When having some wine and aged cheddar cheese, you might not think of pairing it with caramel corn—but it’s part of Liana Ryan’s culinary genius. The mix of sharpness and sweetness creates a surprisingly balanced, harmonious depth of flavor.
“My first thing, when you are pairing cheese and wine or wine and food, is that everything is subjective,” she said. “There are certain rules you can follow, but having the guests be excited about what is being served is the most important thing. It is all about what is happening in front of you, the person talking about the wine and cheese. Experience is most of it.”
Ryan opened Devine Cheese and Wine with her husband, Darren, in January 2020—quickly shuttering it when the COVID-19 pandemic began, long before she had a chance to establish a reputation or clientele.
“We could only do takeout,” she told San José Spotlight, “but nobody knew us. That led us to develop our virtual cheese tastings, which kept the restaurant alive and the staff hired.”
From private tastings for half a dozen people to corporate events hosting more than 100 guests, Ryan’s approach to her presentation was the same. Devine Cheese and Wine would ship out cheese boxes and connect with clients on Zoom.
“We would discuss all the wines and cheeses and why they were chosen,” she said. “I would ask them what they thought about each ingredient and how they worked as a pairing. I would taste along with them, and it was fun learning how different things worked or didn’t work and what reactions we got.”
While the virtual tastings continue to be offered, Ryan also stages occasional special events like winemaker dinners and classes on regional cuisines, such as one on Portuguese food and wine. But her favorite thing is creating unique cheese boards for customers willing to explore her extensive selection of cheeses and wines from around the world.
“I start with finding out what wine they want,” she said. “If you are going to pair something like goat cheese, you want something fresh, like a sauvignon blanc. If you have a big, bold wine, you want to pair it with a big, bold cheese like cheddar.”
Asked to throw together a spontaneous cheese board, Ryan pulled together a carnival of flavors in just a few minutes as she combined eight imported and domestic cheeses with accompanying homemade condiments.
The flavor profiles were all in perfect balance: Tete de Moine, a Swiss semi-hard cheese, was shaved tissue-thin and served with black pepper gastrique that gave it moisture and sweetness; Gotes Catalanes, a Catalonian goat cheese is infused with parsley and garlic, blended with the savory notes of a tomato jam; and Melinda Mae, a delicately flavored soft cow’s milk cheese, was enhanced with wild blueberry compote.
Ryan is not averse to pairings that seem to stretch credulity. Smooth and creamy Glacier Penta is served with chocolate-covered pretzels. And tiny pine cones saturated with honey, a Russian delicacy, accompany soft-ripened Caña de Oveja, a Spanish sheep’s milk cheese.
Most of the accouterments, including hazelnut rosemary brittle, plum mostarda and candied kumquats, are prepared by Ryan.
With the almost infinite combinations of cheese, wines and accouterments available, it’s easy to overlook that Devine Cheese and Wine is also a fine dining restaurant. Starters include smoked trout rillettes, local heirloom tomatoes with burrata and basil, and firebrand toast made with grilled peaches, ricotta and saba.
Entrees include Cuban sandwiches, black angus short rib with polenta and the star of the menu, Miss Mary Mac and Cheese. Hardly your mom’s mac and cheese, this dish is made with 30-year-old Parmigiano Reggiano, Cottonwood River Cheddar, Gruyere, Fontal and Tillamook cheeses and served with house-made pasta. Salumeria Biellese-style guanciale or fermented jalapeños can be added for an additional charge.
“With the pandemic easing up, right now is the first time I have felt like a real restaurant. Here, simple is where it is at,” Ryan told San José Spotlight. “We use great local produce, great beef and great pork. We use some of the greatest cheeses in the world. The quality that you put into your ingredients translates to the best dishes.”
While Ryan strives to create a fine dining experience for her customers, she also wants to keep things casual and friendly as she brings them along on a wine and cheese tasting adventure.
“At Devine, we want you to come in and feel super comfortable,” Ryan said. “We have great wines and cheeses on the menu, but at no point do I want anyone to feel that anything is above their heads. I want to expose people to cool new varietals and hard-to-find cheeses. There is no pretension here. If people come in and tell me, ‘I don’t know a lot about wine and cheese,’ I will tell them, ‘This is the perfect place to be—let’s talk.’”
Contact Robert Eliason at [email protected]
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