Mozz & Melba Highs & Lows
Yes, it’s a regional food. That is defined by the fact that it exists widely right here in upstate New York and virtually no place else. I don’t care how many locals have never even heard of this combo, or how disgusting it sounds to some.
It is ours. And in an attempt to understand it better, I grabbed five other hungry and adventurous souls who were willing to sacrifice their bodies for the sake of science. Along the way we found the ones with the gooiest cheese and the brightest, most delicious raspberry sauce. But the very best version of the form belonged to another place entirely.
Here’s how it all went down.
The six of us started the day at TJs Cafe. We were informed that an order came with just three pieces of cheese, so we got two of them. These were neither cheese sticks nor logs. They were more like filets: large and flat rectangular slabs that were encrusted in a crisp and virtually greaseless shell of golden breading. The sauce was made in-house out of raspberry jam that had been concentrated and thinned with simple syrup. There was clearly raspberry pulp evident in the sauce, but no seeds.
CP remarked, “SO MELTY! The cheese had a really nice texture, and the breading was crisp.” She wasn’t kidding. You can literally crack these fried slabs open and be treated to delightfully oozing and flavorful mozzarella. Combining this with melba sauce isn’t fundamentally different from pairing a runny brie with jam. The flavor combination is classic. The practice of frying the cheese to attain this runny consistency is an inspired upstate innovation.
After a promising start I drove the whole crew in the dadmobile up the street to Ralph’s Tavern.
Their mozzarella sticks come six to an order, and are clearly made by hand. It’s obvious based on their irregular shape and size, and the mottled appearance of the thin, lighter breading. These were also much greasier than the first stop, and you can tell by how much oil is left behind on the greens they’re presented upon.
Albany Jane said they were, “Fatty & greasy but not too oily. Delicate, salty & well balanced.” It should be noted that there is good greasy and bad greasy. These clearly fell into the good greasy camp. The sauce was a bit thicker than the one at TJs but was filled with lots of hard raspberry seeds. Still, when combined with the saltier sticks, the combination worked great.
I don’t know who suggested checking out the Across the Street Pub. I’m going to do them a favor and try to forget it ever happened. To be fair, perhaps the establishment changed up how they make their mozzarella and melba. But it was an eye opening experience. Here the sticks came six to an order, and they resembled what you might find in the Sam’s Club freezer. The melba sauce was a clear deep dark crimson with a glossy sheen.
Most notable here was that this was the first stop where the cheese sticks were coated with an herb blend in the breading that included garlic. While this may go great with the more traditional marinara dipping sauce, it clashes horribly with melba.
Perhaps it was because of the dinky sticks at the previous stop, but when Graney’s mozzarella logs arrived at our table, the site was met with a, “Wow!” Albany Jane described them as “sized like Twinkies.” Generally they come five to an order, but the kitchen graciously added another one onto our order (for an additional charge).
As impressive as these monsters were, once again an upstate mozzarella stick was sullied with an Italian herb blend that doesn’t play well with raspberry sauce. Speaking of which, Graney’s melba was surprisingly similar to the one used at Across The Street, except for being a good bit thicker. Without the herbed breading this solid version could have been a contender.
The final stop was Beff’s, which puts four jumbo cheese sticks on a plate with each order. It was a relief to see not a trace of herbs in the breading, but damn, was that coating thick. I mean, super thick. So thick it no longer tasted like bread crumbs, but actually slices of sandwich bread.
It was a real shame too, because Beff’s made the best raspberry sauce on the tour by far. Some suffered from being too sweet. Others didn’t have a true raspberry flavor. But all of them thus far could have benefited from some balancing acidity. And Beff’s brought a little tang to the table. Sadly, it wasn’t enough to counter the massive amount of bread on the cheese. CP said it well, “I can’t get past the weird bread coating. It was still soggy on the inside.”
Ultimately, there were two standouts. TJ’s and Ralph’s.
TJ’s got the nod from BIgTex81. He said,“The strongest feature of any bar was the cheese at TJ’s. The ‘goo’ quotient was quite high, to the point of melted goodness.”
StanfordSteph was in the Ralph’s camp based on its having a “good amount of salt to offset the sweet sauce.”
In the end it came down to a matter of salt. In a four to two split, CP cast a critical vote. As she summed up her findings, she gave a “slight edge to Ralph’s for the product we tasted today. I think TJ’s could be the best with more seasoning. Beff’s had the best sauce, but I really didn’t like their breading. Graney’s might be great with marinara sauce.”
Texturally speaking, the mozz and melba at TJ’s are out of this world. They are beautifully fried, and clearly made from some great ingredients. But this battle was won by inches and not yards. A melba sauce that our tasters found to be just a little too sweet, and a cheese filet that really needed more salt to amp up its flavor, fell just a little bit short on Saturday.
Congratulations to Ralph’s. Your greasy, salty sticks explode with flavor in the mouth, and release wicked endorphins of pure pleasure in the brain. Especially when paired with a sweet and sticky sauce, seeds be damned. So you may not be the prettiest cheese log in the land. You’ve got it where it counts.
Maybe we don’t have to send Mr. Dave back in time to the Ralph’s of his youth. This place may be old and its glory might be faded. But they clearly have a mastery of the regional classics.