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Cheese Stands Alone

Creamy, melted Gorgonzola puts a crowning touch on meatball sliders, adding value and big flavor to a mini sandwich. Photo courtesy of belgioioso cheese inc. However you cut it — as a global accent, a melt, atop steak or burgers and in old faves — cheese can set your menu apart

By Rita Negrete

Cheese, in author Clifton Fadiman’s immortal phrase, is “milk’s leap toward immortality.” While it naturally brings to mind thoughts of the transcendent, like all other foods, cheese is subject to trends, fads and fashions.

A look at Technomic’s menu-data research reveals a number of key cheese trends playing out in restaurants today, including expanded versatility in application and flavor profiles.

American palates are increasingly amenable to more pungent “ethnic” cheeses, particularly those from Mediterranean cuisines. Technomic’s MenuMonitor database shows that incidence of provolone in menu items has grown 13 percent in the past year, incidence of feta has grown 9 percent, and goat cheese/chèvre has grown 8 percent — compared to a 5 percent increase for cheese items in general.

Provolone has moved beyond stereotypically Italian pizza and sandwich applications:

> Zucchini & Shaved Fennel Salad with pink grapefruit, imported provolone, sliced Bermuda onion and citrus vinaigrette — Park Grill, Chicago
> Santa Barbara Turkey Sandwich: Roasted turkey, bacon, red peppers, lettuce, provolone cheese and mango mayonnaise on ciabatta bread — Alonti Market Café, Chicago
> BBQ Chicken Focaccia: Oven-warmed, sliced chicken breast in our sweet and tangy BBQ sauce with melted provolone cheese, tomato and red onions,  served with Yukon Gold Parmesan potato chips — Wolfgang Puck Express

Likewise, pungent, salty Greek feta cheese has been familiar to American palates for some time, but now it’s turning up in more varied applications beyond salads. Examples include:

> Parmesan-Encrusted Grouper topped with a Mediterranean salsa of tomatoes, feta, red onions and artichokes, served with rice and choice of soup or salad — Carolina Ale House
> Grilled Spring Asparagus served with feta cheese crumbles and olive-pepper salsa — Seasons 52

In striking contrast to the assertive feta, mild and creamy fresh goat cheese, or chèvre, found in many Mediterranean countries, is also showing up in more salads and sandwiches. Menu items include:

> Fig, Goat Cheese & Broccoli Pizza: A thin-crust dough topped with dried figs, broccoli, pesto, roasted tomatoes, Parmesan and goat cheeses and balsamic glaze — Uno Chicago Grill
> Chicken Tostada Salad: Wood-grilled chicken, mixed baby greens, cucumbers, avocado, pico de gallo and crumbled goat cheese tossed in a cilantro-lime vinaigrette — Firebirds Wood Fired Grill
> West Indies Burger topped with goat cheese, banana jerk chutney, spring mix and coconut-mango mayonnaise, served on an onion ciabatta roll — Cheeseburger in Paradise

In a reinterpretation of an American favorite, macaroni and cheese Italian style retains the cheesy goodness of the classic but features cellentani instead of elbows. Photo courtesy of barilla. PIMIENTO PIQUES PALATES
Global cheeses are just a small part of this year’s cheese news. More exciting is the new appreciation for traditional, all-American cheese-based foods: pimiento cheese spread, Philly steaks, grilled cheese sandwiches and mac ’n cheese.

The Wall Street Journal recently took note of the pimiento cheese craze. This old Southern favorite is now being upscaled and reinterpreted by chefs around the country, served as an appetizer spread, sandwich filling or burger topping.

> Pimiento Cheese Spread made with piquillo peppers, aged Mahon cheese, mayonnaise and cheddar, served in a 4-ounce Mason jar — Hogs & Rocks, San Francisco
> BLP (Bacon, Lettuce and Pimiento) Sandwich: Pimiento cheese spread made with sharp yellow and white cheddar, Parmesan, mayonnaise, roasted red peppers and chipotle peppers — Van Horn Sandwich Shop, Brooklyn, N.Y.
> Pimiento Cheeseburger: A burger topped with a blend of roasted red peppers, white and yellow cheddar, mayonnaise and cayenne pepper, served on a brioche roll — Bobby’s Burger Palace

Just as pimento cheese spread is an expression of nostalgia for traditional foods of the South, another American food renaissance pays homage to a signature item from the gritty urban Northeast: the Philadelphia cheese steak. This versatile meat, cheese and peppers combo is showing up more and more often in its traditional sandwich version; Charley’s Grilled Subs even launched a spinoff concept dubbed Charley’s Philly Steaks. But the classic Philly ingredient combo is also appearing in more items such as:

> Philly Cheese Steak Flatbread: Sliced steak sautéed with oven-roasted red peppers, steakhouse mushrooms, caramelized onions and premium garlic sauce, finished with melted provolone cheese, scallions and a sprinkle of Lube seasoning — Quaker Steak & Lube
> Philly Cheese Steak Pizza with Philly cheese sauce, grilled sliced beef, red onions and green bell peppers — CiCi’s Pizza
> Philly Cheese Steak Omelette: Grilled prime rib, fire-roasted peppers and onions, sautéed mushrooms and melted Swiss cheese — Denny’s
> Chicken Philly on Rice: Chicken breast topped with grilled mushrooms, onions, peppers and Swiss cheese, served over rice with cole slaw and garlic bread — Show-Me’s

Two other iterations of cheesy nostalgia — updated versions of grilled cheese sandwiches and macaroni and cheese — have been trending up for some time but remain very much on-trend.

Specialty restaurants serving nothing but grilled cheese sandwiches continue to proliferate, even as varied-menu restaurants unveil their own new versions of the classic. Recent grilled cheese introductions include:

> Grown-up Grilled Cheese Sandwiches: Freshly made in four varieties: Three-Cheese Classic, Gouda Turkey Pesto, Aged Cheddar Roast and Italian Chicken Melt — Caribou Coffee
> Crabby Melt Sandwich: A grilled cheese sandwich with crab dip, tomato and bacon on sourdough bread — Greene Turtle Sports Bar & Grille
> Grilled Cheese Burger Melt: A burger patty, lettuce, tomato and a special sauce sandwiched between two grilled cheese sandwiches — Hof’s Hut Restaurant & Bakery
> Grilled Cheese Focaccia Dippers with a crunchy/cheesy topping made of Ritz crackers and Velveeta, American and mozzarella cheeses — Souplantation & Sweet Tomatoes

New mac ’n cheese variations are popping up almost as frequently. Examples include:

> Grown-up Mac & Cheese: Varieties include Truffle Mac with Baby Portobellos, Bacon Mac & Cheeseburger and Southwestern Chili Mac — Noodles & Company
> Lobster and Shrimp Mac & Cheese: Sautéed lobster and shrimp tossed in Parmesan-Havarti cheese sauce with bow-tie pasta — Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery
> Pork Belly Mac Sliders: Featuring house-made macaroni and cheese, caramelized onions and pulled pork with a signature chipotle-lime BBQ sauce — Whiskey Creek Wood Fire Grill

Pungent feta has moved out of the salad bowl to lend zesty flavor as a topping for burgers and other main-course items. Photo courtesy of wisconsin milk marketing board. STUFF IT!
Pizza Hut’s much-ballyhooed Ultimate Stuffed Crust Pizza, featuring cheese and toppings stuffed inside the crust, signaled the arrival of a larger trend: cheese showing up (or being concealed) in stuffings for any number of dishes. Some of the surprising stuffed items on menus this year:

> Provolone-Stuffed Meatballs: Stuffed with provolone cheese and smothered in marinara sauce — Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar
> Spicy Cheddar Sausage: Polish-style sausage stuffed with cheddar cheese, jalapeños, cracked pepper and a blend of spices — Dickey’s Barbecue Pit
> Jalapeño & Cheddar BK Stuffed Steakhouse Burger: 100 percent beef patty flavored from the inside with bits of jalapeño and cheddar cheese, topped with creamy poblano sauce, tomatoes and lettuce on a premium bakery bun — Burger King
> Stuffed Breadsticks: Varieties include Pepperoni Stuffed Breadstick, made with pepperoni, mozzarella cheese and pizza sauce, and Cheeseburger Stuffed Breadstick, made with ground beef, Swiss cheese and Dijon mustard — Dunkin’ Donuts

Cheese’s propensity to melt has always been one of its most appealing qualities, but the number of gooey, indulgent melts appearing on menus this year is remarkable. Some examples:

> Swiss Melt: A burger featuring sautéed mushrooms, grilled onions and melted Swiss cheese — Fuddruckers
> Southwest Turkey Melt: Smoked turkey, applewood-smoked bacon, pepper-Jack cheese, spicy guacamole, chipotle ranch, lettuce and tomato, served on a baguette with a side — McAlister’s Deli
> Lobster Melt: Cabot aged cheddar melted atop lobster meat with mayonnaise and scallions, served on a stirato roll with choice of side — Uno Chicago Grill
> Super Cheezy Chicken: A chicken breast glazed with barbecue sauce, covered in cheddar and Jack cheeses and topped with bacon bits — Texas Steakhouse & Saloon

It would be impossible to survey the subject of cheese without touching on the craze for premium burgers, not only at fast-casual “better burger” concepts but also at casual-dining and quick-service restaurants across the spectrum. Cheeses help differentiate burger offerings by highlighting flavor and artisan appeal.

Specialty blue and goat cheeses can add sharpness or a premium quality, while nacho, pepper-Jack, mozzarella and feta cheeses help operators position globally inspired burgers on the menu. And build-your-own burger options allow guests to customize their burger with a variety of cheeses and toppings.

Here are a few recent burgers with outstanding cheese appeal:

> Hatch Chile Cheeseburger: With mild roasted Hatch green chile sauce, jalapeño-Jack cheese, cilantro-lime mayonnaise and house-made pico de gallo, served with fries — Chili’s Grill & Bar
> Avalon Burger: Topped with melted Gruyère cheese with a hint of blue cheese, smoky bacon, caramelized onions, roasted garlic aïoli and baby arugula — Ted’s Montana Grill
> Wood-Grilled Chorizo Sliders: Wood-grilled chorizo served on toasted brioche buns with caramelized onions, mustard and melted Manchego cheese — Bahama Breeze
> Chicken Sliders: An appetizer of three different slider combinations: blue cheese, Buffalo and celery; chipotle, avocado and pepper-Jack cheese; and barbecue, bacon and pepper-Jack cheese — Leona’s Restaurants, Chicago

Despite the diversity of today’s cheese trends and the uncertainty of their future, it’s safe to say that three underlying themes will be playing out for some time to come:

> Indulgence. Look for indulgent quantities and exotic varieties of cheese, as well as ostentatious melts, to create menu items that “wow” customers.
> International cheeses, particularly those with strong flavors. An exotic, aged cheese can turn a burger, sandwich, pizza or pasta dish into something special without other tweaks to the basic recipe.
> Retro themes. Cheese is intrinsically a comfort food, so a cheese-based item with the added appeal of being something “like mother used to make” is a sure winner in uncertain times. &


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