In the spirit of reinvented and restructured comfort foods, The Main Cheese, Little Rock's first gourmet grilled cheese restaurant, opened recently in West Little Rock on Cantrell Road. The old Saigon space is nearly unrecognizable from its former self. There are new walls, fresh paint in orange and blue, dark wood, and a brick wall that lines one entire side of the restaurant. The place is bright and clean, comfortable and well designed.
A restaurant devoted to grilled cheese clearly hopes to capitalize on fanatical love for the sandwich. A good grilled cheese is comforting and warming inside — it's gooey, hot and buttery. It's a simple concoction, but The Main Cheese hopes to build upon this cherished favorite, offering several new takes on the classic dish.
A quick perusal of the rest of the menu reveals a handful of appetizers (artichoke and cheese dip, hummus, and a cheese plate), a few salad options (like the "Thai Peanut Fusion" with Napa cabbage, carrots, cucumber, edamame, cilantro, fried wonton strips, peanuts and Thai dressing) or soups (such as the creamy potato cheese or tomato dill).
Diners choose from around a dozen sandwich options that range from the basic grilled cheese to slightly-more-exotic options like the "Two Rivers" with slow-roasted pork with mojo, salami, shaved ham, Swiss and pickles. A cup of slaw comes standard with every sandwich but diners can substitute fries for an extra $1.50 or housemade seasoned chips for $1. If you are worried about caloric intake, there are several healthier options to be had — a side of fresh fruit, those aforementioned salads, and sandwiches such as the "Farmers Market" with avocado, muenster, grape tomatoes, arugula and parmesan on multigrain bread. Bread comes from the locally owned Arkansas Fresh Bakery (a very wise move, indeed). They roast and slice up all meats in house, and vegetarians and gluten-free diners will also find something they can eat here.
We started with the classic "Main Cheese," ($5.25), a take on a basic grilled cheese. However this one is filled with Muenster, Fontina and cheddar and stuffed into grilled sourdough. The sandwich was passable, but we felt it could have benefitted from a bit more cheese and butter. It's not a bad grilled cheese; but with our ideal grilled cheese, we crave that stringy, gooey melted cheese stretching from mouth to sandwich with each bite — this sandwich really had none of that. To accompany this, we decided to order a cup of their tomato dill soup ($3.95). It was hearty but simply done — it made for a nice vessel to dip one's sandwich into. The dill was a little understated, though, and we felt it could have benefited from a bit more richness or cream and perhaps a touch more seasoning. We weren't overly impressed with our side of slaw (standard with each sandwich). It's very lightly dressed, and we prefer a creamier slaw, but the cabbage was fresh and crisp.
We also sampled the "Big Dipper," which was composed of carved roast beef, melted provolone and horseradish sauce on a toasted baguette served au jus ($8.45). The bread used here was delightful — perfectly crunchy exterior with soft and light interior. The inner components were adequate, though we would have liked to see the roast beef a bit more on the rare side and the cheese (again) could have had a stronger presence overall — the horseradish, on the other hand, felt very prominent here, maybe overly so. With such little cheese and without any real "grilled" component to the bread, we began to wonder if this (and other sandwiches here) actually qualifies as "grilled cheese," anyway.
On a return visit, we sampled "The Gut Shot," ($7.95) with blackened chicken breast, bacon, pepper jack cheese, grilled jalapenos and a spicy "knock-your-socks-off" sauce all on a toasted brioche bun. The brioche was lovely (you'll find the same Arkansas Fresh bread used at various restaurants around town), but unfortunately the sandwich suffered terribly from a very dry chicken breast, which was quite hard to ignore even with the generous addition of toppings. From the salad list, we decided upon the "Southwest Quinoa," with fresh spring mix, organic quinoa, sliced avocado, black beans, bell pepper, corn, cilantro and house vinaigrette ($7.95). We were quite happy with the salad; the produce tasted crisp and fresh, the flavors and textures married together nicely.
For dessert, we couldn't pass up the intriguing grilled cheese donut ($3.25). Here, they take a glazed donut, slice it in half, slide a slice of cheese (Fontina, cheddar, or Muenster) in between, and toast it on the flat-top. It's an interesting sweet and savory combination that definitely leans more toward dessert than otherwise. It was tasty, but still a little difficult for us to wrap our brains around. Perhaps it's the donut purist in us that found it difficult to understand. But it's a novelty, and will likely be something everyone will want to try at least once — much like The Main Cheese as a whole.