The Dish: Cheese, Please

Not a day goes by that I don’t eat hot bubbling cheese – or at least think about eating it. This has probably been the case since I was about 4 years old, feasting on plates of nacho chips with American Singles microwaved on top.

These days, I throw caution to the wind, indulging in the finest melted-cheese dishes New Orleans has to offer.

La Boca, the Argentinian steakhouse in the CBD, is known for its abundant selection of fine beef cuts and an insanely refreshing watermelon cocktail, but the Provoleta, an Argentinian appetizer of grilled provolone cheese, olive oil and oregano served bubbling in a cast-iron skillet is the first step to understanding that the cheese stands alone. It is almost like eating a crustless pizza; the outer layer of cheese is browned to crispy perfection and the melty center is herbaceous and slick with olive oil. Cut off a piece and it stretches into a long string. It is, in essence, the perfect accompaniment to a plate of sizzling, juicy steak; it’s almost as if the idea were crafted by a child: Give me meat and give me melted cheese, but on separate plates. The idea is basic, simple and so inherently gratifying to the human soul that it’s akin to hugging a kitten while falling in love on a beach during a sunset.

For a tasty and often overlooked variation on fried cheese, try the fried Haloumi at Mona’s Mediterranean Restaurant (there are a few different locations, my favorite being the one on Magazine Street). This fried cheese doesn’t come bedazzled in breadcrumbs with a hot tub of marinara sauce at its side, but with a dash of mint, garlic and olive oil to accent its flavors. Most people associate Greek cheese with feta, but Haloumi, an Arab and Mediterranean staple, is a semi-firm sheep’s milk cheese that comes packaged almost like tofu, vacuum-packed in plastic with a little liquid – in Haloumi’s case, a bit of brine. When eaten cold, the cheese tastes quite mild and it almost squeaks against your teeth, such is its unique tenacity. But when sliced and thrown on a grill or in a frying pan, Haloumi crisps up nicely on the outside and cooks into hot strips of salty cheese with a minty aftertaste that won’t turn into a melted mess, but will instead retain a firmness perfect for topping salads and sandwiches or for snacking.

The most famous of melted cheese indulgences, fondue, is also the unfortunate victim of America’s worst kitchen offenses. The concept of fondue in America seems to have dwindled into the “fad” category along with the hair crimper and the Shake Weight, with horrendous permutations of melted candy bars and caramels. I once attended a corporate party that boasted a gushing chocolate “fondue” fountain with Rice Krispy Treats for dipping. In Switzerland and France, finding the perfect mixture of raw Alpine cheeses for a fondue is traditionally regarded as an art form, with cheesemongers concocting their own special blends of Emmentaller, Gruyère and Appenzeller for customers to mix with booze and spices at home. At La Crepe Nanou one can still find an exceptional traditional fondue. Served in an earthenware pot known as a “caquelon,” which distributes heat evenly, the cheese is able to retain its light and almost sauce-like consistency, with hints of wine and kirsch, that’s perfect for dipping bananas and baguette alike. It is easy to gobble up every last bubbly bit of melty fondue, but if you leave a thin layer at the bottom of the pot and lower the heat of the flame, you may be able to form a crust of cheese called “la religieuse,” that can be lifted from the pot and broken into pieces for those at your table. It is considered a delicacy, and if you can make it through a pot of fondue and still have the means of eating even more, it should be considered a miracle as well.

Crescent Pie and Sausage | 4400 Banks St. | 482-2426 |

La Boca | 857 Fulton St. | 525-8205 |

La Crepe Nanou | 1410 Robert St. | 899-2670 |

Mona’s Cafe | 4126 Magazine St. | 894-9800; 504 Frenchmen St. | 949-4115; 3901 Banks St. | 482-7743

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