Perhaps nothing says comfort quite like a grilled cheese sandwich. The classic treat of childhood evokes memories of after-school snacks and Saturday lunch treats.
These days, the humble sandwich has been making its way onto menus of well-heeled restaurants, and it isn't the simple sandwich your mother used to make. Restaurants from Las Vegas to Seattle to New York incorporate ingredients such as truffles, Chardonnay, foie gras butter and fried duck eggs into their fromage creations.
"It's a feel-good thing," says Ashley James, executive chef for the perpetually celebrity-studded restaurant inside Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills.
"There's a lot of psychological things going on when you eat a grilled cheese sandwich. It reminds you of being a kid, of the simple things in life. You feel good all over."
At Ohio's Melt Bar & Grilled, the entire menu is dedicated to nothing but decadent grilled cheeses.
"I have 32 versions," says Matt Fish, who opened Melt in Lakewood, a Cleveland suburb, two years ago. "We take people's basic perceptions of the grilled cheese and blow it out of the water."
His philosophy: Start with a good foundation. In this case, thickly cut Texas toast made daily by a local baker. Then he piles on so much cheese and specialty ingredients that some sandwiches measure 5 inches high.
A favorite is the big popper (inspired by the appetizer jalapeño popper): herb cream cheese and sharp cheddar, "blended" with grilled jalapeños, poured onto bread, then smothered in beer batter and deep fried. It's then topped with powdered sugar and served with a side of blueberry syrup for dipping.
"He does glorious things with cheese and bread," says customer Mike Dainis, who gets a weekly sandwich fix. "It's got just the perfect kick to it."
Back at the Four Seasons, James created his adult-themed grilled cheese only after his celebrity clientele began requesting the kiddie-menu sandwich for themselves.
Now, children still get the white-bread-and-cheddar version. "If it gets too fancy, the kids send it back," James says. But grown-ups get a mix of mature cheddar, Swiss and parmesan emulsified in a few black truffles and truffle oil, served on brioche, grilled, and dabbed with Dijon mustard. The sandwich also carries a grown-up price tag of $19.
But that's practically bargain basement compared with the white-truffle version offered at Gilt restaurant, inside the New York Palace Hotel. The price is a whopping $50.
"I can see how some people might balk at that," says executive chef Christopher Lee, who dubbed the sandwich Gossip Grill after it was featured on the television show Gossip Girl. "But we sell about 15 a night."
A breakfast version of grilled cheese sells big at Seattle's Veil restaurant. Thick slices of batard sourdough are covered in foie gras butter, grilled and loaded up with melted sharp cheddar, then topped with a fried duck egg. One bite and the entire sandwich is covered in rich, creamy yolk.
Veil owner Shannon Galusha said his customers often order the $18 sandwich as a brunch appetizer to share. "Diners in Seattle thrive on things they are familiar with," he says. "They don't want a menu that the chef wrote to impress his friends, not them. And this sandwich, it doesn't include a bunch of ingredients they can't understand. It's not intimidating, so it captures a wide audience."
For night-owl diners, Proof in Washington, D.C., has the Drunken Grilled Cheese on its late-night menu. Chef Haidar Karoum created the $11 sandwich as a way to use up the leftover gourmet cheese his wine bistro serves during the day. He takes chunks from up to 18 cheeses, blends them together with a splash of chardonnay, garlic cloves and black pepper, and serves them between Pullman brioche that has been sautéed in butter.
"I suggest having it with a beautiful glass of white Burgundy," Karoum said. "And people just love it. It's a perfect meal for when it's late, you're sitting at the bar, and you don't want to think too hard."
Still not fancy enough? How about throwing in a little lobster? The Big Sur Oyster Bar in Las Vegas allows customers to watch chefs season up lobster with salt, pepper, cayenne and Old Bay before sautéing it in clarified butter and easing it onto sourdough bread with melted white cheddar.
"The lobster adds just that touch of elegance that people are looking for," says Christopher Johns, executive chef.
Fancy additions aside, there are purists who will insist nothing beats the classic combination of grilled cheese and tomato soup — which is exactly what Ketchup, an upscale diner with locations in Huntsville, Ala., and Los Angeles, offers in its "American comfort" platter.
"Don't add a thing," says L.A. diner customer Stephanie Molina, dunking a cheesy triangle into her soup. "It can't get any better than this."