Photo by Michelle Repiso/ExpressAFTER CHOWING DOWN on crab salad and barbecued rockfish, diners at Foggy Bottom‘s Dish (924 25th St. NW; (202) 338-8707) often cap their meals with a cheese course. Delicacies like a Maryland goat cheese and a California blue come out with fig preserves, raisin bread and salad. “It’s a nice way to finish a bottle of wine, and great for people who aren’t crazy about sweets,” said chef Anthony Chittum.

Dish and other D.C. restaurants have co-opted the Continental custom of trotting out Stiltons, Manchegos and Gruyeres after the main course. Two local stores — Cheesetique (2403 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-706-5300) and the new Cowgirl Creamery (919 F St. NW; 202-393-6880) — are solely devoted to the stinky, the ripe and the aged, which means creating a course at home is almost as easy as slicing a block of Velveeta.

“There are so many artisanal cheeses available now,” said Suzanne McGrath, owner of Arlington’s The Curious Grape (4056 S. 28th St.; 703-671-8700), a wine shop that stocks around 60 types of cheese.

The biggest question? Whether to show off formaggio before or after din din. “It’s a great way to introduce a meal,” said Jill Erber, owner of Cheesetique, who likes to greet guests with four or five cheeses from varied regions and animals (goat, cow, sheep). Set them out 45 minutes before nibbling said Erber, because, “When cheese is cold, it doesn’t release its flavors.” Tell fellow dairy explorers to sample in order of intensity, perhaps starting with a subtly sweet Belgian Honey Goat (Cheesetique) and finishing with a Point Reyes Original Blue (Cowgirl Creamery).

A “course” doesn’t even have to mean multiple types of queso: Often, the cheese should stand alone. “Sometimes I put out just a blue, maybe with salad in a hazelnut vinaigrette,” said Cowgirl Creamery co-founder Peggy Conley.

Food accompaniments should contrast with cheese’s fattiness. Think sweet, fruity things such as chutneys and honey or savory bits like olives and chorizo. For non-carb phobes, set out French bread or crackers.

Cheese and wine go together like Rogers and Astaire, but not all varietals pair with all fromages. “Characteristics of wines should match characteristics of cheese,” said McGrath, who hands out a pairing chart at her store suggesting combos like Brie and champagne and blue and port. Need one wine to go with many cheeses? Erber favors a fruity red such as Merlot.

Retailers like Williams-Sonoma and Sur La Table sell cheese boards and knives. But presentation doesn’t have to be complex. “Keep it simple: Get a wooden board and sharp knives, and maybe some big leaves from the garden,” said Erber. “Spend money on good cheeses, not fancy spreaders!”

Photo by Michelle Repiso/Express