The Cheese Shop
627 4th Ave.
(also in La Jolla)
Overall: 2 ForksGrilled cheese and soup: 4 Forks
How can you be expected to govern a country that has 246 kinds of cheese?
-Charles De Gaulle
My dangerously hungry and short-tempered date and I had been canvassing the Gaslamp for hours when we spotted the Cheese Shop. Cheese! And there we were, fromage-lovin' mice trapped in the surprisingly large and upscale (OK, middlebrow) dining room, with a near-capacity lunch crowd, looking at half-empty deli cases of beers, Snapples, desserts, pre-made salads and (we couldn't help but notice) no cheese.
This so-called Cheese Shop offered a total of seven-seven!-kinds of rare and exotic cheeses: Cheddar, Monterey jack, Muenster, Swiss, provolone, Havarti and Jarlsberg. By comparison, Whole Foods Market carries three gazillion varieties, with domestic, imported, fresh, aged, organic and vegan-tofu-nut versions of each. (Before you Monty Python fans start tossing out quotes-yes, I have seen the "Cheese Shop" sketch. But comedy bits rarely make good restaurants.)
Not only was there a bewildering absence of cheese in the Cheese Shop, but the sandwich "extras" menu listed cheese for $1.25 extra. Extra for cheese? This is the Cheese Shop, people. There should be cheese on everything. Every table should get a complimentary cheese platter. The soap dispenser in the bathroom should be stocked with Cheez Whiz. You should run through a breakaway cheese blanket as you run through the front door.
I picked a roasted pork loin with melted jack and avocado, on sourdough. Despite the common perception, sandwiches are not easy, and a well-made sandwich can be a culinary masterpiece. A good sandwich starts with good bread, and the bland Cheese Shop sourdough and rye were as close to white as law allows. The peppered (menu: "tantalizingly spiced") pork loin, meanwhile, was dry and tough. And, inexplicably, the meat was topped with sweet honey mustard dressing, rather than the more appropriate spicy Dijon. Good sandwiches also require a good sense of proportion. My date's evergreen vegetarian salad, unfortunately, was dominated by an enormous jumble of sprouts.
Our chef salad came with julienned provolone and (what I think were) pre-packaged slices. On the bright side, "Kraft American" brought the unofficial cheese count to eight. Ironically, the blue-cheese zing of our dressing (cheese count: nine) was lost in the mayo, while the tarragon mustard dressing was just about flavorless. The fries were very greasy without being very crunchy-never a good combination. Naturally, they do not offer cheese fries.
I asked the waitress about the name, and she gave two excuses. One, the Cheese Shop, in an earlier incarnation, used to sell cheese; and two, the décor has a "cheese theme," including plastic cheeses in the dessert case, and a large cheese wedge hanging on the back wall. Besides, she noted indignantly, they do have several cheese sandwiches.
I laughed at first, but then began to catch on. The Cheese Shop should perhaps change its name to the Grilled Cheese Shop. And what goes with a grilled cheese better than soup? There might not be much print about cheese on the menu, but there is an entire page about soups, describing the care and slow-cooked goodness the Cheese Shop brings to each pot of soup du jour. I tried a grilled Havarti on whole wheat, with a thin slice of tomato, perfectly greasy and crisp, made even more perfect with a cup of split pea, heavily thyme-flavored. It was watery, but let's just say that was to facilitate dipping.
The Cheese Shop serves a decent breakfast, the homemade corned beef hash being nicely spiced and crispy, if heavy on the unevenly cooked potatoes. Unfortunately, they couldn't seem to get a hot cup of coffee to the table, and they don't have soup in the morning. The menu offered cheesecake: "ask about our daily specials." I did. The waitress looked at the dessert case and shook her head. "We don't have any right now." Of course not.
So I sat picking at my grilled cheese, wondering if I should move along and find a more (or less) deserving place. As I did, I watched a prep cook mess up a sandwich order, peel back the bread, toss the offending slices of this or that, scrape the condiments off and quickly reassemble. There you go: ruling France is easy. Sandwiches are hard.
It ain't easy bein' cheesy over here at cityeat@SDcitybeat.com.