If Hicham and Janet Elbetri, owners of Franklin Street's tasty SandwHich, were anything but the extremely genial folks they are, Chapel Hill could have its own Seinfeldian lunchtime legend. Like the soup store to which Seinfeld character Elaine Benes famously becomes addicted, SandwHich works magic with its soups—and of course sandwiches—earning a devoted following in less than two years of business.
One of SandwHich's hopeless addicts is Matthew Kelly, chef at Vin Rouge in Durham. In last month's installation of Food Chain, Kelly hinted at his choice for best meal in the Triangle, which we can now reveal: "There's a place in Chapel Hill I like a lot, I'm just excited whenever I get a chance to go there. It's called SandwHich. The guy makes kick-ass sandwiches. He makes product-driven sandwiches—it's not about how the sandwich is made, it's about what he uses. Really good bread, Proscuitto di Parma, you can taste the product [and] there's a good balance between everything, [just] three slices of proscuitto with truffle butter—not truffle-oil butter, but truffle butter. Outrageous BLT with avocado. The olive oil he uses ... his potato chips are so great, I don't want any dip. ... It's the little things for me."
Located in a tiny, minimalist space in Chapel Hill's Courtyard on West Franklin Street, SandwHich makes the most of it. Offering an extensive menu of 16 sandwiches, two daily soups, salads, handmade chips and desserts, its food easily outstrips nearby competitors (think Panera, Ham's, Spanky's)—not surprising considering it's the brainchild of longtime gourmands.
Hich and Janet Elbetri both had skyrocketing food-industry careers in New York before selecting Chapel Hill (home of Janet's alma mater) in which to settle. Hich was a chef at the celebrated Union Square Café after nine years working his way up in Danny Meyer's restaurant empire. "I worked almost every position," he says, first as a waiter, then at the pasta station, which has nine dishes and four sides. "You have to be literally dancing, fast, for two and a half hours. Then I moved to sauté, did grill, all those stations." Janet's background is in manufacturing and marketing; after an early start at Whole Foods, she served as regional sales manager for Valrhona chocolate, then worked for an importer, then as a consultant.
The team of Janet and Hich is undoubtedly the source of SandwHich's magic. He has an instinct for fine ingredients, and she knows how to get them. She managed the shop when they first opened: "I went back to my own contacts and set up lots of interesting products—we're using cheese from Chapel Hill Creamery and Celebrity Dairy, we use [produce] from Ecofarms, and have a wonderful local tomato grower." Every ingredient is carefully considered. "We make a really good brownie, and we use Valrhona and El Rey chocolates. If I didn't know [the suppliers] personally, there's no way I'd go to the hassle of ordering tea from one place, chocolate from two different places, arugula from one place, tomatoes from another. There's a lot of love in there."
After years of preparing other people's inspirations, Hich jumped at the chance to create his own menu. "I did a lot of research on my own. I'd go to Jean-Georges' place [Jean-Georges Vongerichten's four-star gem in the Trump International Hotel] and have a salad, and that salad seemed a great idea to be a sandwich. A lot of my sandwiches are derived from cool salads." (SandwHich will turn many creations back into salads for the carb-fearing.)
Following Matthew Kelly's instruction, your intrepid Indy taster ordered the proscuitto with truffle butter and pecorino romano on baguette; the "Outrageous BLT," with jalapeño and avocado topping off the expected applewood-smoked bacon, fresh arugula and hothouse tomato; and the handmade chips. A cup of rutabaga-apple soup initially sounded, ahem, creative—but its rich puree was quickly dispatched down the gullet. It tasted of a warm, wintertime kitchen, and I did not want to know how much cream was in it.
The verdict? The salty proscuitto is enriched by the earthiness of the truffle-butter and gentle bite of the romano, and while gnawing on the Weaver Street Market baguette, I conjured a heavy pour of Brunello and a Tuscan sunset. Where the proscuitto lulled my mouth into deep contemplation, the BLT cranked it up a notch to extreme stimulation. Smoky, crunchy bacon (done right for a change—carcinogens be damned!), flavorful veggies and garlic mayo are set on momentary fire by jalapeño strips, then doused by creamy avocado. Until you take the next bite.
Don't forgo the chips. Sliced thin and fried almost translucent, they're seasoned with a mastery of reserve. A lesser chef would be tempted to lather on the ubiquitous sea salt or an attention-seeking Cajun spice, but Hich Elbetri knows to let the potato and oil speak for itself. After a hopeful plea from me, Janet writes out the recipe:
Our famous homemade chips are made with a genuine Idaho potato that we painstakingly peel and slice just right. You may know that there is an abundance of pre-sliced potatoes for serving as "homemade" chips, but ours are the genuine article. We fry them in canola oil, which we change absurdly often—we don't filter it for reuse. I think Hich only uses it for three fry cycles, or three days, I can't remember. We go through a lot and the oil isn't cheap. But it makes an enormous difference in the flavor—gives them a really clean flavor. Then we fry them, cool them on baking sheets, and when it is time to give them to the customer, we go through another step: We toss them in (yikes!) clarified butter that is seasoned with a clove or two of garlic, kosher salt and minced fresh parsley, and pop them in the oven one last time.
These are only a few of the considerable offerings, and reading through the menu you'll realize the price range of $7-$9 per sandwich is moderate considering the premium products used. Their grilled cheese, for example, is gruyère with sautéed cremini mushrooms; their roast beef is from Niman Ranch, topped with horseradish mayonnaise, bibb lettuce and Vermont cheddar. Chicken is from Ashley Farms; turkey is free-range; bacon is applewood-smoked. All the bread is from Weaver Street Market. Soups vary daily and include puréed white bean, split pea with a dash of extra virgin olive oil, and roasted butternut squash garnished with fresh sage.
Hich's favorite sandwich on the menu is the GMC (grilled, marinated chicken breast, roasted red onions, fire-roasted red and green peppers, pesto and melted provolone on ciabatta), though Janet can't decide: "Honestly, I don't know. They're all really, really good. I mean this genuinely, I'm not just saying this for marketing reasons! I guess I'd have to say the tuna [poached, with diced veggies, arugula, mayonnaise, applewood-smoked bacon, on sourdough] just because it's so unusual and special. I never get tired of the food at SandwHich."
And they never tire of the Triangle for eating out. Where will these demanding food aficionados send the Independent next? Though Janet and Hich love neighbor Bonne Soirée and swear by its goat cheese ravioli, their favorite venue is much further off the beaten path. A tiny hint from Hich: "It's 100 percent vegetarian—mad spicy, but I love it. I love it...."
Food Chain appears the third Wednesday of the month; next time on Feb. 21.