Toast (Durham, NC)

image courtesy of Mark Petko @ SpoonfedRaleigh

It seems I’m always promoting Durham in these pages, and this post will be no exception.  Toast is to Durham as Neal’s Deli is to Carrboro – a great little sandwich counter.  Raleigh’s lack of such an establishment remains a mystery, and reason enough to search the wider Triangle, as above, for a better sandwich experience.

Toast is an Italian style café serving panini, salads, and soups.  The restaurant occupies a narrow space in the city’s downtown, with small tables inside plus a few more spilling out onto the sidewalk in front.  It’s coffee-shop casual, and, if necessary, you can be in and out very quickly, but it’s charming enough to make it a nice spot to linger and chat.  Just order at the counter and help yourself to a drink.

The menu features plenty of classic Italian flavors.  It also does not appear to have changed much, if any, in the few years since the restaurant opened.  I selected the rapini/sweet Italian sausage/roasted garlic/asiago fresca panino ($6.50) and a cup of the daily soup – spicy lentil with peppers ($2).  My wife chose three crostini + salad ($8.75).  For this price you get two of each of the crostini, which are cut from a baguette into thin slices, toasted, and piled with the toppings.  Her choices were warm goat cheese/local honey/cracked black pepper, pesto/mozzarella/roasted tomato, and garlicky mushrooms/thyme/gorgonzola.  Our food came out promptly.  To sum it up: it was a little disappointing.  Perhaps my expectations were too high; we’d had great food here before.  This time, though, my sandwich was not terribly flavorful.  I couldn’t make out the roasted garlic, the sausage was too mild, and, if such a thing can be said, there was too much cheese.  The bread was nicely crisp and buttery though, and the soup was rich, hearty, and satisfying.  My wife’s crostini had sort of the opposite problem: the flavors were too strong, and there was too much salt.  The clear winner for her was the creamy goat cheese one.  She did report her salad to be deliciously bright, herby, and fresh.

So while we weren’t wowed by Toast this time around, we’ll be back for more.  And here’s hoping for a sandwich spot like this in Raleigh.  For it’s places like these that help make Durham a vibrant community, and that’s why I’ll continue to visit – and celebrate – the Bull City.

Neal’s Deli (Carrboro, NC)

images courtesy of This Paper Ship

Neal’s Deli in Carrboro is the perfect little lunch counter, and one of the best places for a sandwich in the Triangle.  While particularly well regarded for their classic deli sandwiches that incorporate their house made pastrami and corned beef, Neal’s also offers a range of other lunch and breakfast options, including biscuits that I’ve heard are delicious.

It’s a tiny place, better suited for take-out than a sit-down meal, although there are a handful of tables and bar stools at the window.  A small deli case showcases seasonal side dishes, like a roasted beet salad, but the main attraction here is the sandwiches.

I went with the smoked turkey ($7.50) and my wife chose the reuben ($8.50).  My sandwich featured some wonderfully citrusy crushed avocado and nice crispy bacon.  It was a winning combination despite some unremarkable, unsmoky sliced turkey meat.  The reuben was the better choice.  It was hot, juicy, and sweet, and piled high with excellent corned beef.

Neal’s offers simple sandwiches done right.  You wouldn’t think that would be such a hard thing to find, would you?  Durham, of course, has Toast, with its great panini, but Raleigh could really use a great little sandwich shop like these.  One can always hope.

Review: Sandwhich (Chapel Hill, NC)

image courtesy of taylortakesataste.com

You can get a sandwich at a lot of restaurants, but an excellent spot that features sandwiches can be hard to come by.  Leaving out for the time being delis and sub shops (though those have their merits), I’m thinking here of those gourmet cafes that feature fabulous crusty breads, fine meats, cheeses, and produce, and interesting and tasty side items.  Chapel Hill’s Sandwhich is one place that aims to fit this bill.

Situated next to the McDonald’s on Franklin Street, the space is surprisingly sleek and refined on the inside, with dark wood tables and subtle lighting.  Open shelves are stacked neatly with chunky white plates and fancy Moroccan-looking teapots.  It’s a sophisticated feel for a casual restaurant.  After you place your order at the counter and help yourself to a drink, the unfailingly friendly staff will bring it to your table.  Each sandwich is served on a small jelly-roll pan covered with a sheet of parchment, with side items presented in diverse ways: roasted beets in an elegant porcelain cup, fries in a red-and-white checkered paper cone, chips in their own little bag.

The Moroccan theme carries over in subtle ways on the menu – the house special iced tea (with mint and sage), spicy harissa ketchup, a carrot salad garnish.  Other than that, the hot and cold sandwich offerings range from the straightforward (burgers) to the inventive (corn, cremini, bacon, and blue cheese on sourdough).  These are accompanied by a nice selection of side items, priced a la carte.

I ordered the “GMC” (grilled chicken, almond pesto, peppers and onions, and provolone, $8.50) with a side of their hand-cut, twice-cooked fries ($3), and my wife ordered a “Mr. Crunch” (prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, lettuce, mint/lemon oil, $9.25) as a combo with their chips and tea (an extra $3).  Both sandwiches were served on crusty but unremarkable bread – mine on a toasted hoagie roll and my wife’s on a crispy baguette.  Both were good, but neither sandwich really had enough flavor.  Mine suffered from a lack of pesto punch; my wife’s may have benefited from a bit more of that prosciutto (i.e. more fat and salt) and/or a nice juicy tomato, although the fresh mint on her sandwich was a nice touch.  A side of the roasted beets ($3) was also a little too plain.  The opposite was true for the chips, which were dusted with fresh herbs, heavy on the salt, and a bit oily.  Each sandwich also came with a few sliced, quick-marinated pickles, which were sweet and refreshing.  The fries were really just average, but I did like the spicy, smoky ketchup.  The iced tea ($2.50 if purchased a la carte) was quite strongly flavored but I enjoyed it (though my wife – the tea aficionado – did not), and it’s nice that you can sweeten it to your liking with some simple syrup.

I don’t want to make it sound like a bad meal; it wasn’t.  Everything was satisfying enough, but there was just nothing to get excited about.  The prices at Sandwhich, while reflective of the scratch preparations, quality ingredients (real prosciutto de parma, fresh mozzarella) and care in execution, are definitely on the high side.  Portion sizes are reasonable (e.g. not insanely huge), but $10-12 is still a lot to pay for a sandwich and a side item.  For comparison, a sandwich at the La Farm Bakery Café in Cary (featuring their amazing bread) costs about $7, including a side of chips, or a panino from Durham’s excellent Toast, with a side of soup or salad, runs about $8.50.   In the end, Sandwhich holds a lot of promise as a gourmet destination, and it’s a nice place to have a meal, but there are better values to be had – and indeed better sandwiches – elsewhere in the Triangle.

Farm to Fork 2011

After a couple years of missing out, I was lucky enough to finally attend this year’s Farm to Fork Festival this past Sunday.  Featuring virtually all of the areas top restaurants, chefs, and farmers, it was an incredible event for food lovers.  This being my first time in attendance, I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I came prepared (read: hungry) and left completely stuffed after having tried samples from maybe 20 out of the 30 or so tents.  Most, if not all, of the offerings showcased the region’s freshest produce at its peak: tomatoes, squash, eggplant, blueberries, and so on.  These were augmented by the best of the best in local meats and cheeses in the preparation of some amazing and creative concoctions.  While not everything was a smash hit, here are a few of the highlights:

1)      Arancini from Toast: eggplant, Carolina gold rice, and smoked mozzeralla, fried to a delicious crisp huge ball and served with a bit of tomato passata sauce

2)      Orecchiette pasta from Il Palio: almost gnocchi-like noodles with pesto, sage, peppers, zucchini, pesto, asiago, and plenty of olive oil.  So, so good.

3)      Quark panna cotta with blackberry and cornmeal shortbread from Magnolia Grill: decadent cool custard with ripe fruit and a cookie – executed perfectly

4)      Tomato summer “pudding” from Magnolia Grill: this was like a hybrid bread pudding/sandwich with mozzarella, tomato and basil.  Simple and elegant.

5)      Herbed squash fritter with tomato chutney from Market Restaurant: a little mushy but it had great flavor

6)      Tomato popsicle from Watts Grocery: they were out of the other flavors by the time I made it over there, but this was good and my daughter loved it

7)      Sausages from Farmhand Foods: they had three different kinds (the names of which I can’t recall), but the spicy one was fatty and succulent

8)      Bread samples from Chicken Bridge Bakery: plain with fresh butter, duck egg-cornmeal with blueberry compote topping, and potato-garlic-rosemary

9)      Blue and black berry buckle from Scratch: a pretty standard coffee cake like thing, done well

10)   Chicken strudel from Saxapahaw General store: a rich and wintery pot-pie kind of affair, but delicious nonetheless

11)   Curried chicken and potato with pickled red onions from Panzanella

12)   Thin crust pizza slices from Stone’s Throw Pizza

And there were many others, and some that I didn’t even get around to trying.  Already looking forward to next year!