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The Bite

Area shoppers give in to the power of cheese.

A guy from the neighborhood recently walked into St. Killian's Cheese Shop, at 3211 Lowell Boulevard, and set a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew down on the counter. "What kind of cheese would go with this?" he asked, somewhat sheepishly. Ionah de Freitas didn't bat an eye. "Brin d'Amour," she pronounced and sliced a wedge for him. He took the cheese, tucked it under his arm and walked out. Later, de Freitas marveled at the transaction. "He just wanted some cheese to take home and eat with his Mountain Dew," she said, shaking her head. "I had to think fast, and the lemony quality of that cheese just popped into my head. We get to meet the most interesting people around here."

That's one of the reasons de Freitas and her husband, Hugh O'Neill, decided to sell their popular Hugh's New American Bistro (1429 South Pearl Street, the space now occupied by Micole) this past winter to open a specialty-food shop in the Highland 'hood near their home. After nearly two decades of cooking and managing, they'd had enough of the restaurant business. "It's so glorious just coming in here each day and taking our time to unpack cheeses, tasting and laughing and enjoying ourselves," says O'Neill, who was the original chef at the now-defunct Greens on East Colfax Avenue. Soon after Greens moved to South Pearl Street in 1995, he and de Freitas took it over and renamed the restaurant Hugh's. "At some point, you have to say enough is enough," he adds. "The stress, the hours -- it was all just doing us in."

They've bounced back quickly. The two fairly leap around their shop, excitedly showing off cheese finds and sharing stories. "This one is made by this family; they just sent us the cheese and said, 'Oh, send the money whenever you can,'" de Freitas says, amazed, as she starts lifting waxed-paper-wrapped cheeses out of a cardboard box. "Oh, this is beautiful," she enthuses.

O'Neill rushes over. "Wow, look at how they do this by hand," he says, holding out a cone-shaped goat cheese that's pungent with the scents of mountain air and damp earth. "Oh, God, and smell it. This is so much better than trying to juggle a hundred things in a restaurant."

At Hugh's, the couple paid attention to details and focused on fresh, top-notch ingredients; they take the same care at St. Killian's. They handpick every item sold in the shop: multicolored pastas, gourmet olives, smoked and cured meats, Belgian chocolates, pickled vegetables, vinegars and oils and, of course, cheeses from all over the globe, which the couple try to document with pins stuck in a map on the wall. (Because O'Neill is a Dublin native, there's an unusually large selection of Irish cheeses.)

"I have to confess that we've chosen just about everything in here because we like to eat it," O'Neill says, and de Freitas chuckles. "Yeah, we try to pick things that we can steal from ourselves and take home each night to make a meal," she adds.

From the pickings here, you could certainly cobble together just about any kind of repast -- from a romantic picnic for two to a formal dinner for a family of four. I grabbed a package of the ribbon-like pasta made with saffron, beets, spinach and carrots ($9.79), a carton of imported chopped tomatoes ($3.29), a wedge of heavenly pecorino cheese studded with bits of truffle ($16 per pound), a bar of sweet butter ($4.50) from Normandy and a package of Cote d'Or lait melk chocolat ($3.75). That, along with a $2.50 loaf of French bread brought in from the nearby Denver Bread Companyat 3200 Irving Street -- "Serious cheese requires serious bread," O'Neill says -- served as dinner that night for me and three others. But I also picked up a hunk of Andante Dairy's Largo ($21 per pound), an aged cow's milk with the texture and flavor of a goat cheese; a piece of Spanish Garrotxa ($16 per pound) and a slice of quince paste ($5 per pound) for the kiddies. And I tasted about a dozen more cheeses, because O'Neill and de Freitas love to give out samples, and they encourage their customers to try new things.

And these days, what's old is new again. "Right now, fondue is big," O'Neill says. "We're getting tons of people in who want Swiss cheese to make fondue. Which is just amazing, since this town went through its fondue phase in the '50s and, oh yeah, then again in the '70s, right? And here it is, back again. So we're trying to get them to think beyond Emmentaler to these great Gruyères and Appenzellers." (For more on fondue, see this week's Cafe review.) And then there's the customer who keeps asking if they'll special-order Limburger, a super-stinky cheese invented by Trappist monks in Belgium who must have been looking for something, anything, to liven things up. "This guy is a fisherman," says O'Neill, who got hooked on fly-fishing years ago, a hobby that was partially responsible for his wanting to get out of the eighty-hour-a-week restaurant business. "He says it's illegal in Colorado, but when he lived back home, somewhere in the Midwest, they would take a whole block of Limburger, put it in a net and set it down in the middle of a lake. A day or two later, there would be hundreds of fish nibbling on it, just ready to be reeled in. Since he can't do that here, he just wants the cheese to break into chunks and use as bait."

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