When Milk the Cow first opened in St Kilda in 2012 it caused a veritable storm. Finally, there was an answer for all those people asking “But what if I don’t want to go somewhere for dinner, I just want to have a cheese platter?”. And for those who weren’t asking, they now had the answer to a need they never knew they had.
As a dedicated cheese and wine bar stocking over 150 artisan cheeses, it hit the spot with Melbourne’s specialty foodie market. Aside from that – they do it well. Upon entering the St Kilda store, you’re faced with a smallish restaurant which appears to be half filled by a long, well stocked cheese cabinet. There is a cheese and wine tasting flight to suit every taste, from mixed wines, to all reds, whiskies, beer, cider and even sake matching. Cheese is the highlight of the menu with fondues, cheese platters, and accompaniments such as olives and charcuterie an optional extra. The atmosphere is intimate, with the one large group table bordered along one side with a 4 person hanging bench, and attention to detail in all the servingware – from the wooden flight boards with wine glass cutouts, to the fondue warmers with a beautiful lattice design which the tea light candles shine through, adding to the ambience.
All waiters have a notebook with additional detail for when their off-the-cuff cheese walkthroughs don’t satisfy your thirst for dairy based knowledge. The venue has been a success, with a second opening in Carlton a couple of years later.
If you aren’t sure what you want, a flight or cheese board is definitely the way to go, but if you’re with a larger group or just want something a little more decadent, the fondues and baked whole cheeses (take your pick of either camembert or brie) and absolutely divine. The camembert was a particular favourite of ours, infused with garlic and fresh herbs, while the 3 fondues on offer vary as to the flavours added.
On this occasion we tried the “Grundlegend”, a melting pot of Il Forteto Cacio di Bosca Tartufo Stagionato, Swiss Appenzeller & Gruyere L Etivaz which is “Cooked with Remy Martin VSOP, Madame Coco Blanc de Blancs Brut & truffle honey and accompanied with a ramekin of Stanton & Killeen Rutherglen topaque”. It’s rich. Very rich. If you’re only there as two people, be wary of how much this will fill you up. Even the baked cheeses are a pretty generous ooey gooey mess. It’s definitely recommended to order some charcuterie if you’re getting any dipping cheese, because it comes with additional breads and lavosh which you’ll certainly need, unless you want to eat the fondue straight from the pot with a spoon (we won’t judge). Even the signature cocktails come garnished with cheese – although we didn’t try any as the flights had our attention. The serves of sides were reasonably generous – we had the Serrano ham on this occasion.
If you haven’t been to Milk the Cow and love cheese, it’s a definite must-do. You can treat it as an after dinner or late night venture, but order several dishes and you’ll find that they’re rich enough, and you fill up enough with the grazing style, to cover you for dinner too.
However, if you’re not a Melburnian, the news of the year was that for the first time, a specialty cheese restaurant has opened in Brisbane. The name – Fromage the Cow – may initially make you think it is by the same team as Milk the Cow – but it’s definitely not. Upon entering, the large cheese room to the right is a huge standout – and more reminiscent of an up market grocer (technically they call themselves a licenced fromagerie). It’s clear they are happy to sell you cheese or feed you in the restaurant either way. Beyond this point, the main venue looks pretty much like a standard small suburban restaurant.
To the side is the ‘orangerie’ which might make you think of France, but is really just a long narrow bar with an orange wall. If the restaurant is full but you still need your cheese fix, the exact same menu is available on this side of the venue. The cheese platters here are choose-your-own, and accompanied by a detailed description of 20 or so cheeses on offer – despite the fact they actually stock around 80. Unlike Milk The Cow, there is more substantial restaurant style food here, including bar finger food like arancini, meat based mains, and desserts (although everything does feature a cheese element of course).
We were given about 5 menus, but nonetheless remaked to the waiter that we were surprised there were no tasting flights – at which point he hastily added that these were on a separate menu they only handed out when asked, as hardly anyone orders them. Not sure whether this is a case of the market not being ready (sorry Brisbane) or an opportunity lost through not offering it. We selected a red and sparkling flight, and arancini (which were crisp and tasty, but not the main focus of the experience). The difference was immediately noticeable in the presentation – wine glasses with cheeses balanced on the top, presented on a standard black drinks tray. Unlike in Melbourne where a detailed description of the history, tasting notes and features of each cheese was forthcoming, in this case the cheeses were just named. They weren’t presented in mildest-to-strongest order either, but did come with the most delicious oat crackers we’ve ever tasted.
While it seems like Brisbane still has a long way to catch up to Melbourne in the specialty offering market (though it has come leaps and bounds in the last several years), one thing I can’t fault is the quality of the cheeses, as well as the excellent pairings made with the wine. Every single one added volume and complexity to the cheese it was paired with, and we got to experience some truly exponential flavour transformations that really brought out the dominant flavour in each cheese. While I’d recommend Milk the Cow if you had a choice between two cities, Fromage the Cow is still definitely worth checking out, and brings something which is so far unique to the Brisbane market.