There's a scene in Jon Favreau's new movie, Chef, in which Favreau's character makes a grilled cheese sandwich for his 10-year-old son. It is pure, unadulterated food porn, from the first sizzle of the grill to the moment when the kid takes a bite and a torrent of molten cheese oozes out from golden slices of lovingly crisped bread. After the credits have rolled, we get a behind-the-scenes look at real-life chef Roy Choi teaching Favreau how to make the sandwich, demonstrating how a professional chef would move, cook and think. "This is the only thing in the world that matters," Choi says, gesturing at the bread as it sizzles on the flat-top. "If this is fucked up, the whole world is fucked up."
Both of these scenes show how a chef might approach the task of building a better grilled cheese, but the first one reveals an additional truth: Grilled cheese is almost always at its best when it's made at home, with love. Even for the novice cook, the grilled cheese is easy to make well. It's better with good ingredients, but pretty damn great with crap ingredients, too. As such, it's an odd food around with to build a restaurant.
Yet no other dish has brought chef Eric Greenspan more success or recognition. It's ironic, given the chef's pedigree: a business degree from Berkeley, a culinary degree from Cordon Bleu in Paris, years of high-end cooking in New York and Los Angeles. Still, grilled cheese is what defines him, for better or worse.
Seven years ago, while trying to create a sandwich based on the principles of a cheese plate at his restaurant the Foundry, Greenspan came up with a combination of walnut raisin bread, taleggio cheese, apricot caper compote, arugula and short ribs. It went on to win the Grilled Cheese Invitational.
Ever-after dubbed "the champ," the sandwich brought Greenspan more press and TV spots (including Melt Master, a YouTube show dedicated entirely to grilled cheese sandwiches) than all of his high-end restaurant experience combined. Yes, he was the chef at Patina before he was 30; yes, he trained with Alain Ducasse and David Bouley. But "the champ" was bigger than all that.
Greenspan has had many balls in the air for quite some time, and never more so than now. The Foundry closed about a year ago, and the chef has since turned over most of the space to a cocktail operation called the Melrose Umbrella Company. He's promising to open a small, fine-dining operation called Enclave on the back patio in the future (the target is fall, though Greenspan is self-deprecatingly wary of making any promises). He's opened a restaurant on the roof of the Wilshire Hotel, appropriately titled the Roof on Wilshire; launched a Latin/Jewish food truck called El Nosh; and gone deep in the world of reality cooking as a contestant on The Next Iron Chef. But of all these things, by far the most anticipated was his grilled cheese restaurant. Four years after he first mentioned the idea, Greenspan's Grilled Cheese finally opened in April in a small space next to the building that had housed the Foundry.
It's essentially a fast-food operation. A handful of utilitarian tables sit outside on the sidewalk, and inside is a simple, yellow-walled slot of a room with no seating and a counter. There are eight sandwiches to choose from, plus a few side items and salads. It's a very basic enterprise.
In some ways the sandwiches are basic, too. They're not big, and they're not particularly decadent — they come wrapped in foil, about 5 inches square. But the quality of the food is far better than what you'd find at your average fast-food joint, and much of it embodies one of Greenspan's greatest strengths as a chef: his sense of humor.
A significant wink and smirk is at play here, in his addictive latke bites, which encompass the best attributes of tater tots and latkes, or in his blue cheese sandwich, which is spicy buffalo wings in sandwich form: rye bread, spicy carrot celery slaw, fried chicken strips and blue cheese. It's as silly as it is fun and delicious. You can get a classic grilled cheese sandwich with white bread and American cheese, and you'd be smart to get it with a "dip" of tomato basil soup. The soup is in truth too rich and oily to eat as actual soup, but as a dip for the sandwich (or latke bites), it's slyly brilliant.
There's a very cute mash-up called the Cuban Reuben, with Gruyère cheese, mustard, pickles and house-made sauerkraut. To my taste, it's the best sandwich on the menu. The Champ is, as always, messy fun, but your reaction to it will depend on how much sweetness you like mixed in with your short ribs and stinky cheese. The raisins and apricots work, but this sandwich is rich in every way, and the sweetness sends it so over the top that it can feel a little cloying by the fourth bite or so.
When does a grilled cheese cease to be a grilled cheese? Does it even matter? During a recent interview on KCRW's Good Food, Greenspan said, "There are bigger problems in the world than whether or not a tuna melt qualifies as a grilled cheese sandwich," and of course he's right.
Yet I get the feeling that the name and concept drive the way some of these sandwiches are put together, and not always for the best. The Johnny Apple Cheese is the pastrami offering on the menu, with cheddar and apple-mustard chutney, but there's not quite enough pastrami on the sandwich to make it satisfyingly fat and meaty. There is a tuna melt, on wheat bread with Munster cheese, grapes and cucumber, but it's not quite gooey enough, or something, to make it feel worthwhile.
One item at Greenspan's has the potential to make this spot a serious pilgrimage site, and that is the "old-school" apple pie. For years the only thing worth eating at McDonald's was the fried apple pie, but that tragically went away in 1992 without explanation. The pie at Greenspan's will satiate that craving. It's not made in-house, and it may or may not come from the folks who used to make the pies for McDonald's — Greenspan won't say. But I swear to you, there is no difference, spiritually, between them.
The greatest complaint on the Yelp page for Greenspan's Grilled Cheese is that it takes too long to get your food. I usually wouldn't put much stock in these things, but I do think that, in this case, it points out one of the problems of the place, which is that for people seeking the fast-food experience suggested by the setup, there's probably too much care going into these sandwiches. And for those of us who don't mind an extra five minutes if it means a damn good sandwich, there's not enough ... anything else. No seating, no atmosphere, no nothing. It's either a little too basic or a little too overwrought, depending on your viewpoint.
And while I'd love to say this food travels well, it doesn't really. The sandwiches get soggy, the latke bites get a little gluey. There are times here that you're reminded that the best of these types of sandwiches are, indeed, made at home and eaten standing up at the kitchen counter.
The good news is you can order the food from next door at the Melrose Umbrella Company, and enjoy a very good, fairly cheap sandwich along with a cocktail or beer. Grilled cheese is, after all, drunk food above all else.
Oh, and those apple pies? They travel just fine.
GREENSPAN'S GRILLED CHEESE | Two stars | 7461 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd. | (323) 591-0177 | greenspansgrilledcheese.com | Daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. | Sandwiches, $3.75-$9.75 | No alcohol | Street parking