- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 7, 2006

Cheese — it’s what’s for dinner. And lunch. And dessert. And snacks.A mericans are eating more cheese today, in restaurants and at home, than they ever have. The average American eats 31.3 pounds of cheese per year, 20 percent more than in 1993, according to 2004 U.S. Department of Agriculture figures, the latest available. By 2014, Americans are projected to consume 34 pounds per person annually.

Washington-area chefs say they are using more cheese in their menus and selling more cheese courses. The area’s first cheese-only shop opened a year and a half ago, and a second is scheduled to open next month.

At some restaurants, sales of cheese — whether soft or hard, with subtle scents or downright stinky odors — are eating into dessert sales.

“Probably about 20 percent of [customers] order cheese instead of dessert — that’s a lot,” said Cathal Armstrong, chef and co-owner of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria. “Cheese has definitely been a trend — more so in the past two years, really.”

About half of customers seek mild flavors, while the other half look for “the most pungent cheese they can find,” such as Tibetan yak cheese, Mr. Armstrong said.

Other area restaurants with cheese platters run the gamut from the ultra-expensive Maestro in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Tysons Corner to the District’s Charlie Palmer Steak, DC Coast, Old Ebbitt Grill and Italian restaurant Dino.

“You used to just see that in the really nice restaurants; now, you’re seeing cheese plates everywhere,” said Isabel Maples, a spokeswoman for the Mid-Atlantic Dairy Association.

Chefs and big cheeses in the industry attribute the increase in consumption to more educated and well-traveled diners, upscale grocery chains with large cheese selections and high interest in low-carb, high-fat foods, associated with the Atkins Diet craze.

Although the product is a good source of calcium and protein, it is high in calories. But that hasn’t stopped people from saying “cheese.”

“Washington is becoming a more savvy cheese town,” said Todd Gray, owner and executive chef at Equinox restaurant on Connecticut Avenue Northwest. “I’m selling more cheese than I’ve ever sold. Our cheese sales are almost matching dessert sales.”

Mr. Gray said he has noticed a uptick in cheese sales in the last year. The restaurant sells cheese plates and dishes with cheeses, including goat and blue.

Carole Palmer has been marketing American artisan cheeses, products handmade in low quantities on farms, to area restaurants for two years.

“They used to say cheese just doesn’t sell well,” said Ms. Palmer, owner of Good Taste Marketing Services in Bethesda.

Today, she sells about 2,000 pounds of cheese — which can reach $15 to $20 per pound — per month.

Shops also have opened to meet the cheese needs of Washingtonians.

Jill Erber opened the area’s first cheese-only specialty shop, Cheesetique, in September 2004. Since then, the Alexandria shop owner has seen her customers become more adventurous.

“We’ve watched everything escalate — knowledge, interest and people willing to try and experiment with cheese,” Mrs. Erber said.

Cheesetique sells about 80 American cheeses and more than 100 foreign-made cheeses, ranging from mozzarella cured in New York to the soft Torta del Casar cheese made from sheep’s milk in Spain.

Cowgirl Creamery, a Point Reyes Station, Calif., cheese chain, is planning to open a shop in the District — its first outside California. The Penn Quarter store is scheduled to open next month.

Owners Peg Smith and Sue Conley expect the company’s success — its Red Hawk cheese was named best in show by the American Cheese Society in 2003 — will migrate east.

“Everybody loves cheese,” Ms. Smith said. “It doesn’t matter where you live.”

Whole Foods says its customers are attracted to cheese’s nutritional value.

“The main marketing thrust we’re seeing behind it is health, because cheese is a healthy product,” said global cheese buyer Cathy Strange.

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