789 W. Harbor Drive, Downtown San Diego
What's the best lunch deal at The Headquarters downtown?
Four slabs of ancient cheese in a stretch of crunchy baguette and a fresh pear for $6.50.
That's a deal? You betcha. Those four golden slabs happen to be worth $15 on their own. This is Hook's Cheddar, from Wisconsin, the most expensive cheese in the store.
We're at Venissimo. Basically they sell cheeses from around the world, but they also make little meals up for you too. Like cheese sandwiches ($6.50), panini ($7.50), $10 cheese plates or $15 fondues for two (except you've got to find somewhere to cook it up yourself).
But this deal of deals is hidden in the sandwich choices. They have four items:
"The sweet: double cream brie and fig jam."
"The savory: tangy cheddar and spicy apple garlic jam."
"The nutty: famous gruyère + red onion confit."
Or — and here is the jewel — "The Independent: Any cheese on any bread."
Hmm. Now that really got my attention, last time I was here.
"Any cheese?" I asked Rob Graff, the guy serving me (and also Venissimo's "Academy of Cheese" manager),
"And still $6.50?"
"Of course. That's the deal."
He told me they rotate hundreds of cheeses from a total stock of around 2,000, so, wow.
Last time I was here I went for a beautifully sharp, rich bûcherondin cheese (from the Loire Valley in France). This also was a deal, because the bûcherondin goes for $22.70lb.
But when I asked what the most expensive danged cheese in his whole shop was, he didn't hesitate. "Hook's Cheddar, from Wisconsin," he said. "Ten years aged. It gets sharper in taste with age. And more crunchy little calcium crystals. The fifteen year is even sharper, and even more expensive. We don't stock that one. The ten year goes for $40 a pound."
I knew then I had to come back. See if he was good to his word.
So today's the day. But actually, it's Gwen and Michelle behind the counter.
They tell me most folks ask for a gouda or a nice soft brie when they have a choice.
"So you have to choose what bread, fruit, and cheese you want. What would you like?" says Michelle.
"Uh, the pear, the baguette, and for the cheese, do you have the cheddar, the, uh, Hook's Cheddar from Wisconsin?"
There' s no hesitation, no expression like, "So you're trying to take advantage with this $40 cheese, put us out of business?"
"Not a problem," says Michelle, and Gwen goes off to find the big yellow brick and cut four thick slices off it.
I take it out to the nearest table, along with a 99-cent Arizona Tea fruit punch I was slurping when I came in.
I spread everything out, and start off with a chomp into the cheese. Hmm. It's fruity sharp. Deep yellow gold. But what's really delicious is the crunchy crystals. Gwen told me they're tyrosine. Now I'm out here I look them up. Huh. Says here they make you feel happy. Produce adrenaline, dopamine, all those feel-good neurotransmitters. Now I've got to eat it. The day's happy pill. I stick the cheese back in the bread, and have at it, with side-bites of pear.
But would you call this a meal? Four slices of this stuff gives the protein for all the rest. And yes, you can tell it's aged. Has that, not moldy, but, well, venerable flavor that counters the sharpness and those crystals. Whatever, together, they're more than enough.
And, natch, doesn't hurt that you know you're biting into the bargain of the decade.
(Venissimo holds all kinds of cheese classes, including pairing with wines, beers, even whiskeys. Also, how to make your own.)