Sizzling and flame cheese dishes in restaurants are more popular than ever

Spicy Qusiri cheese at Zuzzo’s restaurant | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Spicy Qusiri cheese at Zuzzo’s restaurant | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

At Zou Zou’s colorful restaurant, which opened in Manhattan last fall, the atmosphere is rowdy. “When a restaurant is full, the bustling activity is an understatement,” says restaurant executive chef Madeline Sperling. “There’s a lot of party energy.”

It’s no surprise, then, that one of the most popular dishes at the Mediterranean-style restaurant is the Kasri cheese plate, which is served tableside and literally lit on fire.

Sizzling cheese plates are combinations from Mexican and Greek restaurants across the United States and are a simple but winning combination: cheese, a splash of alcohol, and fire. Restaurants that have recently opened across the country, such as Mandolin Aegean Bistro in Los Angeles, are bringing a renewed excitement to these dishes.

Sperling casseroles blaze to traditional saganaki cheese. In Greece, the term “saganaki” refers to dishes prepared in a two-handled frying pan – the most famous of which is saganaki cheese, which is traditionally fried in butter or olive oil and served with lemon. Greek diners in the United States didn’t know the blazing cheese plate until the now-closed Parthenon in Chicago. The waiters were setting fire to the cheese and shouting “Oppa!” and hand it to amaze the guests (and the other guests followed). Even in the pre-Instagram days, people loved the scene.

When Sperling and kitchen chef Juliana Latif planned their menu, they knew they needed another hot appetizer. Suggested a nice flamed cheese platter. “We kind of looked at each other because it seemed kind of obvious,” Sperling says. “It’s not a particularly creative dish by definition, but at the same time, it’s a lot of fun to have a hot pan of cheese.”

Spicy Qusiri cheese at Zuzzo's restaurant
Spicy Qusiri cheese at Zuzzo’s restaurant | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

To make the cheese dish, they use a block of kasry cheese (made from sheep’s milk) and dip it in flour. They are then roasted and served in a small cast iron bowl with candied pumpkin seeds and chili flakes. “On the table, we pour about an ounce of arak — a Lebanese anise-flavored liqueur with a high alcohol content — so that when we set it on fire it burns wildly,” explains Sperling. The dish is served with talami bread with golden arak soaked raisins.

In Dallas, Mexican restaurant Vidorra has captured the attention of diners with its flaming queso fundido since 2018 (a second location opened in 2020). The dish features melted Oaxaca cheese (a semi-hard white cheese with a texture similar to mozzarella) with a variety of garnishing options such as squash, chorizo, and chicken tinga. Give a splash of tequila and set fire to a molcajete pot, which reaches 400 degrees.

“As he passes through the dining room, obviously everyone is pointing and cheering,” says Rodman Shields, director of culinary experiences at Milkshake Concepts, which owns Vidorra. “We like for everyone to take pictures of our things. We do a lot of presentations about authentic dishes that are modified our way to make it kind of eye-catching.”

Queso Blanco | fedora

When a fiery order leaves the kitchen, Shields says, the chefs at Vidorra know more orders will be served — likening it to the “fajita effect.” “When one goes into the dining room, we sell a ton of queso. So when the waiter comes out of the kitchen with this, diners can see it, smell it, and see steam rising and bubbling,” says Shields. “He’s definitely the number one seller.”

In fact, sound is important for knowing how we perceive the foods we eat, says Robin Dando, associate professor of food sciences at Cornell University. But when it comes to the popularity of cheese dishes, it’s probably as simple as a classic adaptation. “We all know about it from Pavlov, and I think that’s what really happens when someone orders a dish like that,” Dando says. “Then you’ll start to see other people inside the restaurant looking over again, and then they order the same dish, and they start sort of a succession.”

Basically, we associate a certain sound with a delicious taste in the future (the crackling of cheese as it passes across your table, the characteristic crunch of potato chips). “We know it’s going to be a crunchy, crunchy, and satisfying dish, because we’ve probably had it before at some point,” he says.

When it comes to sizzling cheese dishes, there is also a theatrical element. The idea of ​​a theater isn’t new to Sperling, who came from Make It Nice Group, which was serving truffle-stuffed chicken at the table. “I definitely think that’s something that people can get excited about when they go back to restaurants after isolation,” Sperling says. “You can cook delicious food at home, but tableside hospitality is something you can only eat in a restaurant.”

After all, cheese on the fire should probably be left to the connoisseurs. “We definitely don’t want to do that at home,” she laughs.

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Leah Picard Journalist based in Atlanta and writes about food, travel, and a variety of other topics. Her work is shown in New York timesAnd the Washington PostAnd the Wine loversAnd the CNN Travel.

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