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Mission Cheese: Beautiful Cheese, Stinky Service 

Wednesday, Jun 15 2011
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Surveying the lengthy line at Tartine Bakery on a rainy Saturday afternoon, you'd be hard-pressed to find a grimace. Inside, there's no guarantee of a place to eat by the time your order is ready, but no one panics. People gamely wipe off waterlogged outdoor tables, double up on little wooden chairs, or stand eating with plates in hand. The barely controlled chaos of Tartine during peak hours isn't just the price of admission; it's part of the fun.

Mission Cheese, the new shop-cum-eatery run by Jardinière alum Sarah Dvorak, has a comparable "we're all in it together" vibe. Similar to Tartine, this inviting nook blurs the line between market shopping and dining out, with hand-selected artisan cheese as its centerpiece. But unlike Tartine, an elder statesman of frenetic, small-space dining, Mission Cheese hasn't learned how to manage the mayhem. Over the course of four visits, I was simultaneously intrigued by the premise of Dvorak's innovative venture and frustrated by its sloppy execution. There were enough moments of ordering confusion, mixed messages, and forgotten dishes that I found myself distracted from the true star of the show.

That's right, the cheese. It ranges from stinky to mild, chèvre to raw cow, burrata to aged cheddar. Dvorak, a self-styled cheese advocate with garde manger experience, knows how to keep a well-stocked larder. Her cheese comes melted over potatoes and cornichons, oozing out of French bread bearing tomatoes and basil, and served straight-up on cheeseboard triptychs. Mission Cheese also has a small rotating menu of prepared dishes, a modest beer and wine list, and an extensive, expensive list of cheeses to take home.

It's this combination that sets Mission Cheese apart from say, American Grilled Cheese Kitchen, with its handsome stable of artisanal melts, or Cheese Plus, Russian Hill's charming little cheese mart. It's partly a dimly lit dining spot with cheese cellar accents and partly a retail shop. Each of Mission Cheese's prepared items exists to get you hooked, showcasing the cheeses so you'll buy more. But be warned: Like other gateway drugs, the price of continued use can be steep. Mission Cheese's cheapest product is Point Reyes' buttery Toma, clocking in at $17.50 per pound, while the top-shelf cheeses approach $40.

Of course, this is to be expected. Dvorak isn't running a price-gouging scheme; she just uses fine product. Take, for instance, the Nettle Meadow Kunik, a velvety goat-and-cow blend that's remarkably subdued, considering its high butterfat content. After falling hard for this one when she put it on a "Monger's Choice" cheese flight, I learned it would cost me $34 per pound to bring some home. As with many of her offerings, Dvorak actually charges less than what you'd pay on the website of the upstate New York cheesemaker. Quality costs.

The menu items are more reasonable, with nothing cresting $10. For the shop's casual Mission crowd, this may be part of the allure. Sure, the "entrées" aren't exactly haute, but product this good elevates even a simple grilled cheese to a tony meal. The A Lot-A-Burrata sandwich ($10), served cold on a baguette from Della Fattoria bakery, is an exercise in restraint. A thick layer of burrata is dotted with plum tomato halves and a sprinkling of basil, a simple and traditional pairing for mozzarella's close cousin. It's nothing outlandish, yet the cheese, cold and milky like savory ice cream, mixes with the fresh tomatoes and the bread's crusty chew to create something sublime.

Mission Cheese's pressed sandwiches are served on Della Fattoria levain, trucked down daily from Petaluma. Each melt blends two or more cheeses, making it tricky to distinguish, say, the Cabot Clothbound from the Vella Daisy cheddar in the Ched or Alive sandwich ($10). But pair those carefully selected melt blends with Ched or Alive's robust apple and ale chutney, or the sweet-and-salty fig preserves and prosciutto of the California Gold ($10), and you won't mind losing the individual flavor profiles. Similarly, the melted cheese blends in the de rigueur mac and cheese ($9), happily obscuring its separate parts.

For the aspiring scholar, cheese flights ($10) promise a better education. Arranged three cheeses to a board, each one is served with little pieces of bread, cornichons, and apples or figs. Flights are grouped by region, e.g., Pacific or Midwest, each featuring one soft, younger cheese; one semihard; and one that's more unusual (washed rind, stinky, etc.). Dvorak plates and serves them herself, bringing a calm mindfulness that supersedes any chaos around her. Like a European picnic, there is a simple elegance to the flights, each prefaced by a lively explanation from your guide: "This one has some funk to it, but with grassy notes and a smooth finish."

It's moments like these where Dvorak really shines, standing at your table and waxing passionate. Elsewhere, the shop seems to get away from her. On my first visit, after 20 minutes of waiting, one server gave us four seats another server had promised to someone else. They then shrugged and walked away, indicating it was our mess to sort out. Food was served haphazardly, with one cheese flight arriving 20 seconds before the main courses (our mac and cheese had to be stacked on the cheeseboard for space) and another flight served long after the meal was complete. On another visit, a friend's sandwich was made and then forgotten, with a 10-minute lag between her food and ours. On another, the resourceful server took our order on his iPod, only to forget two dishes when the battery died.

Very little is intuitive at Mission Cheese, and the servers seem to have no better grasp on the system than the customers. They leave you to wonder whether you should order food before you get a seat, or wait in the small space's only open area and block the main menu board and cash register. And then should you get your own water and silverware? Answers vary.

Mission Cheese opened only in mid-April, so it has time to work out the kinks. Simple tweaks like a sign-in sheet could sort out much of the confusion. The question is whether the cheese-focused Dvorak has the requisite will to streamline the operation. She left Jardinière's kitchen after not enjoying the pressure-cooker atmosphere; her goal with Mission Cheese was to do something more mellow.

During its most hectic moments, she questions why she didn't just open a cheese shop. "I wanted to get people talking about good cheese," she says. "Running a busy restaurant wasn't really part of the plan." Be that as it may, her nascent business may find its footing, and it retains much promise. The space is warm, the cheese is grand, and the concept has potential. I have high hopes for Mission Cheese.

About The Author

Jesse Hirsch

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