Grilled Cheese, All Grown Up
Posted Sunday, June 17, 2012 3:15 PM
It’s a sunny afternoon in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood. A man walks up to the counter at Pilar Cuban Eatery, his order already nailed down in his head: grilled cheese.
Two sweet slices of bread, lightly toasted with melting, gooey cheese gluing them together.
But this time, it’s different. Hearty whole grain bread? Yes. Plantains? Yes. Espresso bean-laced stoneground mustard? Yes, indeed.
It’s 2012, and the grilled cheese has received a facelift in many restaurants, cafes and bars. Not only that, but it’s hit the streets as well. A comfort classic is being revamped with added elements and variations -- not just from your mama’s kitchen.
Little Muenster, in New York’s Lower East Side, specializes in fancy grilled cheese sandwiches, with ingredients like Merguez sausage, fried capers, shiitake mushrooms, and butternut squash.
Some of these dolled-up concoctions literally present an entire meal pressed between two slices of bread. For example, a fried chicken grilled cheese at Melt Shop, 601 Lexington Ave. in Midtown Manhattan has all the fixings for a fine meal: buttermilk fried chicken, jalapeno jack cheese, cabbage slaw and “melt sauce” on top.
This trend is taking over, and not just in restaurants and sandwich shops.
Grilled cheese food trucks are perfect for a quick and comforting lunch. If you’re at Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, you can enjoy your lovely day with a creation from the Food Freaks.
Food Freaks Grilled Cheese is the first cart to operate in Fort Greene Park. It’s now also available in Central Park on Mondays and Tuesdays.
The front of the truck reads “Grilled cheese makes me happy.” These guys offer a distinct variety from short rib grilled cheese to a chili grilled cheese made with wheat beer and Mexican chocolate. You can also DIY and choose your cheese, toppings and a “dip.”
“We tried to really make a menu that didn’t have any holes in it, any weaknesses,” owner/CEO Stephen Cusato said.
Then there’s the Milk Truck. Gourmet grilled cheeses floating around New York City, from SoHo to the Financial District to Williamsburg. Local bread, sliced with a specially-designed miter to what these guys consider the perfect thickness and local artisan cheeses make these sandwiches a hit.
“I was looking for something that was familiar, but could be elevated,” founder Keith Klein said.
When Klein started the project, he experimented to find the exact ratios to make the perfect grilled cheese -- down to one-eighths of an inch. That’s where the handmade miter came in, since a bread slicer can’t be adjusted.
“Even though it’s a really simple and ubiquitous thing, it’s really difficult to do something simple well,” he said. “To make a really exceptional one took a lot of work.”
Los Angeles, Land of the Cheese?
Nancy Silverton, founder of La Brea Bakery and former owner of Campanile in Los Angeles, had a great idea. She started Grilled Cheese Thursdays at Campanile, which drew some of her biggest crowds. She now co-owns L.A.’s Osteria Mozza, Pizzeria Mozza, and Mozza2Go in Los Angeles. She helped introduce a down-home product and feel to a popular restaurant. Today, the grilled cheese still sparkles on the L.A. dining scene.
Chef Eric Greenspan brought this comfort classic to his fine-dining restaurant, The Foundry on Melrose. A grilled cheese on raisin bread with apricot caper puree and taleggio -- short rib meat optional. The sandwich is sprinkled with fleur de sel (hand-harvested sea salt) to finish. Now known as “The Champ,” the sandwich won at the Grilled Cheese Invitational in 2008.
Ah, yes. The Grilled Cheese Invitational. The scrumptious event celebrated its 10th year in April at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
The contest is divided into four categories, as follows, via the Grilled Cheese Invitational’s website:
Love, American Style – White bread, butter, orange cheese (American or Cheddar).
The Missionary Position - Any type of bread, butter and cheese.
The Kama Sutra - A sandwich of the savory nature, with any type of bread, butter and cheese PLUS additional ingredients, and the interior ingredients must be at least 60 percent cheese.
The Honey Pot – Any kind of bread, any kind of butter, and any kind of cheese, and the interior ingredients of the sammich must be at least 60 percent cheese, plus additional ingredients, and with an overall flavor that is sweet and would best be served as dessert.
Note: GCI management reserves the right to re-assign a sammich to its rightful category or disqualify the entry completely if there is an obvious attempt at cheating.
The love for this comfort classic just doesn’t stop in the City of Angels. Los Angeles is also cheesed out with the Grilled Cheese Truck, from the plain and simple to the flavor-packed, like the Chorizo con Papas melt: habanero jack cheese, chorizo and beef mix, crushed tater tots and fresh cilantro on jalapeno cheddar bread. To top it off is a banana cream pie melt: vanilla mascarpone, rum caramelized bananas, crumbled vanilla cookies and toasted coconut, grilled with brown sugar butter.
Another Grilled Cheese, Please?
So what does the future hold for this seemingly untouchable sandwich genre?
For Cusato, it’s a sandwich that will always stick around.
“It seems to have lasted this long; it’s been a few years now, and people don’t really seem to be demanding less of it,” Cusato said. “Grilled cheese is just like a bowl of pasta or a pizza; it’s so basic and comforting. Everyone’s had it made for them, and everyone thinks they make a great one.”
Even when it’s not April (National Grilled Cheese Month), the sandwich is suitable for any occasion. It, is after all, the ultimate comfort food.
Food connoisseur Beth Kaiserman is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.
Photos: Vanessa Druckman, CreativeCommons.org; Eric Greenspan (FoodNetwork); Melt Shop, NYC (OpenHouseGallery.org).