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Cheese takes center stage at more restaurants

Fromage-focused concepts opening in California, New York

From mozzarella to Morbier, cheese is shifting away from its traditional role as a before- or after-dinner nibble to steal the spotlight at a growing number of restaurants.

Cheese-focused restaurants are popping across the country, such as Sidekick in San Francisco, Obikà Mozzarella Bar in Los Angeles and the upcoming Bistro Lamazou in New York.

In San Francisco this week, cheese mongers and restaurateurs Peggy Smith and Sue Conley of the Cowgirl Creamery shop in the Ferry Building Marketplace have opened a new venue next door called Sidekick, which features their own artisan products.

Described as a cheese-and-dairy bar, the restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and late-afternoon snacks with a from age-focused menu. Sidekick is open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday, though hours will later extend to 7 p.m. The restaurant is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays.

For breakfast, the menu includes challah rolls with fromage blanc and apricot conserve, a local organic yogurt bowl with fresh peaches, almond streusel and fresh mint, and house-made cottage cheese with melon.

Other options include Grana Padano panade, a cheese soup served with green beans, toast and cottage cheese dumplings; a “wagon wheelclette,” or melted cheddar served in the style of raclette on levain toast with tomatoes and house-made dill pickles; and griddle-grilled flatbread stuffed with cave-aged Gruyère and pancetta.

Sidekick also includes a mozzarella bar with both buffalo-milk and cow-milk mozzarella, burrata and ricotta served with salad and a choice of heirloom tomatoes with basil and olive oil; toasted hazelnuts with grilled rosemary and olive oil; or prosciutto and pickled onions and olive oil.

Prices range from about $3.50 for a gougère (cheese puff) with herbed fromage blanc, to $12.75 for the “mozzarella mista” sampler of four cheeses with mâche salad.

Smith and Conley are known for their work making cheeses using milk from local organic dairies, but they both came from Bay Area restaurants. Smith cooked at the acclaimed Chez Panisse for more than 17 years, and Conley was a founder and chef of Bette’s Oceanview Diner in Berkeley. Cowgirl Creamery also distributes artisan products made by about 60 North American cheesemakers, according to press materials.

In Los Angeles, mozzarella is the focus of Obikà Mozzarella Bar, which opened earlier this month in the Century City neighborhood. Obikà is a mozzarella bar chain founded in 2004 in Rome that has grown to 14 locations worldwide, including a kiosk in New York that opened in 2008.

Raimondo Boggia, president and chief executive of Santa Monica, Calif.-based B Ventures USA LLC, holds the master development rights for Obikà in 19 states, and he said he plans to open 20 locations over the next five years. A second location in Los Angeles is currently under construction.

The full-service Obikà in Los Angeles showcases authentic “mozzarella di bufala campana DOP,” which is made from buffalo milk that comes from specific “protected origin denomination” regions in Italy. The cheese is flown in three times a week, Boggia said.

The menu goes beyond mozzarella, including imported prosciutto crudo San Daniele, which has been aged for 20 months, and other charcuterie, pastas, eggplant parmigiana, soups and salads. The restaurant also has a full bar.

Boggia said the average check at lunch is about $13 to $15, and $22 to $23 at dinner, and he is expecting sales in the 1,900-square-foot venue — located in a high-end Westfield mall — to reach $2 million in the first year.

Obikà isn’t the first mozzarella bar in Los Angeles. Renowned chef Nancy Silverton is known for the small mozzarella bar in her restaurant Osteria Mozza, which opened in 2007. In designing the mozzarella bar component of her Osteria dining room, Silverton was reportedly inspired by the Obikà concept in Rome.

Across the country in Bethesda, Md., Italian chef Domenico Cornacchia also added a mozzarella bar to his Assaggi restaurant, which opened in 2008. A year later, Cornacchia added an osteria-style sister restaurant in nearby McLean, Va., and he is planning further expansion.

Though the mozzarella and other cheese selections are only a small part of the menu at Assaggi, Cornacchia said he is seeing growing interest for cheese among diners.

“People really like it," he said. "Whether they’re younger or the elderly, there’s a pretty good demand for it.”

Assaggi features fresh mozzarella from various regions in Italy, as well as burrata and ricotta, the latter in versions made with both sheep and buffalo milk. Cornacchia also serves other types of buffalo milk cheeses, and he estimates that about 75 percent of his guests order some combination of cheese with their meals.

In New York, cheese shop owner Nancy Lamazou and her husband, Aziz Lamazou, also see increasing demand for cheese-centered cuisine.

Known for their Lamazou cheese shop with a 17-year history in the Murray Hill area of Manhattan, the Lamazous are scheduled to open Bistro Lamazou in the same neighborhood in November. Though their shop is known for its sandwiches, Bistro Lamazou will be the couple’s first full-service restaurant.

The restaurant will feature a “cheese bar” —a full bar that will also offer cheeses from all over the world as well as a full menu of cheese-inspired dishes.

The menu is still being formulated, said Nancy Lamazou, but dishes might include a bison burger with pancetta and Taleggio, a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese from the Lombardy region of Italy; or venison medallions with pungent French Morbier cheese and berry sauce.

The menu will focus on Southern European cuisine, with influences from France, Italy, Spain and North Africa, Nancy Lamazou said.

“It will be good, simple food, but with new creations to match food with cheese,” said Nancy Lamazou. “It will be a place where people can come and discover cheese and what you can do with it.”

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected].

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