Thursday, 12 December 2013

Restaurant Review: Two Pre-Movie Visits to Melt

Melt Bar and Grilled on Urbanspoon

It's not quite summer here in central Ohio. But with the recent releases (and definite favourites of mine) of Catching Fire (trailer) and Frozen (trailer) the dynamism between heat and the wintry weather can coincidentally be felt in Columbus's Short North at the newly installed (1,2), Cleveland-based Melt Bar and Grilled (840 North High St.). Unintentionally, though nevertheless prior to my first viewing of Catching Fire and third viewing of Frozen, I headed over to check out Melt's offerings on two different occasions, with some of my classmates. With the fall term officially ended, I now have the time to share my composite review below.

As I've been trying to figure out how exactly to lay out the words floating in my head, the anthropological side of me strongly feels like some context and bias need to be especially laid out in advance. I should note Melt opened on November 15th; my first visit was on November 21st. Until that point, the hype had certainly been built and there were consistent observations of a packed interior whenever someone passed by. By the time we (some of my fellow cohort members) got there, the place was certainly busy, but not insanely packed that it took us forever to get seated. As another important contextual piece: during the wait, we headed across the street to Whit's for dairy-rich appetizers. No regrets there, but that tends to limit additional food intake.

My second jaunt over to Melt was on December 6th, the same day Columbus was hit with inches of snow (truly a fitting day to watch Frozen again). From Melt's opening to this second visit, it's seemingly clear the restaurant has a defined identity and upbeat persona, complemented by a strong, communal vibe and personality coming from both the bar and wait staff. The place is still regularly packed from what I've seen and have been told, with the biggest rushes expectedly during main meal services. Of further note, food is no longer served past 1am, should you decide you need some melted cheese that late at night.

This leads me to my strongest bias. I love cheese. And when I think of a place called Melt, the image that gets conjured in my head is a considerable amount of thick-sliced, or multiple slices of, melted cheese. Perhaps that's too much to expect, or maybe I just cook with too much cheese... Then again, is there such a thing as too much of it? (Actually, they do have a "Melt Challenge": over 5 lbs of food, which does seem borderline offputting yet utterly delicious-sounding.) Unfortunately, I have yet to have a grilled cheese sandwich from Melt (granted I've only had two, though you'd expect consistency, no?) which meets my cheesey expectations.

The culprit, perhaps may be what I think Melt is especially known for: the layers in between thick slabs of bread. Quite honestly, I imagine I'd be totally fine just eating their lasagna or spaetzel or chicken and waffles on their own. Put any of that between bread and hide the slice(s) of cheese, though, and that's where you've lost me. Is it just a gimmick, a gastro-cultural phenomena, or is there a culinary element that's supposed to heighten the flavours alongside the experience? I'm not entirely sure, but what I can say is that I found myself closer to the "meh" spectrum than the "mmm." Take, for example, the "War Pig."

Melt's menu is a formidable one, one description sounding better than the next as you read aloud from the vinyl record covers (or even the screen). The bulk of the War Pig is a toss up between the bread and the delicious espresso & ancho rubbed pork. Don't get me wrong, I love toasted/grilled bread but not when it muddles the nuanced heat coming from the meat, and makes the sandwich much dried than it needs to/should be. Maybe there should have been some more house made mole sauce, or there should be more that comes with it on the side. (At least I had some cidres to help combat the dryness.) Reading along the rest of the description, next up is the seared pork belly which took me a while to find. If you're expecting a slab of pork belly, you won't find it either, as it's chopped up and melds with the pork. In theory, the pork belly should add some moisture to the pork, but it doesn't... or if it does, the rest of it is so dry it's incredibly unnoticeable. By the time I saw and tasted the honey ham atop which the other meats sit, I realised this grilled cheese is wicked salty (and I love salt, but not when it overtakes everything else). The tamale cake didn't help either, nor did the "crispy" chicharrones, by which I mean soggy from all the trapped heat under the bread. As for the pepper-jack, well, I didn't notice until the following day when I ate my leftovers that I saw there were two slices, whose peppery taste was indistinguisable against everything else. Also, if you can't tell from the above photo, this isn't the easiest sandwich to eat; so, at least the bread is strong enough to help hold everything together... until it falls out nearly in one mass. High hopes, but perhaps too high in this case.

So, I decided to scale back, and I mean way back, for my second visit. I chose a regular, plain grilled cheese (listed on the menu as a "Kindergarten"). There would just be bread and cheese, no other fillers, nothing else to take away the taste of what in my mind should be the foci. Prior to even placing my order for a smoked gouda grilled cheese, I was told that no one had ever asked for just a plain grilled cheese from our server. This should be interesting, I thought. But first, and given how cold it was outside, I decided to also get the soup of the day: Mediterranean chowder. There didn't appear to be any frills in this one. Great textural contrast and balance sat within its ingredients, the amalgamated flavours coming together to satisfy the warmth I sought from Melt's food.

And then, the grilled cheese arrived. Now that I look at both sandwiches, I can immediately see inconsistency in grilling (and/or maybe buttering), though that didn't bother me too much. The cheese was definitely melted and looked amazing, my taste buds salivating as I photographed it. But then, the thick sliced bread got in the way..again. Any sense of grill distracted the gouda's inherent smoky qualities. And any moisture that should be there was zapped by the dry bread above and below the cheese. On a positive note, the fries are good (though I thought they needed a little seasoning), and I earlier had that soup. But I didn't specifically go to Melt for either of those.

Overall, I'm leaning toward disappointed in this review, though I'd be willing to give it another go. Again, the bar selections and staff are all wonderful, and the restaurant as a whole makes sense in my mind when I consider the entirety of the Short North. There's also certainly proof among the palates that good, if not great, grilled cheese sandwiches come from Melt's kitchens. During my first visit, Brianne got "The Dude Abides" (homemade meatballs, fried mozzarella wedges, rich marinara, provolone & romano) and Daniel got the "Hungry Hungarian" (pulled roasted chicken, rich paprikash sauce, homemade herb spaetzle, muenster), while Jay and Nicole built their own. For the second go-around, Amanda got the "Parma, Italy" (crispy breaded chicken, sun-dried tomato pesto, roasted garlic, provolone), while Jay and Nicole both got "The Mighty Macaroni Melt," which is also the monthly special (creamy homemade macaroni & cheese, breaded and deep fried to a golden brown; Jay got his with gouda and Nicole with American. [Thanks, Amanda!]). I'm not entirely convinced that Melt lives up to all the hype, but at the end of the day, the constant flow of customers through its doors seems to indicate an affirmation of communal appreciation for cheese (which is always a good thing in my book). For photos from my visits to Melt, click here and here. And given all this talk about cheese, perhaps you may be interested in what your favourite cheese has to say about you.

Have you been to Melt yet? What was your experience like? Is there a particular dish I should try and/or forego altogether? Comment below!

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