Keep your Candy Land and your Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. My fantasies of culinary excess have always involved cheese. That gingerbread house in the woods wouldn't get a second look from me, but if it was made from bricks of Gouda? That would be my one-way ticket into a witch's oven.
Which brings me to Fromagio's -- a high-end cheese emporium with south-side and Spenard branches, each one a mecca of aging cow, goat and sheep's milk. Hard cheeses, soft cheeses, domestic, imported, fresh, aged, strong, mild -- Fromagio's has something for everyone (unless you're lactose-intolerant. Or you don't like cheese, in which case, stop reading now and maybe, you know, re-evaluate your life).
In addition to the wheels, wedges and slices that can be had from behind the counter, the shops offer lunch in which their cheeses and charcuterie take center stage.
I began at the Spenard location. The space is sparse, clean and appealing, with a handful of tables, a few artsy photos on the wall and a picture window with a view of busy Spenard goings-on. I placed my order with the attentive cheese guru behind the counter -- tomato soup with chevre ($3) and the Spenard mac and cheese ($13, plus $2 for added prosciutto).
I used the few minutes of waiting to peruse the cheese and charcuterie offerings behind the glass (note that charcuterie isn't sold retail at the south-side location, but prosciutto and salumi are available for sandwiches) and to eavesdrop on the transactions at the register. Costco cheese shoppers like myself should be prepared for a little sticker shock.
The attendant was encyclopedic in his knowledge of milk-fat percentages, cheese-making techniques (the beautiful purple cheese was aged in merlot!) and creameries. Just as impressive was his ability to eyeball, to within a half-ounce, what a third of a pound of French brie looked like.
My lunch arrived at the table and I was charmed by the presentation. A rustic cutting board held my soup and salad and some addictive fruit/nut crackers. My mac and cheese came in its own personal skillet. It looked fresh from the pages of a food magazine (my idea of pornography).
The soup was lovely -- slightly sweet but nicely balanced, with a sprinkling of tangy chevre. It was creamy, rich and satisfying, the perfect complement to the macaroni and cheese. A lot of restaurants do a high-end version of this dish but I'm often disappointed. Either they get too far away from the basic, homey creaminess of the dish or they don't get far enough away and I end up thinking I could do just as well in my own kitchen.
This version was the exception which proves the rule. It was, in fact, the best macaroni and cheese I have ever eaten. Creamy and slightly smoky, the four cheeses (Taleggio, Parmesan, Wagon Wheel from Cowgirl Creamery and Emmentaler) are a perfect and distinctive blend. Crispy shreds of prosciutto, lightly crushed peppercorns and a crust of bread crumbs added salt, a bit of heat and some texture. Tiny flecks of sweet onion gave the dish balance and depth.
I made it about a third of the way through the dish before having to give up -- and before falling into a blissful cheese coma. The salad, though a welcome element of freshness against the richness of the rest of my meal, was a bit sweet for me. It was slightly overdressed in a balsamic-based dressing with a liberal sprinkling of dried cherries, and I would have liked the option of a more vinegary, savory dressing.
Before leaving, I ordered a Signature Panini ($13) to go for my husband's lunch. Though it was cold when it arrived home, it crisped up perfectly in the toaster oven (making it a good option for an easy dinner if you pick one up during lunch hours). The combination of mild but slightly salty mezzo secco cheese with prosciutto and a not-too-sweet rosemary/pear spread make a sandwich that hits all my flavor notes in one bite. My husband was reluctant to share.
Next, I visited the south-side location. The vibe here is quite different, but still pleasant. The space is smaller, with fewer tables and a more casual feel. They don't have a full kitchen, so the menu is truncated and the cheese counter staff assembles your lunch in between customers (who were plentiful on a Saturday afternoon). They don't offer soup or the macaroni and cheese (Oh, south side -- why can't we have nice things?) but they offer the full board of sandwiches, salads and platters.
My daughter and I ordered the Ploughman's Platter ($14) with salumi. It's an appetizing plate of food, though, speaking of plates, the meal was served on melamine and I missed the charming cutting board. Thick chunks of focaccia, slim sticks of sharp cheddar and a deeply satisfying salumi -- rich and fatty and with a subtle spice -- this isn't the thinly sliced salt-bomb you'll find at your local Subway.
We also shared the grilled cheese with Swiss Emmentaler and Dijon mustard. While I enjoyed this simple fare, I was curious about the shop's distinction between a "panini" and a "grilled cheese." In my mind, a grilled cheese is fried in oil or butter (which this sandwich wasn't) and a panini is cooked dry in a press. It was, however, tasty and satisfying, with a nice pungent mustardy kick to balance the drier flavor of the cheese, and it certainly didn't need more fat.
For me, Fromagio's is a little wedge of heaven. A perfect spot for a little self-indulgence and an immersion into cheese-nerdery. If they ever offer a contest for an exclusive tour of their mysterious inner workings (complete with fondue river, in my imagination), I'll be searching frantically for the golden ticket. Or, barring that, I might just spring for one of their cheese-tasting classes. Yeah, I think I'll do that. That sounds easier.
Fromagio's on Spenard
Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon.-Sat.
Location: 3701 Spenard Road
Fromagio's in South Anchorage
Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tues.-Sat., Noon-5 p.m. Sunday
Location: 10950 O'Malley Centre Drive, Unit C