This is a story about a fancy dining room overlooking a fountain. In the story, I play a cheese expert on a sniffing trip – a chance occasion to eat a complimentary dinner that includes a magnificent cheese course. It’s a true story, I should mention that. But it felt like a fairytale.
I went to the Four Seasons Hotel on Wednesday to dine at the Fountain Restaurant. Had I been there before? No. I am a diner lover and a taco joint regular. Most nights, I cook at home. That’s why this felt like a storybook. Whoever heard of being invited to the Four Seasons to “experience the cheese cart”? When I received the invitation back in May, I had to think for a minute -- I wasn’t sure I owned the right shoes.
Then I remembered I had some fancy red-leopard-print heels I’d never had an occasion for. Sure, I thought. Madame Fromage will dine at the Fountain in those leopard-print heels; they will be broken in by the cheese cart. And so away we went.
The Fountain Restaurant overlooks Philadelphia’s museum parkway. The dining room is grand, all chandeliers and plush carpet, and the table service is luxe – I went through at least eight forks. What I didn’t expect was that the chef would prepare his multi-course tasting menu for us. Monsieur Fromage and I ate five courses before we ever sampled from the much-lauded cheese cart. But, oh, those five courses were worth it.
I was especially struck by the emphasis on baby vegetables (tiny beets appeared as part of an appetizer, and the rabbit fricassee (below) was bejeweled with turnips the size of infant rattles.) Said rabbit was sourced from Branch Creek Farm in nearby Bucks County, an impressive farm-to-fork move for a restaurant that might be misconstrued as fusty. The shrimp, on the other hand, came from a sustainable source in Belize.
The service was impeccable, the wine pairings glorious. I am still thinking about the 2007 Bonterra Viognier, which tasted like a balsa wood crate of apricots. Gorgeous.
Chef William DiStefano, who prepared our meal, appeared just as we finished eating some perfectly prepared lamb with a lavender reduction, also exquisite. I had almost forgotten about the cheese cart. But then it appeared, a rolling trolley of wedges and wheels.
“Every week the selection changes,” DiStefano told us. “I talk to the people at Artisanal, and they help us put it together.”
I was curious to learn this, since I just finished reading Mastering Cheese, by Max MacCalman – the emporer of Artisinal, a fromagerie and bistro in New York with an impressive online cheese catalogue. Oh, I was not disappointed. The cheeses, they were exquisite. And so was the tray of accompaniments.
The cheese cart at the Fountain offers four categories of cheese – hard, soft-ripened, goat, and blue – which makes for interesting options. You can try all of a kind or mix and match. There were four top-of-the-line blues: Carles Roquefort, a true Cabrales, Blu del Moncenisio from Northern Italy, and Crater Lake Blue from Rogue Creamery in Oregon. What a nice sampling – I was pleased to see a state-side blue included in the selection.
For the cheese afficianado, there were some real jewels. Quickes Cheddar, made by Mary Quicke in Devon, England was an unexpected surprise. Mary makes traditional farmhouse-style cheddar from her own dairy cows, which graze on land that has been in her family for 450 years. It’s bound in cloth, larded, and aged for at least 18 months. I thought it was marvelous alongside honeycomb.
Hoja Santa, a goat cheese from Texas, was another suprise. This just might be one of my favorite new goat cheeses – I know, I know, I keep saying that. Paula Lambert of the Mozzarella Company makes this leaf-wrapped bundle that tastes of anise, mint, and sasparilla. No joke. The flavors come from the Hoja Santa leaf that Paula uses to wrap her cheese. If you try this, when you try this, ask for a snifter of Pernod.
There was also some superb Comte, a hard cheese that tastes like a Gruyere caramel. Imagine brown sugar, nuts, and leather. Mmmm, it was sharp and vixeny. Not your grandmother’s Gruyere. Alongside a pickled black walnut, this was extraordinary -- the stand-out pairing for me.
And so the story ends. But the memory lives on. The cheese cart at the Fountain Restaurant is a dream hive of dairy glory.