Around lunchtime at St. James Cheese Company (5004 Prytania St., 899-4737; www.stjamescheese.com), diners enjoy cheesy sandwiches and leafy salads sprinkled with flecks of thinly-sliced manchego. On the other side of the room, a staff member, talking through walls of wheels and mounds of the store's namesake inventory, guides a customer in picking the perfect variety.
"Sometimes you come here on a Saturday, it's just a mob scene — you want to buy a piece of cheese, but so many people are buying sandwiches," says Richard Sutton, who owns the store with his wife Danielle. "Sometimes it's the other way around."
Since the Suttons opened the store in 2006, St. James has become known as a place to both explore and enjoy the store's thoughtfully curated selection of domestic and international cheeses. The Suttons ran the cheese shop Paxton and Whitfield in London before moving back to New Orleans (the two met while students at Tulane), and St. James is inspired by that store and other high-end cheese sellers around Europe. Danielle says St. James emulates the way those shops "care for their cheese."
"It's not pre-cut, its not pre-wrapped," she says. "You walk into those stores, and it's just a counter of big chunks of cheese."
Besides cut-to-order cheeses and a selection of cheese accessories, high-end food items and other gifts, the store offers a popular lunch menu of sandwiches, salads, cheese and charcuterie plates. The menu includes standbys like a Gruyere sandwich with caramelized onion on multigrain bread that's like a grown-up grilled cheese, and a French standard brie and ham on a buttered baguette from La Boulangerie bakery. There also are rotating specials, which in December include season-appropriate selections like the gooey croque monsieur and the ham and brie sandwich with spiced chutney.
Cheese novices as well as aficionados can participate in the store's regular "cheese schools," themed classes featuring tastings and wine or beer pairings. The store also supplies its goods to some of the city's best restaurants and recently started making meats in house.
The Suttons took a leap by opening the store shortly after Hurricane Katrina, and never imagined it would become what it has.
"We didn't know what to expect when we came here," Richard says. "When we opened ... it was a difficult time in the city. But for the most part, we've found that those problems haven't been such a problem. People do seem to be interested in it. People do like coming for lunch. Restaurants enjoy buying from us. Those things have all kind of worked out."