My good friend, fellow Foodie, and chef, Paul Marini, introduced me to the culinary haven of Sandwhich one Friday in early 2008. When Paul told me that we were going to dine at a gourmet sandwich shop for lunch, I had expectations of a glorified Subway. I remember entering the quaint little courtyard in which the restaurant is located with skepticism; a sandwich was not exactly my idea of fine dining. But after religiously examining Sandwhich’s diverse menu and the brilliantly written letter by owners Hich and Janet Elbetri that accompanies it, my pessimism quickly shifted to optimism. I passed by patrons zealously enjoying their sandwiches and noticed the beautiful artisan breads prepared in the old-world style, stuffed with radiantly red tomatoes and leafy organic lettuce. As I waited in line, my mouth watering, I understood the challenge that so many before me endeavored, “Which of Sandwhich’s masterly engineered sandwiches will I indulge in today?” After hemming and hawing, I opted for the Grilled Gruyere with tender sautéed cremini mushrooms on their famous sourdough toast. It was absolutely luscious!
Since my initial experience, I have made many trips to visit Hich and his one-of-a-kind eatery and every time I struggled to describe Sandwhich in a way that fully encompasses the elements that establish it as a Foodie paradise. After their White Oak Pastures Grass-Fed Burger was released in October, I was enlightened… “Deliberate” is the most fitting description of this extraordinary establishment. Nothing is left to chance at Sandwhich; every characteristic of every item is deliberately planned and (perhaps even more impressively) implemented with passion and unwavering consistency. They really bring new meaning to the term, "Sandwich Artist." Haha... After trying almost every dish on their ever-changing menu, I realize that one does not have to go through the drama of deciding “which” sandwich to enjoy. Rather, I trust Hich, Janet, and their team. In the same spirit of the Japanese tradition of omakase, where no menus are provided and the chef prepares dishes that he or she feels is demonstrative of their own personality and that of the ingredients they use, I can order any of Sandwhich’s imaginative hot or cold sandwiches, refreshing Moroccan iced-teas, flavorful scratch-made soups, inventive salads, and scrumptious desserts and know that it will be a superior-quality product that is wholesome and just as delicious as it is thought-provoking.
Everything at Sandwhich is incredible, so please do not limit yourself to the small handful of dishes listed here. My original favorite is a mix between “Lex’s Favorite,” named after Lex Alexander of Wellspring and consisting of a Mike’s free-range fried egg (prepared medium with a perfect liquid yolk to solid yolk ratio), Sunny Slope Greenhouse tomatoes, Nueskes apple-smoked bacon, and toped with fresh local organic greens placed between two slices of wonderful wheat bread, and the O.B.L.T. (Outrageous B.L.T.) which adds fire-roasted jalapeño peppers and creamy avocado, combined with the same great tomatoes and greens from Lex’s Favorite and served on their awesome sourdough bread. My variation consists of the perfectly fried egg, ruby red tomatoes, thick apple-smoked bacon, organic greens, roasted jalapeños, and soothing avocado slices, served on either wheat, sourdough, or a baguette – depending on my mood, of course. I call it, “Jonathan’s Favorite.” (pictured above)
My favorite hot sandwich is their brand new White Oak Pastures Grass-Fed Burger available only on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. I have been on the search for the world’s best burger for several years now and Sandwhich has been the first and only winner of this gastronomic honor. The deliberate nature of Sandwhich is fully realized in every component of this amazing burger. Of course we must begin with the meat. The White Oak Pastures beef is grass fed from birth and masterfully cooked until it reaches the most perfect shade of pink. The flavorful meat is “drip down your arm” juicy, impossibly tender, and has a wonderful beefy flavor that is further enhanced with a silky buttery undertone consistent with beef of the highest quality. I have a pet peeve about burgers being overly compounded; it just ruins the texture and flavor of the meat. Sandwhich’s beef patties are not overly dense and have a delightful, almost “fluffy” consistency. The thinly shredded red onion gingerly placed above the burger adds a zest that is balanced with a subtle sweetness which contrasts perfectly with the richness of the meat. A special sandwich deserves special bread and Sandwhich accomplishes this with the introduction of their brand new sesame seed and poppy seed focaccia. The twice-cooked fries are reminiscent of the gorgeous chips (French Fries) I enjoyed across the United Kingdom and Europe. The fries are thick and rectangular, served blistering hot, and accented with delicate slivers of salt. I hate both ketchup and mayonnaise, but Sandwhich appeals to my adventurous side with their takes on the fundamental burger condiments. The homemade ketchup has a delicate sweetness which is harmonized by the fiery spiciness of harissa, a North African chili paste. Sandwhich’s signature mayonnaise is infused with garlic and of course, made in-house from scratch.
Other Sandwhich specialties include the most delicious cornmeal you will ever come across in your life. Sandwhich’s famous mascarpone polenta is a creamy treat that is slow-cooked and full of flavor. You will normally find it as the foundation for Sandwhich’s tenderly braised meat dishes. Hich generously let me sample the goat on my last visit and it left me licking the bowl clean. All of Sandwhich's offerings are accompanied with a side of superbly seasoned Moroccan marinated olives (typically earlier in the day) or Moroccan marinated carrots (served once the olives are depleted). The Moroccan spices are so flavorful you will find yourself staring intently into the little stainless-steel bowl in wonder of how such perfection is accomplished. As you may already know, I am anything but bashful, so I usually ask for (and receive) two bowls of these little ethnic treats! Don’t forget to try Sandwhich’s iced Moroccan teas made with whole tea leaves from In Pursuit of Tea and steeped with fresh herbs in-house. The green tea is my favorite and has hits of sage and mint – no tea on Earth has more personality!
Hich and Janet’s Sandwhich is a fresh idea that accomplishes astonishing food with simple, yet pure ingredients. Sandwhich can be reached at (919) 929-2114 and is located at 431 West Franklin Street within the West End Courtyard on the corner of West Franklin and Roberson Street. You can enjoy their devilishly innovative offerings Monday through Saturday from 11:00 to 4:00. A key element of a well-run restaurant is the owner’s presence. No staff member could ever or would ever take a personal interest in the quality of the food and service the way an owner can. Hich is one of these dedicated proprietors and is working the kitchen and the crowd at Sandwhich everyday ensuring that your Sandwhich-experience is distinct and memorable. He loves to meet fans, so ask for him, he’ll be happy to meet you. Just make sure to tell him that Jonathan sent you…
*A version of this review appeared on worldlyeats.blogspot.com on November 16, 2008 and in The Carolinian Newspaper on November 10, 2009.
431 W Franklin St # 16, Chapel Hill, NC