by Kelly Jones

Grilled cheese sandwich

The Beemster Vlaskaas–Gouda with Balsamic Ketchup from Leslieville Cheese Market. Photo: Kelly Jones

Ask any grillie guru in this city where to get the best grilled cheese sandwich and you’ll get the same list of five or six shops around town. This cheesy, classic comfort food has experienced a surge in popularity of late, with versions of it gracing menus and retail lists both sophisticated and simple. What’s more, a restaurant opened recently in Kensington Market that serves nothing but ten variations on the theme.

About Cheese
With or without proscuitto is the only decision you’ll have to make when ordering your grilled cheese from About Cheese, a retail store that specializes in artisanal Canadian cheeses and a handful of European classics and has recently moved to Church Street south of Wellesley. About Cheese’s version layers two Quebec cheeses onto slices of St. John’s Bakery’s Celtic multigrain loaf. Frère Jacques cheese, similar to swiss cheese, is made by Benedictine monks from the Saint-Benoit-du-lac Abbey and becomes stringy when melted; “the other,” says Kelsie Parsons, shift manager, “is Riopelle, a triple cream cheese that gives the grilled cheese it’s gooeyness.” About Cheese adds slices of North America’s only organic, hormone- and nitrate-free proscuitto at no extra charge. All sandwiches $7.25. Take-out only.

Leslieville Cheese Market
Owner Michael Simpson brags that his cheese shop was the first in Toronto to turn out gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches to customers. He’s now got two stores, one on Queen West and the other on Queen East, and both chef up half a dozen kinds of grilled cheese to complement their retail offerings—from two-year aged Canadian cheese with peppered bacon to chevre with artichoke and sun-dried tomato. The popular Beemster Vlaskaas–Gouda combination flies off the panini press at rapid speed, its creamy mix of Dutch cheeses oozing out between the slices of rosemary- and olive oil–infused white bread from Epi Bakery. “It’s got to be a little crispy on the outside and extra runny on the inside,” says long-time employee Christie Silversides. Homemade dipping sauces add kick and complexity, as in balsamic ketchup or sweet Thai. All sandwiches $7. Take-out only.

Shanghai Cowgirl
“Grilled cheese reminds people of when they were a kid,” says owner Jill Dickson. “It really is the ultimate comfort food at any time of the day or night. We put a spin on the classic for variety and were thrilled to see the response from our customers. In the eight years we have been open, grilled cheese has always been our biggest seller because of this.” Shanghai Cowgirl’s menu lists six options, done up the old-fashioned way, with three slices of Wonderbread (white, brown or rye) slathered with butter and choice of processed cheese, cream cheese, cheddar, swiss or havarti and flipped onto the grill. In-the-knows request havarti with jalapeno pesto spread and avocado ($8.95). Indulgers beware: even big appetites may not have room for the accompanying fries and salad.

Queen West’s stalwart Swan does a brisk business with grilled cheeses too, available only during weekday lunch. Maybe it’s because of the three-cheese combination (asiago, smoked mozz, and three-year-old white cheddar) or the chewy, homemade whole-wheat bread, almost like sourdough. Perhaps it’s the pear slices, or the watercress, or the kitchen-made chutney of tomatoes, peaches, pearl onions and raisins. “When they make one,” says Samantha Dodd, long-time employee, “they put it in the oven to melt it first, then they grill it, so the cheese is really, really gooey.” Olives, pickles and cucumbers on the side provide crunch and colour. 416.532.0452

The Grilled Cheese
Die-hards now have a place they can call their own, an entire restaurant in Kensington Market with a cottage-y feel that’s dedicated to the almighty grilled cheese ($6 to $10). Selection is the draw here. Owner Rob Youill’s blackboard menu lists 10 assemblies, available on white, rye or whole-wheat, and ranges from the Classic with simple cheddar and provolone to the Grilled Motzy with fiore de latte, basil pesto and sun-dried tomatoes. Ripple chips and store-bought pickle wedges round out the baskets, and two hot homemade soups heat the hands and tummies of weary Market wanderers. 647.347.7062

Kelly Jones is a freelance writer and editor. She teaches Food Writing at George Brown College.