Chizu in Portland is a Cheese Lover's Dream

She told me there was a place nearby that did a cheese "omakase" she had been eyeing. I looked down at the enormous and deliciously smothered al pastor burrito in front of me and said, "Let's do it." The burrito would have to be boxed up. I had barely gone through a third of the monster before my stomach was reaching for the towel to throw in but I couldn't reach that point. Not before I experienced this cheese spot. My friend said it was called Chizu, and I smirked at the Japanese styling of the name.

I had to ask how there could be a cheese omakase if cheese isn't a native product of Japan but when we entered the establishment, we could see that Chizu was designed to represent that look and feel. It was set up like a sushi bar inside with bar seating around display cases of various cheeses. Multicolored paper cranes were the accents sitting above each case, and a modest display of sakes and bottled beers lined the shelving behind the counter. We eagerly stared at the hunky cheese chunks and sat down to experience what Chizu had to offer. The verdict: cheese heaven.

Is it foolish to be so enamored by what essentially is just a cheese shop with an expert behind the bar? Were we romanticizing these rinds too much? Who cares? It was an intimate experience that allowed us to focus our attention on the wheels at hand. Separated by what we assumed to be rind types, the cheeses tempted us from our vantage point at the bar. There was just one couple in the restaurant at the time but the limited seating would have still kept Chizu small had it been at full capacity. The options we had for omakase (letting them put together the choices) were $25 for 1-2 people, $35 for 2-3 people, $45 for 3-4 people, $60 for 4-6 people, or writing down how much you want to spend total. It was customizable, and after we shared what some of the cheeses we already liked were, they went to work to pick the best pieces. In the meanwhile, we could have chosen food pairings such as their Salami Board, Duck Board, Quince Paste, and Olives but opted to do the cheese straight.

We each went with the $25 choice with the intent to share. My friend's spread was:

  • Casatica di Bufala, Water Buffalo, Italy ($4 - bloomy rind, yeasty, sweet, custard)
    • Their explanation: Because this cheese is made from buffalo milk, it is aged longer than a lot of other cheeses and is therefore firmer. It has a naturally bloomy rind and is flash-pasteurized for 15 seconds at 145°F.
    • Our reaction: The rind was crunchy and hard while the main part of the cheese was semisoft with a creamy mouthfeel. It paired superbly with dried blueberries.
  • Camembert Le Pommiers, Cow, France ($4 - bloomy rind, mushroom, butter, broccoli)
    • Their explanation: Camembert is usually mass produced so its fragile texture becomes rubbery and flavor becomes secondary to production. This one is made low and slow so that it would maintain its natural consistency. 
    • Our reaction: The description note of "broccoli" made so much sense as the cheese was very "funky" in flavor. It paired well with tomato jam and was very smooth.
  • L'Amuse Gouda, Cow, Holland ($5 - firm, salted brown butter, cocoa, crunchies) 
    • Their explanation: This Gouda is aged for two years in Holland and gets its color from annatto seed. Don't eat the rind on this one as it was covered in wax. Protein crystals have developed in it because of the long aging process.
    • Our reaction: It had a taste that resembled a milder aged sharp Cheddar, and its hardness was accentuated by the protein crystals. It's definitely a great hard cheese.
  • Carbicharme, Raw Goat, Belgium ($5 - washed rind, sweet, funky, umami) 
    • Their explanation: This style used to be done by Trappist monks so was taken care of very carefully. Today, it comes from a co-op in Belgium where people raise the goats healthily and work together. The flavor is quite unique. 
    • Our reaction: This was definitely unique with a little bit of woody flavor to it. No wonder it's one of their favorites!
  • Wrangeback, Raw Cow, Sweden ($5 - alpine, sharp, caramel, nutty) 
    • Their explanation: This cheese comes from Sweden and is similar to Cheddar in taste and texture. It's the oldest Swedish cheese type from the country and considered alpine (the source cows are herded up the mountain throughout the year to make sure their feed is consistently great)
    • Our reaction: There were crunchy protein crystals in this that highlighted its nuttiness; we brought this out even more so when we enjoyed it with candied almonds.

My spread was beautifully put together too and brought back a cheese I hadn't had in a long time but loved when I first tried it:

  • Grand-Mere Adrienne Tomme de Chevre, Goat, France ($5 - bloomy rind, fudgy, tangy, bright)
    • Their explanation: In translation, it means the goat cheese of grandmother Adrienne. This cheese's rind is naturally formed but before the mold comes up, the rind is coated in smoky oak ash to give it a distinctive coloring.
    • Our reaction: Calling it ashy is no joke. The rind gave it a very unique, smoky flavor and the cheese was pleasantly smooth, fully coating the mouth in its creamy brightness.
  • Idiazabal, Raw Sheep, Spain ($3 - firm, lightly smoked, slightly gamy, caramel) 
    • Their explanation: As a Spanish sheep cheese, Idiazabal is a good cousin to Manchego which you (Minerva) liked. In addition, its origin is cool. Spaniards would age this in the attics of their homes and when they would light fires, it would lightly smoke the cheese. Now as a DOP-protected cheese, every cheese has to be lightly smoked to be given this name.
    • Our reaction: This is one that I've had before and really, really enjoyed then. Both of us had to save a portion of this to finish the night with because its slight smokiness and savoriness had us wanting more.
  • Sartori Raspberry Bellavitano, Cow, Wisconsin ($3 - washed rind, raspberries, brown butter, sharp)
    • Their explanation: This is an American cheese from Wisconsin that has been washed in a raspberry lambic. A lot of cheeses are washed in beer and sometimes saltwater but this one is done with a lambic; this gives a sweeter taste that is complementary to the body of the cheese.
    • Our reaction: Wow. The raspberry flavor really shone through not just in the scent of the cheese but with each bite. It went beautifully well with candied hazelnut and the meadowfoam Willamette Valley honey we had. Because of the strong berry taste, the cheese could have just been dessert on its own.
  • Capra Stagionato, Goat, Italy ($4 - washed rind, funky, creamy, coconut) 
    • Their explanation: We know this one is from Italy but information about it is actually hard to find. 
    • Our reaction: This has quite a musty rind and a tartness typical of goat cheese but somewhat stronger.
  • Chiriboga Blue, Cow, Germany ($6 - blue, lemon curd, dense, buttery) 
    • Their explanation: Though you don't favor Blues, this is a Blue you need to try. It is not overpowering and balanced in its creaminess and "Blue" flavor. Eat it with the cherries.
    • Our reaction: If Blue cheese were like this one, we'd definitely have more of them. This cheese went very well with cherries and candied pecans. It had the characteristics of a Blue cheese without too much of the funky pungency; it also melted in your mouth effortlessly.

To make sure that my friend got to try it too, I chose a slice of Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk, Cow, California ($6 - washed rind, pungent, bacon fat, creamy) because I knew it to be a wonderful cheese that should be had.

Overall, what a fantastic experience at Chizu from the expertise to the variety to the ambiance. Not only were there plenty of flavor profiles to cater to but the eatery also had origin stories for the cheeses without being pedantic. I'm certainly one who enjoys learning and tried to ask a lot of questions about how the cheeses are made and how rinds are defined. If you're interested in giving Chizu a try, find them at 1126 SW Alder St, Portland, OR 97205 in downtown and maybe even pop on next door to the Multnomah Whisk{e}y Library too.

Photography by Minerva Thai

Chizu Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato