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Will a crumbly Roquefort cheese ever replace creme brulee for desert? Could a slab of Tillamook Cheddar fill in for a hot fudge sundae?

Some Western new york restaurateurs are betting they just might-they're serving an optional cheese course after the entree. And there's morel local news on the curds-and-whey front: Local retailers are starting to enlarge the role of cheese by helping their customers serve an assorted cheese plate as a first course at a sit-down dinner. Complete with a Knife and fork, of course. And its own cloth napkin.

Needless to say, we are not talking about Velveeta here. And you can forget those foil-wrapped packages of Laughing Cow as well.

While you're at it -- please, please, please throw the cardboard cylinders of grated so-called "Parmesan" out the window.

In other words, we're talking about natural, non-processed cheeses from small geographical areas, sometimes even from a single maker. Rinds usually range in color from beige to white -- primary colors need not apply.

Arranging several cheeses to form a separate course at the end of the meal has always been a common thing to do in Europe, especially France. Then the idea moved on to both coasts in the United States.

Now Western New Yorkers are getting interested.

"When I went to the Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan, I was impressed by their cheese tray," says Henry Gorino of Oliver's restaurant on Delaware Avenue. "There were about 18 or 20 cheeses to choose from -- all aged perfectly, and they were varied, too. They were made from cow, goat or sheep milk."

So Gorino came back to his own restaurant early this summer and set out to duplicate the concept in a modest way. Oliver's offers four pre-selected cheeses after the main course. Portions of each run from 1 1/2 to 2 ounces and are served with bread and fruit. The cheese
course costs $10, and most patrons forgo dessert after eating it.

"The idea is beginning to catch on," Gorino says.

Judy Holleran, who helps Gorino set up the tray, says cheese trays also do well at the restaurant's catered parties. And with the advent of cooler weather, they hope to expand the concept.

Over at Enchante on Allen Street, chef-owner Alain Jorand -- Gallic to the core -- has been serving a cheese course for more than two years.

"The cheeses are mostly French," he says, not surprisingly.

Because he's a native Frenchman, variety comes naturally to him. Charles de Gaulle himself once complained of the difficulty of governing a country "with 246 kinds of cheese." Jorand usually offers only six of them.

Western New Yorkers like the idea, says Jorand's wife, Elizabeth McGuire, who watches over the front of the house.

"Customers say things like, 'I'm going to eat lightly so I can save room for the cheese,' " she says. The restaurant offers the cheese on a tray; servers are able to describe the taste and texture of each. They choose slices; the plate costs $10.

Sometimes just one cheese is offered as dessert. At Il Fiorentino on Transit Road in East Amherst, patrons enjoy a slice of Parmigiano with pears. At Hillebrand's Winery Restaurant at Niagara-on- the-Lake, Ont., servers will often bring a slice of French Morbier as dessert. It's soft and rather mild. Or the customer might choose a strong blue St. Etienne made by monks in Quebec. Or even a 7-year-old Canadian Cheddar.

"The cheese has been very popular. It lets diners finish up the last of their wine," a server said. "It also allows them to enjoy dessert wine, too. That Cheddar tastes especially good when it's splashed with a late-harvest Vidal."

Often people who enjoy fine cheese in restaurants want to duplicate the experience at home. Karen Daniel, cheese buyer at Premier Gourmet, says she frequently encounters a customer clutching a restaurant cocktail napkin with the name of a cheese scribbled on it. (For some tips on making your own cheese plate, see the accompanying story.)

And Karen Ostrum, manager of consumer education at Tops Markets, notes that she has seen interest growing, too. "People are eating different cheeses on pizzas now. They are eating sweet Mascarpone for dessert," she says.

"Even fondue is coming back."

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