New Orleans smells of funk and fecundity. Of French Quarter Dumpster juice and Garden District bougainvillea. Of bruised magnolia blossoms and spent Sazeracs. In Jitterbug Perfume, my second-favorite book inspired by the city, Tom Robbins wrote that Louisiana, right around this time of year, is “like an obscene phone call from nature.”
My New Orleans smell of choice is the collusion of man and beast that hovers in the air at St. James Cheese Company. Set on a leafy stretch of Prytania Street, amid a nexus of culinary goodness untrammeled by tourists, this café–cum–cheese shop stocks a flotilla of blues that pleasantly stink up the place. Blues from faraway places like Roquefort, France. And blues from familiar locales like Thomasville, Georgia, home of Sweet Grass Dairy. St. James goes deep on triple creams, too, like Italian robiolas from the Langhe region, voluptuous cheeses that threaten to burst their rind corsets.
Richard and Danielle Sutton are the husband-and-wife proprietors. Ask how they named the café and the Suttons offer two complementary narratives. One story invokes “St. James Infirmary,” a New Orleans brass band dirge based on a folk song about a leprosy clinic in London, England. In the other, St. James is the London neighborhood where the Suttons began their careers at Paxton & Whitfield, the cheese shop, established in 1797, that Winston Churchill favored.
Decorated with pop art cheese paintings, the wood-planked rectangle centers on three coolers, stacked with dozens of wheels and wedges. Ashen specimens hunker in wooden crates. Daffodil-yellow beauties glow beneath plastic wrap. A cursive-scrawled chalkboard details new arrivals, upcoming in-house classes for aficionados, and a short menu of sandwiches and salads.
Order a three- or five-cheese plate to start. It will arrive on a gray slate tile, with a compote of blueberries, a pile of walnuts, and a clutch of figs. You can call that a salad. And you can order another salad to follow. Tangled with arugula, dressed with quince vinaigrette, scattered with slivered almonds, and showered with cheese, the Manchego looks like an arrangement of mums, shaken hard and thrown in a bowl. (It tastes far better.)
On visit two, order a sandwich. In the land that gave us muffulettas and po’boys, sandwiches have to be great to earn an eating public. The Hooks Cheddar is a contender. Stacked with house-smoked turkey and a smash of avocado that soufflés when the ciabatta gets panini-pressed, it’s named for the Wisconsin cheese that envelops the assemblage. If you arrive before late summer gives way to early fall, try the Eat a Peach, an Allman Brothers tribute built on a mustard-and-honey-smeared baguette, layered with prosciutto and fresh-picked peaches, capped with sharp Asiago.
If you’re wondering, St. James serves wine, too. On my last visit, I followed the lead of a fellow at an adjacent table who was drinking Riesling and reading the novel Loitering with Intent. Three glasses later, I too was loitering, but without any intent, other than inhaling the smells of hay, barnyard, and butterfat that suffuse a great cheese shop.
MUST EATS: More dining around Prytania Street
La Crêpe Nanou
An art nouveau charmer serving bistro standards like mussels with frites and grilled amberjack with béarnaise. lacrepenanou.com
Newly reinvigorated by chef Dave Bridges, who deftly interprets a menu of classics like duck étouffée with pepper jelly. upperline.com
The Wine Seller
Grab a cheese plate to go from St. James, and a bottle of rosé from this idealized picnic provisioner next door. wine-seller.net