Review: Sandwhich (Chapel Hill, NC)

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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.

Review: The Pig (Chapel Hill, NC)

In the world of barbecue, much is made of tradition – doing things the way they’ve always been done.  There’s something to be said for this: some of the best cue you’ll find in the Triangle comes from Allen & Sons, where Mr. Allen still gets up in the middle of the night to chop hickory wood and start the meat cooking for hours and hours.  This traditional formula has been tweaked over the years to the point that nowadays most barbecue is cooked over gas.  More recently, the cuisine has been updated by places like The Pit in Raleigh through the use of local, pasture-raised, hormone-free meat sources.  The Pig in Chapel Hill builds on this progression but takes it all even further, with an ambitious menu that aims to please the meat lover and vegetarian alike.

The building is located in a small shopping center off of Weaver Dairy Road.  Despite a large façade, the restaurant feels tucked away (it’s easy to pass right by).  The inside is quite modest and small, and, like a prototypical bbq joint, lacks much of any adornment.  The menu is scrawled on a large chalkboard above the tiny kitchen, and is impressive in its scope.  Items include not just bbq, but also pork belly sandwiches, catfish po-boys, homemade pastrami and bologna, and, for the vegetarians, country-fried tofu, shitake po-boys, or a sweet PLT sandwich (sweet potato, lettuce, tomato).  There are usually some additional specials as well.  The list of side items is equally tempting, if a bit more traditional: hushpuppies, mac & cheese, collards, baked beans, fried okra, mashed potatoes, and so on.

I ordered the pork belly sandwich ($6.50, with pickles on the side) and a side of sprouts n’ shrooms ($3.25).  Having the sides priced a la carte like this can lead to a pricey meal, particularly if you opt for a sandwich as your main item.  My wife ordered the small bbq tray ($7.50), which came with slaw, hushpuppies, and pickles.  I’ll summarize right here by stating that, with the exception of the hushpuppies, everything was incredibly delicious.  The pork belly was meltingly tender and had a nice sweet glaze on it.  The slaw on the sandwich included plenty of carrots, and made the end result even better, though the whole thing was served on a cheapy throwaway bun.  The pickles were fantastic; they were crisp and sweet and tasted as though they’d only been marinated for a day or less.  Not being a huge fan of pickles in general, these were just right.  The sprouts n’ shrooms was a small bowl of charred brussels sprouts and button mushrooms.  It was good too, but I’d probably try a different side item next time.  Perhaps I’d choose the fried summer squash or okra, both of which I also had the chance to sample.  The squash was served as thin golden planks of crispiness, seasoned with coarse salt and oregano.  The okra was also crusty and delicious, and heavy on the chili powder.  The hushpuppies, being more of an underseasoned cornbread fritter, were a departure from the norm, and weren’t a big hit with me or the rest of our party.  It’s normally very hard for me to lay off the hushpuppies at a bbq restaurant, but these didn’t keep me coming back for more.  As for the bbq itself, I thought it too was great.  It lacked smokiness but was very flavorful, having arrived well sauced from the kitchen.

Having tried many bbq restaurants over the years (and enjoyed most all of them), I love the approach that the Pig is taking.  I’m excited to go back and try more of their menu.

Review: Cypress on the Hill (Chapel Hill, NC)

I have not dined at many of the area’s priciest restaurants – I can’t afford to – but sometimes I get as much joy out of a cheap meal at a local haunt than I do from a top-dollar feast at the most upscale of establishments.  For me, Cypress on the Hill is one place that fits into such a conundrum: I enjoyed an excellent – even  outstanding –  meal there, and it was memorable, but it just didn’t leave me itching to go back.

The atmosphere of the restaurant is refined and tasteful, if a bit sterile.  The dining room is punctuated by a couple of circular booths which offer alluring privacy.  It’s a matter of personal taste, but I like an expensive restaurant to be dimmer, warmer, cozier.   Instead, although Cypress is the kind of place where you could propose to your fiancee, it seems better suited as the place you bring her parents, or as a fancy pre-theater dinner spot.  But maybe it’s just me.  Perhaps my disconnect stems from unfamiliarity – like I said above, I’m just not accustomed to fine dining.  Having a tight budget, and especially having a three year old, means eating out is most often a casual affair.  Regardless, there’s something to be said for eating experiences that satisfy completely.

We began with a salad and some fried calamari.  Like everything on the menu, the salad was expensive, at $11, but featured some lovely wine-poached pears and a large disk of local goat cheese.  The poached pears brought a Christmas-y flavor to the dish, and the honey vinaigrette had a pleasant sweetness without mellowing the surprisingly bold flavor of the salad.  Equally striking was the calamari ($9), which had a thin crispy rice coating, and was piled up in a mountain of peppers, napa cabbage, cilantro, and a slightly spicy sauce.   I thought the calamari was the better of the two appetizers.

The bread brought to the table was respectable, but not memorable.  We each received a thin slice of crusty baguette and a small triangle of a crispy focaccia.  I much preferred the baguette, and it was nice to be offered more of my choice later during the meal.

For entrees, I ordered a whole NC snapper ($29) and my wife went with the braised short ribs ($26).  According to the waiter, the former dish was his favorite, while the latter was the restaurant’s most popular.  The presentation of the fish was a bit over-the-top, as it came on a ludicrously oversized oblong plate.  No kidding, the plate was probably 2” wide.  It struck me as less dazzling than showy.  The flash fried fish was propped up vertically, and elegantly curved around a small bed of soba noodles with tomatoes and a sambal butter sauce.  I liked that since the fish was large, the accompaniments, including some excellent green beans, were very reasonably portioned.  The snapper itself was expertly cooked, and, while not utterly distinctive, married well enough with the other ingredients to make a delicious dish.  The braised short ribs were somehow cut into a perfect rectangular block of meat and set upon a bed of winter vegetables and greens, along with tiny, unremarkable cornmeal spaetzle.  I thought the beef itself, though incredibly tender, was rather bland.  For my money, the veggies and greens were the best part of the dish, but my wife enjoyed it thoroughly.

Desserts were magnificent, both in presentation and flavor.  I ordered a chocolate pound cake with stout ice cream and my wife opted for an apple tart (each $7.50).  The menu didn’t make clear what exactly to expect from my dish, so I anticipated a slice of cake with accompanying ice cream.  What I received instead was a small disk of cake as a base for a beautifully molded cylinder of ice cream.  The whole thing was surrounded by a moat of light chocolate sauce, complete with exquisite dark chocolate swirls.  To top it off and add some color, there was a delicate lattice of carefully arranged crispy matchstick sweet potatoes.  Even if it was a superfluous touch, it made for a gorgeous dish.  Though the cake itself was a little dense, the beer flavor of the ice cream was fantastic.  It all came together very nicely, even if the ice cream was just the slightest bit icy.  Even after a big meal, I ate all of it.  The apple tart was a nice departure from the typical as well.  It was served as diced apples and cranberries in crème anglaise, all together in an elegant pastry crust cup.  I only had one small bite, but my wife loved it.

The pace of the meal was surprisingly quick, especially considering the refinement of the dishes and careful presentation of each course.  In particular, I felt a little rushed to go ahead and order, even though, at 6:30 on a Friday evening, we were one of only a handful of patrons.  Other than that, service was exceptionally professional and deferential.

To sum it up, this kind of fine dining has its place and its occasions.  I’d have to put the cooking at Cypress right up there with the top places in the Triangle.  It is expert.  But if it doesn’t quite live up to the Magnolia Grill (former home of Cypress chef Alex Gallis) it might be because the food, while superb, is just not incredibly exciting.  For me, the creativity and intimacy of the Magnolia Grill keep it at the top of my list of the area’s best restaurants.

The calculation of whether to return to these kinds of restaurants is complicated by their expensive nature, but, if money were no object, there are a handful of other area restaurants I’d like to try before returning to Cypress on the Hill.  The sentiment alone suggests the possibility of something even more rewarding.

Rating: * * * *

Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours

Wouldn’t it be cool to have your own food guide – to help you find the best taqueria, for example, or barbecue, or local cheese?  Wouldn’t it also be cool to chat with the chefs who make the local dining scene so exciting – to learn more about their menus, sources, and secrets?  To spend an afternoon with someone with the knowledge and connections to introduce you to the best of the best in local food? Check the leading supplier of vending machines

This is all possible through a great new company called Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours.  Joe Philippose and Lesley Starcks founded the company with the idea to take people behind the scenes, to find the hidden gems and local favorites, and, simply, to eat the best food that North Carolina has to offer.

The company offers walking tours of Durham, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill, in addition to myriad other possibilities.  Venture out with Joe and Lesley for tapas hour, for example, or on a tour of the area’s best taquerias, or create your own customized tour in consultation with Taste Carolina.  Tours run during the week and on the weekends and generally cost $30-$40/person.

My wife and I recently joined the “Durham Taqueria Caravan”, which took us to four of Durham’s best authentic Mexican spots.  Over the course of a few hours, we feasted on outrageous enchiladas mole and the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had, tacos with countless fillings, sweet Horchata (rice milk drink with sugar and cinnamon), marvelous fried quesadillas and aguas frescas, and topped it off with a round of Mexican desserts.  By the end, I was completely stuffed, and I loved it.

Check it out at: