Imagine a new wine store just opened in the Twin Cities. It has a well-rounded selection of about 800 wines, hundreds more craft beers, and a fine liquor selection. Its cheese shop is stocked with 100+ artisanal cheeses, gourmet salts, cured meats, all manner of oils and preserves, and baguettes from Salty Tart. An XM Jazz station plays overhead, a Venice canal-scape adorns one of the walls, and the knowledgeable staff is more than eager to help. Where would you imagine this store is? Northeast? 50th Street? Maybe Cathedral Hill? It’s actually on Lake Street between Lyndale and 35W. No kidding.
“It’s a younger crowd here,” says Ken Liss (above), who runs the cheese shop at Lake Wine and Spirits. “We really have a chance to teach people.” Liss, formerly of Premier Cheese Market at 50th and France, spoke with Heavy Table last year for a previous installment of Two Tastes. Since then, the economic downturn caught up to Premier Cheese Market, which ultimately closed in December. “At the time, I was ready to take a break. But I got called up in August and was told [owner Binh Le, below left] hired Bridget [Haugh, below right] who had worked with me, and he wanted me to run the same cheese shop I had been doing.” The shop has been open since October 1, and he’s picking up right where he left off.
Joining Liss for the Two Tastes (which turned into considerably more than two) was wine buyer Mike Dombrow (second from right, above). He’s a passionate wine guy without being pushy, informed without being haughty — a former pool hall manager with a Sommelier Degree. Dombrow has previously sold wine for First Grand Avenue Liquors in St. Paul and was the wine buyer at Zipp’s for four years. He’s excited about the store’s younger customers as well. “It’s exceeded my expectations. The clientele here is this neighborhood… there’s room here to help people develop their palates, to give people the base language to be better able to describe what they like. If they can express that, they’ll want to learn more.”
Liss wasted no time showing off the wares of his cheese shop, beginning our conversation with “Would you like to try a $100 / lb ham?” (as if there’s more than one likely answer to that question). He sliced some razor-thin pata negra, the famous cured Iberico Ham that gets its savory flavor from the pigs’ diet of acorns. With it we drank the 2004 Vina Cubillo Rioja Crianza ($25) — a beautiful wine, earthy and smooth. Together, they were magnetic. The wine melded with the richness of the fat, allowing the ham’s nuttiness to shine.
We asked Liss for a cheese tasting primer. “First, cheese always wants to be served at room temperature. Very important,” he says. “The aroma and flavor will be at its fullest. When you taste, I tell people to do pretty much the same thing you’d do with wine. First, take a whiff — taste is both nose and mouth. When you taste it, let the taste build in your mouth.” He suggests sort of working the cheese all around your palate to get the full range of flavor. “And wait for the finish. If you don’t like the finish, you’re not going to do it again.” What about combining wine and cheese? “A lot of people eat the cheese and then sip the wine. There, you’re pairing the finish of the cheese with the beginning of the wine. It works, but not necessarily the best. Put the wine and cheese in your mouth at the same time and make kind of a soup. That’s where one will come through and effect the other one.”
He demonstrated with multiple cheeses. First, Cereta Alt Urgell ($20.99 / lb), a Catalonian cow’s milk cheese. It’s a washed-rind cheese with a slightly pungent aroma. “You don’t see a lot of cow’s milk cheese coming out of Spain,” says Liss. The Rioja succeeded in accentuating the nutty cheese while the tannin of the wine softened. Alternatively, there was Chimay ($19.29 / lb), a Belgian cow’s milk cheese washed in Chimay Ale. While a very nice cheese on its own, it was lost with the wine. The flavors separated like oil and water on the palate, leaving both flavors compromised and incomplete. Liss advocates fearless exploration of pairings, saying they’re learning new things every day and you will too. “If you get four cheeses, a Cabernet Sauvignon, and an oaked or un-oaked Chardonnay, chances are one of the cheeses will pair with one of the wines.”
Liss advocates not only wine pairings. “Cheese and beer! Cheddar was made for beer,” he explains. “And since whiskey is essentially distilled beer, spirits pair nicely as well. And Sake? I did a class on that, Sake loves cheese! Condiments — blue cheese drizzled with honey. Parmigiano Regiano and aged balsamic vinegar are a match made in heaven.” His gourmet salts are another condiment worth consideration. A slice of Delice de Bourgogne ($14.99 / lb), a triple-crème Brie, topped with just a few granules of hickory smoked sea salt was addictively good.
An extension of the staff’s passion will be their classes, scheduled to start up later this month. “Cheese classes probably be starting soon, within the month and wine classes by the end of the year,” says Dombrow. “The goal will be one class a week.” They also run the ambitious Uptown Beer Guild, an online forum for local beer lovers to rate and discuss beers while keeping up with beer events at the store. They are eyeing similar productions for wine and cheese. It’s a store intent on pursuing multiple outlets to share their passion. “That’s where the fun is,” says Dombrow. “To really teach people how to buy better — to feel a little more confident in themselves and to buy things they usually wouldn’t.”
The store’s inventory is bound to change in the coming months. Liss will expand his cheese selection and Dombrow will try to stock more interesting or little-known bottles, in lieu of another Napa Cabernet. They seem intent on trying to deliver new tastes and experiences to their clientele. When pressed for some basic wine / cheese pairing advice, Liss offered direction instead. “You could say ‘sheep’s milk with reds, goat’s milk with tangy whites’ but everyone’s taste buds are different,” he says. “I could give you the classic pairing, and you might think it’s the worst thing you’ve ever had. So the rule is, get a cheese you like, get a wine you like, see if it works. My rule is just to go out and try them.” Lake Wine & Spirits is there to lend encouragement.
404 W Lake St
OWNER: Binh Le