16/20 Quite possibly the finest ‘toasted’ ( or’grilled’) cheese sandwich in the world.
There are times when only a ‘toasted’ cheese sandwich will do, when soul and stomach call out for that divine combination of creamy, molten dairy and dry, plosive toasted crunch and soothing, piquant richness and the sharper note of wheaten austerity. Oh yummy, yummy.
Now, I’ve searched the world over for combinations embracing cheese and toast looking for that superior sequence of sensations that whispers ‘Ah, yes, this is the one’ to your spirit. There’s the common or garden cheese toastie, made in a patent machine. Very nice in its way, but not the stuff of greatness. There’s much to be said for a properly made Croque Monsieur, too – but how often do you find such a delight? I’ve lingered over Welsh Rarebit with pleasure. It’s not strictly a ‘toasted’ cheese sandwich I know, but there are several aspects in common. In the end, there’s too much luxury, too much dairy and too many other ingredients – mustard, Worcestershire sauce, beer, even – that can mask inferior cheese and bread. There’ve been Italian toasted ham and cheese paninis, but the less said about them, the better. As with so many home-grown versions. They’re mincing, meagre things – sponges of grease, toast like flannel, cheese that speaks more eloquently of industrial process than the cow, matched to paint stripper pickle or tomato, the steam from which peals the skin from the roof of your mouth as surely as battery acid. No, no, no, no, no.
And then there’s the Cheesy Tiger grilled cheese sandwich.
You’ll find Cheesy Tiger among the little cluster of establishments where the harbour wall curves round the bay at Margate. It’s a tiny, laid-back, pared-back, bare brick, rackety furniture, cool operation. It manages to bridge the twin cultures of Margate, the hip and the populist. I had one of the happiest evenings of my life here, with a toasted cheese sandwich on one hand, a pint of beer from the bar next door in the other, crooning ‘What shall we do with a drunken sailor’ along with about 40 or so other souls rammed into a space that feels comfortably full with half that number.
I say it’s grilled because that’s how it’s listed on the menu, but I feel that may depend on how you interpret the word ‘grilled’. I think that ‘grilled’ in this case really means ‘fried’. At least, I’m pretty sure I do. I asked the fellow behind the counter, and he said grilled, but I don’t understand how you can get the smooth, varnished patina on the outside of each slice that contributes so much to the joy of each mouthful, through conventional grilling. Bear in mind that it’s the attention to critical details that distinguish the great from the merely good.
The bread is white sourdough (well, it would have to be, wouldn’t it), not cut with micrometer precision, but as the mood takes, or ‘we just eyeball it’ as the fellow behind the counter put it, not too thin and not too chunky.The cheese is a mixture of raclette, the melting cheese from France, and cheddar. Each filling is pepped up with a few slices of Jalapeño chilli. And the bread casing is liberally buttered before being taken to the grill.
So, the butter on the outside of the sourdough slices produces the eat-me crunch of fried bread and adds a rich, nutty note that broadens out the toasty flavours of the bread. The molten cheese combines the jaunty ooze of raclette with the sharper, deeper note of the cheddar, plus the occasional playful nip of Jalpeno to keep everyone interested. And best of all, where the melting cheese has extruded from of the end, it has crisped up to create intense cheesy brittle. £9 seems an almost absurdly cheap sum for such perfection and pleasure.
There’s more to Cheesy Tiger than its divine toasted cheese sandwich. Padron peppers (£4), burrata, Amalfi lemon and pea shoots (£7) ; watermelon, feta and mint (£5); grilled courgette, 30-day aged beef carpaccio, mint, pine nuts and Berkswell cheese (£10) ; and linguine cacio e pepe, golden garlic and marjoram (£12) ; not to mention chocolate olive cake & amaretto mascarpone (£6) , speak of wider ambitions. There’s a nifty wine list,too. We drank copious amounts of chilled Beaujolais from Raisin Gaulois (£26 a bott; organic and natural, natch). It’s freshness, fruitiness and coolth acted out a delectable dialogue with the sandwich of sandwiches.
How did the poet Wordsworth put it? ‘Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive.But to be young was very heaven.’ Ok, it was evening rather than dawn, and I’m not young, but very heaven it was.
Unit 7&8, Harbour Arm, Margate, CT9 1AP
Tel: 01843 448540