Move Over Emeril's, Brennan's, et.al
Brennan's, Commander's Palace, Antoine's, K-Paul's, Dooky Chase's, and, of course, Emeril's. These and other iconic eateries are the places for which New Orleans is justifiably famous. And with just a short time in town, I didn't get to go to any of them. I can see Archie Manning's eponymous place, “Manning's,” from my hotel window. Ditto for Mulate's, the establishment that bills itself as “the original Cajun restaurant.” But I didn't go there either, mostly because half of the Crescent City seemed to have gotten there ahead me. Everywhere I looked I saw three and four dollar sign restaurants, most of which had only one name and none of which offered the simple, affordable lunch I was seeking. Until I Googled nearby restaurants and saw the St. James Cheese Company just a couple of blocks away.
The menu was right up my alley: a simple and straightforward selection of sandwiches and salads along with cheese and charcuterie boards, an English “Ploughman's Lunch,” and “Cheesemonger's Mac & Cheese.” How can you go wrong with choices like those? So off to St. James my wife and I went on a sunny early summer afternoon.
Located in the Warehouse District, St. James Cheese Company occupies space in an old renovated building on Tchoupitoulas street that could be described as “hole-in-the-wall.” Now, that's not at all a bad thing: some of the best restaurants you'll ever find are holes-in-walls. It was evident as you walked through the door that the place was bright, vibrant, scrupulously clean and well-kept, and nicely appointed. It was also quite loud. Bare floors, exposed brick walls, and high ceilings may be chic and trendy, but there's a lot to be said for the good old days of heavy fabric and other sound-deadening elements that allow for conversation without the need to say, “What?” and “Huh?” every other word. Oh, well. I'm old. So sue me.
The sign at the door requested we order up front during peak times and this was definitely such a time. My wife looked at the menu, made her selection, and scampered off to snag one of the last remaining tables while I stood waiting in line. It wasn't too bad; the line moved quickly and within a couple of minutes I had ordered our sandwiches and taken a seat.
In addition to being a sandwich shop, St. James Cheese Company is also a bona fide cheese shop, replete with a familiar wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano on display as well as an impressive selection of other delicious cheeses, both common and somewhat exotic. St. James Cheese Company was started up post-K (after Katrina) by Richard and Danielle Sutton, transplants from the London neighborhood of St. James, who decided in 2006 that they wanted to bring artisanal and farmhouse cheeses to New Orleans. The Suttons began their “life in cheese,” as they call it, at London's Paxton & Whitfield, one of the oldest cheesemongers in England. Holders of two royal warrants, one from the Prince of Wales in 1997 and one from Queen Elizabeth II in 2001, you could say P&W knows something about cheese. And the Suttons have brought that level of quality, knowledge, and sophistication to the Big Easy.
I noticed bagged loaves of fresh artisanal bread for sale in a basket at the front counter. And there was a nice variety of “gourmet” foods on offer as well. I was pleasantly surprised to see both carnaroli and vialone nano rice for sale. Everybody has arborio these days, even Walmart. Carnaroli and vialone nano? Not so much. St. James' mission statement proclaims, “We aim to provide our guests with a meticulously selected and unexpectedly diverse assortment of perfectly ripe cheeses, charcuterie, and gourmet grocery items.” Mission accomplished.
After a wait of no more than five minutes the food arrived. And we were absolutely transported. Move over Emeril's, Brennan's, et.al. Give St. James Cheese Company some elbow room. There aren't enough “o”s in “gooooooood” to describe what we had.
I opted for a basic grilled cheese sandwich, what they billed as a “Rustic Grilled Cheese.” It starts with white cheddar from world champion Wisconsin cheesemaker Tony Hook. Add some unidentified but undeniably delicious smoky bacon and sandwich it between slices of fresh country sourdough bread from New Orleans' own Bellegarde Bakery, throw some kettle-cooked potato chips on the side, and you have a simple sandwich that is simply divine.
My wife chose the “Smokey Blue,” a magical combination of roast beef, house smoked blue Mycella cheese, lettuce, tomato and Worcestershire mayo on toasted multigrain bread sourced from another local bakery, WildFlour. With apologies to Louisiana's own Justin Wilson, I guar-ron-TEE she will be talking about that sandwich for days to come. Her comment after the first bite said it all: “Chefs always talk about 'layers of flavor.' That's exactly what this sandwich has; layers of flavor. Nothing is muddled together. Each element stands on its own and contributes a distinct layer of flavor to the overall sandwich. It's just remarkable.” And that's from somebody whose palate I respect immensely.
The staff at St. James is friendly, knowledgeable, and efficient. It's not a very big place, but it's light and airy and clean, both in terms of decor and of physical condition. The menu is small; fewer than a dozen sandwiches, a handful of salads, and a couple of specialties like the aforementioned cheese and charcuterie board and the ploughman's lunch. They have a kids menu and a great beverage selection, including the usual soft drinks as well as a rotating selection of craft beers on draft, ciders and wines, and some specialty cocktails. Obviously, we couldn't sample everything, but based on our experience with the wonderful plates we had, we give the place four thumbs up and just wish we had more thumbs.
The location we visited is in the Warehouse District at 641 Tchoupitoulas Street. I understand there is also an uptown location. The downtown store is open Monday through Wednesday from 11am to 6pm, and on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 11am to 8pm. Closed Sundays. Prices are reasonable and parking is.....well, it is the Warehouse District, okay? Don't get your hopes up. There's limited onstreet parking and a number of nearby lots and garages, but the location is also within easy walking distance of some of the district's major hotels. Call them at (504) 304-1485 or check out their website at https://stjamescheese.com
Emeril's, with its “Andouille Crusted Gulf Drum” and its “Pressed Pickled Ham & Cheese,” is only a couple of blocks down the street. But for my money – and for a lot less of it – you can't ask for better than the humble but outstanding fare at St. James Cheese Company. Laisser les bons fromages rouler!