It’s hard to top a crispy, buttery grilled cheese sandwich, oozing with gooey goodness. After all, this staple is a comforting part of the soul of American nostalgia. Midwest chefs are grabbing onto this childhood throwback by concocting new combinations of ingredients—elevating these menu mainstays to gourmet status. In ancient Roman times, cheese was paired with bread as part of an elaborate feast. Today, grilled cheese has transformed from mere Kraft singles to adding even more types of cheeses and ingredients.
The Cheese Shop of Des Moines
833 42nd Street, Ste B, Des Moines
“Grilled cheese sandwiches are delicious. We all grew up on them,” says Julie Fleming Henningsen, chef of The Cheese Shop of Des Moines. “We now have access to better food and better cheeses. Other ingredients give them a sense of whimsy. My favorite unique ingredient is pickled shallots. It’s always daring.”
Items such as peppery arugula, spicy chilies, and sun-dried tomatoes are finding their way into these cheesy, bready creations. Chefs are also using a variety of cheeses, including small-batch, handmade options from local dairies.
“I typically use cheddar, but our fondue mix is a Swiss cheese blend. You can smell it from afar. The funkier the cheese the better,” Fleming Hennigsen says. “We also use a German mix—a combination of German cream cheese, gouda, and cheddar. All of our grilled cheese sandwiches are served openfaced. The cheese is melted over the top. We use white bread—simple and classic.”
The Melthouse Bistro
1857 E. Kenilworth Place, Milwaukee
The Melthouse features exclusively Wisconsin cheeses on locally made bread.
“The reason why the grilled cheese is becoming so upscale is that it’s part of a larger trend of people experimenting with new flavor profiles,” owner Troy Davis says. “We use a broad range of different types of flavors, and people are more open to
them. We take things we grew up on and put a different spin on them.”
Troy and his wife Susan have been toasting up grilled cheeses for several years. Their “entry-level” grilled cheese, called “The Cheesehead,” starts with fresh homemade wheat bread topped with Wisconsin sharp cheddar, muenster, and nutty provolone, and finished with a zesty pesto aioli.
Brix Cheese Shop & Wine Bar
209 N. Linn Street #1, Iowa City, Iowa
Brix, a new cheese shop and wine bar in Iowa City, attributes the success of its sandwiches to the
“Because of the prevalence of high-quality artisanal cheeses from states like Wisconsin, California, and Vermont, the U.S. now produces some outstanding cheese products,” says Christina Sjogren, manager of Brix. “We’re able to do some creative things with it and don’t have to import European products as much—plus [the sandwiches] taste awesome.”
Brix is planning for a few new grilled cheese combinations.
“We have a new menu in the works. One of the ingredients we’ll be using is wine-poached dried figs with bleu cheese, gruyere, and onion jam,” Sjogren says. “It’s sweet and savory, and we’re calling it fruit and fromage.”
Best Regards Bakery & Café
6759 W. 119th Street, Overland Park, Kan.
Best Regards gives the power to the people to come up with their own gourmet grilled cheese sandwich. They take two slices of artfully baked breads and offer a choice of 15 different cheeses and 11 add-ons, including avocado, pesto, and Berkshire bacon, which means there are more than 40 million combinations to choose from.
“We love to take non-pretentious food, elevate it, and enjoy it to a higher degree,” says Robert Duensing, co-owner of Best Regards. “Chefs who are passionate take the food for us common people and use new ingredients. That can be pretty special.”
One of the most popular grilled cheeses at Best Regards is made with their own French country bread, roast beef, caramelized portobello mushrooms, and Swiss and havarti cheeses.