Soon-to-be-trendy Belmont Street area now says cheese
Bread and Brew
When Steve Jones decided to expand his cheese mongering operation inside Northwest Thurman Street's Square Deal Wine into a full-service cheese shop and café, he moved all the way across town. The new Cheese Bar is on an untrendy corner of Southeast 60th and Belmont, although, as it turns out, Cheese Bar is part of a trend. Belmont Street is changing, and not just at its commercial center around Southeast 34th. All up and down the street, new businesses are opening, and most of them peddle food and drink.
It starts down on Southeast 14th Avenue, where the windows of what used to be Squeez are papered over. A liquor license is pending for a new restaurant called Roost, which will serve American food, according to the owner.
Further up, the old Muddy Waters café at 29th is the new Bare Bones Café. Genoa, of course, has been reborn, and is joined by a sister café, the charming Accanto.
On Belmont's main business strip, near 34th, almost an entire block is newspapered over. The Opposable Thumb café remains under the ownership of the adjacent Laughing Planet burrito joint, but is getting a major remodel that will turn it into Dick's Kitchen, a sustainably minded diner. The space that used to be It's a Beautiful Pizza will be split into Hall of Records, a DJ-friendly bar and record store, and Cognito, a restaurant serving dishes from Central and South America.
Two new food carts - a taco truck and a pimped-out cart called Stevie's Chicken 'n Waffles - are now parked next to the excellent and elusive restaurant Kun Pic's Bahn Thai.
In addition, Hawthorne Boulevard's India Oven has moved to Belmont. And up on the east side of 39th there's a new business strip that's home to Couronne Chocolates and the orange-hued Slappy Cakes, where you can griddle your own pancakes at your table.
In other words, there's a lot of variety - plus a few new condo projects to provide consumers - on a street that already has a strong food and drink scene. Cheese Bar is in good company.
But Jones says it wasn't some kind of business sixth sense that caused him to choose his spot. Rather, he lives nearby, liked the proximity to Mount Tabor and he just liked the space.
Jones earned a name for himself with his Steve's Cheese counter in Northwest. Several restaurants around town list Steve's Cheese plates on their menu, and I'm not sure why he went with Cheese Bar for the new venture. After all, the guy is fortunate enough to have a name that is assonant with his passion.
His specialty is small producers from around the world, with a focus on Pacific Northwest cheeses. He says he has about 200 different kinds of cheese, including the largest selection of Pacific Northwest cheeses in the country.
The beer and wine is chosen to be food-friendly, meaning lower alcohol varieties and interesting, culty beers including McMinnville's Heater Allen Brewing and - although it's probably gone by now - a beer from Michigan's legendary Jolly Pumpkin.
The space is open and spare, decorated with three striking works of art on wood panels by local artist Evan B. Harris and by pretty jars of honey and jam.
The frequently changing menu is written on a chalkboard above the counter. There are a few sandwiches available and some very good salads. Both a salad of arugula with potatoes and peas and one of mixed greens with radish and fennel were bright and clean, with a just-picked perkiness.
Pickles don't pop
Of course, I went there for the cheese. On one visit, there was only one cheese plate on offer, a sampler of three British cheeses. They were all good, especially a memorable cheddar-style cheese. I was even happier with a sampling of three American cheeses on another day that included a luscious Wisconsin blue.
The cheese plate comes with some crunchy rounds of toast - you'll probably want to order more bread - and a dense, jammy chutney made with apples, cherries and prunes.
Along with this my friend and I shared a meat plate, with assorted spicy cured meats including a chorizo from Olympic Provisions. We added some slices of velvety prosciutto from the case, as well.
I didn't think much of the pickles, a small dish of carrots and cauliflower without much pop. And I would have liked to see a featured cheese plate that focused on the Pacific Northwest. Of course you could always put one together yourself, with help from knowledgeable staff and from Jones, who is frequently behind the counter. They will plate a portion of any cheese you want to eat - or you could get some to go, a few baguettes, and head even further up Belmont to Mount Tabor Park.
Cheese Bar, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 6031 S.E. Belmont St., 503-222-6014, www .cheese-bar.com