Grilled cheese is home. It's a quick meal that's filling and tasty and so easy to execute that it mystifies when someone messes it up.
Most restaurants reserve a place for grilled cheese on their kids' menus, a universal option to satiate junior who is going through his picky eater phase. I am not a child. Also, I love grilled cheese. If calories weren't an issue, it would probably be one of only four things I ate everyday.
Because it's so easy to make, many find it hard to justify paying $10 for a couple slices of white bread and a some Kraft Singles. But we live in the age of nostalgia, and as such, some restaurants and eateries are getting hip to the awesomeness of grilled cheeses by making them for adults. Taking it up a notch from your mom's grilled cheese with gourmet ingredients and unexpected pairings, there are many new ways to eat this old comfort food.
Vaunted by many, The INDIE Grilled Cheese from Tampa's Independent Bar and Cafe delivers on the grown-up dining experience simply by substituting the tomato bisque of old with a tiny house salad jam-packed with field greens, maytag blue cheese, walnuts, grapes and poppyseed vinaigrette. The sandwich itself seems to be press-grilled with little rivets in blackened rye slices that hold together pears sautéed in honey and spices, and gouda. Keeping the pears on the sandwich increases the level of difficulty for the simple dish, but it doesn't make an obscene mess. The bread also stays warm long after they've plopped it on your table. It all feels very chic even as you wash it down with a beer.
Wright's Gourmet Cafe elevated the classic recipe with fresh ingredients and lots of them. The busy South Tampa bakery and deli offers indoor and outdoor and seating for lunch, but the vibe is no different from any other neighborhood lunch spot. The grilled cheese is a different story. Clocking in at almost half a pound, the fresh-baked white buttercrust bread is packed with a tomato (salt and pepper optional) and imported Jarlsberg cheese. The gooeyness recalls rainy days, cartoons and tomato soup. The bread didn't get soggy even after sitting on the table for 15 minutes. It also travels well in a foil sleeve and stays hot.
There's no place to sit around The Cheesery Food Truck, but that's no problem, because their piping hot creations keep warm in stryofoam containers as you travel to your destination or back to your desk. Menu offerings stick on everything from apples and cinnamon to jalapenos and cranberries. But our winner was The Great White, a grilled cheese filled with ricotta, parmesean, mozzarella, asiago, roasted tomato and basil. Similar to a pizza sandwich but far more elegant, as the unexpected texture of ricotta takes the taste closer to fine dining. Honorable mention goes to the simply named The Grilled Cheese, which has a blend of cheddar, harvati and American that tastes like home-cooking if you went to Le Cordon Bleu.
Curiosity drew me all the way to Alesia Restaurant in St. Pete after rave reviews of the French/Vietnamese cafe's croque monsieur hit the net. Not technically a grilled cheese (the sandwich is baked or toasted) Alesia's version didn't disappoint. The croque monsieur with jambon de paris (ham), sautéed onions, gruyère, portobello mushroom and mornay sauce is a knife-and-fork meal best eaten slow lest you finish it and regret the massive caloric intake. All savory with soft-but-not-soggy bread, the sandwich satisfies quickly. That doesn't mean you'll stop eating.
There's a slight carnival atmosphere at the Burg Bar & Grill in St. Petersburg — see the Fried Twinkie a la Mode on the dessert menu, for example. Or try the Double Grilled Cheese Bacon Burger, which is as unholy as it sounds: An 8-ounce burger with two whole grilled-cheese-and-bacon sandwiches serving as the bun. Despite the impressively toasty crisp to the crust, the sandwiches themselves leave a little to be desired. The gummy yellow cheese congeals quickly, and four slices is simply too much bread — the thing is a solid 3.5-inches thick, and it falls apart too easily. Still, the sheer monstrosity of the otherwise tasty burger is what's worth savoring. If you're looking for fair food minus the fair, this is a pretty close approximation.
Contributing: Jay Cridlin