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Taste: Anyway you slice it, sandwiches suit all ages, palates

  • Article by: Rick Nelson
  • Star Tribune
  • September 3, 2003 - 11:00 PM

LOS ANGELES -- "Are you here for grilled-cheese night?" asked our waiter, a warm smile unfolding across his face.

Of course. It's Thursday, right? Moments later we were perusing the menu in the minimalist, pale-yellow bar at Campanile, the remarkable restaurant owned by food-world luminaries Nancy Silverton and Mark Peel.

Soon enough, Silverton, one of the nation's preeminent bakers, stepped into her nearby position, her mise en place neatly laid out in an arc of small dishes across the edge of the bar. With the help of an assistant who seemed to telepathically read her every move -- and with both of them nimbly dodging the frenetic efforts of three busy bartenders -- Silverton quietly began what she has done most Thursdays for the past six years, pressing sandwiches on her small panini grill and drawing a large crowd to the celebrated 14-year-old Cal-Med restaurant.

Silverton, also the creative force behind the adjacent, extraordinary La Brea Bakery, got into sandwiches -- big time -- on the last day of a weeklong Italian foodie junket. Exhausted by the gustatory overkill, she spent her last night depressurizing in a hole-in-the-wall crostini bar in Florence, instantly smitten by the simplicity of small slices of toasted bread rubbed with garlic and draped with tuna, egg, anchovies, prosciutto, arugula and Parmesan.

Back home in L.A., she found herself craving those unassuming open-faced nibbles. She decided to replicate them in the bar at Campanile, but stamp them with her own signature, emphasizing seasonal ingredients and fabricating recipes to match the restaurant's exacting culinary standards. The casual Thursday evening event proved to be a delicious juxtaposition to the more formal splendors of the Campanile dining room, and Los Angelenos descended in droves.

Chronicling the weekly ritual eventually yielded Silverton's sixth cookbook: "Nancy Silverton's Sandwich Book" (Knopf, $25.95), a compendium of more than five dozen inventive sandwiches along with similarly inspired snacks and desserts.

The book's subtitle, "The best sandwiches ever," isn't an exaggeration. Step into Silverton's world and you'll never want to go back; it's roughly akin to spending years behind the wheel of a third-hand Ford Fiesta and then suddenly being handed the keys to a factory-fresh Porsche Boxster.

On that warm night we grazed through a half-dozen sandwiches, and their superior ingredients and meticulous craftsmanship made each more pleasing than its predecessor. Several were tried-and-true standards that Silverton burnished to luxurious new heights. We started off with the evening's namesake -- when in Rome, right? -- which paired mellow Gruyère with the tangy underbite of coarse mustard and sweet onions marinated in Champagne vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil; it was easily the best grilled-cheese sandwich I've ever tasted. The classic mozzarella-roasted red pepper combination was tweaked with fried Pequillo peppers and burrata (mozzarella's more glamorous sibling), along with whole basil leaves and parchment-thin garlic slivers. We ate every morsel.

Others germinated in Silverton's imagination, their contrasting flavor and texture combinations far more exciting than your basic turkey-on-rye. One open-faced beauty was a pile of thinly sliced, meltingly tender braised lamb dressed with roasted eggplant, curried chickpeas and seasoned yogurt. It recalled a line I'd read in her book. "Don't look at them as complicated sandwiches," it said, "but as satisfying entrees on bread." Right on.

Another was an enticing combination of salty prosciutto, bitter greens and a ruddy fava-bean purée. There was a happy marriage of braised artichokes, pine nuts, currants and a tender ricotta; a marvelous mint pesto sneaked in and gave it a bright, unexpected punch. Finally there was a knockout construct of roasted asparagus, a smoky Basque sheep's milk cheese, succulent bacon and a fried egg. All were built with slices of the La Brea's peerless sourdough breads.

Visiting Silverton's establishment and passing on dessert would be like traveling to the Vatican and skipping the Sistine Chapel. The cookbook features nearly a dozen sandwich-style goodies, from faux Oreos and deluxe Girl Scout knockoffs to an angel-food cookie based on a recipe from writer/director Nora Ephron; it's Hollywood, remember? Unfortunately, none were on the day's menu, but that hardly qualified as a disappointment, given the day's roster, from which we chose a buoyant Pavlova with a blood-red cassis sorbet and an expert brown-butter tart with a puckery lemon curd and perfect blueberries.

Recreating elements from Campanile's sandwich night -- a k a grilled-cheese night, for those who prefer the staffs' slang -- isn't easy, but it's not impossible, either. Sure, forget about recasting the animated three-deep-at-the-bar atmosphere, the astonishing wine list (ministered with intelligence and care by Minnesota native George Cossette), the one-of-a-kind setting (the 1929 landmark was originally designed to house Charlie Chaplin's offices) or the unabashed pleasure that comes from dining in one of this country's great restaurants.

But Silverton the cookbook author takes great pains to guide the home cook toward simulating the food aspect of grilled-cheese night perfection in their own kitchens. The voluminous recipes leave no detail unturned; at first glance their detail veers toward control-freakish, but in reality the baby-step-by-baby-step instructions are easy to follow.

The sheer number of recipes no doubt matches the content of several months of Thursday-night menus. Amy Neunsinger's canny photographs capture the strikingly visual appeal of Silverton's handicraft. And a lengthy list of sources steer ingredients-challenged shoppers toward the book's trickier requirements.

Back at Campanile, we pondered but rejected a third dessert as overkill. Our server appeared with the check. "Thanks for coming to grilled-cheese night," he said. "Come back again soon."

We will. Maybe not in L.A., but thanks to "Nancy Silverton's Sandwich Book," we know that our future will include such evenings of our own making.

Rick Nelson is at rdnelson@startribune.com.

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