Tuesday, February 7, 2012

[HOT LIST] Grilled cheese

A build-your-own grilled cheese (sourdough, cheddar, bacon) from Mae's in Pleasant Ridge. Covert phone photography by Nicole Rupersburg.

Take some cheese, stick it between two slices of bread slathered in butter, grill it until the cheese is all melty-bubbly, then eat it. So simple a child can do it, which is probably why we all almost universally have fond memories of it from childhood - memories so fond that we seek to recreate them as adults, only with a certain grown-up twist. No longer is it American cheese and Wonderbread; now it's artisan sourdough with aged white cheddar, heirloom tomatoes and arugula. Grilled cheese is the ultimate comfort food, not to mention something of an art (and a growing national food trend). These places take their grilled cheese seriously, and almost every single one of them adopts the mantra that everything is better with bacon.

But first, a caveat: the grilled cheese at Cafe Muse in Royal Oak has been featured in Esquire, Reader's Digest and the Oprah Winfrey Show as one of the best grilled cheese sandwiches in America. Made with havarti, fontina, mozzarella, basil and tomatoes on organic bread with just a hint of honey, this delicate, refined presentation of what is often a gloppy mess may or may not be one of the best in the country, but it is hands-down the best in metro Detroit. (It is "the Grilled Cheese that Launched a Thousand Yelp Reviews," as I've noted previously.) That being said, in fairness to its subordinates, Cafe Muse stands alone here, and is not included in the top 5 rankings.

Woodbridge Pub.

#1 Woodbridge Pub (Detroit)
It resisted the "gastro pub" label when it first opened by serving good old down-home country cookin' - spare the butter, spoil the child; that sort of thing. Now, while no one would really call it a "gasto pub" nowadays - the shaggy artschool hipster crowd, college students, and neighborhood residents really don't comprise the clientele one imagines at a "gastro pub" - the Converse sneaker would certainly fit. The menu at Woodbridge has become increasingly health-conscious and sustainable over the last couple of years, though a commitment to sourcing locally has always been their raison d'être. Their original "Cheese to the Seventh Power" (with seven different kinds of cheese and lots of butter) was one of the Best Sandwiches I've Ever Had(TM); alas they ditched the gluttony in favor of gourmet, but it's still one of the best damned grilled cheese sammies in town. Pinconning cheddar, Michigan fontina, goat cheese and tomato on Avalon rustic Italian bread - flavors, textures and proportions are nailed for sublime chewy, melty grilled cheese goodness.

#2 Majestic Cafe (Detroit)
Speaking of going gastro, the Majestic Cafe underwent an overhaul in the kitchen last year, and now their focus is on classic American comfort foods with a modern, sustainable spin. They use high-quality, local, seasonal ingredients (including produce grown in their own organic community farming plot). Their grilled cheese has havarti, tomato and arugula on whole wheat and is served with soup (a timeless combination like beer and cigarettes peanut butter and jelly). Or you can take that and LOBSTERIZE it: their Lobster Grilled Cheese is their regular grilled cheese plus succulent lobster meat. Another option in the grilled cheese family is the Bacon and Apple Melt with sliced apple, Dearborn bacon, arugula, white cheddar, and Dijon mustard on whole wheat.

#3 Torino Espresso + Bar (Ferndale)
I really, really love this place. Not for any one particular thing, but for everything. It may seem banal to say that it's the kind of place where everyone feels comfortable, but after half a dozen visits over the last month  (from weekday mornings to weekend nights) and observing the crowd dynamic at all days and times, I can definitively say: it's true. They recently introduced a rotating weekly specials board so there's always something new to try, or you can stick to their standard Euro-style bistro menu which includes a grilled cheese panini. Muenster, Swiss and Irish white cheddar on Zingerman's ciabatta, and you can add pancetta for $1. And you should add pancetta for $1. This is the closest thing you'll get to a true Italian panini on this side of the Detroit River.

#4 Avalon International Breads (Detroit)
Pick two cheeses (provolone and mozzarella is a good combination, especially for fans of Avalon's old Inside Old Grilled Cheese), two add-ons (can't go wrong with tomato and basil) and your choice of their Farnsworth Family Farm or Wheaty Wheat Bread, and you've got yourself a perfectly-grilled ooey-gooey Grown Up Grilled Cheese. Parking, seating, etcetera etcetera, I can't help you with, but it certainly doesn't seem like that's stopped anyone before.

#5 Bagger Dave's (various locations)
A Michigan-owned chain with half a dozen locations including Berkley and Novi, Bagger Dave's Legendary Burgers Tavern emphasizes Michigan-made products and local/regional sourcing, and also has a handsome selection of Michigan craft beers. The burgers are decent, but the Michigan Meltdown is a star. Swiss, mozzarella, and Great Lakes mild cheddar melted together with sliced tomato, onions, and fresh basil on sourdough; once again, you can add applewood-smoked bacon for$1 and once again, you should.

Honorable mention One-Eyed Betty's (Ferndale)
It just opened two days ago but this craft beer and comfort food bar is an instant favorite. With 47 beers on tap and over 100 by the bottle, this place has huge potential to make one of those "America's Best Beer Bars" lists in the future. For now, enjoy the stripped-down atmosphere, the sizable selection of whiskey and bourbon, and the fantastic food. The menu is comprised of beer-friendly dishes like cheese and charcuterie boards, oysters (served a variety of ways), and a Ridiculously Good Grilled Cheese. (It is.) Build your own beer flight, and don't miss the Beer Cheese Soup Au Gratin.

Bubbling under Cass Cafe (Detroit), The Lunch Cafe (Berkley), Royal Oak Brewery (Royal Oak), Mudgie's Deli (Detroit), TRIA (Dearborn), Toast (Birmingham, Ferndale), Mae's (Pleasant Ridge), Detroit Beer Company (Detroit), Mosaic (Detroit), the Panini Press (Berkley)

Woodbridge Pub on Urbanspoon