Friday, April 9, 2010
Melt Bar and Grilled, Lakewood OH
According to their website, "Melt opened in September 2006 with one goal: To provide gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches and as many beers as possible in a cool and comfortable environment. No bar food. No boring choices on tap. And something for everyone: it's Cleveland-friendly, slightly kitschy, and memorable. It's relaxing, energetic, and fun." Having missed out on Melt while my sister was at CIA but hearing wonderful things I knew I had to check it out on my next visit to Cleveland - I also knew I would have to get there early as I'd heard stories of 1-2 hour waits even on weekdays. Planning in advance to arrive as early as possible my family and I did just that, pulling up to the back lot (free parking) just after 11:30 on a gloomy Friday.
As the only Melt-Virgin in the group I chuckled as we approached the back door - a setup almost 100% identical to Hollywood's Griddle Cafe - another restaurant specializing in kitsch and quality, in their case pancakes and breakfast foods. Entering the enormous waiting area we found the restaurant already 75% full but were led to a great four-top in the middle of the dining room. Snapping pictures of the hilarious decor and peering into the kitchen we were handed copies of the menu - cleverly printed on the back of old record jackets. Browsing the decor I noticed that Diners/Dives/Drive-Ins as well as Man Vs. Food had recently been to Melt and that they are apparently soon to be opening a second store less than 500 yards from my sister's old apartment - clearly business was going well. As a non-drinker I really didn't pay much attention to Melt's notable beer list, though reliable sources tell me it is quite impressive.
Browsing the menu there were in excess of ten sandwiches I wanted to try and a quick glance at the dessert menu let me know I'd have to save room. Watching coverage of The Masters and listening to the 60's/70's/80's era music over the stereo (plus some rather loud older ladies at the table next to us) we were soon greeted by a young lady named Sophia (Sofia?) who would serve as our waitress - and the waitress for nearly half of the busting-at-the-seems-busy restaurant. Aside from being ridiculously cute and friendly, Sophia was also potentially the best waitress I've ever seen at a busy casual joint - full of information (about the food and restaurant,) checking in frequently, drinks never dropping below 1/3 empty, and always with a smile on her face.
Orders placed we sat back and enjoyed our drinks - for mom and aunt iced tea and for myself a surprisingly rich and flavorful coffee (refilled repeatedly, and served in hilariously mismatched cups.) With myriad takeout orders coming out of the kitchen and the line in the lobby growing longer by the minute Sophia informed us that our orders could take up to an hour - not a problem as the scene was certainly entertainment in and of itself. Noting that this is a "bar" I will say the noise level got quite loud at times - though significantly less so (and noted by the bartender to a woman at the bar) once the older ladies next to us started eating.
Approximately 45 minutes after we were seated our sandwiches arrived - and they were as big, bold, and beautiful as advertised. Served alongside each of the sandwiches were excellent dill pickles, hand-cut fries - crisp on the outside, densely potato within, and lightly salted, and "sweet slaw." Having never been a Coleslaw fan in the past I decided to taste the slaw and I have to say I was impressed. Not creamy or heavy like most traditional versions the overarching flavor of this version was that of cabbage, carrot, onion, and peppery vinegar with a hint of apple and sugar. Cole slaw is still certainly not my first option in vegetables, but Melt's was one of the better versions I've had.
Moving onto the sandwiches and beginning first with my Aunt, a fan of the plain and unadventurous, her selection was entitled Porky Cheese and it featured Honey ham, Crisp bacon, and Swiss cheese (though I admittedly tried to convince her to get it with an egg she resisted.) Featuring hefty slices of white bread, well buttered and grilled perfectly, surrounding a sweet yet savory amalgam of ham, Swiss, and salty bacon I must say it was more nuanced than it reads. With the bacon adding some crunch and the creaminess of the Swiss balancing the ham the overall effect was almost akin to a croque monsieur though not quite as refined (let’s face it, Swiss just doesn't hold a candle to gruyere.) With that said, a very serviceable and delicious sandwich.
For my mother's selection she apparently felt so fondly about her first experience at Melt that she ordered the same thing again - but this time, for a $2 surcharge, Sophia suggested she get it deep fried. Entitled PB and Banana the sandwich featured the same hefty white bread as my Aunt's, but this time was slathered with fresh made peanut butter and sweetened cream cheese served alongside a cup of mixed berry preserves. "Mmmmm-ing" from her first bite I must say it would be hard to say she made the wrong choice - even if I am all about trying new things - as the sandwich was glorious. With the bread first griddle fried and then dunked in a tempura-esque batter before a quick dunk in the deep frier the sandwich came out piping hot with ripe bananas, liquid peanut butter and mascarpone-sweet cream cheese filling every bite. Tasty on its own and only improved by a dunk in the delectable fruit puree of raspberry/strawberry/blackberry the crisp bread married perfectly with the creamy interior forming a nut butter sandwich only rivaled by Keller's Cashew Butter and Apricot Compote on Brioche at Bouchon.
For my selection at Melt I went with the monthly special - the Corny Beast. Opting for the vegetarian version as I don't eat beef my plate contained two enormous cornbread battered and deep fried "sandwich halves" with a wooden stick in each. Contained in the beautiful golden shell was griddled white bread sandwiched around a well charred and excellently textured vegan corndog split and surrounded by double American Cheese - cheese so densely packed that it was leaking out of the batter. Without a doubt this is the best thing one can do with a hotdog (or a tofu-dog as it were) and aside from the fact that the cheese was wonderful, the cornbread was even better. Served with a Chipotle Ketchup that was not really needed but certainly added another level to the "sandwich" the entire effect was smoky yet savory, crunchy yet creamy. While this dish may be only available for a limited time if I were Melt I'd keep that cornbread batter around for appetizers and more sandwiches in the future (Perch or perhaps Oyster or Shrimp - maybe a Po'Boy?).....or how about a cornbread waffle with fried chicken on the brunch menu?
Having skipped breakfast there was certainly room for dessert - at least for myself (the family was stuffed.) With bread pudding ranking as my very favorite way to finish a meal I declined on Melt's oft celebrated fried twinkies and went with their dessert special of the day - Fudge Brownie Caramel Pecan Bread Pudding with Vanilla Ice Cream. Featuring a thick and fudgy brownie as the base/crust the dish was topped with a well saturated slab of warm and buttery bread pudding laced with ribbons of caramel and fudge and crunchy pecans adding texture. With two large Pepperidge Farm Chocolate Goldfishes and ample whipped cream alongside the steaming hot dish was topped with a hefty scoop of creamy ice cream and drizzles of fudge. Rich, hearty, large, and whimsical I very much liked the dish and although it was not as refined as many of my favorite bread puddings in the past the flavor and balance was excellent.
Finishing dessert and settling the modest bill we thanked Sophia for the truly excellent food and service before making our way to the door. Having dined at many of the best restaurants in the United States as well as many of the most famous houses of kitschy yet delectable food I can absolutely recommend Melt as a MUST visit for anyone visiting Cleveland. As one would expect from their cult local following (see the tattoo contest) and expanding empire Melt does it right - from food to service to setting. On their website Melt's owner and chef Matt Fish states that he wanted the restaurant to feel like family, but also wanted eating there to feel like an event - I'd say he succeeded on both counts.