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Feature Thu Apr 23 2009
Ham and swiss, with tomato, on wheat. Peanut butter and jelly, on white. Roast turkey on toast with fries and cheese sauce. You know them, you love them. They're sandwiches. (Well, that last one is technically a horseshoe. But same concept, and so good.) Long the stalwart of the school day brown bag lunch, sandwiches are quickly becoming the vanguard of the new middle ground between traditional and trendy cuisine. Don't believe me? Look no further than the lobster dog, my friends.
"Sophisticated" and "sandwich" are not the most likely words to see paired together. Kind of like a late-night, too-many-mojitos, ironic/I-couldn't-think-of-anything-good Apples To Apples hand. Even a contradiction in terms, perhaps. And yet, the sophisticated sandwich seems to be gaining a serious foothold in contemporary cuisine. One might ask, to what end? What is the virtue of an upscale sandwich, when McDonald's and every other fast fooderie are touting snack wraps and other barely-there sandwichettes for the pocket change you may be able to find in between the couch cushions, and everyday Americans are charging groceries on entropic and unstable credit cards? (Yes. I mean me. I charged eggs and coffee last week. I can assure you I'm not alone.) Whence the lobster dog? And why??
The trend, while certainly highly visible as of late, is not exactly new. Phil Vettel recently gave Bucktown's Hot Chocolate, and presumably its krema, lamb sausage and arugula flatbread sandwich, three "enthusiastic" stars. I ate that three years ago, Phil! And it was just as glorious then -- as were their takes on the classic BLT, tuna melt, and one very memorable pork belly reuben. (All of which clock in around $12.)
The Birchwood, which recently opened on North Avenue, has been getting press for its inventive sandwiches and other high-quality lunch fare. A former Pastoral fromager is a partner in the operation, and seeing a vegetarian sandwich featuring cashew butter and a red onion combination rung a culinary bell. I had a similar sandwich about a year ago at...Pastoral! Back then it was goat cheese and almond butter with a celery-red onion slaw, or something similar, and I liked it so much I stole the idea for a batch of tea sandwiches for a potluck brunch. And even that sandwich bears at least a passing resemblance to the Hopleaf's CB&J, a melty combination of cashew butter, fig jam and morbier cheese, which they've been slinging for years.
With sandwiches, as with Hollywood, everything new is old, it seems. Which, if that means a return to quality ingredients and interesting combinations (and a step away from Oscar Mayer baloney and Wonder Bread), is definitely a good thing. A more abstract view of the sandwich leaves even more room for inventive experimentation. What is a sandwich, really, other than a food template? Outer "handle" portion, some sort of bread. Inner fillings, whatever you please.
The regional evolution of sandwiches rivals that of Darwin's Galapagos critters -- the Chicago-style hot dog, for example, versus the Philly Cheesesteak. Two sandwiches that totally, if touristically, define the cities they come from, and feature components specific to each. Vienna Beef dogs and Gonnella Bread buns couldn't be more Chicago. Though where that neon relish comes from is still mysterious to me (the Chicago River, post-St. Patty's day?). The names of regional sandwiches alone are enough to make your head spin: hero, hoagie, hot brown, gyro, submarine, bahn mi, croque monsieur, club, caprese. All of these were, conceivably, natural outgrowths of a people's local tastes and desire for handheld food -- and many of these still may seem "gourmet" to the uninitiated.
As the sandwich has evolved, so too the sandwich-restaurant. In Chicago, Jerry's two locations in the West Loop and Wicker Park churn out thousands of different and often exotic sandwich combinations every day. Just mathematically speaking, Jerry's may have cornered the market on the endless list of possibilities to stick between two pieces of bread, each with a cute name. (Including the Milton F., which is a build-your-own from a list of approximately 90 fillings, condiments and breads.) The list includes gems like the Spencer P, with bacon, peanut butter, apple, basil and cranberry sauce. I've tried this particular concoction before, and while it's certainly a step away from the ordinary, it's still not necessarily good on its own merits -- which seems to be the great potential downfall of the sandwich-restaurant. If the goods don't deliver beyond the gimmick, it's not much of a business plan. Except for the $9 and up price tag.
Not that the risk of a disappointing yet pricey sandwich is going to stop anyone from trying. Tom Colicchio's 'wichcraft restaurants in New York seem to be going strong enough to support a new cookbook allowing fans to try their hand at marinated white anchovies with soft-cooked egg, roasted onion, salsa verde and frisée on country bread at home. The restaurant itself espouses Colicchio's mission from Craft and his other enterprises -- quality ingredients, exceptional food, and now at affordable prices! The success of the chef-driven model doesn't seem to be lost on Colicchio's peers, either. Graham Elliot Bowles is considering a similar operation here in Chicago, serving panini, old-fashioned sodas and seasonal milkshakes.
The real surprise in all of this is that it seems to be working. Customers are consistently willing to shill out a bit extra for a well-crafted sandwich (Paul Kahan's seared whitefish number at Blackbird), even if they would normally balk at plated entrees from the same restaurant (ahhh! it's Blackbird!). The proof is in the fast food pudding -- even McDonald's is considering unleashing a $4 Angus burger upon the public this fall. More than pocket change, and better than x-quality hamburger? What is this, France?
More than just the entry-point to a plated gourmet experience, the upscale sandwich seems to be gourmet-to-go for tight times. A sandwich can be an entire meal, can feature every block on the food pyramid and creatively combine tastes and textures, for less than $15 in almost every case. If that's all the gourmet you or your pocketbook can take, you're in good hands. And with a food you can eat with your hands! Probably. (See: Horseshoe.) Suddenly $18 for lobster at one of Chicago's most up and coming new culinary castles sounds a lot more reasonable -- Lockwood lobster dog, here I come. As soon as I get that last quarter out of my couch...