In our food-obsessed culture, there's no end to the whim and whimsies that compel restaurateurs to pull people into their establishments. Lexington, meet Tom+Chee, where your mom's favorite winter-day recipe gets a major upgrade.
Yes, it's that simple ... or something: a restaurant that revolves around the many permutations of tomato soup and grilled-cheese sandwiches. Luckily for everyone involved, the results are good and go far beyond the original rather squee concept.
In fact, the menu is so voluminous that it's difficult to choose. You can pick from a list of at least 20 sandwich options, three variations of tomato soup and four salads. Or you can custom-build your own sandwiches and concoct your own soup/salad/sandwich combos. Then look at the specials. Also, there's dessert to consider.
Tom+Chee (pronounced "tom and chee") is a small Cincinnati-based chain that has nine stores, mostly in Kentucky and Cincinnati. It opened in Lexington on the outskirts of Hamburg in December.
Job No. 1 on my first visit was to try the original basic sandwich: a grilled cheese with cheddar and chopped tomatoes, paired with the classic tomato soup. Good, fine, the sandwich has garlic powder, which kids might not like, but it adds a nice kick. The tomato soup was serviceable, but nothing compared to that day's fantastic special: a blue cheese chili, rich and redolent with kidney beans, meat and creamy blue cheese.
A special veggie grilled cheese also was delicious, anchored by a sharp pesto and grilled zucchini.
But my favorite was my companion's choice, the grilled cheese salad. A fantastic fresh salad of spinach and other dark greens was festooned with ribbons of carrots, chopped tomatoes, a delicious balsamic vinaigrette; it was all topped with squares of grilled cheese. Sounds disgusting, I realize, but, surprise! Grilled cheese and balsamic vinaigrette taste delicious together. Plus those "croutons" provide a touch of sin to all that healthiness.
This was a very vegetarian visit, but the sandwich menu of "fancy grilled cheese" is pretty meat-heavy. On a second visit, I tried the "flying pig" (turkey, bacon, Gouda and pickles on grilled sourdough) and the "beef+Cheddar" (grilled cheddar with beef, fried onions, and pickles). Both were delicious in that way that really fattening things often are.
Of note but not sampled: As a nod to Tom+Chee's home base, there's something called the "Armagoetta," a sandwich made with Goetta, that sausage of meat and oats that Cincinnatians love; cherry peppers; fried onions; sweet hot mustard; and pepper jack cheese on sourdough and rye.
Then there's a section of sandwiches grilled with potato chips inside, or even spicy pork rinds.
I was less enthusiastic about the Tom+Chee desserts, which fall, in my opinion, into the school of "if one rich food tastes good, let's add two or three more." The basic version is a glazed donut cut in half and grilled with cheddar cheese. The menu continues with at least eight variations on that theme. We tried the "lemon drop," which put candied lemon slices, lemon mascarpone and mozzarella on a grilled donut; and the "Bananarama," with caramelized banana and Gouda on a grilled donut. I won't say we didn't finish them, but they might have been a culinary bridge too far.
I might worry about how a restaurant featuring tomato soup and grilled cheese would fare in warmer weather, but the enormous range of sandwiches and salads should take up any slack.