When local lunch mongers heard that popular midday eatery Sandwhich was moving into new Chapel Hill digs and launching a dinner menu, we began quivering with questions.
Will the Outrageous B.L.T. become just a memory of bacon and jalapeño branded onto my taste buds? Does this spell the end of dunking perfectly crisp, garlicky chips into ketchup spiked with harissa? Where the heck am I supposed to find a piquant and tasty sardine sandwich now?
The new Franklin Street incarnation, in the former home of Patio Loco, features minimalist décor, an open kitchen and a dinner menu spiked with bright flavors. Owner-chef Hich Elbetri, who runs the restaurant with his ex-wife and friend, Janet Elbetri, crafted an inspired dinner menu that reflects his classical French training, a fondness for the spices of his Moroccan childhood and an appetite for comfort food. At least five sandwiches grace the changing menu at any time, including Moroccan meatloaf, a pressed version layered with bacon, cheese and house-made oven-dried tomatoes. It was voted one of America's best sandwiches by Vanity Fair in August 2009.
We had never tried this favorite before, and we were impressed with the flat sandwich, pressed neatly between two slices of toast and cut on the diagonal. Meat enhanced with fennel seeds and cumin, the crisp, thick, salty bacon and melted cheese made for a hearty feast. Most sandwiches come with double-fried, parsley-specked, hand-sliced French fries and harissa ketchup. The average price for a sandwich plate is $13.
Next up was the lamb tagine ($18). A thin layer of sautéed spinach, a wet mound of slow-roasted lamb and a spoon-flattened dollop of prune chutney are piled onto a creamy heap of polenta. It's a moment of culinary achievement when each of these flavors meets the palate at once. Sandwhich's lamb tagine departs from authentic Moroccan cooking technique. Hich's version involves Niman Ranch lamb, mirepoix cooked in white wine ("Moroccans don't use white wine") and slow oven roasting. I couldn't get enough of the bits of preserved lemon in the spinach.
On our first visit, we sat outside beside the floor-to-roof windows, looking into a rambunctious birthday party at the 20-person, community table. The outdoor atmosphere was cool, but service was less than attentive, and the table could have used a candle or flowers for warmth. On our second visit, we ventured indoors to clean lines of chartreuse and gray walls adorned with modern art and dark brown wooden tables and chairs. An open kitchen beckons customers to peer into the action. "I always like looking at beat-up equipment," Hich says. "Seasoned pans. Commercial stainless steel. I feel like you spot a deal. [To see chefs] touching meat, flipping things, cooking ... being human. If you don't like it, maybe go somewhere else where they use suits and masks to cook for you."
On a weekday night, just an hour before closing time, we enjoyed good service. We never felt rushed, and our waiter answered questions with confirmed details from the kitchen.
We shared a whole Ashley Farms rotisserie chicken served with a side of my now favorite spinach and roasted red bliss potatoes ($29), and we couldn't resist a hot bowl of mac and cheese ($9). The chicken is marinated overnight in a blend of nutmeg, cumin, juniper berries, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon and turmeric, and stuffed with fresh rosemary, thyme and preserved lemon. My friend declared that she had never eaten a tastier drumstick. The crisp, delicious skin trapped in succulent flavor. While the white meat held its own, the rotisserie cooking may have depleted some of the juices.
A French-trained Morrocan chef messing with Southern mac and cheese piqued my interest. A browned top, cracked to reveal a harmonious blend of gooey cheese and the unexpected flavor of smoked paprika, provided satisfaction. Other notable dinner items include the crispy soft-shell crab with guanciale (a bacon made from pork cheek), sadly absent from the menu each time I went ($18), and the risotto with sugar snap peas, prosciutto, mint and Parmigiano-Reggiano ($14).
The desserts vary daily. Try Charlotte's decadent three-layer chocolate cake. I vow to go back and try brunch to indulge in the only fried chicken, spinach, French toast and honey dish in town ($15). How's that for inspired?