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    Friday, May 24, 2024

    I melt with Lou

    A few days before Christmas in 1981, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill that became known as the Government Cheese Act. It was rendered in typically dense bureaucratic text, but the important thing to parse from it was that poor people could have free cheese!

    Citizens who weren’t poor had great fun imagining grimy welfare recipients standing in line for their share of free cheese, and it’s probably accurate to suggest the scoffers were nibbling cave-aged Gruyère carved in the shape of the Lindberg baby’s head at the time.

    Rich people don’t do irony.

    Anyway, from my perspective as a struggling bass player just paroled from my third stint at college, the idea of free cheese seemed almost poetically divine — and yet, as I recall, I didn’t qualify for Big Ronnie’s Cheese Train even though, back in ’81, a typical meal for me was often a spear of dill pickle wrapped in a slice of processed American cheese and a slice of bread so stale it was barely malleable.

    A few years later, our singer Nick invented Rock Star Pizza, which consisted of a rice cake topped with ketchup and a slice of processed American cheese, then microwaved. Take THAT, New Haven!

    The common denominator that provided any true enjoyment throughout the days of my famished-musician diet was always CHEESE — and cheap fake cheese, at that.

    I still like cheese. And I LOVE melted cheese.

    Flash forward to Mr. G’s in New London, a place where I frequently have lunch. The chef, Lou Mallett, who’s been working in restaurants since he was a kid, has anchored G’s kitchen for 32 years and is an across-the-board culinary maestro. A few weeks ago, he stopped by my table to chat as I was eating one of his excellent Fish Melts. I told him how much I was enjoying the sandwich, which elevates the fried fish-on-bread construct way beyond the norm.

    He waved me off and said, “You can make a melt out of anything and it’s good.”

    I nodded. At first, that seemed an obvious thing, almost to the point where Lou didn’t even need to bother to express it.

    But the more I thought about it, Lou’s observation was profound. Life-changing, possibly. Because, sure, the idea of basically inserting a “foreign” taste element into a grilled cheese sandwich was brilliant. The Patty Melt, with ground beef and grilled onions on grilled, buttered rye, was possibly the first (and inspired) version anyone came up with.

    It dawned on me, though, that for months now at G’s, Lou has been peppering his daily specials sheet with a vast array of “melts.” Some are variations you’d expect including roast beef, turkey or ham. But Lou, a music head whose appreciation of fractal and expansive chordal possibilities is estimable, applies a similar sense of what might be called the Jeff Beck “Freeway Jam” approach to melts.

    Lou’s recent melt offerings include shrimp, BBQ pulled pork or chicken, meatloaf, Sloppy Joe, chicken salad, BLT, scallops, scallops and bacon, pepperoni pizza, cheesesteak and onion, pot roast, hot dog, corned beef, a mushroom and Swiss burger, a burger with onion rings, Italian combo, chicken and garlic parm, meatball...

    “If I think about it, I can come up with three pages of possibilities. Anyone can, and it proves what I originally said, that you can put anything on a melt and someone will probably try it,” Lou said.

    He went on. “BUT! Another point is not to be weird for the sake of it. The idea is to put a melt on our menu that resonates with customers. Give them something familiar but at the same time new. I’m not going to be exotic just to do it, and we’ve gotten a really good response on a lot of these.”

    For the record, I’ve subsequently refrained, each time I see Lou, from shouting out a new melt suggestion. For one thing, I’m pretty sure he won’t make a peppermint melt. For another, his fertile imagination has already proven creatively reliable. I trust him with my melted cheese.

    And I know President Reagan would want it that way.

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