Cheese offers wonderful things to recipes, mostly contributing a rich mouthfeel—this we know. But the pathway to memorable, modern dishes starring cheese lies in exploiting its singular status in the hearts and minds of consumers while serving up a little excitement, a promise of decadence.
Cheese plays well on Instagram, from the glorious stretch on a pizza or nacho to the over-the-top tableside presentation of raclette scraped into pasta. It also stands out when served up in welcome but unexpected places.
At Willa Jean, a Southern café in New Orleans, the Artichoke Dip (main pic above) is crowned with melted “cheese business,” a combination of mozzarella and provolone that’s broiled until golden and bubbly, and served with crostini for dipping and scooping. “We use a combination of cheeses for our artichoke dip to create the texture and body of the dish,” says chef/partner Kelly Fields.
“Cream cheese, provolone and mozzarella lend a delicious molten center without overpowering the artichokes. Broiled mozzarella and provolone create those crispy dark bits we all love to pick at, along with a super-stretchy center. The dip is simple in its seasoning, as to best showcase the cheesy artichoke flavors—just a little salt, black pepper, and some Willa Jean hot sauce to lend a kick.”
Creative uses of cheese help elevate dishes, lending a distinctive profile. At SideDoor, a modern American restaurant in Chicago, the Pastrami Sandwich is one of the most popular items on the menu. Hickory-smoked pastrami is served on a pretzel bun, but the Scottish rarebit takes it to the next level. “The Scottish rarebit, made with aged local cheddar and our one-of-a-kind Brown Gown Ale, brewed specially for us by Tyranena Brewing, adds a tangy punch to the pastrami sandwich,” says Ryan Wombacher, executive chef.
“The intense cheddar blends with a bitter ale and creamy butter for a well-rounded flavor profile and luxurious texture that smothers the sandwich—a comforting, satisfying meal.” Replacing the standard Swiss with a signature cheese sauce demonstrates how strategic uses of cheese signaturize an experience. These menu mentions illustrate that point nicely:
- Roasted Tomato Soup with giant molten cheddar brioche crouton
—Spoonfed and Bar Joe, Los Angeles
- Crispy Dubliner Cheese served with basil marinara
—Cork and Gabel, Detroit
- Saganaki/Flaming Cheese: Baked Greek cheese with olive oil and oregano
—Perry’s, Odenton, Md.
A few things are moving this melty, rich Alpine cheese into the spotlight. First, it’s made for Instagram, inviting tableside scraping into bowls of pasta, over potatoes and more. Second, the melding of French and American fare has led to chefs borrowing this cheese, common in French cookery, and applying it to burgers and sandwiches.
At Mirabelle Wine Bar in Los Angeles, the Mirabelle Burger features pulled brisket, pickled onion, smoked raclette cheese and housemade horseradish crème on a fresh brioche bun. “We chose raclette over a cheddar for its creamy, nutty flavor and slight funky quality,” says Shane Alvord, chef. “The raclette also melts exceptionally well. The burger has a rich, beefy flavor, creaminess from the cheese, and sharp acidity from the pickled onions and horseradish sauce. All together they taste like an amplified version of a standard burger.”
Here are a few other ways we’re seeing chefs leverage raclette:
- Raclette Grilled Cheese with white truffle oil, sourdough, slow-poached egg
—Bidwell, Washington, D.C.
- Raclette Platter: Homestead’s take on a traditional Swiss peasant dish with roasted raclette cheese, topped with pickled red onion; served with pickled okra, pickled jalapeños, prosciutto di Parma
—Homestead, Washington, D.C.
- Raclette Poutine: Housemade, hand-cut french fries tossed with raclette cheese and fresh herbs, baked and served with demi-glace
—Raclettes, Buffalo, N.Y.
Fun With Fundido
Queso fundido is an insanely craveable, shareable dish that’s popular at Mexican restaurants across the country, but like many other dishes born in this cuisine, it’s getting translated by modern American restaurants. It makes sense—at its base, it’s a bowl of melty cheese perfect for dipping, scooping or slathering.
At Catalina Kitchen at Terranea, a New American restaurant in Los Angeles, the Fire-Roasted Cheese is served in a mini cast-iron skillet, partnered with warm flatbread. The dish stars hot, oozy Monterey Jack, chorizo sofrito and roasted tomato salsa.
“The Monterey Jack offers depth of flavor and has less fat than cheddar, which may separate when cooking in the pizza oven,” says Jin Lee, chef de cuisine. “The chorizo sofrito adds more flavor—it’s basically our version of a Mexican queso fundido or cheese fondue.”
Scoop, Spread, Share
There’s so much attention paid to macaroni and cheese, where chefs take one of the most beloved formats and build it into a craveable, signature entrée or side dish. At Blue Dog Café, a modern Cajun restaurant in Lafayette, La., the mac and cheese is served as a shareable dip. La Cajun Macaroni Gratin combines crawfish tails, onion, pepper, Gruyère cheese and toasted bread crumbs, served with toast for scooping.
“This dish is rich, creamy and delicious, and in our opinion, is best when spread on toast and shared,” says Ryan Trahan, executive chef, highlighting the opportunities for transforming this old favorite into new formats.
Upping the Veg Game
The key to the veg-centric trend is craveability, and nothing does that better than cheese. At New York’s 10 Corso Como Restaurant & Café, the Tortino di Melanzane modernizes eggplant Parmigiana by leaving out the breading and focusing on the eggplant, tomato sauce and hot, stringy, melted cheese.
And at Estiatorio Milos, a collection of Mediterranean restaurants in several international cities, including Las Vegas, the menu features a signature favorite called the Milos Special—lightly fried eggplant and zucchini with hot kefalograviera cheese and tzatziki. The Greek cheese is fried, yielding a warm, gooey center, and served in four pieces that accompany the stack of vegetables.
“Kefalograviera is a hard table cheese produced traditionally from sheep’s milk or a mixture of sheep’s and goat’s milk,” says Jesse Maldonado, head chef at Estiatorio Milos at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. “The cheese has a salty flavor and rich aroma. It is often used in saganaki, cut into triangular pieces, rolled in flour and lightly fried. The exterior of the fried cheese should be crisp and golden, while the melted interior is gooey and bubbling. It’s a great complement for our Milos Special.”