In Chicago, Say Cheese -- Many Different Ways

Sunday, January 16, 2005

We were at dinner somewhere in France when my friend closed her eyes in ecstasy. "Taste this," she implored me. "This is an exquisite sauce." It was pearls before swine, though, because all I could think was: Pain can be exquisite. Or tapestry, maybe. Sauce cannot be exquisite.

But what about cheese? Don't answer until you've visited Bin 36 restaurant in Marina City, the distinctive corn-cob towers at the north edge of downtown Chicago. At a bar made of marble suitable for a Roman emperor's bath, you'll find a selection of 50 or so cheeses making the case for eye-closing, tongue-rolling bliss.

The concept "bar" seems to have expanded exponentially since the days when it referred to a spot for imbibing alcohol. There are wine bars, of course -- the genre from which Bin 36 grew -- and the more specialized champagne bars. There was a brief craze for oxygen bars (possibly in response to a parallel craze for cigar bars?), and some sort of retro passion for breakfast has lately spawned not only juice bars but cereal bars that are a location instead of a comestible. Some restaurants offer separate dessert bars, where "flights" of fattening items sing diners to their rest. New York even sports a caviar bar.

Now the cheese bar joins the ranks of places catering to the narcissism of small differences. Where once a cheese tray hid modestly in the corner of a menu, today the cheese stands alone, the newest entry in the category of luxe goods. Conspicuous consumption, indeed.

Bin 36's cheese bar is the first major innovation of executive chef John Caputo, who recently came to the five-year-old restaurant with a mandate to liven things up. He describes the concept as a natural adjunct to extensive wine cellars, reflecting his own passion for cheese nourished by an Italian upbringing and French culinary training. The chef and his staff take obvious pride in their cheese empire, as well they might: It's the one of the few places of its kind in the United States.

There's no doubt Caputo's enthusiasm for cheese is genuine, and personal -- he identified half a dozen cheeses as "one of my favorites" and kept forking over little tastes of this or that until we were sated, and then some. And he obviously loves introducing people to particular cheeses, and to the idea of appreciating cheese in general.

Bin 36, a bright, airy full-service restaurant with bare floors and lots of upbeat noise, welcomes cheeseheads to a cozy corner off the entrance, where they can sit at the bar or a communal tasting table made from an old barn door. There are only about 30 seats total, so it's best to arrive early.

While certain specialized restaurants promote ironic eating, Bin 36's cheese bar is dead serious. The knowledgeable waitstaff asks questions about your taste in cheese (goat or sheep? hard or soft? mild or stinky?) and then helps you assemble a sampling from the menu, which reads like outtakes from a wine-tasting: "An interesting combination of morning and evening milk gives this cheese a mushroomy, minerally, full-bodied flavor."

The flights of four or six pieces are served on a wooden board with a fan of sliced apples and some excellent homemade bread, supplemented with to-die-for breadsticks in buckets on the counter. For those overwhelmed by choice, there are a number of chartered flights, so to speak, from "Fat City" to "Sheepish but Seductive." Each selection comes with its own wine recommendation, specified by bin number.

My companion and I chose contrasting plates put together by the staff -- hers hard and stinky, mine soft and mild. Sampling each other's cheeses and drinks, we particularly relished the Hoja Santa cheese wrapped in sassafras leaf (a persuasive argument for the notion that cheese should supplant ice cream in root beer floats) and the herb-crusted Corsican sheep's milk Brin d'Amour, which tastes just like pizza. Though there's a dessert flight, including goat cheese dusted in cocoa powder, we were cheesed out by then.

The quality of the cheese is impeccable, and the variety such that anyone's cheese palette will be educated and expanded. But here's the rub: Six ounces of cheese is not nearly a meal, yet the check for our two plates and wine came to $67 with tip. If you don't mind spending that kind of money for a snack, this is the place for you.

Or you can take it up to the next level and indulge in one of the restaurant's cheese-based entrees, perhaps fondue or pizza or even macaroni and cheese, whose $10 price tag actually seems quite reasonable considering the bloodlines of the topping.

Whatever you choose, count on it: The sauce will be exquisite.

-- Kelly Kleiman

Bin 36 restaurant is on the ground floor at 339 North Dearborn St. in Marina City. Subway stop: Grand Avenue on the Red Line (walk southwest) or Merchandise Mart on the Brown Line (walk northeast). Details: 312-755-9463,

© 2005 The Washington Post Company