Sandwich Innovation: S.F. Chefs Create Single-Plate Artistry

Spurred on by start-ups like Pal's Takeaway, Kitchenette, and Deli Board, San Francisco's sandwich scene has taken a huge leap over the past few years, providing a myriad of options beyond the once-standard Dutch-crunch-cased, cold-cut-crammed gut-bomb. This trend hasn't gone unnoticed by the city's upper-crust culinary crowd, as evidenced by two high-profile openings that feature very different takes on the sandwich.

Sweet Woodruff is the brainchild of Matt McNamara and Teague Moriarty, who also own the Michelin-starred Sons and Daughters a few blocks away. Though prices are moderate, fine dining touches are prevalent. Shelves stocked with fresh produce and cookbooks line the walls, and an open kitchen reveals hushed chefs toiling with a Buddhist's focus. Even the cuts on the sandwiches were remarkably precise, as if their maker used a T-square and a wire.

Deconstruct the ingredients of the roast chicken sandwich ($12) and you could easily confuse it for an expensive, square-plated entrée at a posh bistro. Impossibly juicy roast chicken breast, snappy, vibrant green beans, and a few lobes of perfectly ripe avocado were dressed with a zesty, harlequin-toned chimichurri sauce, all enveloped by a soft, crackly roll. I don't recall ever being this excited over a chicken sandwich that wasn't fried.

Equally refined was a simple roast beef ($12), served on the same roll but dolled up by a snarl of soft caramelized onions, their sweetness augmenting the razor-thin slices of rare meat. Noticing that a few onions had spilled out onto my plate, I swiped them up, not wanting to waste a single strand. So meaty was a Portobello sandwich ($11) that I initially mistook it for the roast beef. Again, superior fixings were a highlight. A layer of soft mozzarella oozed freshness, as if it had just been hand-pulled, and a light spread of red pepper tapenade evoked taste memories of East Coast Italian hoagies eaten on a park bench.

Though Ryan Scott doesn't have any Michelin stars under his belt, he might be the busiest chef in San Francisco. Along with a catering business and his 3-Sum Eats food trucks, Scott is also the front man for Bon Appetit's new line of cookware, and has an upcoming show on the new Live Well network, marking a return to national television after his 2007 stint on Top Chef. He's also opened two outposts of his casual sandwich-and-salad concept Market and Rye, one in Potrero Hill and one in West Portal, which I recently visited for two lunches.

There, tricked-out gimmickry involving pop culture snack staples doomed a duo of sandwiches. The roast beef ($9) would have been fine with just a dash of the accompanying horseradish aioli, but a small pile of Funyuns dominated to the point that we scraped them off. It was as if the beef didn't exist. Similarly, a helping of Cool Ranch Doritos rendered all other ingredients in a chicken salad sandwich ($9) irrelevant. This was fun for a few bites, and provoked a few stories about drunken late-night binges back in the day, but the taste grew old fast.

Even Market and Rye's more straightforward offerings were plagued by excess. A turkey gobbler ($9) featuring a dried cranberry aioli sounded like a classic Thanksgiving leftovers mishmash, but instead got crushed by a mouth-tinging black pepper cream cheese so unpleasant that a few fellow diners discretely spit it out. The combination already had Swiss cheese — what was the purpose of the cream cheese? Truffled egg salad ($8.50) was flat-out delicious when spooned away from its accompanying horde of ingredients: capers, basil pesto, roasted tomatoes, and onions.

Bolstered by a generous stack of rosemary-and-brown-sugar-crusted bacon and a thankfully toned-down green garlic aioli, the BLT ($8.50) restored faith. And though it seemed completely out of place, the house-made falafel ($8.50) could easily compete with many of the city's best Middle Eastern delis. I questioned the addition of artichoke spread, but it worked well, helping to bring out the earthiness of the fried chickpeas.

Not one-trick ponies, both eateries dish out excellent salads. At Sweet Woodruff, savory and sweet were successfully paired in a beet and arugula salad ($8) lightly dressed with vinaigrette and honey. A few slivers of tart chèvre and a sprinkling of pistachios added a layer of texture. The combination of nuts and sweets also succeeded in a fig and cashew salad ($8) given a salty jolt by kernels of blue cheese.

Market and Rye offers meal-sized salads, but especially intriguing were the "Summer Market" salads sold by the scoop ($3.50 each, three for $10). The grilled melon, augmented by a few sprigs of mint, highlighted the fruit at its seasonal best, and a Persian cucumber salad played the crunch of small cylinders of cucumber off of the creaminess of chickpeas. Our table's winner, though, was a kale and baby spinach salad enlivened by a citrusy yuzu dressing. Pristine, sugary baby carrots put this dish over the top.

It's a treat to have highly accomplished chefs turning out reasonable food for the masses. Though the majority of the sandwiches I sampled at Market and Rye were flawed, the first-rate salads and top-notch falafel are proof that Scott is more than capable of thrilling diners on a budget. As for Sweet Woodruff, its fare can be summed up in one word: exemplary.

 
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