Grilled cheese sandwich grows up at Melthouse Bistro

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April is National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Month, and Troy Davis hopes you will celebrate America’s staple dish at The Melthouse Bistro, the new restaurant he owns with his wife Susan M. Davis on Milwaukee’s East Side.

As the name implies, the bistro offers a wide and evolving selection of gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, the likes of which many fans of the Velveeta-and-white-bread wonders of childhood have never seen before. The message behind Davis’ creative menu is simple: This is not you not your mother’s grilled cheese sandwich.

“You’ve grown up and now your favorite sandwich has grown up, too,” says Davis, a Kraft Foods veteran who also works from his East Side home as marketing director for the Evogi Group, an insurance technology firm based in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The first recorded evidence of grilled cheese sandwiches in America comes from the 1920s. Since then, the economical favorite has become a household staple for busy moms and dads. Quick and easy to fix, it’s also one of the first dishes many college students learn to prepare – using a clothes iron (that may be the only thing the iron ever gets used for).

Melthouse Bistro, which opened in November 2011, takes the sandwich up on the food chain with a variety of creative recipes. Davis’ concept is based on a “barn-to-bistro” ethos that stresses fresh, locally sourced ingredients and creative preparation. Davis says the project is a labor of love, as well as a carefully calculated marketing approach to a niche he and his wife felt was begging to be filled.

“There is a growing interest in gourmet Wisconsin cheeses, and this was a market no one else was addressing,” Davis says. “Focus group results and other research convinced us there would be a strong interest in the concept.”

The restaurant is built on a “fast casual” format, in which customers order at the counter, then take a seat and wait for their food to be delivered. Fast casual is the fastest growing segment in the restaurant industry, Davis says, and the growth is driven by women in the 24-to-45-year-old age bracket.

Davis’ research also indicated that the restaurant’s location at 1857 E. Kenilworth Place – four blocks from where the couple lives – is the heartbeat of that bracket, making it the perfect setting.

Melthouse Bistro is a partner of sorts with the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, the Madison-based state dairy trade group. Davis taps the Grilled Cheese Academy, a WMMB microsite, for many of his grilled cheese recipes. He also provides the site with some of his own.

April’s featured sandwich is The MaliblueTM, a Davis creation described as “the classic club sandwich meets Cobb salad and grilled cheese,” according to a WMMB press release. Wisconsin blue cheese is paired with smoked turkey breast, smoked bacon, avocado, hard-boiled egg, roasted garlic mayo, tomatoes and romaine lettuce. The combination is grilled between two thick-cut slices of French country bread. (For the complete recipe, go to www.grilledcheeseacademy.com.)

Thickly sliced artisan bread delivered daily from Milwaukee’s Breadsmith bakery is used in all Melthouse Bistro sandwiches, Davis says. The current house favorite is The Buffalo BillTM, a blend of Monterey Jack and blue cheeses complemented by hand-battered fried chicken and buffalo wing sauce with sport and sweet pepper bruschetta and lettuce on sourdough bread.

The Biloxi™ features Fontina cheese, pulled barbecue pork, pickles and creamy coleslaw on buttertop white bread. There are non-meat options as well, including The Cheeshead™, featuring provolone, aged (sharp) cheddar and Muenster cheeses served with pesto aioli on whole wheat bread; and The Sergeant Pepper™, consisting of pepper jack and cheddar cheeses, roasted cauliflower and red peppers with tempura-battered fried onions on sourdough bread.

All cheeses are, of course, from Wisconsin.

The menu also features soups, salads, Wisconsin microbrews and wine. Last month the restaurant started serving brunch on Saturday and Sunday, and the reigning favorite is The FlatIron, which is essentially two thick slices of French toast stuffed with melted brie cheese, pecan wood-smoked bacon and hash browns – served with a fried egg on top.

“Grilled cheese sandwiches are experiencing a renaissance,” says Davis, an Engleton, Texas, native whose wife hails from Cudahy, Wis. “We’re moving from childhood favorites to adult flavors, and there is so much from which to choose.”

The Milwaukee restaurant is clearly at the epicenter of the renaissance, helping everyone’s favorite sandwich grow up.

For hours, menus and more information, go to www.melthousebistro.com.

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