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Cheese Masters debuts on Park Ave, proves mastery

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Perfectly toasted, buttery bread; molten cheese flowing carelessly from in-between carbohydrate sheets; a cup of creamy, soul-warming tomato soup wafts steam seductively into the air. Sound like mom’s kitchen? It’s not.

Cheese Masters, a Rochester company specializing in the ever-classic grilled cheese sandwich, recently moved into the Park Ave. neighborhood, bringing with it comfort-food classics so like mom’s that you’d swear they’re forcing her to labor in the back room.

Great food is no stranger to this part of the Flower City; a couple of blocks in one direction and you stumble upon well-loved gastro-pub The Old Toad. Nearby, Jines, a local establishment renowned for its breakfast, sits comfortably on the corner of Park and Berkeley. Frankly, Park Ave, to many, has always been a bit above comfort food.

With this new location of Cheese Masters at 703 Park Ave., the first opened in Eastview Mall in Fall 2012, Steve O’Brien, owner and general manager, hopes to change that. Talking with him finds a businessman and a dreamer. “It’s always been the plan to rapidly expand,” O’Brien points out, “and moving into the Park area was always part of that plan.”

Their entire menu, it seems, is crafted to give you that feeling of home, whether you’re in the middle of a work day or working off an especially trying evening of the area’s famous nightlife. “The Classic” takes the simple but well-loved formula of thick cut white bread, heavily buttered, and white American cheese singles, forging the halves together in a modified panini press.

Classic accompaniments, like tomato soup and mac’n’cheese, make an appearance, too, but you shouldn’t expect everything to be exactly like mom’s. The tomato soup, for example, is flecked with the licorice-like, earthy offerings of basil, an accoutrement that never made an appearance in my house.

That combination of reverent re-creation tinged with something new is an approach the Cheese Masters team is banking on to succeed in the decidedly trendy area. The new shop is parked right next door to Nathan's Soup & Salad, Inc. Nathan’s is no stranger to putting a twist on home-cooked favorites, like chicken noodle soup and clam chowder; naturally, you have to wonder whether or not the arrangement breeds competition.

For their part, the Cheese Masters team isn’t worried about it. “I think we can actually work together” owner Steve O’Brien tells me. “Nathan’s is more about soup, and we’re focused on grilled cheese. People have come in here after buying soup from Nathan’s to have our sandwiches...We don’t really need to compete.”

When asked about running a comfort food place in the heart of the trend-following Park Avenue neighborhood, O’Brien is just as chipper. “We’re focused on the food and having a place where people can come with their families,” a strategy that seems to be working well so far for Cheese Masters’ new location.

While the Park Ave. area has a reputation for hipster-fueled coffee shops, artisanal bakeries, and twenty-somethings embracing the most recent musical, culinary, and fashion trends, Cheese Masters’ bet on the nostalgic scents of bubbling cheese and toasted bread has proven a smart one in the four weeks since its new location opened.

Between the weekday lunch crowd and those looking for something to absorb the city’s bar fare on the weekends, Park Ave residents are giving Steve O’Brien and his cheddar-filled dream a very warm welcome.

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