2006October10 Quick Take: first, short, review of Chris Schlesinger’s new sandwich bar

Approximate Reading Time: 12 minutes

One of the deficiencies of Chris Schlesinger’s great grill and restaurant, East Coast Grill on Cambridge Street in Inman Square, right here in Cambridge (and just a twelve-minute walk from our door) is that in its 21-year history he’s never seen fit to open it for lunch. It’s not clear why, though one reason must be that the prep, including firing up the grill, and preparing certain menu items in time for meal hours, would mean putting people to work in what are the wee small hours for restaurant folk.

Indeed, my original introduction to the place was by my boss at the time, when I was a VP of one of Boston’s hottest advertising agencies at the time. East Coast Grill had just opened. It was 1985. The place consisted of two side-by-side holes in the wall, one of them the grill/bar/restaurant in a single bay of a building, perhaps 22 feet wide. The other hole in the wall deserved to be, being a simulacrum of a roadhouse barbeque joint that Chris dubbed Jake ‘n’ Earl’s, and really with no seating to speak of, but intended mainly for take-out (and in those days, a pulled pork sandwich with two sides, cost $3.95—a sit-down restaurant and wait staff would have put him out of business). Unfortunately, my boss, who was treating me to lunch, was not aware that the Grill did not open for lunch. The only benefit of this excursion was that I learned of the existence of the place at all.

In the interim, Chris now has national fame, mainly by virtue of his
cookbooks about grilling, Caribbean food, and other spicy cuisines.
He’s no slouch as a chef either, of course, and, autodidact or not,
other chefs still come to sit at his feet for the wisdom derived from
the years. His restaurant, now greatly expanded (and Jake ‘n’ Earl’s
sold, and moved to Waltham, and nowhere the same) is still jammed every
night, with the same raucous funky charm, but now specializing in
seafood, which was also the theme of a second restaurant Chris opened
in Westport, Mass. to some acclaim before he sold it.

In the interim, I also moved into the neighborhood I also still
occupy 21 years later. And despite many meals consumed, often
contentedly sitting at the bar, I still have the same complaint. No
lunch. Free, or otherwise.

The availability of a vacated retail space on the corner of the
block on which East Coast Grill (or ECG as he seems to want to refer to
it, en passant) is located, has changed all that, as Chris obviously
snatched up the former quarters of another long-time local
favorite, The Cafe China—which offered its own idiosyncratically
Cambridge spin on a culinary staple: it was very well prepared Chinese
food, mainly Cantonese, with a European flair or twist on each dish. I, for one, am
sorry to see it go, but apparently for the larger market, it’s time had
gone.

In its place is an already bustling, newly opened sandwich shop, or bar, as Chris
has dubbed it. The All Star Sandwich Bar. The menu can be perused at
their Web site: http://www.allstarsandwichbar.com.

It is definitively open for lunch, thereby relieving Chris of this
nearly quarter-century black mark. It further serves the purpose of
servicing a much wider swath of the market, given the prices. This is
not Beverly Hills, after all, and so the sandwich prices range from
$2.50 for a Howard Johnson’s hot dog on a buttered bun to $14.50 for
“Da All Star Bomb a.k.a. The Clogger,” no doubt for artery clogger, as
it’s a New York style deli overstuffed sandwich of a melange of meats,
including brisket, tongue, pastrami, chopped chicken liver, with
several other sources of saturated animal fats thrown in on
pumpernickel.

The air of the place, like the names of the sandwiches (and the full
name of “The Clogger” is but one example), shares a bit of the
self-conscious kitschy and sophomoric attitudinizing that, I guess,
somehow is meant to pass for personality, and was and is a feature of
every Schlesinger enterprise. I don’t know Chris at all, except to tip
my hat in recognition, even though I know or knew other family members.
So, I don’t know how much of this is pose, and how much is a true
reflection of the man.

It’s a personal matter, easily overlooked, but to me it puts a bit
over the top the entirety of what is otherwise a unique and tasteful,
if bohemian and quirky (sort of Jimmy Buffett meets carnivale) air to
complement what has always been the excellent food—both the barbeque,
and the far more serious seafood.

It cannot be a coincidence that, like ECG, which is always crowded,
there is significant cacophony in the sandwich bar, sufficiently so
that my wife and I, sitting opposite one another at a small table for
two, lined up along a banquette, could not have an ordinary, sporadic
conversation. It’s another one of those things that one must put up
with at a Schlesinger enterprise. For one, he seems to tend to want to
do the decor himself (for a long time now, his matchbooks at the ECG
have been ordinary, cheap-as-they-come book matches with the logo
applied using a rubber hand stamp—stamping matches is part of the prep work of the
wait staff). Noise reduction of any public venue, especially in the
relatively low rent storefronts of Inman Square (which has become
increasingly trendy, attracting more and more serious restaurants, kind
of like King Street in Toronto, which started as a miles-long hippie
haven, lined with used clothing stores and cafés, and now as bobo as
the South End of Boston) requires trained professional engineering or
design intervention. The upside, along with saving money, of dispensing
with the niceties of interior noise abatement, is that a lot of noise
pushes older patrons, who can afford the menu, out the door more
frequently. More covers means more profit—that’s easy math. With the
shorter meal hours of lunch, and an average cover, I’d guess of 12 to
15 bucks, all the more reason to get people out and on their way from the sandwich bar.

Oh and the All Star Sandwich Bar, “Wrap free since 2006” (thereby
lending a nice concise positioning in a market that is now overgrown
with really cheap wrap joints, usually right alongside burrito
palaces—these latter epitomize cheap food, though often surprisingly
good), is cash only. Which lends another insight into Chris’s game.
Though at noon today it didn’t look like he was begging for more
well-heeled older patrons, it seems obvious to me that Chris has
finally found a way in a greater metropolitan area that houses over
100,000 student age young adults on a permanent basis to serve them as
well as he has the more well-to-do for over 20 years at his flagship.
ECG, much as it is a loud, blowzy, joint is also a serious restaurant,
with prices to match.

A perusal of the All Star Sandwich menu reveals the usual suspects,
and, as it’s Chris Schlesinger’s take on same, there is some pretense
to differentiating this product from, say, the deli sandwiches they’ve
been slinging for almost one hundred years just 100 feet down the
street at the S&S Deli. Certain of the sandwiches parenthetically
tell you of the provenance of the recipe, if it can be called that. The
BBQ Pork Sandwich is “Eastern NC,” or, more accurately, North Carolina as translated
to Mid-Cambridge circa the mid 80s at Jake ‘n’ Earl’s (not that there’s
anything wrong with that). The Tuna Melt is “Rexburg, ID,” and therein,
no doubt, lies a tale, though I don’t know who would ask about a tuna
melt on whole wheat. The cold Tuna is “ ‘A La Minute’ (Paris, France),”
which is a bad joke…

Etc.

The chief virtues of the place are the items they serve that are
tried and true staples of the kitchen at ECG (indeed, the Texas Reuben
is a la “East Coast Grill,” but that’s not what I’m talking about). I’m
talking about the excellent pickled vegetable relish that accompanies
each sandwich. They’ve been serving pickled vegetables as an amuse
bouche and drink accompaniment at ECG for years—so the kitchen has that
down pat. The pile of French fries you can order as a side are exactly
the same as those served at ECG, when you get one of the few beef
items: a humungous steak frites. The fries as a side is an astonishing
bargain at the All Star. $3.75 buys you a mound four inches high of well-cooked thinly
sliced (by hand) frites on a ten-inch oval plate. It’s enough for a
party of four or one glutton.

Cafe China had a beer and wine license, and Chris seems to have
acquired that in addition to the lease (in a beer and wine license
starved city of 100,000—with over 450 places to eat, not all of which
serve alcohol, though a great many that don’t should, if they only
could).

Now to the actual, very brief, review, based on the selection of two
sandwiches, and a bowl of chili (and the fries) that we ordered.

The egg salad was watery, clearly from an over-abundance of
mayonnaise. Also, and this is purely personal, it was chock full of
filler: chopped vegetables and pickles of various sorts. As with all sandwiches,
about which most Americans are indoctrinated from an early age, so as
to create a sense of what is right and what is not regardless of actual
culinary merit, we have our individual preferences in sandwiches, even classics.

The way your mother made sandwiches can brand your
taste for life. My wife and I (I with a mom who simply could not
prepare any of this properly, so I emerged from childhood with a sort
of virgin palate, because I simply wouldn’t eat most things she prepared; and my wife with a mom who could cook, but didn’t do
it with much flair, so Linda has a palate that allows her to appreciate
nuances, not to mention gross differences—she has her idiosyncrasies,
but she can tell what’s good) are more purist about egg salad, which we
prefer with not very much mayo at all, and with a modicum of something
from the mild branch of the onion family, like chives or the green end
of scallions, and maybe, for the crunch, the barest amount of finely
chopped celery. So the All Star Sandwich Bar (ASSB, as long as we’re
using acronyms) egg salad was gloppy and hard to keep between the
bread, and was less egg, and more garnish.

As for me, I ordered a cup of chili, more as an appetite enhancer
and sample more than an appetizer per se (as I didn’t finish it). The
chili was excellent, and exactly how I like it, though I prefer beef
only, as opposed to the beef and pork combination Chris is serving. As
the menu states, however, it’s with “no beans, no tomato, and no cryin’”

As for the latter, there is some heat, as one would expect, as the
chilis are right up front, with a strong flavor, but not so
overpowering that you can’t appreciate both the flavor and the texture
of the meat. The meat is grossly chopped and braised or stewed in the chili
broth; in other words, it’s not hamburg, which it should never be, if
you ask me. Rather, it’s Texas style. The broth is a bit too thin for
my taste. When I make a similar chili, I cut the meat in largish cubes and
dredge each cube in corn flour (masa harina) which adds a bit of
another flavor, helps in the browning, and ultimately serves to thicken
the broth. In the end, in my all-meat, all-chilis, chili, there’s not much to sop up with bread. At ASSB they serve
the chili with the very good corn bread that’s always been prepared at
ECG to accompany barbeque dishes (or as an optional side for people who
like corn bread), so I assume the consistency of the broth was
intentional. I didn’t finish the chili, but that was merely to leave
room for at least half the sandwich and some of that heap o’ fries.

My sandwich was The Gobbler, which is the unfortunate, if obvious,
name of their turkey with stuffing and cranberry dressing (in this
case, cranberry-orange).

The Gobbler is served on brioche says the menu, which is to say, not
the French egg-and-butter-enriched very light bread dough baked as
individual tri-partite tiny breakfast clover-shaped loaves, but, more
characteristically, as a pullman loaf, for easy slicing. Whatever the
form, the crust should be glazed and deeply golden brown. The crumb
should be light, almost delicate, and, because of the egg, pale yellow.
The ASSB brioche, if that’s what they thought it was, and I hate to
clue them in, was white bread—pure and simple. Moreover, it was dried out, almost to
the point of staleness, but with still bare amounts of moistness to
make it chewable.

The bread was not the only thing that was dry. The turkey, very
thinly sliced by machine, was dry, as well as practically absent the
taste of the bird. The only pronounced flavor was the cranberries, from
the sauce which was scantily applied (this is not a criticism; scant is
better). The stuffing was there in abundance, and provided all the
moisture missing in the bread and the turkey. Unfortunately, it
provided no flavor to accompany the only flavor at all in this
disappointing execution of a truly American classic: the cranberry.
Chris has some work to do.

To kind of emphasize the theme of unnecessarily dry (which nothing should be or can be, in most instances, except perhaps a man recovering from prostate surgery—in which condition, trust me, you can never be unnecessarily dry), the bread on Linda’s egg salad sandwich was also dried out, to the point of being, well, kind of wooden. And there was no indication it was toasted, was meant to be toasted, nor had we asked that it be toasted (strangely, in a small minuet of miscommunication, Linda thought the egg salad was served on some other bread, and she asked if it could be made with whole wheat; the waiter said he’d see if he could have that done, and indeed it was brought to the table on that dry whole wheat—a further examination of the menu reveals, it’s supposed to be on whole wheat… no biggie, but another sign we’re in start-up mode here).

We ordered off the “cold sandwich” menu. From the looks of the hot
sandwiches, which appeared to be far more popular with the rest of the
clientele, these choices (the hot ones) offer far more promise in the
way of sufficiently moist textures, the fat of the meats and the
methods used—for far more flavor, and the general moistness of anything
freshly grilled or heated.

Clearly more visits will be necessary before a more definitive assessment can be made.

I’m not sure of the exact opening date, but it occurred just this
summer that ended. And this is clearly still the shakedown period.

Chris happened to be present, and seemed to be overseeing the
operation, but not so much so that we were prevented from standing like
a couple of goof-balls at the entry way, some 20 feet into the
restaurant, near tables, and the take-out corner of the counter, for about five
minutes before anyone took notice of us. We were informed in a manner
that suggested we were supposed to know these things, that one seated
oneself. There was only one table open (the one we took), but it was
absent a chair, so it could only accommodate one of us. However the
staff was quick to volunteer procuring another seat for us.

The menu offers a luncheon special duo or trio, involving a
half-sandwich and a cup of chili or soup or a green salad, in any combination of two or three. It omits
telling you, as do the three blackboards, which are redundant of the
printed menu, that the special is only served with the “sandwich of the
day,” the identity of which is also not posted.

First recommendation to Chris: get some proper signage, and assume ignorance on the part of your customers.

The decor is in the spirit of the quirky brightly colored ECG, with
deeply saturated blue trim to complement the equally deep, equally
saturated orange of the walls. The accent color is a vivid aquamarine.

The bathrooms, as at ECG, are basic and adequate.

I don’t have to wish them luck, as the place is already a success.
And, in keeping with their tag line, it’s as well there is another
place to get real sandwiches. The last thing Cambridge, if not the
world, needs is another dumpy joint selling wraps and burritos with
cheap starchy fillers.

Bon appétit.

[Postscript on leftovers: 2006 October 12]

Last night, after a long and exhausting meeting, I was delighted to be reminded that, comments above aside, I had taken home half that "Gobbler" sandwich and stowed it in the fridge. This allowed a mini-follow-up, albeit on the same subject.

The half sandwich had been well-wrapped in aluminum foil, and I had stored it further in a quart-size zip-loc type baggie. If anything, this did wonders for the dryness of the bread, restoring some, but not all of the pliancy and chewiness of the crumb; the crust was still a bit stiff and chewy, which I don’t think is a good feature for a slice of pullman loaf.

This time around, there was more flavor in the sandwich somehow, but, if anything, too much. The greater flavor was predominantly the orange in the orange-cranberry sauce, which cold storage seemed to intensify at the expense of the cranberry. There was also a pronounced aroma and taste of sage, which seems to have been the chief herb in the apple-sausage dressing. The sausage made its presence a little better known. The flavor intensification did not extend to the turkey, quite evident visually, of course, and texturally, but still not on the palate, unfortunately.

It may seem I’m paying far too much serious attention to what is otherwise a "casual" cuisine: the All American sandwich. But any food worth eating is worth preparing well, and hence being taken seriously. Chris Schlesinger, in his characteristic deceptively casual way, is serious indeed, with all of his other endeavors, not to mention his recipes. I somehow have no doubt, as I implied above with my original impressions, that he’ll address whatever shortcomings are evident in what is still the maiden voyage of his latest venture.

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1 thought on “
2006October10 Quick Take: first, short, review of Chris Schlesinger’s new sandwich bar

  1. Mayonnaise slathered on thin sliced
    brioche bread did not go well with
    relish, the delicious turkey and
    flavorful stuffing. Brioche would be
    better sliced thicker!
    They do not make All Star sandwiches as
    on the menu
    – – – – – menu – – – – –
    The Gobbler
    House Roasted Turkey, Apple-Sausage
    Stuffing and Orange-Cranberry Relish
    on Brioche….$7.75
    – – – – – quoted – – – – –
    nor do they ask, they do not
    offer a choice about adding mayo!

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