by CARRIE SCOZZARO & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & E & lt;/span & ver order off the kids' menu? It almost always contains the grilled cheese sandwich. That says a lot about this American classic made from simple ingredients -- bread, cheese and perhaps a little butter.
While we all probably have our favorite recipe for grilled cheese, essentially the formula is the same. At its best, the bread is lightly browned and crisp, but not enough to scour the sensitive roof-of-the-mouth area. The cheese is thick, melted just enough to bond with the bread. And in my kitchen, tomatoes slip in at the last minute to get warm, but not hot. Cheddar is a favorite filling (Tillamook, ideally), along with Swiss -- or, as my friend Melanie likes, a bit of pepperjack.
That might be why Melanie likes THE SHOP's Front Tooth Grill sandwich. At $3.25, this cheddar-and-pepperjack combo on buttered sourdough is comfort food for the palate and the wallet both. In fact, as we were leaving, a local chap approached us asking for money to buy food. Not just any food but -- I kid you not -- a grilled cheese sandwich with veggies and hummus. (Locally made potato chips are the other optional accompaniment.) "I'm homeless," this fellow said by way of explanation as Melanie made a U-turn back into the Shop. That he had few front teeth visible only added to the irony of his timing. Regardless, he has good taste in sandwiches.
The Shop also has a grilled cheese "bar." Bread options are wheat, dark rye, white and sourdough, while your cheese could be provolone, mild or sharp white cheddar, Swiss, mozzarella, pepperjack, Feta, Gorgonzola, Parmesan or goat. While you don't have to be 21 to order from this bar, you do need a sense of adventure.
Speaking of adventure, we stopped by LATAH BISTRO in search of a spiffed-up version of grilled cheese. We'd heard of their grilled caprese panini, a sandwich version of the classic Italian salad with fresh mozzarella, tomato, basil and extra-virgin olive oil ($8). We opted for the Spedieni, which is smoked mozzarella over a sliced baguette, grilled and topped with pine nuts and a drizzling of garlic oil ($5). An ideal appetizer for two over a glass of red wine, this dish demonstrates the versatile popularity of the bread-cheese combo.
While at Latah, a fellow diner confided that he enjoyed the classic grilled cheese served at MAX restaurant at Mirabeau Park Hotel. Max serves lots of classics, like tuna salad and meatloaf. The grilled cheese is an aortic-arresting assemblage of Swiss, cheddar, and Boursin (a top-name brand of creamy Gournay cheese). At $8.50, it's served with soup -- which varies from day to day -- salad or fries. This triple-decker answers the question, "Tomato or no tomato?" with a resounding "yes." A hint of basil completes the sandwich with a sweet earthiness.
Tomato gets paired up with grilled cheese at BRIX in Coeur d'Alene, too. Their grilled cheese is a combination of Tillamook cheddars on toasted bread. It's served alongside a bowl of roasted tomato soup, so thick with onion and garlic that your spoon will stand up in it ($8.50).
Tomato isn't the only taste that seems to complement grilled cheese: The inclusion of ham into the mix means a whole new level of comfort, even if the result isn't technically a grilled cheese sandwich.
MADELEINE'S CAF & Eacute; AND PATISSERIE marries ham, cheese and fresh French bread in their Croque (to crunch or bite hungrily) Monsieur (mister). It's served in a traditional French manner with Gruy & egrave;re Swiss cheese, slightly sweet Black Forest ham and b & eacute;chamel -- a kind of white sauce -- in between white bread, then topped with b & eacute;chamel, more cheese and baked ($8). Madeleine's generally serves this decadent dish with soup or salad, although in the mornings, especially Saturday, says co-owner Deb Green, they've been known to "convert" Monsieur to a Croque Madame by adding a fried egg on top of the sandwich.
And while we're on the subject of world travel, there's the Monte Cristo sandwich at MALLARD'S restaurant in the Red Lion at Post Falls. A much-appreciated leftover from the Templin's menu a few years back, the Monte Cristo combines savory meat in one neat bundle with the crispy-yet-gooey quality of French toast. The Monte Cristo is ham, turkey, Swiss and cheddar on square Pullman bread, dipped in egg and deep fried, then served with raspberry jam ($9). Can you hear hearts bursting all over the world or what? It's served with soup or salad -- as if you'd really have any room after eating all that. It's an awesome sandwich -- and it's not your 8-year-old's grilled cheese.