SAYING CHEESE: My 60 minutes exploring artisanal grilled cheese sandwiches at OPENHOUSE's Big Cheesy Festival
Written by Aliza Kellerman
One of my least favorite childhood memories is the summer I spent at sleep away camp in Wild Rose, Wisconsin. Clad in conservative, religious dress, my chubby twelve year-old body was constantly seeping out sweat, trying to avoid the sly frogs that were somehow everywhere (even the showers, those scaly pervs). Nope. I was never cut out for The Nature. However, the one saving grace of Unnamed Religious Camp in The Midwest was the bi-weekly meal of grilled cheese sandwiches. They were single-handedly responsible for preventing me from drowning myself in the shallow pond. Frogs and all.
So, you can imagine that I was overjoyed when the most beautiful day of NYC Spring, thus far, and The Big Cheesy festival coincided. I was even more excited to announce PRESS, PRESS I'M WITH THE LUNCH BELLE, I'M WITH THE LUNCH BELLE!! instead of showing a ticket. The world has gone to hell and I am the media…
I'm elated that grilled cheeses have become so trendy, that they now get their own annual loft-like space in SoHo. Hosted by OPENHOUSE, The Big Cheesy squares off sandwich makers against each other while serving shmancy brews and making you feel like you're attending a gallery opening instead of stuffing artery-clogging grub into your mouth. I love deception.
From the get-go, I knew I was gonna have to try every single grilled cheese offered. Stamina over stomach, right? Riiiiiight? Yes. I was given an orange ping-pong ball to bequeath to the stand whose sandwich won my heart, and a drink ticket. With a cup full of Goose Island and steely determination, here's my play-by-play of my hour in dairy heaven.
THE DISH: A modified Croque Monsieur with mushroom ragout, bechamel, provolone cheese & truffle oil. They also had the classic: jambon de paris, bechamel & raclette cheese.
THE THOUGHTS: This sandwich was certainly good start to the day. Bechamel is the LBD of sauces, it works with pretty much everything and if you're as gross as me, you might even want to taste it on its own. Still, while it was a good first act, the Croque Monsieur was nothing spectacular. I didn't even realize there was truffle oil in it until I looked back at my notes. A little-known fact about truffle oil is that it's often not made with truffles, but sunflower seeds. A cheaper fix, but doubtlessly less sassy than the real thing. So I moved on to...
THE DISH: Challah Atcha Boy (garlic buttered challah with Nueske's bacon, navel pastrami, aged cheddar, fontina, chipotle apple aioli and deli-style potato chips)
THE THOUGHTS: Can I just say that, no matter how many times I see the challah at me pun on JDate, I never get sick of it. Challah is the only time in human history God has proven his love to the Jews, and it still never fails to disappoint. I couldn't help but see the irony in putting bacon on challah (“I'm New York's worst Jew,” professed the sandwicher), but I guess the pastrami provided the semetic compensation. While doubtlessly a tasty sandwich, The CAB was culinary hedonism…the grilled cheese equivalent to a cocaine fueled night at a strip club. Too much.
THE DISH: Pimento cheese & smoked mushrooms on sourdough
THE THOUGHTS: The folks at Van Horn were,by far, the most adorable (as you can glean from the photo below). The sandwich was spicy and smoky, a very specific flavor not everyone would enjoy, though I did. Still, big props for bringing pimento back. I regularly pull that stuff out of olives. It's my martini vice. Shhh...
MELT KRAFT (My favorite!)
THE DISH: Melter Skelter-VSC 'Melter Skelter' raclette style cheese, pickled green tomatoes, jalapeno, BBQ potato chips and watercress
THE THOUGHTS: If Justin Timberlake and a giant hunk of cheese got together and made a baby, The Melter Skelter would be that prized offspring. What I mean is that the sandwich was perfect in all regards (as is JT). Is it possible for a sandwich to be talented? I'd believe it with the Melter Skelter. I think it has the potential to run a goddamn country. There were just enough textures to make it interesting (but not balut weird), and the perfect amount of flavors without there be too much of any one thing. In my experience, when people put jalapeno in stuff that isn't Mexican food, they tend to go haywire. But Melt Kraft got it right. Chelsea Wajswol explained that all the cheese is made from animals raised on Valley Shepherd Creamery, a 200 acre farm owned by her family in Long Valley, New Jersey. They offer tours and have four Melt Kraft venues: two in Brooklyn, one in Philly, and one in New Jersey. They also produce gelato, craft beer, and pairings. Not only were the Wajswols clearly bred for cheese making, but Chelsea's boyfriend, Matthew Delinsky, works with Valley Shepherd Creamery and Melt Kraft as well. Coolest. In-laws. Ever.
THE DISH: The Meltdown-emmi roth smoked provolone, brie, horseradish & chive havarti roasted pencil asparagus, mushrooms, basil, and horseradish pesto
THE THOUGHTS: Pesto is tricky. On one hand, it's delicious; on the other, it's overwhelming. Same goes for asparagus. If you love garlic and don't mind the mess, this is a no-brainer-eat-me-now gig. Still, I wasn't sold on the asparagus. I didn't actually taste it, which begged the question: why? Nine times out of ten, asparagus is a bad idea. Too stringy, too bitter. I get the need to distinguish the sandwich from a typical caprese panini, but I don't think the asparagus was the right route. Still, what a pretty sandwich!
THE DISH: 1) The Peppa Jack - pepper jack and peppadews 2) The Piccante Pig-pulled pork, pepper jack, black beans and salsa verde
THE THOUGHTS: By this point into the tasting, my stomach was distended and I was losing motivation. Murray's Melts came closest to the feel of a classic grilled cheese. Nothing too salty, spicy, or tangy. Salsa verde was tasty, but it didn't provide me with too much of a kick in the pants. Former pastry chef turned cheese-ager extraordinaire, Nicole Nash, gave me the lowdown on Murray's Cheese. New York's oldest cheese store, Murray's swiped Nash through their affinage program, where she dealt with aging young wheels of cheese at a very tender age herself: twenty-three. Nash explained that she loved her time at Aldea, the posh Iberian restaurant she used to work at under the tutelage of Chef George Mendes. “George was fantastic,” Nicole explained. “He pushed me into all sorts of experiences.” However, after leaving Aldea, Nash was unimpressed with how things went down at other glam restaurants. Four years later, she's as happy at Murray's as I was after leaving The Big Cheesy.
I toddled out of the event, thanking the greeters and mumbling that I'd died and to please invite me back next year. Luckily, The All American Diner is opening up a pop-up shop soon. More to come...
Until we eat again,
Aliza Kellerman for The Lunch Belle