The Cheese Shop: Frontin' for Fromage
You gotta respect any young chef who knows the world of delicious possibility known as quince paste. Most Americans only experience it as limp, pathetic triangles offered in cheese plates, which is a damn shame: used smartly, quince can complement meat or enliven a dessert, and it always enraptures palates with its assertive tanginess. It's not surprising, then, that only the world's superior cultures—Mexicans, Spaniards, Argentines and the Brits—have fully incorporated quince into their daily meals.
Oh, and the young guns over at the Cheese Shop, hidden in the OC Mix's maze of hipster food and retail treasures. They sell blocks of quince, singing its praises to curious shoppers and even referring to it by its Spanish name, membrillo. And if that's still not enough to entice neophytes to try some, the Cheese Shop sneaks fat slices into a sandwich alongside smooth Manchengo and jamón serrano, putting it on a press for a couple of minutes. The quince slightly melts, soaking into the cheese, ham and bread. Saltiness, sweetness, the Manchengo's smokiness—this is a brilliant afterthought panini, and I don't mean that as an insult. If you congratulate the guys behind the counter for a job well-done, they'll smile, shrug their shoulders and say they just grab whatever's around the shop and slap it together with all the earnest humility of Mike Trout grinning after robbing someone of a home run.
The Cheese Shop is an offshoot of San Clemente's excellent restaurant the Cellar, and it packs all the charm of a Parisian cheesemonger into a space the size of a dentist's reception area. It almost seems too cutesy—the workers all have facial hair and dress like classed-up lumberjacks, the shop's design scheme is post-industrial meets American Pickers, and they even stock copies of the fine cheese quarterly Culture. But here stands the real deal—in addition to stocking multiple cheese wheels, cheese utensils and sausages, the Cheese Shop offers service with a smile and encyclopedic knowledge. The staff will let you sample, cut off however much you want to take home, and wrap it in beautiful paper so it looks like you know what you're doing come date night.
Just want a quick lunch? Those sandwiches. They're changed daily, but I've only had great ones: the aforementioned quince masterpiece; another one studded with cornichons on top of pecorino, porchetta and a fabulous harissa; and another dubbed the Daff for its creamy D'affinois cow's milk cheese—Brie on steroids. Plus, you have to love any young chef who uses bread from Dean Kim's OC Baking Co., as is the case here. Quince makes you smart!
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