Any way you slice it

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Melt Gourmet is a new restaurant on Dalhousie Street that is all about grilled cheese sandwiches. This is the Philadelphia before grilling. (Photo: Wayne Cuddington)

Bernard Sidhom’s reasons for opening a grilled cheese restaurant in Ottawa were simple and specific.

“In my younger days,” (note that he’s now all of 25), “when I’d go out, at 2 or 3 in the morning, all you could find open was shawarma places and pizza places.”

What he wanted was a grilled cheese sandwich. It seems that he’s not alone in that 3 a.m. urge. His new restaurant Melt Gourmet Grilled Cheese, on Dalhousie just south of Rideau, often has lineups around the block at 3 and 4 a.m.

Grilled cheese, that taste of comfort and home, is stepping out.

In Hamilton, Graeme Smith has sold some 35,000 grilled cheese sandwiches over the last year from his Gorilla Cheese truck. “The bottom line is, everybody loves grilled cheese,” says the former steelworker.

In October, cookbook author Alison Lewis, came out with 150 Grilled Cheese Sandwiches, a cookbook devoted solely to grilled cheese. “We just knew that grilled cheese was becoming such a hot trend,” says Lewis, who is based in Alabama but whose book was published by Canadian company Robert Rose.

The New York Times, in a recent review of that city’s myriad new grilled-cheese shops and trucks, called artisanal grilled cheese “a culinary sub-genre that has boomed in the last year.”

As grilled cheese has gone uptown, its flavours have gone far beyond white bread and Kraft slices.

New York City’s Morris Grilled Cheese Truck sells a grilled sandwich with truffle butter, truffle cheese and caramelized shallots.

Smith’s Gorilla Cheese makes a summer confection called the Neapolitan with fresh strawberries, Nutella, marshmallow spread and mascarpone cheese all warm and oozing between pieces of cinnamon-raisin bread.

Last summer at Toronto’s CNE, a sandwich called Niagara Gold Crunch, with Niagara Gold cheese, shaved prosciutto, fresh thyme and baby arugula, won the best grilled cheese sandwich in the country in a contest put on by the Dairy Farmers of Canada.

In Canada, grilled cheese with bacon seems to have a particular pull.

“If you build it with bacon, they will come,” says Smith. “Our most popular sandwich, by far, is The Lumberjack, which has aged cheddar, bacon, Granny Smith apples and Canadian maple syrup, on white bread.”

While his other 17 flavours vie for most popular during the day, Sidhom says “at 4 a.m. people order bacon like crazy” and his Canadian Eh?, made with cheddar, apple-wood smoked bacon and house-made bacon bits, is in top demand.

Sidhom, who plans to open a second restaurant soon in Gatineau’s Promenade du Portage and who hopes to roll out a grilled cheese food truck, says a personal favourite is his Campfire, which includes Nutella, marshmallow spread and crumbled graham cookies, all grilled between pieces of buttered bread.

“My parents came from Egypt and I never went camping as a kid, so I felt that this was something that was missing in my life.”

Cheese sommelier Vanessa Simmons is recommending eight ideas for grilled cheese sandwiches that use eight different local cheeses. (Photo: Bruno Schlumberger)

Vanessa Simmons, an Ottawa cheese sommelier, makes the case for seeking out locally made cheeses for making great grilled cheese sandwiches.

“You want the cheese to shine. It has to be robust enough to stand up to the other ingredients. We make cheeses here in the Ottawa area that rival cheeses around the world.”

Simmons says that as the grilled cheese trend grows, “people are getting more experimental and trying new combinations while supporting their local producers.”

Lewis, the grilled-cheese cookbook author, notes that as she travels across North America, “I notice that in restaurants, whether they are gourmet or casual, increasingly there seems to be grilled cheese on the menu.”

For home cooks, she says that if you have access to a farmers’ market, you can easily make the most outstanding grilled cheese sandwiches.

“Go for the best, the freshest ingredients possible,” says Lewis, who says one of her favourite grilled cheese sandwiches includes fresh peach slices, brie and honey. “Get the highest quality cheese, the freshest bread and produce at its peak.”

But while fancy grilled cheese is growing, it seems that the recent trend is still rooted in something more basic.

Sidhom says that while he came up with his inventive grilled cheese menu with the help of a Cordon Bleu chef, “believe it or not, the one I have the most is The Classic” — just bread, butter and cheese cooked on the flat top. Lewis, the author of 150 grilled cheese recipes, admits that when her 15-year-old son comes home from school every day, “he makes a grilled cheese with wheat bread and sharp Cheddar, cooked in a skillet.”

About the Original Grilled Cheese served at Lexington Avenue’s Melt Shop, The New York Times’ Ligaya Mishan wrote: “It is as you recall: a suburban childhood distilled. Lunch in front of the TV. Soggy bread, cheese the texture of candle drippings. It is terrible, but you will eat every bite.”

Simmons, the Ottawa cheese sommelier, is 40 and has travelled the world researching the best cheeses, but she says even now, “when I’m sick or in need of a little TLC, my mom comes over to our house and makes me the classic grilled cheese.

“It has nothing to do with grilled cheese and everything to do with feeling nurtured and loved.”

5 great places to get grilled cheese in Ottawa

Melt, 399 Dalhousie St.: The Philadelphia, with seasoned steak, sautéed onions, roasted red peppers and Swiss cheese, $6.99, is one of the most popular (until the 3 a.m. bacon rush, at least.)

■ The Red Apron, 564 Gladstone Ave.: On Tuesdays (and, as a special thing, today), get its wonderful Hawaiian-Style Grilled Cheese with Grilled Pineapple, Berkshire Ham and Ontario Cheddar, $7.95.

Bowich, 155 Bank St.: The tasty grilled Quebec brie, Apple & Pistachio sandwich comes with a beet or potato salad for $10.50.

Art-Is-In, City Centre off Scott Street: Grilled Cheese with Caramelized Onions is made with the bakery’s buttermilk bread and served with homemade ketchup, $7.95.

Pressed, 750 Gladstone Ave.: Grilled 4-cheese is made with house-smoked cherry tomatoes and served with house-made chipotle potato chips and a pickled bean on the side, $7.

7 sandwiches to make yourself

Vanessa Simmons, cheese sommelier with Ottawa’s Savvy company, came up with grilled-cheese sandwich suggestions for the Citizen that pair the best local cheeses with locally made breads.

■ Canreg Station Farm & Pasture Dairy Hillbilly Buffalo Milk Cheese with field greens on Art-Is-In 12 Grain Bread.

■  Milkhouse Dairy Milkhouse Tomme Raw Sheep’s Milk Cheese with sliced ripe Roma tomatoes on True Loaf Olive & Rosemary Bread.

■ Black River 4-year-old Cheddar with fresh red onion slivers on The Piggy Market’s Kichesippi Beer Bread.

■ Fromagerie Les Folies Bergères Apprenti Sorcier Sheep/Cow’s Milk Cheese with roasted fennel on True Loaf Seed Bread.

■ Glengarry Fine Cheese Lankaaster Cumin Cow’s Milk Cheese with Mrs. McGariggle’s Oktoberfest Mustard on The Piggy Market’s Struan Bread.

■ Clarmell Farms Fresh Chèvre Goat’s Milk Cheese with Major Craig’s North India Chutney on Art-Is-In Sourdough Bread.

■ Back Forty Artisan Cheese Bonnechere Raw Sheep’s Milk Cheese with caramelized sweet onions on Art-Is-In Fig & Roasted Walnut Bread.

Where to buy local cheeses

Cheese sommelier Vanessa Simmons says you can find the cheeses she suggests at these local shops:

Jacobsons: 141 Beechwood Ave.

Serious Cheese: 442 Hazeldean Rd., Kanata

Herb & Spice: 1310 Wellington St. W.

The Field House at Parkdale Market: 21 Hamilton Ave. North (winter hours Friday through Sunday)

Thyme & Again: 1255 Wellington St. West

The Ottawa Bagelshop: 1321 Wellington St. West

The Piggy Market: 400 Winston Ave. (at Richmond Road)

The Red Apron: 564 Gladstone Ave.

Il Negozio Nicastro: 792 Bank St. and 1355 Wellington St. West

La Bottega Nicastro: 64 George St.

Farm Boy (local section): About a dozen Ottawa locations

Sobeys (local section): Several Ottawa locations

Recipes

Niagara Gold Crunch

This recipe, by Toronto chef Jason Bangerter, won the 2012 Grate Canadian Grilled Cheese Cook-Off. It uses Niagara Gold cheese, which is made in Jordan Station and available in Ottawa at Serious Cheese in Kanata. You can al

Photo: Gibson Smith Photography

so use Oka from Quebec or a Canadian raclette.

Makes 1 sandwich

■ 2 oz (60 g) Niagara Gold cheese, cut into thin slices

■ 1/4 cup (50 mL) mayonnaise

■ 1 small garlic clove, minced

■ Pinch of fresh thyme leaves, chopped

■ Pinch of freshly cracked black pepper

■ 2 slices of sourdough or country-style bread

■ 1 oz (25 g) shaved prosciutto

■ 1/2 cup (125 mL) baby arugula, packed

■ 1 tbsp (15 mL) unsalted butter, softened

1. Bring the sliced cheese to room temperature.

2. In a small bowl, combine mayonnaise, garlic, thyme and pepper; spread mixture on one side of each bread slice.

3. Place half of the cheese on one bread slice; top with prosciutto, arugula and remaining cheese. Top with remaining slice of bread, mayonnaise side down.

4. Butter both sides of the sandwich. Heat a small skillet over medium heat. Cook sandwich, turning once, for 5 minutes on each side or until golden brown and cheese is melted, adjusting heat as necessary to prevent burning.

5. Transfer to cutting board. Let sandwich stand one minute before cutting on diagonal. Serve with pickles, sweet grainy mustard, potato chips and fresh-pressed grape juice.

Classic Grilled Two Cheese

Alison Lewis says she loves to serve this back-to-basics sandwich with creamy tomato soup in the wintertime.

Photo: Robert Rose Inc.

Makes 4 sandwiches

■ 8 slices white or whole-grain bread

■ 2 tbsp (25 mL) butter or margarine, softened

■ 4 oz (125 g) Muenster cheese, thinly sliced

■ 4 oz (125 g) Cheddar cheese, thinly sliced

1. Brush one side of each slice with butter. Place on a work surface, buttered side down. Top 4 bread slices equally with Muenster and Cheddar cheeses. Cover with remaining bread slices, buttered side up, and press gently.

2. Place sandwiches on preheated panini grill or in a large skillet over medium heat and cook, turning once if using a skillet, for 3 to 4 minutes or until golden brown and cheese is melted. Serve immediately.

Grilled Carnegie Sandwich

This sandwich is similar to the one at the Carnegie Deli in New York, says Alison Lewis in 150 Best Grilled Cheese Sandwiches.

Photo: Robert Rose Inc.

Makes 4 sandwiches

■ 8 slices rye bread

■ 2 tbsp (25 mL) butter or margarine, softened

■ 3/4 cup (175 mL) deli mustard

■ 8 oz (250 g) thinly sliced pastrami

■ 3 kosher dill pickles, thinly sliced

■ 4 slices Swiss Cheese

1. Brush one side of each bread slice with butter. Place on work surface, buttered side down. Spread mustard on tops of bread slices. Top 4 bread slices equally with pastrami, pickles and cheese. Cover with remaining bread slices, buttered side up, and press gently.

2. Place sandwiches on preheated panini grill or in a large skillet over medium-high heat and cook, turning once if using a skillet, for 3 to 4 minutes or until golden brown and cheese is melted. Serve immediately.

Chicken, Apple and Smoked Gouda

One deli-style rotisserie chicken yields the perfect amount of chicken for this recipe, advises Alison Lewis.

Makes 4 sandwiches

Photo: Robert Rose Inc.

■ 8 slices Italian or multi-grain bread

■ 1/4 cup (50 mL) butter or margarine, softened

■ 1/4 cup (50 mL) mayonnaise

■ 2 cups (500 mL) thinly sliced roasted or grilled chicken

■ 1 cup (250 mL) baby spinach leaves

■ 2 Gala apples, thinly sliced

■ 4 oz (125 g) smoked Gouda cheese, cut into thin slices

1. Brush one side of each bread slice with butter. Place on a work surface, buttered side down. Spread 4 bread slices equally with mayonnaise. Top equally with chicken, spinach, apples and cheese. Cover with remaining bread slices, buttered side up, and press together gently.

2. Place sandwiches on preheated panini grill or in a large skillet over medium heat and cook, turning once if using a skillet, for 3 to 4 minutes or until golden brown and cheese is melted. Serve immediately.

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