A Celebration of Lake-area Cheeses from a Variety of Sources

Outstanding cheese appetizers and entrées in the lake area.
Bacio's caprese salad, made with fresh mozzarella, is simple yet splendid.

If I never ate a steak again, I’d be perfectly fine. But if I were deprived of cheese for one measly week, I’d go mad with urgent cravings for the creamy stuff. Obviously I’d never make it as a vegan, but not because I’m indifferent to animal rights: Simply put, cheese is my favorite food. Cheese hasn’t exactly slipped out of favor in recent years, even though the low-fat craze dinged its rep (non-fat cheese being an unacceptable substitute). Now cheese is more popular than ever, swept up in vigorous local and artisan food movements across the country. What was once simply called “cheddar cheese” on a menu is now called “Sunny Road cheddar from Morningstar Farm in Cokato.” There are so many exciting cheeses likely to grace any meal¸ made from goat and sheep to cow and soy milk. Here are a few cheesy delights in our area.  Cow’s milk First, some staggering facts: Milk from domesticated animals was used as a food source as early as 9,000 B.C. In 2011, cow milk consumption was 730 tons worldwide. There are more than 6 billion milk product consumers and more than 750 million people in the dairy industry. Wikipedia has 200-plus pages listing cow milk’s cheeses alphabetically, from Abondance cheese to something called Yarg. Cow’s milk is ideal for cheese making because it’s the most neutral of milks: it tastes bland, creamy and slightly sweet, with nary a whiff of the barnyard. CAPRESE SALADBacioTomatoes and cheese go hand in hand. One of the most popular configurations is the caprese salad: an irresistible Italian arrangement of ripe tomato slices, fragrant basil leaves and rounds of fresh mozzarella. Mozzarella cheese runs the gamut of textures, from hard and rubbery to tender and milky. The fresh Italian stuff makes us swoon; luckily, more and more American kitchens are making their own versions. Bacio uses a local fior di latte, which literally means “flower of milk,” an apt name for something so precious and pleasure-inducing. A pungent extra-virgin olive oil unites the disparate flavors; Bacio puts a unique stamp on their caprese by including roasted marinated red peppers. It’s an uplifting app or a killer light meal, a fantastic composition of smoke, cream and fruits of the earth.  $11. 1571 Plymouth Road, Minnetonka; 952.544.7000. PANEER Bukhara Indian BistroPaneer is another simple cow-milk-sourced cheese that you can enjoy at home, if so inclined. It’s akin to farmer’s cheese. Mild and firm, it holds its shape when cooked in a variety of strong sauces. At Bukhara, there are a few paneer concoctions to try. Matar paneer combines the creamy cubes with green peas and a mild curry; paneer makhani chunks swim in a rich, seductive tomato sauce, like an exotic take on the classic grilled cheese and tomato soup combo. Get some made-to order, oven-puffed flatbread (naan) for dipping and call it a meal. Or if you’re in the mood for a simple appetizer, get the paneer pakora: cubes of cheese coated in chickpea batter and deep-fried, strangely reminiscent of State Fair cheese curds. Just don’t ask for ketchup—when it comes to paneer, chutney is the condiment of choice. Matar paneer, $9.99; Paneer makhani, $10.99; Paneer pakora, $4.99; naan, $1.99. 15718 Wayzata Blvd., Wayzata; 952.476.7997. Goat’s milk Even though goat cheese has been globally produced for thousands of years, it only hit the American food scene in the 1980s, with the California cuisine movement. It’s been going full bore ever since. Goat cheese runs from mild and soft to tart and dense. It’s the closest thing there is to human milk, and more easily tolerated by those with sensitivity to cow’s milk. It has a characteristic animal flavor—love it or hate it, there’s no hiding the goat. Fresh goat cheese is relatively easy to make; keep that in mind for the next time you have extra goat’s milk on hand. SMOKED SALMON OMELETRedstone American GrillThis lovely breakfast corrals fresh goat cheese, crisp-tender asparagus, sliced scallions and fresh dill in a fluffy three-egg omelet. High-quality sliced smoked salmon jumps into the fold while the goat cheese gets all creamy and oozy. It’s a delicious brunch dish, a special-occasion treat that is also chock-full of protein. Don’t forget the hash browns and toast! $12. 12501 Ridgedale Drive, Minnetonka; 952.591.0000.  Sheep’s milk Well-known cheeses made from sheep milk include Greek feta, French Roquefort, Spanish Manchego and Italian pecorino romano. Though sheep produce a far smaller volume of milk than cows do, their milk is richer in fat, solids and minerals, making it a great fit for the cheese-making process. SAGANAKIChristosThis sheep milk’s cheese is so hot it’s literally on fire. It’s a quintessential part of the drama of dining in a Greek restaurant, and we never get tired of the fanfare upon delivery or the pleasure of the dish itself. Kasseri cheese is made from unpasteurized sheep milk and has a nutty pungency similar to parmesan. Your waiter douses the cheese in brandy tableside, sets it alight, and finishes it off with a healthy spritz of lemon juice. Spread it on warm pita bread and revel in the alchemy. $8.95. 15600 Highway 7, Minnetonka; 952.912.1000.CHOP SALAD WITH FETAMaynard’s RestaurantCheese and vegetables are in love; together they make beautiful music. Cheese and salad vegetables are a particularly charming match, and sheep’s-milk feta adds tang and salt to many a green dish. The chop salad at Maynard’s is a perfect example. Crisp romaine lettuce leaves are chopped up with chunks of smoked chicken, little nuggets of bacon, black beans, kernels of corn, tomatoes, red onion and black olives. The whole kit and caboodle gets tossed with a generous shower of feta cheese and doused with an eye-opening citrus chipotle vinaigrette. $12.95. 685 Excelsior Blvd., Excelsior; 952.470.1800.   Soy milk Another popular cheese source is legume rather than animal: soy. Stop by Lakewinds Market to check out an interesting selection of alterna-cheeses to experiment with. Forget the grainy, beany vegan stuff of yore; soy cheese has only gotten better over the years. It’s more creamy than chalky, with a barely discernable note of soybean. THE RUSTLER PIZZAPizza LuceOf course Pizza Luce, our local pizza pusher, knows its way around cheese: After all, the whole raison d’être of pizza is the oozing layer of gooey stuff. Vegans need not despair: Luce makes a flavorful “uncheese” called rinotta (think ricotta) from tofu, cashews, yeast and lemon juice. You can substitute rinotta on any specialty pies on the menu. We’re wild about the busily tasty Rustler, which sports chewy mock duck, sweet pineapple chunks, sharp banana peppers, a smattering of red onion and red barbecue sauce. The dough is whole-grain, hand-tossed and made every day. Medium, $15.79. 210 N. Blake Road, Hopkins; 952.767.0854. UN MÉLANGE DE FROMAGE: CURED MEAT AND CHEESE PLATE McCormick’s Pub and RestaurantsForget the tired admonition not to play with your food: This display of dairy delicacies demands an interplay of condiments and combinations. The cheese is primarily cow—a nutty gruyere, crumbly bleu d’Auvergne and warmed camembert—though selections may vary according to the kitchen’s whim and the season. The embellishments are inspired: a tart-sweet rhubarb cherry compote, Marcona almonds, thinly sliced apple, cornichons, fresh berries, olives, pickled jalapeno and two kinds of mustard. Mortadella and fennel sausage pair well with cheese as well. Arrange the various elements on McCormick’s flatbread (or not) and slug it down with a glass of earthy, lively pinot noir. $15. 331 Broadway Ave. S., Wayzata; 952.767.2417.  THREE TAKES ON MOLTEN CHEESE Cheese was made for melting; the special alchemy of cheese and heat produces an outrageously yummy dip for all kinds of comestibles. Some are fancy, others more ordinary and all are likely to ignite a drool-fueled tussle at the dining table. Position yourself accordingly. TENDERLOIN TIP FONDUTTASpassoItalians know that melted cheese goes with just about everything, including beef. Spasso grills toothsome tenderloin tips to perfection and serves them with a decadent blue cheese cream. The slightly piquant Gorgonzola sauce heightens the earthiness of the rosy-centered tenderloin tips and knocks the dish squarely into decadence territory. A bed of bright arugula and hunks of toasted ciabatta bread are perfect backups for this stellar dish. $12. 17523 Minnetonka Blvd., Minnetonka; 952.224.9555. BAKED BRIE Bistro 11 Brie is one of the most ubiquitous and beloved fine cheeses going. It’s French in origin, but American versions are finding purchase. In keeping with their ever-creative menu, Bistro 11 bakes a wheel of slightly stinky brie to oozing creaminess, fills it with not-too-sweet apricot compote and serves it with a side of toasted walnuts and dressed greens. Get some crusty bread and slather away. Bistro 11 prides itself on local ingredients and makes the most humble meal feel like a special occasion. $10. 115 Railway St. W., Loretto; 952.353.4566. QUESOLone Spur Grill and BarQueso simply means cheese in Spanish, and this here is a crazy bucket o’ cheese. It’s orange, it’s liquidy, it’s addictive and it’s just a wee bit shameful. You can fork out an extra buck for some texture and protein with the addition of taco beef; purists that we are, we take our queso straight and try no to drink it straight from the bowl. The accompanying tortilla chips are homemade, and the side of mild, tomato-stocked salsa adds a welcome dash of acidity without searing the taste buds. Cup, $5.99; bowl, $7.99. 11032 Cedar Lake Road, Minnetonka; 952.540.0181.