Monday, August 30, 2010

Sandwich Sins

I spend so much time writing about the sorts of sandwiches that I like, and why I like them, that I was encouraged to write a post on things that I don’t like.  On popular sandwiches or sandwich constructs that I think are bad sandwich form. I have found the process of thinking about this quite difficult. There is very little that I don’t like to eat across the whole of food, let alone within specialised realm of sandwiches. Going beyond that to think about why some of these popular sandwiches are actually bad sandwiches, rather than just reflecting my personal disgust has also been hard. Here are my top four:

Baguette sandwiches
A Terrible Place
One of the things that makes a good sandwich is textural balance. Soft bread, some crunchy lettuce, a moist tomato and a thick slice of ham to provide something to get your teeth into makes a nice balance of soft, dry, wet, crunchy, chewy. Or take out the crunchy lettuce and toast the bread instead. This harmony of textures can make eating a sandwich a rich and varied experience and a joy to the consumer. Baguette sandwiches make this an impossibility.

In case you haven’t noticed, baguettes are all crust. When presented with a sliced bread sandwich, people will often leave the crusts on their plate (sometimes for fear of getting the curly hair that my mother promised me if I ate them). Other people will cut the crusts off, or you can now buy crust-free bread. I think that this is because the crust is generally accepted as the toughest and least flavoursome part of a sandwich.

Why then would you take that oft-discarded morsel and use it as the basis for a whole sandwich? Don’t get me wrong, I like a crusty ciabatta burger bun occasionally, I enjoy the odd dinner roll, and I love garlic baguettes, but there is something about baguette crust that is particularly un-suited to sandwiches. It tends to be very thick, sharp so it attacks the roof of your mouth, and then endlessly chewy. I have experienced the most intense jaw-ache whilst trying to eat a baguette sandwich. And it’s because it’s impossible to break up the crust-fest. Once presented with a baguette sandwich, there is no way to slice it or attack it that does not involve taking 360 degrees of crust with every bite. I would much rather take out all of the filling, slice the baguette, and make a little impromptu crostini. Unfortunately this is not acceptable behaviour in polite company.

Steak Sandwiches

Worst nightmare
I have a similar problem with steak sandwiches, particularly cold steak sandwiches. Steak is difficult to cut through cleanly in one bite, especially rare steak, and doubly so for cold, rare steak. Unless you only dine on prime cuts of fillet (or filet mignon in Canada) then you’re in for a toothsome time. My experience with cold steak sandwiches is of one big, hearty bite, fantastic flavours, and then a chewing conundrum. Do I keep trying to cut cleanly through this meat so that I can pull away from this sandwich with a cleanly captured bite? Or do I cut my losses and just try and rip it whilst I pull away? Invariably the former results in a long bout of fruitless chewing and attempts to isolate individual meat fibres to bite through and release my mouthful. The latter usually takes most of the sandwich filling with it, leading to all of the steak from the sandwich hanging down your face, rather than nestled comfortably between the slices of bread where it belongs. There is a reason that you get a special knife when you order a ribeye at your local restaurant, and I’m afraid my teeth just aren’t serrated. The cold steak sandwich is a bad way to use leftover steak.

Mushroom and asparagus on bread

Open-faced sandwiches.

Enough said.

No but really, the contradiction within the phrase says it all. It starts with a basic misunderstanding of what the sandwich is, and ends with a pretentious name is wildly inaccurate. 

When the term ‘sandwich’ came into popular use, it was because John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich wanted meat between two slices of bread. And there wasn’t a name for that at the time. It was the perfect food - he could eat it with one hand whilst playing cribbage and not get his cards dirty. None of these things are true of the open-faced sandwich. You can’t eat it with one hand unless you want to make a mess, it doesn’t involve two slices of bread and there is already a name for it – ‘on bread’ or ‘on toast’ or even ‘crostini’ or ‘bruschetta’ if you’re feeling continental.
Let me give you a little of the history of the open-faced sandwich (by history I mean “what Wikipedia says” so appropriate scepticism applies):

“During the Middle Ages, thick slabs of coarse and usually stale bread, called "trenchers", were used as plates. After a meal, the food-soaked trencher was fed to a dog, less fortunate beggars, or eaten by the diner. Trenchers were as much the harbingers of open-face sandwiches as they were of disposable dishware.”

Fed to the dogs and beggars – is that what you want for dinner? And it has the audacity to claim kinship with the 4th Earl of Sandwich? Ridiculous.

Finally, something that I know will upset people:

Veal Parmesan Sandwiches

Or, more broadly, and breaded sandwich filling. By that I mean wienerschnitzel, breaded aubergine, even fish fingers.

I know that veal parmesan sandwiches are very popular in Toronto. A guy that I work with has tried them all over the city and can rattle off his top 5 on demand, and tell you what is different about each one. And I agree to some extent. The combination of flavours is fantastic and there area wide variety of approaches to this Italian-Canadian staple.

However, they all start with breaded, deep fried veal and this is something that I have a problem with. In many ways this comes down to texture again. I don’t see what the breading adds to the sandwich. On a plate, breaded veal would be slightly crispy on the outside and soft in the centre. A perfect contrast of textures. But in a sandwich, with sauce on it, the breading becomes mushy breadcrumbs and adds this soggy, grainy texture to the sandwich. If anything, I think the breading takes away from the sandwich. I understand that it adds some flavour, in the form of seasoning or parmesan within the crumbing but you could add these flavours without the breading. The only way that the breading would serve its textural purpose (i.e. to add crunch) would be if the sandwich was completely dry. And that wouldn’t be nice either.

It also seems unnecessarily fatty. I’m not a person who shies away from fatty food, or eats low fat alternatives in general, but if there is NO TASTE DIFFERENCE between a higher fat and a lower fat option (example: baked salted tortilla chips) I will take the lower fat option. In this case, I think that pan frying the veal actually makes more sense texturally and it’s lower fat. Win-win.
Bread within bread

The other problem that I have is that it’s already in bread because it’s in a sandwich (unless it’s open faced obviously) – why do you need extra bread? And why can’t the bread of the sandwich serve the purpose of the veal breading? It can be crunchy, it can take on flavours, you can even deep fry it if you want to. Bread within bread seems like an odd redundancy.

Three out of four of these complaints are related to texture and I realise that texture is very important to me – perhaps more so than to others. As someone who has no strong dislikes of any food, I think it only natural that my dislikes point in a textural direction. A recent poll of my friends’ sandwich complaints yielded quite a mixed set of results, with some denouncing specific ingredients, some questioning textures, and one pointing to the ordering of the ingredients within the sandwich as the most important issue. Whilst there is no ultimate decree about what makes a sandwich good or bad, I would like to think that my complaints are something that you can identify with and might influence your sandwich choices in the future


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Sandwich Society

[UK+106.jpg]Now that I live in Canada, one thing that I really miss about England is the culture of ready-to-eat food. Ready-to-eat food is available at every turn and at every price point in England. It ranges from the £1 likely-to-give-you-stomach-problems prawn sandwich found at a petrol station, to the positively gourmet offerings available at specialised ready-to-eat vendors like Marks and Spencer's Simply Food or, the relatively new, Eat. There you can find sandwiches, salads, wraps, soups, pies, desserts and more, all packaged up and ready to pick off the shelf, pay for and enjoy immediately. Frequent visitors to London will quickly realise that the cheapest way to get a good meal is by visiting one of the many branches of Pret a Manger (which literally translates as "Ready to Eat") for a freshly made sandwich, some homemade soup, a packet of vegatable crisps and a sparkling grape and elderflower juice for less than £10. I have dreams about their all-day breakfast sandwich dipped in chorizo and butterbean soup.

Consider Greggs - purveyors of sweet and savoury pastries, and pre-packaged sandwiches. This bakery chain currently has 1400 outlets in the UK and plans to build 600 more. They had 2009 revenue of £658 million, whilst most items in the store sell for less than £2 (two sausage rolls for a £1 at some locations in the North-West). With twice as many outlets as Starbucks, and 200 more than McDonalds, Greggs has truly conquered the UK high street with its cheap ready-to-eat food (interesting BBC article with more information here).

That is not to say that ready-to-eat food is absent from Toronto. You can find a smattering of sandwiches at your local Second Cup, and the occasional Jamaican beef patty at the local 7Eleven. However, what little ready-to-eat food there is tends to be extremely overpriced, under-satisfying, and of quite a low standard. As a contrast - Starbucks in England devotes about as much space to ready-to-eat savoury food as Starbucks in Toronto does to pastries, muffins, and all of those sweet treats that everyone enjoys for breakfast. And, as for quality, Pret a Manger makes all of their sandwiches on-site every day, using fresh, natural ingredients with no preservatives. Anything that is not sold on the day that it's made is donated to a local shelter for the homeless.

It seems that there are no dedicated ready-to-eat vendors of the same ilk as Greggs or Eat in Toronto. The only thing that seems to come close, in terms of multiple/nationwide outlets and convenience of food, is fast-food. McDonalds, KFC, Wendy's; these are the places that people go to eat quickly and to order from a pre-set menu. And even then there are differences as food is ordered and received rather than picked from a shelf, and it can be personalised whilst ordering (e.g. no pickles) resulting in an order that is made just for you. The basis of ready-to-eat food in the UK is that you get whatever is in the packet and the only way to change that is by picking things out while you eat. Or choosing something different.

It is also worth noting that there are much fewer traditional fast-food chains in the UK. The big two of burgers are McDonalds and Burger King, and the only chicken option is KFC. Add to that to the Canadian list of A&W, Arby's, Harvey's, Popeye's, Taco Bell (to name but a few) and the difference in the convenience food landscape becomes clear. It seems that the ready-to-eat culture in the UK has supplanted the fast food culture and growth in many ways, offering an often healthier but less customisable option at every turn.

This fascinates me - how is it that two societies that are similar in so many ways have diverged completely when it comes to one area of food? And, more importantly, where can I get a good pre-packaged sandwich? Or a piping hot sausage and bean melt with cheese that burns the tastebuds off your tongue and falls apart in your hands?

I think that it comes down to a matter of choice and a difference in expectations over how much choice an individual should/would like to have. One thing that you may not realise about English people (as a generalisation) is that they are not used to being given an unlimited number of options and many people find too many options intimidating. I worked at Subway during university and it was just starting to take off in England. It has been through a remarkable growth since that time, opening roughly 1,000 stores in the UK and Ireland between October 2005 and August 2010. But, at the time that I worked there (early 2005), a lot of people could not buy into the concept of choosing from a wide range of vegetable toppings and sauces. It was an over-facing amount of choice and many would end up with just turkey and mayonnaise with lettuce - poor value for money as any experienced Subway-goer will agree. The expansion of Subway shows that the public has become educated to this type of choice since then but it is certainly not something that comes naturally.

My sister, a highly experience eater, had a similar problem when she visited me here in Toronto and we went to Hero Burger. The list of free toppings, sauces, toppings that you pay for and the different base-burger options was too much for her to handle without preparation. She ended up with a burger in a bun with no toppings at all, much to the dismay of the person serving us who was trying to promote the varied selection of sauces in an attempt to win over a new customer. This overload of information and choice is something that I have gotten used to over time but I still find myself having that hot-faced, flustered, overwhelmed feeling on occasion which results in me giving up on the idea of lunch altogether.

There is a stereotype of English people (or at least I think there is - tell me if I'm wrong) not complaining at restaurants when an order is incorrect because they don't want to cause a fuss. This is certainly something that I am unlikely to do - the embarrassment of complaining and the resulting apologies and wait for a new meal is a lot of bother. Similarly I am unlikely to request a change to a menu item or ask for a substitution at a restaurant for the same reason. I think that too much choice seems like the same sort of fuss at times and it is that which we Brits naturally shy away from

My experience of North Americans, on the other hand, leads me to believe that limited choice would be quite a puzzling and alien experience and would not be well received. Take freshii, for example. Once you have chosen whether you want a salad, a wrap, a bowl or a soup, and you've chosen the base salad/rice/wrap/broth you have 22 free toppings and 28 premium toppings to choose from as well as 17 sauces. Each of these toppings is separated out into its own little pot in a refrigerated counter with a glass front so that you, the customer, can watch as someone scoops a pre-determined amount of each ingredient you desire into your order. Freshii is perhaps an extreme example in terms of the number of options available but how familiar is that image of the glass fronted counter with refrigerated pots of toppings? Ordering a pita, a bagel, a Subway, souvlaki, Druxy's, a hot dog (unrefrigerated), even Harvey's - they all have the same setup. This variety of choice is ingrained in food ordering culture here and that extends beyond the sandwich to substitutions at restaurants, elaborate coffee orders at Starbucks, and the popularity of Korean Grill (which seems to me like paying to cook a meal for yourself but has the benefit of choice and control).

I am sure that the ready-to-eat culture of the UK is something that Canadians and Americans could enjoy in many ways. It is ridiculously convenient, the food can be very good and the price is hard to argue with. But I have the impression that it would be more of a novelty than anything else - something to be experienced occasionally when in a rush, rather than a cornerstone of regular dining. I think that going from a situation of unlimited choice to limited choice would be much harder to come to terms with than an increase in options.

So, ready-to-eat food is perhaps not meant for North American culture. It is limiting in a way that the food culture here has developed away from. And in many ways I think that is a good thing. I love being able to get extra pickled turnip with my souvlaki, cheddar cheese instead of white cheese on my meatball Sub, and a half-sweet tazo chai latte at Starbucks. But I do miss the simplicity of picking a chicken and avocado sandwich off the shelf, knowing that each one there will taste the same, and going to the counter to simply pay for my lunch without any further choices or conversation required. 


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Review: Urban Herbivore

Review: Urban Herbivore
64 Oxford Street (in Kensington Market)
Cuisine: Vegetarian lunch fare - sandwiches, salads, rice bowls.
Sandwiches: Avocado ($8.50 + tax) and celery root ($8.50 + tax)

My girlfriend and I have recently embarked upon a vegetarian Lent - self-flagellation it may be but it's certainly inspiring me to try new things. Rather than sitting in the apartment, thinking about bacon, I decided to seize this opportunity to try out Urban Herbivore. Having read a number of favourable reviews, I rushed through Kensington Market, sending be-dreadlocked health food shoppers, and cheese enthusiasts flying in a meat-deprived frenzy of excitement. 

Urban Herbivore has had a bit of a facelift since the above review was published and so the 'house-turned-eatery' feel is gone. Instead, window-walls and a few tables with bar stools make it bright and airy, but this transformation may have removed some character from the establishment as it is closer you would expect from any high street sandwich retailer than I imagined. There is a glass-fronted salad station to the right where the sandwiches are prepared, and a kitchen behind that you can peek in to to see the vegetarian magic at work. The prices have also increased from $6.49 in June 2007, to $8.50 now. This is quite a substantial price increase and, whilst I would say that the sandwiches were good value for the quality and amount received, I would be interested to know what prompted such an increase and if the sandwiches have changed at all in that time.

The menu is printed on big white boards hanging above the counter, and it makes for quite interesting reading. There are only a small number of sandwich options - perhaps 5 or 6, ranging from grilled vegetable to tofu or tempeh. Below the sandwich options there is a little passage about what they put on their sandwiches which amounts to 'this is how we make our sandwiches because we think this is the best combination of flavours. If you want it made differently, you have to let us know.' I always think that, when trying something new, you should order straight off the menu with no changes. That way you get their idea of what it should be like - not your idea - and so you have the experience that was intended when the menu was written. So, in this our philosophies are aligned, though I imagine that some people might find it a bit limiting when ordering a sandwich to be presented with something to have to alter, rather than being presented with a blank slate.

I ordered the avocado sandwich, and the celery root sandwich intending to have half of each and to save the other (obviously smaller) halves for my girlfriend. The sandwiches are assembled, dressed, squashed on a panini press, sliced diagonally and then packaged in an environmentally-friendly cardboard box - a touch that I enjoyed.

I began with the celery root sandwich. The bread was perfect. A sturdy pita, crisp from toasting, tasty and crunchy with whole grains, wholesome and the perfect vessel for a sandwich. It was coated inside with a herbed, olive tapenade which only added to the nutty flavour of the bread itself. I would really have been very happy just eating the bread - I think that much is clear. It was a large sandwich, packed with a filling of sprouted greens, spinach leaves, tomato and a generous helping of subtle and delicious celery root.  A restrained dash of salad dressing added a necessary tang to the sandwich, without overwhelming any of the other flavours, and that is quite a feat. This was a sandwich comprised of delicate flavours in equal balance so that with each bite you tasted every flavour together, and yet could pick out each one individually. Ratio of ingredients is such an important component of a good sandwich and this was just right. If I had to say something negative about this sandwich, I would say that the celery root was a bit slimy, but I think that this different texture was necessary to stop it being just another crunchy salad sandwich, and make it into something more substantial.

After ten minutes of typing notes furiously at my computer, making inappropriate noises of pleasure, and struggling against the impulse to gorge it all down in one big bite, I managed to regroup for the avocado half of my brace of vegetarian sandwiches.

I expected to enjoy the avocado sandwich more as I really love avocado but it was somewhat disappointing after the surprising triumph of the celery root. The avocado itself was perfectly ripe, rich and delicious and really starred in the sandwich (which contained a whole avocado!). However, the result of this was that it lacked balanced ratio of ingredients of earlier. The rest of the sandwich took a backseat to the avocado and so functioned more as a textural component. Also, the richness of the avocado became quickly overwhelming - I don't think I could have managed the whole sandwich simply because it was so rich and I think I would have struggled to taste the celery root sandwich had I eaten them in reverse order. There was a small amount of tangy, bruschetta-style diced tomato on the sandwich which,when encountered, really lifted the whole taste experience and cut through the richness. A more generous helping of this tomato might have transformed the whole sandwich.

These misgivings are more by comparison to the celery root sandwich than anything else. They were both excellent quality, filling, wholesome sandwiches that I would, and will, happily eat again and they illustrated the potential of meat-free sandwiches to be balanced, nutritious and delicious.

Celery root - 9/10
Avocado - 7.5/10

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Review: Village Restaurant

Review: Village Restaurant, Toronto
420 Spadina Road (At Lonsdale)

Cuisine: Diner staples - Brunch, Burgers, Sandwiches
Sandwich: Triple Decker ($7.50 + tax) with fries ($1.50)

The Village Restaurant is a popular diner-style restaurant in the heart of Forest Hill Village. Locals flock to this cozy neighbourhood stalwart for reasonably priced brunch, large portions, and the comfortable setting. The Village Restaurant also offers takeaway for those of us who like to enjoy their club sandwich in private.

Inside, the Village Restaurant is decorated in a manner that my grandparents would be proud of. Patterned upholstery, lots of exposed wood, old style lamps, and a very impressive old wooden bar add a real homeliness to what could easily have been quite an unforgiving space. The only things that detracts from this feeling are the four widescreen LCD televisions, positioned at angles so that you can always see one whilst you are eating. Though this clash of cultures is a little awkward, I quite enjoy keeping up with the news while I eat - especially when eating alone - and so I was happy with the distraction.

I ordered the Triple-decker ($7.50) - a take on a turkey club - based on favourable reviews, a side of fries ($1.50 extra) and a vanilla milkshake. Unfortunately they had no ice cream and so I ended up with a tomato juice instead. I mention the lack of ice cream because this was the second time in two visits that the Village Restaurant was without a quite vital ingredient. On a previous visit for brunch, mid-morning on a Saturday, there was no hollandaise sauce - not because it had run out, they just hadn't made any. This, coupled with the missing ice cream makes me wonder if there are some problems with ordering/stocking.

Whilst ordering, I had thought that $7.50 seemed like quite a lot for a club sandwich without fries. Once it arrived, it became clear that I was wrong. In fact, ordering fries was a mistake and one that I regretted immediately. The mountain of a sandwich that I was presented with was as much food as I usually eat in a day. I have a large mouth, capable of conquering towering burgers and fully stuffed Subways but, in attempting to take a bite out of the triple decker, I encountered lip-stretching, jaw-locking pain. That's how big it was.

The sandwich itself was a pleasure to behold. Nice, thick, toasted bread stuffed full of home-cooked turkey, crispy bacon strips, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. The bacon was just crispy enough to add a wonderful crunchy texture, without being overcooked. The toasted bread held together well and was full of flavour and the salad ingredients were fresh and plentiful. 

Only the turkey was a bit disappointing. I appreciated the thick cut, home-cooked slices but it was a little too dry. It also lacked seasoning and so it was quite bland. Turkey is a dry meat at the best of times so the problem wasn't how it was cooked - rather the amount of turkey in the sandwich. The ratio of turkey to other ingredients was probably about 2 or even 3 to 1. There was so much that this dryness became the overriding experience of the sandwich, despite lashings of mayonnaise to counteract it. If the sandwich had been slightly smaller, with a more evenly balanced ratio of ingredients, then it would have been easier to eat, moister overall, and more flavoursome.

As far as mistakes go, being too generous with meat is not one worth complaining too strongly about. The ideology and the intention behind the sandwich was perfect - a more considered approach to the construction is the only thing that could have made it better.

My only real complaint is that, for somewhere with reputation as a friendly, family restaurant, I didn't feel as welcome as I expected to. The service was polite but a little distant and I wasn't offered refills of my glass of water nor any condiments (beyond ketchup that was already on the table) with my meal. It was this that disappointed me and tarnished an otherwise positive experience.


- Portion size
- Fresh, in house ingredients
- Comfortable, diner setting.


- Sandwich construction
- Dry/bland
- Service could have been better.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Review: Subway Flatbread

On the most recent of my thrice-weekly visits to Subway I was very excited to see a new product being advertised - the flatbread sandwich (left). Any fundamental change to the Subway menu, as opposed to a limited edition sandwich like the recent Buffalo chicken, is a cause for celebration as their success record so far has been excellent.

By starting to toast their sandwiches, Subway added a missing (and much needed) element to their menu - crunch. I remember bemoaning the fact that all Subway sandwiches would devolve into a squishy mess during the course of eating, or even in the bag on the way home. This was because the bread is quite flimsy to start with and the addition of those much-needed sauces twould quickly turn flimsy into soggy. By changing the texture of the bread through the toaster, a consumer's whole experience of eating a Subway could be altered into something more robust. This alteration to the foundation of the sandwich, i.e. the bread, effected the whole Subway menu without changing any of the ingredients - a master stroke.

I had similarly high hopes for the flatbread as it addresses another fundamental problem with Subway sandwiches - bread variety. Yes Subway does have six types of bread, but they are really two types of dough (white and brown) with four different toppings. Therefore, the bread itself is always the same in taste texture (aside from toasting) and so the consumer's experience is somewhat limited.

Subway does offer wraps but when I worked there I always wondered why anyone would buy them, unless they had to due to a dietary requirement. Subway wraps are more expensive than the bread and you get much less sandwich filling due to the size contraints (this is not the case everywhere. Some stores charge no extra but the amount of filling - particularly salad - is much lower). So essentially you pay more for less which makes no sense to me and I don't consider them as a viable alternative.

Enter the flatbread. It is sold at the same price as a 6-inch sandwich (for now at least) and it holds just as much filling as a traditional bread. The flatbreads are a uniform size and so your sandwich will always be the same length, as opposed to the short end of a poorly-risen dough that you can sometimes end up with. I seized the opportunity asked for turkey and ham with cheese on a flatbread. I had it toasted, at the recommendation of the staff, with all salad, mustard and BBQ sauce (delicious combination I assure you). So far so good. 

However, the flatbread is not exactly what I expected. The image (above) advertised gives the impression of a bread that is sliced down the middle with a hinge cut, much like the traditional Subway bread but flatter. This is not the case. It is actually a large rectangle, much like a naan bread with corners, that is folded over the top of the fillings. The result of this is that, if the sandwich is fully unwrapped, it has a tendency to flop open.It is also very soft and doughy and remains so despite being toasted, which can lead to the sandwich falling over unless held tightly. The open ends, open side and limp consistency are not designed for holding a sandwich together. This problem is further compounded by the silly paper sleeve that it arrived in, rather than the traditional Subway wrapping. This paper sleeve is open on one side and so taking the sandwich anywhere in its bag is risky at best.

So at any moment the sandwich could fall open, slump over, or lose all of its fillings in a mass exodus of a scale that has not been witnessed since...well...Exodus. Functionally speaking, the flatbread is a flop in more ways that one.

Fortunately there are redeeming features. First amongst those is the fact that it is delicious. It's soft, fluffy and warm with a slightly charred taste after toasting. It is much like eating a cross between a potato cake (or potato farl as they are called in Ireland) and a naan bread, in both flavour and texture. Very pleasant indeed.

It is also considerably different to the rest of the bread selection and this is variety that I welcome. I find that the Subway breads can get a little tiresome (perhaps less frequent visits would eliminate this problem) and so this change to the fundamental element of the sandwich makes the whole experience seem new and interesting again, whilst lending a lightness to the sandwich experience. And this lightness comes despite the actual serving size being more (by weight) than the traditional bread.


- Tastes good
- Adds variety
- Uniform size


- Functionally terrible
- Higher calorific value (still less than herbs and cheese)
- Paper sleeve


Whilst the Subway flatbread might not be designed to hold your meatball sub together, it makes a pleasant change from the bread that I've become tired of. It may not be practical for day-to-day sandwich consumption but, as an interesting and tasty diversion, it certainly has a place on the menu and in my lunch rotation.


Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Review: Ackee Tree

Review: Ackee Tree, Toronto
170 Spadina Avenue (at Queen)

Cuisine: Jamaican - roti, sandwiches, curries, stews and jerk dishes with rice.
Sandwich: Jerk Chicken Sandwich ($6.99 + tax)

I made my way to Ackee Tree after finding this list of the 'best sandwiches in Toronto' and reading the sparkling review of Ackee Tree's jerk chicken sandwich (left). I made it as far as "assertively spiced and remarkably juicy" before hopping on the subway to find out for myself.

Ackee Tree is an unmissable restaurant on the west side of Spadina, slightly north of Mcdonalds. There is an enormous, sign above the entrance, advertising the carribean roots of Ackee Tree through the use of bright colours and a palm tree motif. Inside it is a long, narrow restaurant illustrating a typical Torontonian mix of cultures - reggae music on the radio and CP24 on the flatscreen TV's. There is a long counter on the right with a variety of delicious looking dishes, covered and uncovered, being kept warm and on hand for for serving. The menu is a blackboard behind this counter, listing (in a slightly messy way) the specials of the day and the standard menu items.

My jerk chicken sandwich took 5-10 minutes to arrive and I was disappointed to discover that I was to pay $6.99 + tax - the takeaway menu has the 'Ackee Tree Jerk Sandwich' at $5.99 and the review in NOW magazine states $5.95. However, nestled in a corner of the blackboard behind the counter I found 'Jerk Chicken Sandwich - $6.99' and so handed over my money without complaint.

The sandwich itself arrives on coco bread with a generous helping of jerk chicken, a thick slice of both grilled sweet pototo and tomato, and a sauce described as 'jerk mayo' though it tasted more like a chipotle dressing. It is served with a dollop of creamy homemade coleslaw on the side which acts as a cooling diversion from the scotch bonnet-induced heat of the jerk chicken.

I think the word to describe this sandwich is 'hearty'. It is filling, rich, and warming. The sweet potato was a revalation and added considerable, but subtle, flavour to the sandwich. The tomato also provided some cleansing freshness to contrast the creamy sauce.

Unfortunately I found this sandwich rather disappointing for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was not a well balanced sandwich. There was far too much of the dressing which therefore became the overriding flavour, whilst also having the effect of making the sandwich seem rather greasey. Coupled with the sweet potato, it was an extremely rich sandwich with not a lot of flavour. Jerk seasoning is a wonderful, spicy, earthy flavour that I enjoy very much but it was barely discernable amongst so much mayonnaise. The only 'jerk' element that managed to cut through the sauce was the heat of the chillis. I think that the jerk chicken should be the highlight of a jerk chicken sandwich but in this instance it served more as background texture. 

Beyond the compositional issues, there were a couple of other things that had a negative impact on my assessment of this sandwich. There were two quite large (i.e. over 2cm) pieces of bone in my sandwich, and one large piece of gristle. This is a serious sandwich sin and something that implies a lack of care and diligence when building a sandwich.

I also thought that the coco bun was a bad choice of bread for this sandwich. Whilst it was quite tasty, it was thin and extremely spongy which meant that it disintegrated amidst so much sauce. By the time I'd eaten one half, the other half was falling apart in a big, saucy mess. Something thicker or denser would have been a better choice for such a moist filling.


For something that was advertised as 'the best jerk chicken sandwich in Toronto', I found this experience very disappointing. Poor compositional choices, a lack of care and the insignificance of the jerk chicken make for a sandwich that is rich but short on flavour and difficult to eat. I enjoy jerk chicken as a wonderful, fresh experience when coupled with caribbean flavours like mango or pineapple, because I think that this makes the most of the jerk spice flavour. If you want something sticky, rich and filling then certainly Ackee Tree's jerk sandwich is worth a try.


- Large portion size
- Sweet potato in sandwich
- A good level of spice


- Poor bread choice
- Too much mayo/sauce
- Bones/lack of care
- Muted jerk flavour



Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Recommendation - Sandwich Ingredients

It seems that the variety of ingredients and ingredient combinations used in sandwich making is quite limited. Ham and cheese, chicken salad, BLT - these are all time tested favourites but I encourage questionning the ingredients that go into your sandwiches and coming up with new ways to make them more interesting, new ingredients that just work better, and new combinations that sound disgusting but taste phenomenal.

Salsa - I have no idea why salsa isn't used in sandwiches more often. It turns up at various fast food outlets quite often, most notably in the Chicken Legend, (a poor substitute for the sorely missed Chicken Premiere) but I receive incredulous looks when slathering it on a slice of spongy white. It is the perfect sandwich ingredient because:
  • It's cheap
  • It lasts forever in the fridge
  • It goes well with anything that tastes good with tomato (i.e. everything, particularly chicken, cheese, ham or any mexican flavour combinations)
  • It's spreadable (to a degree and depending on the chunk size)
  • It doesn't make your bread go soggy like tomatoes do if you leave your sandwich in a fridge overnight/until lunchtime. 
Salsa often turns up in wraps but never sandwiches, which has always mystified me. I suppose it must be because of the Latin-American roots of the ingredient but I think that it could be considered as a full time alternative to fresh tomato in sandwiches, at least for your day to day needs. Fresh tomato, whilst delicious, is often troublesome in sandwiches - especially because of the above moisture factor. And so it should probably only be used if eating immediately, if toasting your sandwich, or if you are going for a particular cuisine style in your sandwich (e.g. greek). In terms of convenience, price and flavour, salsa is fantastic and shouldn't be reserved just for that occasional fajita, or to dip tortilla chips in.

Ham, cheese and pineapple - Or, more broadly, pizza toppings. Again, these probably work better if you intend to toast your sandwich (I'll address toasted vs non-toasted at a later date) but there is no reason to limit these flavour combinations to pizza. The classic hawaiian sandwich works well with either BBQ sauce, ketchup, or salsa acting as your pizza sauce (or canned pizza sauce also works very well), a couple of slices of ham, a pineapple ring (rather than chunks) and a generous helping of your choice of cheese. Put this all together and stick it under your grill/in your toasted sandwich maker and you'll be delighted with the results. Crunchy, sweet, cheesy and extremely satisfying. I suppose it is something similar to a calzone, but much easier to eat.

Once you get into the realms of mushrooms, peppers, bacon etc. a little more preparation is required as these ingredients require cooking before being added to your sandwich. It is certainly worth the effort. Imagine a sauted mushroom, crispy bacon and blue cheese toasted pizza-sandwich. Sounds good?

Fish fingers (fish sticks) and peanut butter - I spent a lot of time eating fish finger sandwiches at university. They were cheap, filling, and easy to make interesting with the addition a couple of condiments. I'm not sure if this is a practise that only takes place in England though I suspect that it may be. Only a society that puts hash browns in sandwiches would encourage such a practise.

Peanut butter and fish fingers sounds disgusting I know - I was dubious myself at first. These are two ingredients from entirely different realms of cuisine. One is a cheap, easy dinner solution, healthier and cheaper than 'real' fish and without any thought involved in preparation. The other is something that you put on your toast in the morning. If you think about it though, it's not that far from a fish satay...of sorts. I think it has to be crunchy peanut butter, rather than smooth, but I'm not a smooth peanut butter fan at the best of times. If you're in England, HP Fruity makes the perfect accompaniment, and cheese is (always) an option. I haven't found a suitable alternative here in Canada but my search continues. Try it, love it, thank me later.

More ingredient ideas another time. If you have any of your own, please share them with me and I will definitely try them out.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Review: Eastern Twist

Eastern Twist, Toronto
505 St.Clair Avenue West (at Bathurst)
(Also at Passmore Ave and Markham)
Cuisine: Paratha Wraps (pic left), rice dishes and noodles in milk
Sandwich: Chicken and potato curry paratha wrap ($7.95 + tax)

I had walked past Eastern Twist a number of times on my way home before I finally decided to venture inside. It is a small place, right next door to a Subway, with a neon sign next to the door advertising 'Butter Chicken, wraps, noodles'. It is cosy inside, with a few tables to sit-in and eat should you desire, a counter that runs the full width of the shop and thereby splits the space, and a reasonable sized kitchen beyond which can be viewed through a window. The menu is diplayed above the counter, with handwritten signs showing addtions to the menu diplayed on the glass screen that covers the salad portion of the counter.
A short conversation with the friendly girl behind the counter reveals that it has been open for quite some time, and has received some excellent reviews (displayed on the website and on the walls of the shop). Apparently business has been slow until a recent and inexplicable surge as people have started to take notice and wander in, just like I did.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with parathas, it is basically a chapati (indian flatbread) that has been spread with butter (or ghee), folded up and then rolled out flat again. This process is repeated a couple of times, resulting in a rich, flaky, multi-layered flatbread, often served as a decadent (i.e. fatty) alternative to chapatis. Recipe can be found here. I've never come across the idea of using them instead of tortillas to create a wrap so found idea an intriguing take on fusion fast-food.
I ordered the chicken and potato curry wrap, and was given the option of white or wholewheat. The paratha was freshly made in the kitchen behind, resulting in a waiting time of 5 minutes or so but the delicious, hot flatbread was worth the wait. It came out with a generous helping of chicken and potato curry down the middle and I was asked what salad and sauces I would like. The selection was very standard - onions, lettuce etc - apart from one item which is a curried carrot and cauliflower salad. This salad absolutely makes the sandwich - I think it is flavoured with cumin and coriander, possibly with a little fennel as well. I took the servers recommendation and ended up with tamarind sauce and hot sauce.

The resulting wrap is about 8 inches in length and 3-4 inches diameter. For $7.95, this is an enormous amount of food and was enough to feed me for dinner. The chicken and potato curry is hearty but a little bland, but this was made up for by the excellent carrot and cauliflower salad and the tasty sauces, all of which added considerable flavour and interest to the wrap. The paratha is buttery and tasty, holding together well under the weight of so much food and moisture from the curry and sauces. The freshness and spice of the salad counteracts the butter of the wrap, resulting in a sandwich that tastes well balanced, each part having a distinctive flavour that compliments the other. The curry filling acts more as texture than anything else, taking on and holding together the flavours that surround it and adding a thick, saucy element.

I think that on my first visit I got the best that Eastern Twist has to offer. A fresh paratha, excellent portion size and well balanced accompaniments. Having visited a few times since I have fIound that the quality varies a little depending on the time of day/who is working in the kitchen. If every visit to Eastern Twist was as good as my first, I would not be able to recommend it enough, but due to some inconsistency I can only say that it is good rather than excellent. I will certainly be revisiting Eastern twist for a more in depth investigation of the menu, and to find out which of my experiences illustrates the true quality of their product.



- Large portion/good price
- Good range of menu options
- Inspired fusion of Indian food in an easy-to-eat format - paratha tasty and holds together well
- Carrot and cauliflower salad
- Tamarind and hot sauce - both delicious


- Inconsistency in quality/size across menu
- Only works as a whole - richness of paratha a little overwhelming if not balanced by salad
- Slightly bland curry filling - made up for somewhat by the excellence around it.

Monday, August 24, 2009


Like so many people, I have recently been inspired by the film 'Julie & Julia'. Whilst I wasn't sure quite what I wanted to write about, I knew that I wanted to write and I knew that it was going to involve food. And so I came to the Internet, armed only with the desire to be inspired, rather than inspiration itself.

I've spent the following two days arranging this blog, changing the name, the colours, the web-address etc but without settling on a topic about which to write. I think that having a topic is important as I don't want this to become a meandering, mindless unloading of my various whims and thoughts (as I'm sure this would be incredibly dull). Instead, writing consistently about something that I'm interested in seems much more worthwhile.

So, whilst searching for a topic that I would encounter often enough to write consistently about without too much effort, and could expand on greatly with only a little effort, I opened my backpack and took out my lunch. Today's lunch: two sandwiches in individual plastic bags, made yesterday during a typical late-night sandwich making session. And so inspiration arrived in my lap (and later, in my mouth).

I should explain my relationship with sandwiches, my sandwich philosophy and the origin of this fascination.

Sandwiches at Large:

I love sandwiches. I think that they might be the most versatile form of food, precisely because sandwiches are not limited by style, cuisine, or ingredients. Instead they are a way to arrange food rather than a way to create food. The sandwich is not a style, but rather a convenient way of holding something (whatever that may be) together and experiencing a number of flavours at once.

That is not to say that they are to be looked down on as a culinary afterthought. I often feel that sandwiches are a last resort, inspiring memories of dry, disgusting lunchtime experiences during school or hastily compiled arrangements of last night's leftovers lumped together in odd combinations on a lazy Sunday. Sandwiches are worth effort - just because something is arranged between bread for convenience, that doesn't mean it should afford any less care than any other meal. You are going to eat it after all - what excuse is there for eating a single piece of low quality ham with a dab of margarine? You wouldn't do it if there was no bread would you?

So perhaps that's the problem - sandwiches are seen as a way to make bread interesting, a quick fix or a way to use up leftover food.

My Sandwich Philosophy:

My sandwich philosophy revolves around the idea of layers. Because of the traditional (i.e. 2 slices of standard bread) composition of sandwiches, the ingredients of a sandwich exist in a vertical relationship with each other, with each ingredient touching at least one other ingredient, but not necessarily with all ingredients touching each other. Therefore there are two types of relationship in a sandwich - touching vertical relationships (TVR - ingredients touching each other within a sandwich) and overall sandwich relationship (OSR - all ingredients, touching and non-touching) I think that a perfect sandwich is created when each TVR is approached with as much consideration as the composition of the sandwich as a whole. Any ingredient in a sandwich should exist in perfect harmony with any TVRs, whilst also complimenting (but to a lesser extent) all flavours within the OSR .

An example: Today's lunch was constructed as follows

Bread (brown)
Mayonnaise (Hellmans Olive Oil)

Black Pepper

Sliced tomato


Deli sliced tandoori chicken (by deli sliced I mean similar to sandwich ham slices)

Roasted garlic humous


Consider the TVR's in this sandwich:




These are very good flavour combinations and so they are experienced together as you bite into a sandwich. Tomato and humous go ok together, humous and mayonnaise don't really make a difference to each other but every ingredient fits into a tasty whole whilst contributing heavily to a number of TVR's - the basis for a good sandwich.

Origin of Philosophy:

This fascination with sandwiches is something that has developed considerably over the last 5 years. It began with my dad, a man who is forever putting odd combinations of food between slices of bread. When I was younger I would often ask what he was eating and wrinkle my nose up in disgust at the list of ingredients that he gave me (Worcester Sauce, Piccalilli and sausage for example) and yet they always smelled delicious. My dad is of the school of using up leftovers by wrapping them in bread, but will add as many condiments as it takes to make it something more than the dull experience of last night's meal eaten cold.

Later in life I had a variety of jobs at fast food establishments to make money before and during university. The last of these was a job as a Sandwich Artist at Subway (I agree that the name is pretentious nonsense). One of Subway's mottos is that you should be able to 'taste every ingredient in every bite' of a sandwich. This is an idea that appeals to me - each ingredient should be arranged in such away that every taste is the same as the last and (hopefully) delicious. They also encouraged trying different combinations of meats and sauces so that you could suggest something to a mystified customer, or encourage someone not to just have mayonnaise with everything. After sampling every, my favourite sandwich to have as a staff meal was, as I called it, a chicken tikka pizza. This was a simple combination of the pizza sub (pepperoni, marinara sauce, cheese on top and toasted) and chicken tikka pieces (only available in the UK as far as I'm aware), topped with pizza-like veg (i.e. no lettuce) and topped off with BBQ sauce and (a now extinct) deli mustard/horseradish sauce.

This combination of 3 different sauces may sound odd but I assure you it was delicious. The sweetness of the BBQ sauce with the sinusy-heat of the deli mustard was fantastic. I encourage experimenting with Subway sauces in this way - after all it is the sauce that becomes the overriding flavour within a sandwich and so can completely change your sandwich experience.

With these philosophies to build on, I've gradually become more and more involved in the sandwich making process to the point that my sister once came into the kitchen (where I was making sandwiches for the two of us) to tell me that I had been gone for an hour and ask if there was going to be a sandwich any time soon.

This is not to say that I think all sandwiches should be masterpieces. I recognise that sometimes you just want to slap some ham on a piece of bread, fold it in half and cram it into your face. I myself am rather partial to the odd ketchup sandwich - hastily constructed just to have something to chew on. Instead I think that the sandwich can be so much more and I want to share my exploration of this food format with others.


This blog therefore will be a collection of sandwich thoughts, my own recipes, recommendations, reviews and other sandwich related nonsense as I pursue my interest and hopefully find others who share it. Enjoy and make sandwiches matter!