There aren't many, but one special purpose appliance I do like (in theory alone at this point) is the removable plate grill/griddle/panini press.
Before all you purists roll your eyes, consider that in addition to making paninis, you can come home from work late and cook fresh chicken breasts and pile of asparagus and be done in 10 minutes flat..with carmelization! Then just throw the removable plates into the sink or dishwasher and you're ready to settle down to a reasonable dinner. The lid of the press not only cuts cooking time down significantly by applying two cooking surfaces, it also shields spatter and cuts down the mess.
Admittedly, cooking this way is not how I like to on saturday afternoon. But on work nights, it makes things a lot easier. Or did, I should say. After wearing out my Cuisinart model grill and panini press, I replaced it with an a simpler iron plate that goes right on top of the stove burner. If I want paninis, I just heat up a cast iron skillet and put it, bottom down, right onto the sandwich.
I'm still open to the right electric grill/panini press with removable plates, but the perfect appliance doesn't exist yet, as far as I can tell.
The Removable Plates
Most removable plate grills have interchangeable cooking surfaces that fit onto their heating elements so you can convert them into griddles. Some even let you open them up completely so both cooking surfaces are flat, doubling the total cooking area. If you've got a big brunch party, this can be extra helpful when all burners are occupied.
Most panini presses/grill cooking plates are made with some sort of non-stick coating. When the plates are removable, you can simple wash them like you would any non-stick, and move on with your life. If the plates don't come out, get ready for serious wiping. If there's any type of fat rendering involved, life just gets messier and requires more wiping. Really, if the plates aren't removable, plan for mainly panini pressing or griddling pancakes.
Comparing Removable Plate Grills
George Foreman grills exploded the market for electric nonstick two-sided cooking, but along with dubious health claims about draining away all kinds of fat (who would really want that??) they're made with quite a bit of plastic and generally suck in the looks department.
The Cuisinart Gourmet Griddler removable plate panini press/grill (around $100) has a metal body, but it's quality isn't great either, especially around the controls. The knobs have silver foil on them to make them look like metal (nice try guys) and inexplicably have two knobs that do the exact same thing, adjust the temperature.
These flaws are fairly minor and easy to overlook, but what's not is the awkward fat drains that require you to position oddly shaped cups under a spout ever time you use it, and the fact that the teflon on the removable plates didn't stand the test of time. After just a few months of regular use, they lost their nonstick properties and began to flake. I wouldn't buy another one.
The Breville Ikon Removable Plate Grill's Daddy
The Breville Ikon removable plate grill is based on an existing model, a larger grill/griddle/panini press. The larger model is perfect for pancakes and panini, but not really for "grilling" because you can't remove the plates to clean them.
On the positive side, the larger model has a brilliantly smart, built-in fat drippings tray that's designed as a simple, easy to handle drawer. It also has a very functional, cunning hinge that enables the cooking surfaces to open out flat or lock partially open in a number of upright positions, providing a huge range of options. It even has a tilt mechanism that lets you slope the cooking surface to encourage fat or liquids to drain off, or un-tilt to griddle pancakes flat.
The quality of this thing is indisputable. It's a heavy, really well-made appliance with solid controls, industrial switches, and evenly distributed heat. It warms up quickly and powerfully, and has a lot of nice touches like built in cord storage and a brushed steel surface that's easy to clean.
Unfortunately, the plates don't come out (really, its biggest drawback) and the permanent cooking surfaces are one grill and one griddle. If you use either one for fatty, messy foods you're stuck cleaning with sponges and rags because you can't run this large appliance under the tap. The second significant bummer is that you can't simply switch off the lid heating element, so when you're using it for pancakes only, the top part heats wastefully.
If Breville were to redesign this thing with removable, interchangeable cooking plates and a three position switch (turn on lower surface, turn on both upper and lower surfaces, and everything off) this appliance would be nearly perfect.
The Skinny on Breville's New, Skinny Offering
I was excited when Breville, a brand that makes a very nicely designed home coffee burr grinder and water boiler as well as the grill/press I described, came out with a mid-size removable plate grill. It costs around $150 if you shop around.
Overall, compared with the quality of its predecessor, the new model is pretty disappointing. They kept the integrated fat drain/drawer idea (which is good in theory) but on this model it's small, fills quickly, and it's awkward to pull out when it's full of drippings. Even more maddening, the drawer has a metallic strip (purely for looks) glued onto the outside which gets very hot. So you have to wait for everything to cool off before you can handle it. If they had left off the strip, that would not be a problem.
The metal body feels much more cheaply made than other Breville appliances, and it lacks the 180 degree hinge, so you don't gain a larger griddle surface. It comes with one "bonus" griddle surface to replace one of the grills, but it really should come with two (as well as open out completely). That's disappointing, too, and very unclear in the marketing language I've seen for this thing.
Overall, it doesn't feel well made enough to be a Breville, or well enough to justify the price for it's size and features. Sadly, I must give this appliance a B--. I'm rooting for Breville to rethink and retool this design to be a little smarter and well made like it's many siblings.