Blog: The Big Cheesy - April 2015
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This weekend we set off to Openhouse Gallery where the folks from Time Out New York were hosting The Big Cheesy 2015, a two-day pop-up grilled cheese competition. The mission: eat five grilled cheese samples, enjoy two Goose Island beers, and place judgment within one hour. We arrived a few minutes early while the 1pm session was still underway and happily took our place first in line for the 2pm group. Upon entering, we were handed a plate, a punch card with each competitor listed, and a ping pong ball to be used to cast our vote for the session’s finest grilled cheese. Encouraged by the satisfied looking faces on the attendees who had already cast their votes, we headed down toward the tables, confident in our sandwich expertise. But selecting a winner would eventually be as difficult as it was to comfortably wear a belt by the end of our session.
Our first stop was at Artisanal Fromagerie Bistro‘s table. The team from Murray Hill was presenting, as a matter of principle, a bread-and-dairy-only sandwich. Simple? Yes. Average? Not even a little. Taking the classic approach, their generously buttered toasted country bread was packed with a special five-cheese blend and signature sauce. This is what every grilled cheese purist should strive for: a blend that has the complexity and harmony for long satisfying bites and bread that can stand up to the task of holding it all together. And butter. Lots of butter.
On the other end of the spectrum, The Wheelhouse brought their “El Toro Bravo,” served piping hot as guests approached. An eventual recipient of one of our ping pong ball votes, this sandwich was a serious ham and cheese. Jamon serrano, manchego, parrano parmigiano, reggiano-gouda, and romesco sauce were married together with guava preserves. The hint of sweetness at the end of the bite balanced out the saltiness of the jamon and cheese blend. Manchego gave the cheese mixture some added balance as it paired with the lightly roasted flavors of the romesco sauce. Our first two stops had proven how difficult our judging task would be and that it might end up coming down to a matter of grilled cheese philosophy.
We stopped next at MDK, short for Mrs. Dorsey’s Kitchen, a vendor specializing in the grilled cheese arts and hailing from Prospect Heights. Their menu showed a delightful array of interpretations, but they brought only their “Guac and Bacon Grilled Cheese” into battle. There was a generous bit of spiciness to cut through the rich combo. Had we stopped at this table last, I may not have wished for more cheese on the sandwich, but as it was only our third stop I was still looking for more cheddar to hold all of the delicious other bits together.
Depanneur Brooklyn presented “The Hangover Special,” served with Bloody Mary chips, ice cold Coke, and temporary tattoos (not edible). Served on a sourdough bread smeared with sea salt butter, the sandwich was seriously packed with sharp cheddar, some medium boiled egg, avocado, and sriracha. It was recommended that we try a few bites with the chips on the sandwich, which resulted in an added bit of peppery crunch that went nicely with the milder texture of the other fillings. We were grateful for both the crunch and some carbonation, which reminded us that we had some beers to drink. Lucky for us we had two beverage tickets to burn.
Goose Island provided the necessary relief to the onslaught of cheesiness, offering up three different brews. We chose their “Summer Time Pale Ale” and “IPA,” deciding the “Muddy Stout” might take up precious sandwich room. We liked the “Summer Time Pale Ale” best for its refreshing smoothness and mild hoppiness. The crisp carbonation cut through the richness of the grilled cheeses and gave us the strength to carry on through the second half of sampling.
Revived, we headed to La Maison du Croque Monsieur, specialists in combining bread, cheese, and all of their friends. They presented two very different, very tasty sandwiches on perfectly toasted bread. Their vegetarian option with brie, roasted butternut squash, and onions showed the sweetest side of the day while their bresaola, bechamel, smoked mozzarella and truffle oil packed a layered punch. The latter was one of our favorites, partly due to the perfect stretchiness in the mozzarella and airy yet crisp bread that didn’t weigh down the other ingredients. They also gave us 2-for-1 sandwich vouchers which may or may not have helped sway the vote in their direction (just kidding, it was the truffle oil).
Last but not least, we made it to Twist & Smash’d for their “Twisted Grilled Cheese.” Bound together by cheddar, fried chicken took a happy dip in a chipotle mayo and avocado spread. The ingredients married well and the fried chicken somehow kept some crispness despite the mingling of the melted cheese and the assortment of condiments. They wisely provided strawberry lemonade which mellowed the richness and spice with its tangy sweetness.
Our hour had flown by but we were graciously allowed to finish off our beers on some couches out of the way of the next wave of judges. We happily obliged but soon regretted taking a seat as the sum of our snacking began to catch up to us. Our cheese weariness was no deterrent to the line that was filing in for the 3pm session. We knew the race would be tight and could have easily awarded it to a few vendors, but after two days the Big Cheesy title ended up going to the team from Artisanal- but in retrospect, we wholeheartedly recommend checking out any of the competitors, depending on your grilled cheese philosophy, of course.
- Mallory Sullivan