Milky Way 

"Duck Fat," the sign teases. "Better Than Butter -- Goes with Everything." As I contemplate the many ways in which duck fat would improve my imperiled epicurean situation, a young woman behind the counter changes my life forever by waving a fragrant slice of salami under my nose. It has come from faraway San Francisco and is the finest I've tasted in years. Dizzily scanning the meat case, I behold roughly a million other treasures: Rabbit sausage. Quail terrine. Pancetta, andouille, confit. Pátes, rillettes, galantines. And a ham-o-rama: Black Forest ham, Westphalian ham, prosciutto hams from Italy, Spain, France, South St. Louis.

I'm not at a charcuterie in the Auvergne. I'm in Clayton, Mo., at an indispensable shop called the Cheese Place. Thanks to the staff's tireless efforts toward assembling a trove of gourmet comestibles from around the globe, it is now possible to pursue a swell life in St. Louis.

Cheese, claimed Clifton Fadiman, is "milk's leap toward immortality." If your cheese experience consists of scraping rubbery residue off your teeth after a run-in with an Imo's pizza, a visit to the Cheese Place will fix you right up. Three hundred varieties, ranging from the solicitously mild to the downright stinky, form an epic paean to the noble curd. A sensible try-before-you-buy option is educational and tasty.

In an adjoining room I find countless jars of offbeat foodstuffs: nuts in clover honey, pepperpot soup, tandoori marinade, maple syrup in a cabin-shaped tin, something called Authentic Fajita Dust. I find beers (100 or so), single-malt scotches (about 80), Poire William with a pear in it (one) and wine (the 1,800 selections double as Grenache's cellar).

I ask the affable Brian Bauer, who admits to being "the wine guy" and moonlights as Grenache's sommelier, to point out the weirdest thing he sells. He looks at me as if I'm crazy, gestures at shelves bulging with crinkle-cut beet root and Pain Is Good hot sauce and suggests, "All this stuff is weird." But I press him, so he shows me a rare bottle of La Pouyade cognac. "It has a sterling-silver gold-plated label," he explains, "and used to be available only to royalty. But now anyone can get it." Anyone, that is, with 1,000 bucks to blow. "I've tasted it," he adds nonchalantly. "It's pretty good."

-- Jill Posey-Smith

THE CHEESE PLACE, 7435 Forsyth, 727-8788; 9755 Manchester, 962-8150; 14748 Clayton Rd., 227-9001.

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