Please enjoy "The Big Cheesy" contest winner, Danielle's, fabulous recap from, what sounded like, a very delicious weekend event!
The scene at Openhouse Gallery on Mulberry Street this weekend was, in a word, heaven. From the moment I walked in and a random girl in a leather jacket offered me a Tums “just in case,” I knew that the next hour of my life would certainly be unforgettable.
“The Big Cheesy,” as its called, is a competition among seven of the most notorious cheese-grilling establishments in NYC. The contestants prepare bites of a signature grilled cheese offering (or two), and each guest is set loose to taste the sandwiches for one hour and cast a ballot.
I walked in to the stark white space and was handed a drink ticket and a Ping-Pong ball. I quickly redeemed my ticket for a “Crisp” from Brooklyn’s Sixpoint, and took a seat in the corner to wait for my round to begin.
As soon as it hit 3pm on the dot, my partner-in-hunger, Kathleen, and I quickly ran into the arena to get the lay of the land. Along the sides of the room were 7 small tables, each marked with bold signs hanging on the wall behind them. From left to right: 'wichcraft, Murray's Cheese Bar, Milk Truck, Say Cheese, Sons of Essex, Lucy's Whey and Melt Shop.
As anyone who knows me knows, my favorite grilled cheese in NYC is the Milk Truck Classic with spicy pickles, courtesy of the eponymous. As any true groupie would be, I was worried that Milk Truck’s submission wouldn’t meet my expectations, and that I would be gravely disappointed.
In dealing with this sandwich-induced anxiety, I decided to size up the competition before digging in. We walked around for a bit, until I ultimately decided to pick up the “Truffle Grilled Cheese” from Sons of Essex: Gruyere, goat cheese, parmigiano reggiano, sautéed mushrooms and baby arugula. This was an early favorite for me, though upon further review I decided that the truffle oil was a bit too overwhelming for my taste.
Kathleen opted for the “Bowery Bacon Crusted Melt” from the same table: Bacon crusted brioche, beemster, baby Swiss and white cheddar topped with a deep-red Manischewitz shallot jam. Again, an early favorite, but when we came back we both decided that the Manischewitz was better left on the Seder table.
I then quickly hopped over to Lucy's Whey where I grabbed an apple, cheddar and ham grilled cheese known to be “A sandwich as American as apple pie.” I should probably note here that I am trying to become a vegetarian, but that quickly went out the window. In any case, I did love the sharp cheddar/fromage blanc combo, but I thought that the sandwich as a whole wasn’t quite worthy of such a lofty title. I must say though, that Lucy was absolutely adorable - I would visit her little alcove in Chelsea Market just for a smile!
The line at Say Cheese was getting pretty long, so we pushed our way to the front. We both grabbed the dessert grilled cheese: nutella and mascarpone on graham cracker dusted bread, complete with a pipette of chocolate stuck in between the two pieces of bread. Now as much as I love all things chocolate and all things Nutella, how on earth could someone expect me to, in a crowded room full of people and holding both my bag and my jacket, navigate the “bite and squeeze” motion that I was hearing so much about? No matter, I’m still not sure I’m convinced that a melted Nutella sandwich really counts as a “grilled cheese.”
Say Cheese's savory offering was a French onion grilled cheese with Gruyere, Swiss and Parmesan on sourdough. As I had moved to the back of the pack, when the enthusiastic guy behind the counter shouted, “who wants French onion?” my timid “me!” was not quite enough to be heard. A bold neighbor of mine to the right pointed and shouted “SHE DOES!” at which point I’m sure half of the room turned around. With my head hung down to the ground, I went up to fetch this sandwich which I had gone through so much trouble to acquire, and after only two bites I thought was slightly too overwhelming. If I had a craving for a bowl of French onion soup, I would order it - not a sandwich.
As an aside, it was around this time that I overheard a very tall well-dressed man say, “Milk Truck…good reddens!” and I nearly punched him right then and there!
In order to escape the crowds, we journeyed over to 'wichcraft, which was towards the front of the room, and mob-less. Rightfully so, the aged fontina with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms was certainly not mob-worthy. Great bread though.
As the hour continued we noticed a lot of Ping-Pong balls being given to Melt Shop, so we wanted to see what the fuss was all about. I took one bite of the aged cheddar with bacon and cranberry onion chutney and immediately thought that it was trying too hard. The cranberry onion chutney was much too candied for my taste, but I can see how someone with more of a sweet tooth would have been intrigued.
We traversed the room and arrived at Murray's Cheese Bar where I was told that it would be “one minute for the perfect grilled cheese.” Obviously, I was skeptical. I was then asked about my plans to Instagram and Snapchat said “perfect grilled cheese” and was warned that I might want to stretch while I waited. Theatrics aside, Murray's “Classic Melt” with smoky tomato soup was, if nothing else, a pretty decent embodiment of what a “classic” grilled cheese should be. While I thought that the bread:cheese ratio was a little heavy on the former, I can’t resist Levain Pullman bread. The smoky tomato soup was nearly perfect, and I should admit that I had about six shots of it in my final twenty minutes. Ultimately, Kathleen cast her vote for Murray's, and we plan to stop by the Cheese Bar sometime soon.
Finally, it was time to try Milk Truck. The line was small and there were barely any Ping-Pong balls in the vase, so obviously my heart was beating out of my chest! Now let me tell you, my when I saw the word “blue,” my heart sank right on to the floor. If there is one kind of cheese I hate (well I also can’t stand Goat’s cheese) it is Blue cheese. Milk Truck was serving up the “Bacon Cheddar Blue:” thick sliced bacon, cheddar, blue cheese, caramelized onions and McClure’s Spicy Pickles (<33333) on rosemary Pullman bread. The thing about this sandwich was that I actually…loved it! Anyone than can make me love something that I hate definitely have some kind of magical grilled cheese-making powers.
After some careful deliberation, I quickly reached the conclusion that every sandwich in the room (except Murray's) had way overdone it. I wanted to judge based on which sandwich I could imagine eating in its entirety, but they all had such strong flavors that I was left remiss. I was also looking for consistency. If the taste of a sandwich changes within a span of ten minutes (as I found with Sons of Essex), then how can I honestly say that on any given day I could walk in to find the best grilled cheese in the Big Apple?
Ultimately, the look of despair on the adorable young hipster in the beanie behind the Milk Truck table became too much to bear, and I walked over and cast my ballot. He humored me with some “wooing” and clanging of spatulas, but my having decided on a solid favorite mostly satisfied me.
I later found out that Melt Shop took home the grand prize for the second year in a row, and I can’t say that I’m surprised. While I was in search of a sandwich that was “traditional, original and simple – just like me!” I can imagine that most people in the crowd were looking for something with a little more oomph and innovation. Say Cheese took some second place, likely thanks to the culinary genius of Ferrero, and Sons of Essex was a solid third.
In all, on a day full of excitement, uncertainty, and approximately 2340238 calories, I was more than happy to stand by the crew who has made me countless unforgettable classic sandwiches and one unforgettable Bacon Cheddar Blue.
Until we eat again,
The Lunch Belle...& Danielle