Whose sandwich reigns supreme?
Now here’s a contest we could sink our teeth into.
In recent years, the Ottawa area has seen a boom of venues selling toothsome, tempting sandwiches. Bakeries that only made bread raised their game. Venerable high-end restaurants and caterers began making grabbable fare. Truly, when a foodie wants a sammie in this town, he or she is spoiled for choice.
Laura Robin, Peter Simpson, Bruce Deachman and I got to wondering: What’s the best sandwich in town? We decided to answer that question with a tasting panel.
Each of us did some scouting and nominated a favourite sandwich. Of course, subjectivity rather than science drove our top picks, and we could hardly be exhaustive during scouting. (You’ll see our honourable mentions in the list beside this story.) Next year, we could easily single out four different sandwiches from four other venues for another taste-off, and perhaps we should.
The only rule we agreed to: A sandwich is a sandwich — meaning burgers, tacos and wraps would be off the table.
Below is our roundtable. Each discussion begins with one of us introducing his or her fave. When all was said and digested, we voted and a near-unanimous winner emerged — but don’t skip to the end to learn which one is the Citizen’s top Ottawa sandwich of 2012.
Fillet of Salmon with Pickled Fennel, Baby Spinach and Caper Dill Aioli on Fennel Baguette, $7.95
Red Apron, 564 Gladstone Ave.
Robin: Having consumed an inordinate number of sandwiches over the last few weeks, I’ve concluded a really great sandwich has to have the right mix of squishy to crunchy, a contrast of creamy and sharp, and the right ratio of bread to filling. A contrast of hot to cold is nice too. And it has to be just salty enough, but not overly so. This sandwich is perfect. It nails it.
The salmon and the aioli are soft, squishy, rich and creamy. The baby spinach, the toasting of the baguette, and the shaved pickled fennel add the right amount of crunch. And the bread is just thick enough for the inch or so of filling; take the time to get it toasted. This sandwich is the ultimate use for Art-Is-In’s fennel baguette, a favourite even plain. The fresh, pickled fennel in the filling picks up and plays against the toasty flavour of the fennel seeds in the baguette, and both fennel notes are the perfect foil to the creamy, rich salmon.
The brilliant notes are the bright ones: the capers, lemon juice and orange zest stirred into the aioli. These make this sandwich surprising and stellar and worth crossing town for.
Simpson: I was disappointed to learn that this sandwich is best enjoyed toasted. Nobody at the Red Apron said anything to me about toasting or warming. That said, it was fresh and flavourful, and it was a rare treat to have a sandwich made of salmon that hasn’t been smoked.
Deachman: I was asked if I wanted mine toasted, and did, and it was good. I have to agree with Laura almost completely. The contrasts were wonderful.
My only complaint, and I’m just being finnicky, is that I found the fennel and dill just a smidge overpowering. Still, I would have this sandwich again without reservation.
Hum: I ate this one twice, and was knocked out both times. Too bad it’s only available one day of the week, and that it will drop off the menu at some point.
Beef Spezzatino, $9.95
Sanguiccio Deli-Cafe, 183 Preston St.
Hum: “Spezzatino” means pieces, but calling this one a beef pieces sandwich understates its glory. Genio Ienzi slow-cooks his roasts, which can come from O’Brien Farms in Manotick, in wine and spices for hours until they’re tender and flavourful. He’s begun putting the meat on bread made to his specifications, rather than the ubiquitous and potentially distracting Art-Is-In buns. The bread gets a hit of garlic-and-rosemary-inflused olive oil. Chunks of tomatoes add some nice acidity to cut the rich meat, and you’re good to go. If you crave some heat, Ienzi can dispense a spicy home-made relish that means business.
This is the sandwich that made my eyes go wide as I ate it, and I was slightly sad when it was all gone.
Robin: This sandwich is indeed glorious. The braised beef tastes of much time and care. It does melt in our mouth.
My only quibble is the time it takes. While I love the concept of slow food, when I want a sandwich, it’s usually because I’m in a hurry. I don’t want to stand around for 20 minutes to watch it being made.
And I wouldn’t dare eat this one anywhere but over a plate, with lots of napkins handy. I’d call it a special occasion sandwich.
Simpson: I enjoyed the spezzatino sandwich a lot, though it was far more meat than I’d ever order at once, in a sandwich or otherwise, which means that I too would call it a special occasion sandwich. I also had to eat most of it with a fork, lest I end up wearing a bib o’ beef.
It was a bit tedious to stand around for 15 or 20 minutes, although the sandwich maker was courteous and engaging. To be fair, I’ve waited as long for sandwiches at Art-Is-In Bakery, even when it’s not busy.
Deachman: The beef was so flavourful and tender, the small tomato side salad a perfectly simple accompaniment.
It did take quite some time to prepare on the hotplate, but the comfortable atmosphere and Genio’s company more than made up for that.
No. 1 Assorted Banh Mi Sub, $2.25
Co Cham, 780 Somerset St. W.
Simpson: Cold-cuts? Yuck. Don’t like them, at least not the processed slabs of salted fat in most sandwiches. The difference in the No. 1 assorted banh mi sub at Co Cham is that the cold-cuts — barbecue pork, steamed ham, deep-fried ham, pork liver paté — are all made at Co Cham. So are the pickled carrot, Chinese radish and mayo, made in-house and served on a traditional Vietnamese-style baguette (or bun), with fresh cilantro and tiny red peppers, as desired. Despite all the meat, the taste is fresh, crisp and light.
Most remarkable is the price — $2.25, which means the best made-to-order sandwich in Ottawa may also be the cheapest.
Robin: This sandwich was a revelation to me. From the looks of it, I thought I wouldn’t like it: puffy white bun, lots of meat. But I did like it. A lot. Again, it was the great contrast of textures and flavours. I would have liked it even better with more herbs or other greenery.
Hum: I like that this is a classic sandwich with some history, dating back decades to the pullout of the French from Vietnam. I haven’t had enough banh mi to say that it’s a great one, but I liked it. As Laura says, its contrasts are key.
I also like that this one doesn’t lapse into trendiness or excess. At Chez Edgar in Gatineau’s Hull sector, I had the tarted-up spin-off of a humble banh mi, a big, spicy aioli-laden, pickled veg-garnished creation on fancy bread with some cooked “Asian” pork for protein. It was good, but the fun waned with each bite. I like the no-frills, more authentic source sandwich more.
Deachman: I’ve always loved this sandwich, and remember when it was 99 cents. It’s surprisingly light and fresh, and I love the size — small enough for a nice lunch, and if you’re really hungry you can get two. It’s a fantastic deal.
Buttermilk-Brined Turkey/Chicken Caesar with Bacon, $9.95
Art-Is-In Bakery, 250 City Center Ave., Bay 114
Deachman: The first few times I had this sandwich, it was made with chicken. On a recent visit, it was made with turkey. I much prefer the chicken, but what I really like is the buttermilk brine, which adds wonderful flavour and helps keeps the chicken/turkey extremely tender. There’s also caesar dressing, havarti and tomatoes — not the usual under-ripe ones found everywhere these days. I love the strong, peppery arugula, and, of course, the bread — Art-is-In’s cheddar, jalapeño and chives loaf — is great.
Be warned: this is not your dainty cucumber sandwich with the crusts trimmed. This is a meal.
Hum: This one appeals to me — what sandwich with bacon doesn’t? — but there’s just so much of it. I mistakenly ordered some of Art-Is-In’s tasty clam chowder too, and after eating everything, I felt like I’d had Thanksgiving dinner in May.
This may be heresy to say in Ottawa, where Art-Is-In’s wares are manna, but I found their rich, flavour-backed breads on sandwiches could distract from what was sandwiched. With this sandwich, the bread only added to the feeling of excess.
Simpson: I love Art-Is-In sandwiches, especially their succulent “classic” ham and cheese. My buttermilk brined chicken was slightly dry and rather bland. The tomatoes were ripe, but soft on flavour. The bread, like all Art-Is-In bread, was dense and delicious. I didn’t find the sandwich more filling than the Sanguiccio beef sandwich, but it’s sure a bellyful.
Robin: I like this sandwich — for a few bites. Then it just gets too rich, too salty, yes, too much, for me.
If I want rich and gloppy, I’d order Art-Is-In’s Crispy Pickle Melt with added candied bacon. It has tempura-battered dill pickles and is crazy, but in a good way. I always fall for that combination of spicy (mayo with real kick), sweet (caramelized onions and the candied bacon) and tart (the pickle). Just don’t chomp down until you’re sure the pickle has cooled enough that it won’t burn your mouth.
And the winner is:
Sanguiccio‘s Beef Spezzatino was the clear victor. With 15/16 points, it was the favourite of all but one banh mi-loving taster.
The Red Apron’s salmon sandwich came in second with 10.5/16 points, closely followed by Co Cham’s No. 1 with 9 points. Art-Is-In’s brined chicken/turkey sandwich was in the basement, with 5.5 points.
From the Citizen’s sandwich scouts, here are some honourable mentions:
Calabria Mia, $11
La Bottega Nicastro, 64 George St.
When I lived and worked closer to the ByWard Market in the late ’90s, this one — with spicy calabrese salami, goat cheese on roasted red peppers on focaccia — was my go-to sandwich, just ahead of the very appealing Club Italia, which subs pancetta for bacon and adds pesto to the chicken. I had another Calabria recently and, happily, the years had been better to it than to me. The hot, pan-crisped salami, the unctuous cheese and the silken peppers make perfect, delicious sense together, and the house-made bread is toasted and tasty — it hasn’t been flattened beyond recognition, which is what some places do their bread. On the side, the ordinary-looking garden salad is in fact a perfect accompaniment, with a peppery balsamic dressing that adds a welcome acidic layer to the meal. — PH
Smoked Trout sandwich, $9.50
Pressed, 750 Gladstone Ave.
They smoke lots of meats for sandwiches and sundry dishes at Pressed — pork shoulder, chicken, brisket — but I like the moist, fresh smoked trout the best. It comes with lemon dill aioli and, once it’s been heated, a slathering of good guacamole. True to the cafe’s name, the people here give the sandwiches a good pressing so that they come out hot and compressed, but not looking like a truck had run over them. A pickled green bean and sweet potato chips on the side hit the spot. — PH
Chicken Panini, $6.95
Alba Fresco, 2222 Carling Ave.
While Alba Fresco has the location and look of a franchise — it replaced a Quizno’s recently — it’s a sandwich/pizza place run by the Aslani brothers. They follow a give-the-customer-what-he-wants policy, and if you order a chicken panini, It will be made in real time, per your specifications — with chipotle sauce instead of Dijon mustard, or spicy eggplant added, no problem. The chicken’s grilled and the bread’s baked daily; other ingredients are also commendably fresh, and the bread’s properly pressed, making Alba Fresco a western alternative to other, albeit more trendy, sandwich venues. — PH
Roasted Mortadella, $13, with Salad and Pecorino Potatoes
Town, 296 Elgin St.
Town is not for take-out, per se, though they do take-out on request. I thought they’d have to take out my heart after I ate the roasted mortadella sandwich, but so be it. The mortadella is pan-fried and placed on Art Is In Bakery’s dynamite white or multi-grain fennel. On top of the meat goes a fried egg, arugula, a balsamica agrodolce (sweet and sour) ,and made in-house roasted garlic mayo. When you bite in, that golden yolk explodes — yes, it’s messy, and unhealthy, and also gloriously and indulgently delicious. — PS
Grilled Vegetable Sandwich, $5.65
Johnny Farina take-out, 216 Elgin St.
Nothing complicated here, just a clear, simple idea that tastes great. A rustic, multi-grain bun is piled high with grilled red and green peppers, onions and — this is key — spicy eggplant. Add mustard, mayo and a slice of mozza and you have a flavourful, reasonably healthy and surprisingly affordable lunch. It’s made to order, and you can add a made-to-order salad for a few bucks more. — PS
Classic Cuban, $5
Havana Cafe & Catering, 1200 Bank St.
Roast pork and ham with Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles, on a roll. Grilled in a sandwich press. Throw in a glass of mojito lemonade and you’ll feel like you’re 150 km south of Key West. — BD
Di Rienzo, 111 Beech St.
Good bread, fresh vegetables (try the eggplant!) and fantastic meats and cheeses are the simple secret behind Di Rienzo’s list of about 20 wonderful sandwiches, and the reason you’ll often find a lineup snaking (quickly, mind) through this completely unassuming grocery store. — BD