The name might imply otherwise, but Melt isn't just a grilled cheese operation. The Mid-City restaurant feels more polished and grown-up than just another place hawking the childhood staple.
Not surprisingly, the menu is dominated by all things cheese (St. James Cheese Co. is the restaurant's main supplier), but not all items are framed by slices of bread. There's cheese served piping-hot and drizzled with olive oil in a cast-iron skillet. Truffle fries are topped with cheese, and fried macaroni and cheese balls are breaded in panko. Wisconsin cheese curds are tempura battered and fried till they have a pale golden shell. The hefty knobs are served with ranch dressing and a marinara dipping sauce packed with oregano.
An appetizer of pork and beef meatballs topped with provolone and spicy red sauce doesn't fare as well. While the pleasing sauce has subtle spice, the meatballs were overcooked and mealy, falling apart with a prick of the fork.
Sandwiches, which the restaurant touts as "gourmet," are less lunchbox fare and more grownup fodder, served with a salad of mixed greens dressed in a snappy sugar cane vinaigrette. Velvety tomato-basil bisque doesn't disappoint, and it is topped with buttery croutons.
The Owner's Special features caramelized onions, melted Gruyere cheese and a sweet and smoky to- mato jam on thick slices of buttery sourdough bread. Fresh tomato slices carry too much acid and juice and render the sandwich a mess to eat, but the flavors shine — reminiscent of a rich French onion soup.
The Mama's Melt takes a similar Gallic turn, with thinly sliced ham, brie, arugula and a thick smear of apricot preserves on pressed French bread. Though it's hard to improve upon the time-honored Francophile ham-and-cheese standard, this sandwich takes a shot. Sweet, jammy apricot bits pair nicely with the creamy, pungent funk of the brie, while arugula adds a nutty, peppery kick.
The Kush's Melt seems like an attempt to appease seafood lovers while sticking with the melted cheese concept. Garlicky basil aioli tops French bread stuffed with crab-boiled shrimp and a thick smear of pimiento cheese. It's an odd and indulgent combination, but the basil overshadows the pimiento and shrimp flavors.
Melt sits on a developing stretch of Banks Street in the shadow of the new University Medical Center complex, and the restaurant has grow in phases. It opened with a bare-bones menu in November and since has added more sandwiches, a cocktail menu and a patio. Though it has been operating for six months, the grand opening party was last weekend. There are plans to add cheese and charcuterie plates, a selection of infused cocktails and a rooftop deck.
Along with restaurants such as Fharmacy and Marjie's Grill, Melt's steady growth reflects a neighborhood that slowly but surely is becoming a factor in the city's dining scene.