There's something a little futile -- some would say pathetic -- about a restaurant critic dissecting sandwiches.
I don't mean literally dissecting. Actually, that would be kind of funny, except it's hard to keep a low profile when you're pinning back the crusts of your ham and cheese and rooting around the pickles with a scalpel. I mean dissecting in the sense of David Denby dissecting National Lampoon's European Vacation or Nicolai Ouroussoff dissecting his local Hollywood Video.
Then again, I'm not that kind of critic. And the sandwiches at the new and improved Bread Workshop in Berkeley are -- in my professional opinion -- pretty darn tasty.
Like the turkey meatball sub. The half size is big enough for you as long as you get a cookie for dessert, and the full size is big enough for you and your teacup chihuahua. The giant, cream-colored Diestel ranch-raised turkey meatballs stuffed inside Bread Workshop's own fluffy white-bread roll are filled with confetti -- tiny diced carrots, onion, and celery. Delicate and tender, they're quite the party. The chunky marinara slathered on top was thick enough to stay in the sandwich, not gloop all over your shirt. Two thumbs up, I say.
Three hats -- nay, I think four -- to the Asian cabbage slaw. No Chinese chicken salad here, this colorful heap of shredded red and green cabbage was showered with roasted peanuts, giving a deeper cast to the salad's crunch. Through the dressing, tinged with sugar and kicky Thai sambal sauce, emerged an enchanting flavor that caught me by surprise. I picked through the cabbage until I located its source: strands of julienned shiso, an Asian herb that tastes to me like a cross between sweet almonds and Red Hots.
The Bread Workshop has been around since 1989, when owner William Briscoe decided to leave cooking for something saner, like baking bread. Sixteen years later, he is shifting back. Briscoe moved from his Addison Street facilities to a larger cafe-slash-bakery space on the ground floor of an apartment building on University Avenue and Acton Street. From the to-go containers to the chicken, he is building the business to be as "safe and sustainable" as possible, and 70 percent of his ingredients are organic. Yet a key part of sustainability, Briscoe says, is making sure the surrounding neighborhood can afford it, and he is setting prices accordingly.
Briscoe has taken an industrial space -- exposed girders, poured-concrete floors, a collage of car hoods suspended over the cash register -- and made it marginally less so with walls painted what one friend called "ketchup and mustard." As of last week the room hadn't yet lost its Great Plains feel, with wide-open tables and broad windows looking out onto the vast expanse of University. Another windowed wall separated the dining room from the bakery production area. On the other side, real working bakers in white jackets filled up racks with loaf after loaf of bread. It's Willy Wonka for the high-carb set.
The exposed bakery, the stacks of pages to color in with sparkly markers, and the grilled-cheese sandwich all advertise that Briscoe wants Bread Workshop to be a good place for kids. Except the grilled-cheese sandwich is made with Thomasville tome-aged raw-milk cheese from Georgia. Briscoe and consulting chef Richard Mott, who runs the kitchens at Kimball's East and Kimball's West, have designed a menu with adult-friendly twists and turns, like shiso in the cole slaw and smoky chipotle peppers and creamy avocado in the chicken salad sandwich.
Sometimes their adult approach -- lighten it up, make it healthy -- tweaked the classics past recognition, as with the Cuban-style pork sandwich, which in Cuban restaurants is packed with roasted pork, ham, cheese, and pickles, then grill-pressed until everything melts together into a glorious mess. You can eat Bread Workshop's version without staining your fingers. A single slice of tender marinated pork pressed between a warm roll, with a pickled mixed-veg slaw, it's definitely good but definitely not decadent. Is that good or bad? Depends on your expectations. Same with the Italian sub, which just wouldn't contain enough grease for purists: A few slices of salami, ham, turkey, and provolone. The main attraction seemed to be the vegetables packed on top -- a marinated tomato, a few spoonfuls of sweet-tart pepper relish, and vinaigrette-dressed lettuce. Paying attention to your lettuce, too? That's the difference between a sandwich shop and a restaurant that serves sandwiches.
Briscoe moves beyond the baked goods with rotisserie chicken served three ways: classic rosemary-lemon, a Mexican pibe platter, and a "transworld pepper" bird. For the pibe chicken, the cooks stuff a Yucatan-style paste of pumpkin seeds, chiles, spices, and lime juice underneath the skin, and serve the chicken with nutty cooked quinoa. As romantic as the pibe sounded, in practice I preferred the three-pepper rub on the transworld chicken, which left the skin crisper and more robustly flavored.
There's still work to be done. One daily special, described as a duck-confit-laced rice salad, tasted like a failed sticky-rice risotto, held together with starch and fat, accompanied by a few overdressed greens. And the bakery's venture into pastry making doesn't yet feel assured; one of the Russian tea cookies I tried revealed an underbaked, gummy center, and the pastry on an apple-almond galette never found its flake. It's not all bad -- a Gruyère-asparagus quiche was more fragile than it appeared, with a custard center as light as whipped cream.
Briscoe plans to open the cafe for dinner soon, supplementing the rotisserie chickens with takeout dishes for families. With the new cafe, he also shifted his baking schedule so that fresh baguettes are still coming out of the ovens at two in the afternoon -- and still super fresh for diners stopping in on their way home from work.
Whether the dinnertime menu succeeds, during the day the Bread Workshop is making sandwiches that just may stand up to analysis. It's easy to dissect a hamburger. It's not just dinner, it's an American icon. Same with the cheese steak and the lobster roll, weighed down with butter and regional pride. But a well-made smoked turkey and Swiss will never be more than a well-made smoked turkey and Swiss, even if you designate separate ten-point scales for bread fluffiness, filling sufficiency, and presentation, or you quibble over balance and composition. Then again, it's not so easy to find a well-made turkey and Swiss that passes the eco-ethics test, too.
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