What does it take to conjure a night of food magic in Portland? A personal vibe, a food obsession and passionate people exploring unexpected places.

That’s what 34 curious food lovers found last week at a “grilled cheese and chocolate” night sparked by Alma Chocolate and the Cheese Plate PDX (NE 23rd & Alberta), a food cart devoted to local cheeses, seasonal pickles, and handmade condiments. The menu boasted little more than grilled cheese, six ways, each sporting a different bread, a local cheese, and, in some form, an Alma candy, chocolate bark, or signature caramel sauce. Otherwise, the rules were simple: bring your own wine, passed snacks only, make new friends, soak in music, and wander into the kitchen to say hello. Cost of admission: $30.  

The adventure is part of an intriguing dinner series unfolding monthly at Alma’s new production kitchen and events space at 116 NE Sixth Ave, just blocks from the mothership shop (140 NE 28th Ave). Chocolates are merely the divining rod for each menu. Alma invites cooks to create a menu, incorporate chocolates into their work, and explore untapped directions. These are the kind of ragtag, underground collaborations that keep Portland interesting.

The evening unfolded like a cocktail party in an industrial room warmed by old brick, foraged flower arrangements, the sculptural pipes of an ancient sprinkler system, and more candles than a Buddha sanctuary. Jazz guitar and sax wailed quietly in the corner, courtesy of a couple of chaps working for cheese and chocolates. At the entrance, a help-yourself spread of local cheeses and Alma bon bons set the tone. No crackers, no bread, no instructions. Just the pure sensation of cheese against chocolate, aged tang against fruity ganache, smoky chevre alongside deep dark chocolate shells that yield to luscious, ear-warming, habanero-singing caramel. Unruly, a little messy, fun.

Steps away, food-cart family Nick Dickison, Carina Rumrill, and Alex Knowlton furiously assembled sandwiches and manned the toasting oven. They are the happiest, hardest-working cheese lovers you’ve ever seen. For this event alone, they tested ideas for months and even baked three of the evening’s breads.

Alma Chocolate, Nick Dickison
Image: Karen Brooks
The Cheese Plate PDX's Nick Dickison toasts a grilled cheese experiment. Inside: Portland Creamery goat cheese, habanero marionberry preserves, and slices of Alma Chocolate truffles.

Not everything worked, as you might expect from this demanding experiment. Warm peanut butter cookies arrived as limp as noodles, hiding the euphoria of Alma’s famed salted peanut butter cups and the featured goat cheese—a sharp cheddar or textural surprise of a cheese crisp might have been more successful. But the generosity of the evening and ongoing parade of surprises was a pure delight. I loved the ambition behind the Cheese Plate’s mole sparked by Alma’s spicy Mexican chocolate truffle, spooned over homemade cornbread under soft crumbles of Briar Rose Creamery’s feta and blades of cilantro. And impressively, the deep campfire tones of River’s Edge award-winning “Up in Smoke” goat cheese breathed new life with a punch of Alma’s lavender caramel sauce on Fressen Bakery’s rustic pretzel bread.  

Already, the night’s inspirations have fueled new specials at the Cheese Plate PDX—and Alma is thinking about how cheese might inform the house chocolates. That’s how these things work.

"There's something about the energy of other people's creativity that spurs your own,” says Alma’s Sarah Hart. “We've reimagined collaboration as a kind of non-competitive game of tennis; bouncing ideas back and forth and letting each person do what they do. Interdisciplinary thinking always makes you think differently about your own craft."

Alma’s dinner series is a work-in-progress. For an $85 communal dinner, Ned Ludd’s Jason French crowned a soup with cocao brioche broutons, dusted a salad with pickled salt plums and cocoa nibs, and found room for a roasted quail with bitter chocolate, fermented chiles and blood oranges. On another night, pastry chef Kristen Murray’s $65 “picnic” turned up shrimp with chocolate romesco sauce and chocolate gastrique-drizzled chicken wings.

Who can say where it’s going? It could end in a month, lead to groundbreaking dishes, or inspire an empire. That’s Portland.

April 4: An Evening of Beer + Chocolate
Five local chocolatiers (Alma Chocolate, Cacao, Cocanu, Woodblock, and Xocolatl de David) team up with five local breweries (Alameda, pFriem, Hopworks, The Commons Brewery, and Double Mountain) for the perfect pairing. Buy tickets!

April 11: Tommy Habetz Tex Mex Mole Dinner
The Trigger chef and Bunk Sandwich lord digs into chocolate-forward moles to pair with Alma’s Tex-Mex-inspired desserts. Email Hannah@almachocolate.com for reservations and ticket info.

May 16: Gabe Rosen’s Home Comforts
The mind behind izakaya hot spot, Biwa, will mash up Japanese techniques, home-cooking favorites, and the surprises of burnt sugar and dark chocolate. Email Hannah@almachocolate.com for reservations and ticket info.

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