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DINING REVIEW: Cheese Masters

Grated expectations

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In the late 1980's, the National Dairy Board ran a television commercial touting the glory of cheese. The jingle was set to the tune of "Food, Glorious Food" from the musical "Oliver!," as singers proclaimed the wonders of cheese while kids and adults alike enjoyed "Cheese, glorious cheese!" in all its "saucy, snappy, mild, or wild" forms. (Enjoy this artifact of 80's cheese at bit.ly/gloriouscheese). Featured prominently in the advert are grilled-cheese sandwiches: toasty, ooey-gooey, and smile inducing, cut on the diagonal, or served open-face with bubbly, crisp tops.

I thought a lot about those sandwiches, and that earworm of a jingle, during my visits to Cheese Masters. A grilled-cheese and melt-sandwich shop, Cheese Masters too proclaims the glories of cheese, taking basic ingredients and transforming them into something both familiar and special. Its Eastview Mall and Park Avenue locations offer roughly 15 sandwich choices, plus the option to build your own from a generous selection of breads, cheeses, meats, and veggies. There are kid-friendly picks, like the classic, made with Italian white bread and American cheese ($3.49); ways to start the day, as with the breakfast toaster ($3.99) that combines sourdough, cheddar, eggs and bacon; and more sophisticated options like the veggie melt, made with wheat bread, cheddar, baby spinach, roasted peppers, onions, and tomatoes.

Each sandwich is beautifully golden, toasted on flat-surface sandwich presses. (These are different from ridged Panini presses that result in a ruffled crust.) When you tear into a sandwich, with its crisped edges bookending the warm fillings, you pop the toasted edges and expose the warm bread underneath: pale with a gentle chew. The crunch, first firm then yielding, resonates inside your head; you can both feel and hear each sandwich's texture.

On to the fillings, such as tuna. Tuna melts can be divisive: either you're OK with warm fish, mayo, and cheese or you're not. I'm on board, and Cheese Masters makes a good tuna melt ($4.99) with sourdough bread and American cheese. The tuna salad has a loose consistency, and a couple of interesting additions: minced red pepper and pickles. The pepper gives a tiny touch of heat; the pickles add briny brightness.

Cheddar, Swiss, and American cheese on Italian white bread makes up the three-cheese melt ($3.99). The flavors are mild, but more interesting than those in the classic melt, allowing you to taste the sweet cream butter slathered on the bread before toasting. The three-cheese melt pairs well with the old-fashioned tomato soup ($2.49 regular; $3.49 large). The terra-cotta-colored soup is creamy but not heavy, gently sweet, with flecks of basil giving it an Italian flair. I don't know, however, that non-Italian grandmothers would add basil to their old-fashioned tomato soup.

The chipotle chicken melt ($5.79) includes pulled chicken, muenster cheese, fresh tomatoes, fresh basil, and chipotle sauce on Italian white bread. Tinglingly spicy with a touch of sweetness, the sauce works well with basil, redolent of clove. The tomatoes were as fresh as you can get in late January. I would have liked larger hunks of chicken for added texture. The aptly named hot and spicy sandwich ($4.79) melts pepper jack cheese with sandwich pepperoni and jalapenos on wheat bread. The combination of cream and fat with spicy meat and peppers is addictive. Each bite spikes your tongue, then pushes you to take another bite.

The satisfaction derived from Cheese Masters' grilled cheese is partly tied to its locations. (Owners say a third, as-yet-announced location should be opening later this year, and additional franchise locations may appear in the future.) The buzzing cacophony of the Eastview Mall food court, densely packed seating, and multitude of scents makes it hard to focus on sandwiches, both for the diners and the servers. The three-person staff at the mall kiosk appeared distracted and disinterested. A turkey clubhouse melt ($5.79) was delivered with its muenster, bacon, and dill pickles intact between two slices of well-toasted Italian bread — but the turkey was totally absent. (While I didn't point out this error to the sandwich makers, Cheese Masters' president and founder Steve O'Brien tells me that had I done so, I would have received a new, correct sandwich plus a bonus "I'm sorry" cookie.)

Contrast the mall location with the Park Avenue shop. Though small and casual, it provides an ideal atmosphere for you to linger over the simple pleasures of grilled bread, melty cheese, fountain soda, and Lays potato chips. A retro door, maybe from the 1940's, swings in to an old-school tiled entrance. A colorful chalkboard menu touts the options and pops against the muted light grey walls and white moulding. Beneath your feet is hardwood flooring, above your head is a painted tin ceiling.

Best of all, however, were the people behind the counter. The two servers working the Park Ave location on my visit were funny and friendly, eager to help me find a sandwich that suited my mood. While I ate, they chatted happily, cleaning and organizing, while debating the merits of various ingredients. Which was better with chicken: Swiss or muenster? What were the best meat parings with a strong provolone? Which cheese melted the most smoothly?

With such passionate discussion about grilled cheese, I couldn't help but enjoy my melt.

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