One bite of that Nickel City Cheese & Mercantile breakfast sandwich, and I started cursing.
“It’s huge,” my coworker told me, her eyes wide and with wonder, as if taking in a monument. “It’s really huge. And really good.”
Undersold on the Elmwood cheese shop’s chalkboard menu as egg and cheese on a roll, it earns its name: “The Classic.” I like the classics. I don’t fuss over my food. Great ingredients, intent and technique are all I need. I wouldn’t turn down a chef’s flourished creation, but I’d prefer to taste what a smart preparer can do with the right ingredients.
Jill Gedra Forster knows what she’s doing. She opened this European-style shop in 2012, after years on the line in Boston and elsewhere east. She moved into the storefront, most recently occupied by Tabree, with the feeling that Buffalo had been lacking an adequate cheese shop.
It’s hard to say we didn’t have access to good cheese before three years ago, what with our local markets insisting on more and more attentive cheese curation. Still, there’s no replicating a neighborhood shop, operated with exquisite detail and service. Again: Forster knows what she’s doing.
Some of that runs in the family. Forster’s younger brother is chef Steven Gedra, of The Black Sheep, and the former Bistro Europa. He’s the rambunctious one, serving roasted animal heads and other non-populist cuts, along with vegetable dishes you won't find elsewhere.
Unlike her brother, Jill is not loud, though she still has something to say. Pick up a wedge of Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog ($27.99 per pound) and will tell you why it’s worth it, specifically. Then she’ll let you taste it. You can sample any cheese in the case. There are as many as 50 on a typical week.
If you’re going to anyone’s house for dinner, or having anyone over to yours, stop here first. Besides fine cheese, there’s charcuterie, and house-cured salmon ($22.99 a pound)—which these days you can find steeped in locally distilled Tommyrotter Gin.
With more packaged specialty items like crackers, jams, spiced honey, chocolate, pastas and more, you’re going to leave satisfied and salivating. (Forster said she’s planning on offering frozen tomato sauce, soup, pizza dough and other prepared items soon, and has started taking orders for her Thanksgiving “everything but the turkey” catered-dinner-in-a-box.)
Breakfast and lunch were not part of the original plan but were inevitable in hindsight, says Forster. The regular menu is full of cheese sandwiches and salads, with weekly and seasonal specials, rotating soups and mac-and-cheese variations.
A house favorite is the Turkey ($4.50 half, $8.99 whole), essentially a loaded B.L.T., with spicy goat cheese spread, on sourdough. At the time of my research, I was told there was maybe only a week or two left on the menu for this one, on account of local tomatoes running out. That’s how this sandwich maker rolls. They won’t settle, a quality you want in your cheese shop.
The Swiss ($5.50) pairs luscious scrambled eggs with sautéed leeks and creamy melted Swiss, on sourdough. I took Emily the cook’s suggestion and added cured salmon for an additional dollar, a fine choice. It’s too rich for one sitting, but worth every bite you can handle.
The Roast Beef ($8.99) updates a familiar combination: Reuben-like slices of roast beef, north-of-rare, thick and piled flat; horseradish cheddar spread ($12.99 a pound), with a grated texture reminiscent of pimento cheese; sliced green apple and arugula, on good, thick rye sandwich bread. It’s a satisfying sandwich, without being too salty or rich, aided by the fresh produce. It’s especially welcome alongside a bowl of soup.
Soup on a sandwich menu in a cheese shop does not need to be this good. Cream of mushroom and leek ($3.25 small, $5.75 large) was out-of-this-world earthy. It was piping hot, rich without being too decadent, and lemony, too, savory and sweet. As I slurped, then drank, I imagined it other settings: stirred into risotto, seared scallops on top; baked with chevre into a thick dip; incorporated into a quiche; on tap in the world’s coolest bar? I have umami issues.
It ate it on the back patio, an eating nook among the city’s best-kept secrets. The wooden pagoda feels like something you’d do yoga in at a lake retreat, its walls sealed in with plastic, old restaurant booths hugging the corners.
If you’re not one of those people who gets up early on Saturday, consider starting, because then you might snag one of Jill’s house-made doughnuts, or a delectable upgraded Oreo from Butter Block (one of the bakers who have been filling Public Espresso’s display case in the Hotel Lafayette lobby with rich treats). Fresh croissants and baguettes are also available, if you can find one. This place tends to make early mornings worthwhile, which brings me back to my visit.
I was sitting there on the patio, waiting for Jill to bring out my Classic. I had added bacon, and a cup of creamy coffee. This covered space reminded me of morning quiet time at summer camp, the trees swaying in a calming wind, fallen leaves swirling the day awake, a squirrel looking for black walnuts. I realized: This is the reason people eat breakfast.
This is why you don’t rush through the house in the morning with a mouthful of cold leftovers, or forward the calories to lunch. This is why people get up earlier than they have to. This is what everybody was talking about all these months, their hand gripping my shoulder, head tilted down, eyes staring up into mine: “You’ve got to get this sandwich,” they told me. “It’s huge.”
My 1 p.m. breakfast arrived on a tray. I turned the paper bowl around to inspect its yellow perimeter; it sure was big. I picked it up; it sure was light. I closed my eyes and grinned. I know this was it. Those fluffy eggs, that drippy cheddar, that thick, crispy bacon—with only a few simple ingredients, and prepared with care, my sandwich spoke to me. And I answered. I put that sandwich right into my mouth and immediately cursed, like a sailor, salt and all. Now that’s a classic.
Info: Nickel City Cheese and Mercantile, 423 Elmwood Ave., 882-3068. Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.