Think you know sandwiches? Take a taste of these for an eye opener.
Finally, someone in this town is taking the sandwich seriously. Boy, are they ever.
At Be'wiched, chefs/co-owners Matthew Bickford and Michael Ryan have scrupulously adapted the high-end culinary practices of their former employers (La Belle Vie, Restaurant Alma, D'Amico Cucina) to an everyday dining staple. It's simple mathematics: Add exceptional ingredients and top-notch craftsmanship to a taken-for-granted genre, and the sum will definitely exceed its parts. Why didn't someone think of this before?
The best of Be'wiched's paper-wrapped beauties radiate a kind of inevitability, as if each represented countless experiments that were elegantly refined to a single, triumphant idea. Turkey is embellished with rich dates, tangy chèvre and delicate frisée dressed in a bacon vinaigrette. Layer upon layer of succulent roast beef, so irresistible it could easily stand on its own, somehow manages to grow in stature when it's married to a sweet onion jam, a blazing horseradish crème fraîche and a quick spritz of olive oil and red wine.
Unlike many barbecue-style sandwiches, where the smoky-sweet notes have all the subtlety of a KTLK shock jock, the pulled pork at Be'wiched is all about nuance: There's a little smoke, a smidgen of cinnamon-coriander-cumin heat, a slight molasses sweetness, and they all convene in fat forkfuls of low-and-slow cooked pork that seductively melts in your mouth. Coarsely grated slaw adds to the party, and the fine onion bun acts as a perfect envelope.
A daily special I walked into last week was equally noteworthy, a hoagie bun stacked with fried tomatoes -- crisp on the outside, meltingly sweet inside -- and then piled high with cool poached shrimp, herb-flecked shredded lettuce and a spicy remoulade packed with capers and pickles. It was the rare Be'wiched sandwich that did not appear to be engineered to maintain its shape; it fell apart after a few bites, but who cares? It was delicious.
Anyone who associates the words "tuna sandwich" with "Miracle Whip" and "Chicken of the Sea" will find the Be'wiched version a revelation. Albacore loins are cured overnight in sugar and salt, then rubbed in oregano, basil and olive oil and slow-cooked at a low temperature. The result -- so velvety, so luxurious -- is forked apart, piled high on rosemary-flecked focaccia and finished with a host of highly flattering ingredients: an earthy olive spread, a crunchy layer of cucumbers and the sprightly ping of preserved lemons.
Oh my gosh, I nearly forgot about the pastrami. The pastrami! Who knows why, but finding a decent pastrami in Minnesota is about as likely as cheering on the Gophers at the Rose Bowl. But not at Be'wiched, where ultra-lean brisket is brined for five days and crusted with peppercorns before it is enveloped in apple and cherry wood smoke. The astonishing outcome is shaved thin and piled high on a sturdy rye with just the right accompaniments: that roughhouse slaw and a robust grainy mustard that, if it could speak, would probably bark in a thick Bronx accent.
Vegetarians are not forgotten. What the kitchen does with the "Un-Burger" is a treat, and a million miles away from the Boca Burgers of this world, a ruby red and unexpectedly savory patty built with mushrooms and roasted beets and crowned with slow-cooked onions. I like the spicy egg salad, and I'm equally enthusiastic about asparagus, stacked like logs and dressed with a zesty piperade and peppery fennel.
Salads move far beyond supermarket standards. I could eat the mellow, caper-packed potato salad every day. Ditto its polar opposite, white and green beans coated in a four-alarm Chinese mustard. That fantastic tuna confit takes center stage in front of little pasta disks and black olives. The Caesar isn't afraid to lay on the marvelously salty anchovy, and fresh greens dance with brightly toned vinaigrettes.
If I wasn't as wild about the ham, chicken and cold-cuts sandwiches, it was only because they lacked the overt inventiveness of their menu counterparts. Baker Mike Decamp's expert breads certainly make a favorable impression. The easygoing desserts are less consistent. For every big, butter-soaked cookie -- and a champ of a brownie -- there's a forgettable bread pudding or tart. Soups are similarly hit and miss.
Jimmy John's devotees might do a double-take at the prices, but naysayers will be won over by the abundant portions and the quality that announces itself at every turn, although Bickford and Ryan don't shy away from some fast-food practices. Ordering and paying takes place counter-side. Soft drinks and coffee are self-service. There's even a buy-nine-get-one-free frequent diner card. Box lunches, too, and talk about an employee benefit: If my bosses stocked a nearby conference room with a steady supply of Be'wiched noon-hour catering platters, I'd happily pony up all of my own health insurance costs.
The wide-open kitchen, lined with sparkling white subway tile and packed with eye-catching equipment, is obviously designed to demonstrate the enormous care and feeding that goes into each and every menu item; no Cryovac-ed Hormel meats for this kitchen. I wish the bare-bones (and awkwardly lit) dining area had equal appeal; it's no coincidence that the best seats are along a counter that runs the length of that fascinating watch-'em-work cooking area. But then I have to remind myself: La Belle Vie, it ain't. It's a deli. Make that the deli.
Rick Nelson • firstname.lastname@example.org