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FRESH FOOD PIONEER

The Cheese Board reaches a tasty milestone.

WRITTEN BY SANDRA MACIAS
PHOTOS BY SHEA EVANS

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Give a shout-out for The Cheese Board, celebrating its 35th anniversary in Reno. Its history is well known to locals: Many have been customers since the day it opened in 1981 in Arlington Gardens Mall in Reno. More than a few consider it part of their families, familiarly calling it Debbie’s Place (after owner Debbie Branby) or hiring the business to cater significant family celebrations.

So after all these years, what don’t we know about this beloved bistro? What’s left to write about? Well, after further investigation, some uncovered trivia were discovered.

Trivial matters

Trivia No. 1: When The Cheese Board opened, it showcased an eight-foot-long display case filled with 160 imported cheeses. Once a month, Branby drove to San Francisco to pick up her inventory. But to haul her cargo back to Reno, Branby had to sell (read: sacrifice) her “sexy” (as Branby described it) little orange MG with racing stripes for a roomy (so unsexy) silver Oldsmobile station wagon with faux wood panels.

Here’s another tidbit: The Cheese Board’s original name was The Cheese Board and Wine Seller. But no one could get the name straight. After Branby’s husband, David, collected 21 variations of its name, it became simply The Cheese Board.

And third: Four years after opening, The Cheese Board moved to 247 California Ave. (where it has been ever since). The large cheese case was traded for an espresso machine, making The Cheese Board one of Reno’s first restaurants to offer espresso drinks and the first to serve Peet’s Coffee. Nowadays, The Cheese Board features coffee from local roaster, Blind Dog Coffee.

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Fresh-food pioneer

The Cheese Board never jumped on the fresh-food bandwagon; it drove it from the start. Branby’s philosophy always has been to use the freshest seasonalvegetables and fruit.

“I strive for the best ingredients I can get,” she says, “even for a sandwich.”

Such foods used to be harder to source, but with the explosion of local farmers and growers in the area, the challenge has diminished. Seven local farmers, including Mewaldt Organics, Palomino Valley Chicken & Eggs, City Green Gardens, and Hyde’s Herbs help keep The Cheese Board’s kitchen stocked the way Branby likes.

The kitchen staff — under the leadership of executive chef Kaimi Coonrad — makes everything from scratch: pasta sauces, salad dressings, daily soups, quiches, and more. Except for the petit fours, the pastries are handcrafted by pastry chef Andrea Medina, who also creates a different quiche each day with organic local eggs.

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Spirited lunch choices

The Cheese Board serves lunch Monday through Saturday. The menu features tasty grilled sandwiches, delicious salads, flavor-charged soups, plus daily specials that show off the kitchen’s ingenuity. You may order takeout or eat there — the restaurant also offers delivery for lunch, with 24-hour notice, for offices, corporate meetings, and even bridge clubs.

Bestsellers are grilled sandwiches made with focaccia bread, especially the roasted turkey with pesto, roasted red pepper, and provolone. One lucky day, the daily special was a roast beef torta with (take a breath) grilled red onion, melted Monterey jack, roasted green chile aioli, tomato, and lettuce on rustic ciabatta bread. (Sigh.) My plate was left with nothing but a fleck of green-leaf lettuce. (Watch for other wildly popular specials, such as fish tacos and tomato basil soup.)

The food here doesn’t disappoint. It’s consistently creative and yummy, thanks to Coonrad, a 15-year veteran with The Cheese Board, and Branby, who built it into the gem it is today.

“The Cheese Board has touched a lot of lives,” Branby says, reflecting on three and a half decades in business. “And what an honor it has been to have catered family weddings, anniversaries…,” she says, “and even funerals.”

Summing up her eatery’s longevity, Branby quips, “We are still standing. Yay!”

A Reno-based food writer, Sandra Macias is one of those folks who have been a customer of The Cheese Board since the day it opened. She learned about cheese beyond Tillamook and found vibrant food, fresh and full of flavor, at The Cheese Board’s table.

Resources

The Cheese Board

247 California Ave., Reno

775-323-3115 ● http://www.Cheeseboardcatering.com

Open for lunch 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. Mon. – Sat.

For catering or lunch delivery, see http://www.Cheeseboardcatering.com

Recipe

Cannellini Bean and Roasted Tomato Crostini

(Two easy holiday hors d’oeuvres, courtesy of Debbie Branby, owner, The Cheese Board in Reno. Serves 8 to 10)

On the Crostini recipe, Branby notes, “I love a simple hors d’oeuvre that is full of flavor and easy to make. You can do these bites well before guests arrive and still have plenty of time for a glass of wine before the party begins.”

1 sourdough baguette (day old is great), cut on the diagonal into 36, ¼-inch slices

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided in half

2 small rosemary sprigs

1 small shallot, about 2 tablespoons, minced

1 garlic clove, minced

¼ teaspoon Aleppo pepper

1 teaspoon thyme leaves (preferably fresh)

2 cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed (unsalted, if possible)

½ cup roasted tomatoes in oil, drained, split, and chopped (Whole Foods is a good source.)

2 ounces goat cheese, crumbled

½ teaspoon lemon zest, plus extra for garnish

¼ cup water

1 teaspoon salt, plus extra to taste

½ teaspoon fresh ground pepper, plus extra to taste and for garnish

½ cup crumbled feta

Baby arugula

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Arrange baguette slices on baking sheet, brush with ¼ cup olive oil, and bake for 10 minutes. Turn oven off, flip crostini, and bake for another 5 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool.

In medium sauté pan, heat remaining ¼ cup olive oil. Add rosemary sprigs, shallots, garlic, Aleppo pepper, and thyme. Cook over medium-high heat for about 2 minutes or until you smell herbs and shallots are soft.

Add drained beans and ¼ cup tomatoes; toss to coat. Cook for 2 minutes, then remove rosemary sprigs. Add water and cook until liquids are almost totally reduced. Remove from heat. Add salt, pepper, lemon zest, and goat cheese; stir to combine. Put everything in food processor and quick-pulse three or four times for coarse texture. Adjust seasonings. Let cool.

To construct, lay two small arugula leaves on each crostini. Add small dollop of bean purée on top, leaving some arugula leaves visible. Top purée with ¼ teaspoon of remaining roasted tomatoes. Garnish each crostini with crumpled feta, lemon zest, and cracked pepper. Place on your favorite platter and get ready for compliments!

Note: To make this dish vegan, leave out cheese. To make gluten free, substitute lightly roasted root vegetables for crostini.

Smoked Salmon Chips

(courtesy Debbie Branby, owner, The Cheese Board in Reno. Serves 8)

“This is easy, fun, and, above all, tasty. Added bonus, it’s gluten free,” Branby says.

¼ crème fraîche

½ cup cream cheese (Branby’s favorite is Gina Marie, which doesn’t contain stabilizers.)

2 tablespoons red onion, minced

1 tablespoon lemon zest

1 tablespoon capers, roughly chopped

2 tablespoons chives or scallion greens, minced

6 ounces smoked salmon

24 salt-and-pepper potato chips (regular or waffle, although waffle is stronger)

12 caper berries, halved, for garnish

Mix first six ingredients in bowl — don’t use food processor as mix will get too runny.

Cut salmon into 24 pieces, about 1½ inch each (you may have salmon left over).

Lay potato chips on cutting board and spoon 1 teaspoon cream cheese mixture on each chip. Fold salmon in half and lay on top of mixture. Garnish with half caper berry and place on your favorite platter.

Hint: Branby uses coarse sea salt or pink Himalayan salt as a base under chips so they don’t move on platter.

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