There's a startling dessert at Appellation, the wine-bar adjunct to the new Pastoral cheese outpost in Andersonville. It features an Italian cheese called Il Nocciolo, formed from a trifecta of cow, sheep, and goat's milk and crafted in southern Piedmont, where cheese makers have a talent for soft-ripened formaggio like Robiola. The square of dense, pasty-white Il Nocciolo is served with triangles of rigid, rosemary-scented shortbread and a dollop of sweet cranberry jelly, both much needed to stand up to the tangy barnyard punch this cheese delivers. At first I was shocked and a bit repulsed by it, expecting something less kicky for a dessert. But as I thought about it as the days went on, I came to realize that this was in fact the best and most cheese-forward thing I’d eaten during my visits to the restaurant.
Try to name anyone more responsible for bringing great caseiculture to the masses than Greg O'Neill and Ken Miller, the founders of Pastoral, who now have four vital cheese shops in action (and two restaurants) in addition to advising and consulting on cheese programs all over the city. That they're making their way into far-flung cheese deserts like Andersonville can only be a good thing.
And the idea of a cheese-centric wine bar such as Appellation is a good one. Its older sister, Bar Pastoral in Lakeview, seems less ambitious, less committed than Appellation to the idea of incorporating coagulated milk into nearly every dish on the menu. The chef responsible for that commitment is Jesse Williams, formerly of the late Birchwood Kitchen, Lula, Floriole, and Uncommon Ground, and a former cheesemonger for Pastoral itself, experience well suited for, say, choosing the right chevre to bake in pumpkin-tomato sauce (Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery) or what slice to lay on your patty melt (nutty Swiss Herrgard).
Counterintuitively, the problem I found with much of the menu was that these intriguing cheeses are often so subdued in execution that little can be said about their own individual character or how they enhance or complement the whole dish. In some cases they're hardly evident at all.
That's true of snacks such as gougeres, made with raw cow's milk the funky intensity of which is subsumed in the pate a choux. Or slivers of nutty, sweet Sardinian cow's milk Podda Classico overwhelmed by white anchovy and sweet onion relish. The same cheese couldn't be detected among a plate of seared cauliflower with bagna cauda. An otherwise meaty bowl of chicken soup is crowded with bland dumplings made from the Parmesan-like American cheese SarVecchio; any cheesy flavor in popovers with slabs of beef and watery creamed spinach seemed similarly MIA.
If that were the only problem facing the food at Appellation, the solution would be simple: increase the cheese. However, executional issues and seemingly consistent underseasoning plague it too. A mound of ruddy, texturally satisfying egg noodles, tossed with thick undercooked carrots and huge chunks of pork in what is said to be a ragu, tastes like it hasn't come within a mile of salt. Mustard-sauced boneless chicken thighs drown in a mass of watery mashed potatoes. The Gruyere smothering an overthick croque monsieur somehow renders its squash-and-pear interior undetectable, while a pile of fat, gummy, white gnudi sits next to a shockingly large serving of purple beets—an assault of contrasts.
With so much disappointment on the table it was a relief to get back to dessert, where I found the second-best dish in the restaurant: a cool, creamy, tangy goat cheese panna cotta cradling a clot of honey, pistachio, and poached apricot.
Probably the best way to approach the menu at the moment is via the cheese plates, which make use of the formidable stock the restaurant has on hand—the varied "New Classics" and the more focused "Alpine Tour" run $14 to $20 for three to five cheeses and accoutrements. Set up one of those with a charcuterie plate and a couple bottles of the almost 200 wines—each marked up only $20 over the retail price in the store, and most made by small, sustainable vintners—and the little bar makes a nice place to recharge after a serious buying session at the best cheese shop in town. v