t always seen on their desert menu but since they double as a retail shop, they have a lot of great cheeses and know a lot about them.

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