Agnes Restaurant and Cheesery co-owner Vanessa Tilaka Kalb just wanted to open a little cheese shop.
“I’m classically trained,” she said Thursday morning over coffee on the patio of her and husband Thomas’s new Old Pasadena eatery.
“I went to culinary school many moons ago, I worked in restaurants and then just fell in love with cheese,” Vanessa said.
Sitting on a boat off the coast of Thailand more than five years ago, she said to Thomas, “I just want to open a cheese shop,’ and he said, “Oh, maybe I’ll just open a small little restaurant behind your cheese shop, and it’ll be a cute little secret.’”
He could picture The Varnish, the hidden speakeasy tucked into the back of the historic Cole’s restaurant in Downtown LA.—a cute little secret.
“And then we opened this,” she laughed.
Thomas is from Iowa. The restaurant is actually named for his maternal Iowan grandmother, Mary Agnes.
As it turns out, Vanessa’s first cheese shop experience was in Iowa City.
And what stood out in Iowa for the Southern California-raised daughter of Asian market owners was the “Midwest hospitality.”
“Everybody talks about Southern hospitality,” she said, “but there is this big Midwest hospitality that I really enjoyed while I was out there.”
“We wanted to emulate that feeling,” she continued.
Thus began the Agnes saga and the eventual opening of their cheesery and restaurant in a circa-1922 Pasadena Fire Department livery stable.
But let’s be clear. Despite Vanessa’s classic culinary training, the Cheesery does not actually produce its own cheeses. Rather, it curates a hand-picked selection of local and international cheeses to go along with their modern but traditional American comfort food menu.
“Making cheese would require cows,” said Thomas. “We just sell cheese.”
Like sommeliers, the Kalbs mix-and-match cheeses in platters, charcuterie and entrees, finding the perfect pairing, much as with wines.
These are then paired with a wholesome menu from slight servings to full entrees with a combination of cheeses, of course, appetizers, salads, house-made pastas, seafoods, chicken and meats.
Choosing liberally from the menu, we began with a cornbread eclair—a delicate loaf of cornbread topped with a liver mousse and cherries.
Along with the eclair, we tried the Crispy California Cheese Curds, with buttermilk ranch dressing for dipping. Fried cheese. Who doesn’t love that? These were light, airy and flavorful, and only whet our appetite for more.
The half-and-half charcuterie board offered a light array of dried apricots, corn nuts, a FoxGlove Cow Cheese from Indiana, Good Mood cow cheese from Germany, a paté de campagne, French Cornichon pickles, raspberry jam, and coppa, a traditional Italian and Corsican pork cold cut.
We decided to detour around the enticing Loaded Baked Potato Ravioli (!) and moved straight towards the entrees—BBQ Beef Cheeks and the Crispy Steelhead Trout. The beef is grilled and coated with the restaurant’s signature sauce and served with swissed carrots, which were easily as rewarding as the beef. Together, each carrot and beef mouthful was pure Prairie Home Companion. In a good way.
The Crispy Steelhead trout could easily have been mistaken for salmon, an unexpected and delicious surprise. Served simply with tartar sauce, charred lemon and herbs, the fish was cooked perfectly, and the crispy skin was a delight all by itself.
Dessert brought forth Cherries in the Snow, a heaping spoonful of cherries set atop a cheesecake tart, and a S’Mores Cocoa Taco, with dark chocolate, graham cracker pizzelle—an Italian wafer-style cookie—with peanuts.
Both offerings were rich and happy, and were the perfect final chord to a lovely evening symphony.
The restaurant space is large, comfortable, with a large outdoor sunlit patio, and also sells a wide selection of cheeses and cheese related groceries and accompaniments.
As more pandemic restrictions begin to loosen, according to the Kalbs, the restaurant will offer special cheese events, as well as an open, working kitchen to serve as a private event hideaway.
Think Varnish, but sunnier.
Agnes is at 40 West Green Street, Pasadena, CA. www.agnesla.com.