It is the queen of comfort food: the grilled cheese sandwich.
And, for those who haven’t noticed, the childhood favorite is hot now, too.
"Grilled cheese the new hamburger? We think so," hospitality and restaurant consultants Andrew Freeman & Co. wrote in their report on food trends for 2012. "Restaurants devote special evenings or entire menus to this childhood favorite loved by kids of all ages. From fast-casual to high end, expect more restaurants to develop their own signature sandwiches from high end to low."
This new era of grilled cheese is about artisan breads and specialty cheeses or unexpected additions between the slices. April is National Grilled Cheese Month — April 12, National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day — but why wait? A couple of North Jersey restaurants are offering signature grilled cheese sandwiches already.
"We thrive on comfort food to make people feel good," says Mario Rodriguez, one of the owners of The Blind Boar in Norwood. "To me, a grilled cheese sandwich fills that void."
Of course, The Blind Boar doesn’t offer the diner-variety white bread and yellow American. Their signature version is "slow smoked brisket grilled cheese."
"We thought about just having a grilled cheese on our kids menu," says Rodriguez. "And we said, ‘OK, how can we make this better for adults?’ "
The restaurant had already created adult milkshakes. Now it’s made the grilled cheese grow up.
"We wanted to take it one step further," Rodriguez says. "We have brisket in our chili. We have brisket as a platter. So we said, you know what, why not make it a brisket grilled cheese. … Our brisket is delicious, so we do brisket on there and our coleslaw, and it also has our specialty smoked paprika house sauce."
The sandwich has gruyere cheese and is served on rye bread. It is what is being called premium or specialty grilled cheese — and these are popping up on menus everywhere.
At Twisted Elm in Elmwood Park, customers try the popular lobster grilled cheese, made with both brie and cheddar. Celebrity chef (and Fort Lee’s own) David Burke is whipping up a rich tallegio grilled cheese for lunch at David Burke’s Townhouse in Manhattan.
Entire restaurants are dedicated to the childhood comfort food. Morristown has The Grilled Cheese Factory, which includes menu items like the "cheesey mac and rib": barbecued pork and mac and cheese in a panini. The Lexington Avenue crowd in Manhattan can stop into Melt Shop and choose, among others, the "beef ’n’ blue" with roast beef, blue cheese, caramelized onions and horseradish mayo on sourdough bread.
And a little New Jersey road trip can take adventurous grilled cheese connoisseurs to The Pop Shop in Collingswood, which is famous for its grilled cheese menu with more than 30 choices. The restaurant owners were on "Throwdown with Bobby Flay" on The Food Network show’s grilled cheese episode. They made the "Calvert": jack cheese, roasted turkey, bacon, avocado and house dressing on focaccia.
For classic grilled cheese lovers, adding tomato or bacon is extreme. These specialty versions move far beyond the definition of their beloved food. But calling them grilled cheese brings comfort to others. And now the familiar favorite comes with surprising, unusual new flavors.
Long live the queen.