Braised Portobello Sandwich — fundamental LA, Westwood Blvd, Westwood

fundamentalLAportobello

I’ve had a number of portobello sandwiches lately, some of which I’ve discussed here. I try to vary things, but I also have a special place in my heart for the mushroom sandwich and I think they get short shrift. As such, I intend to just keep talking about them until I feel like more people are eating them, or I see them at more establishments. This is my blog, and I love mushrooms. I’ve featured fundamental LA before, and they make repeat appearances for good reason. They tend to excell in both concept and execution, and the number above is no exception. The mushroom is joined by avocado, frisee, pickled jalapeño and miso tahini dressing on toasted sourdough bread. The mushroom and the avocado form a deeply rich duet, the frisee is a delightful textural contrast, and the whole thing packs a substantial flavor. This is a great sandwich, and all the more evidence that if you’re steering clear of mushrooms you’re doing yourself no small disservice.

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Portobello Mushroom — The Village Bakery & Cafe, Atwater Village

villageportobello

I’ve reviewed a fair number of vegan and vegetarian sandwiches on this blog, and if you dig into the archives you’ll find vegan reviews from a most trusted associate. The reason I do this is actually quite simple: they’re often delicious. At many establishments these sorts of sandwiches are shunted off into their own little corner of the menu, all too easy to ignore. Don’t make that mistake; go looking for meatless options, consider them, and I wager you’ll find a reward is quick in coming. Such is the case with the above, a marinated, grilled portobello mushroom with some white bean hummus. Sure, there’s a cursory bunch of lettuce and a slice of tomato with a bit of red onion, but this is really a two-note song. That’s a difficult thing to pull off, but if you’re surprised that it works I’d wager you haven’t dined on mushrooms recently. It’s a dense, rich flavor, one done a disservice by the frequently-applied “meaty” label. The umami notes that are so present in meat are present in well-prepared mushrooms, but it’s its own food. Let it be so, and enjoy it for such. While the mushroom was the standout here, the hummus was a bit sparse in application. That’s especially unfortunate in that what was there was quite good, garlicky and rich in its own right. I appreciate an establishment watching out for excessive filling creep, but not at the cost of the sandwich overall. This was quite good, but with a little more hummus it could easily have been great.

BBQ Jackelope Sandwich – Native Foods Cafe

nativefoodsbbqI eat more vegan/vegetarian cuisine than your average person for whom it is not a lifestyle. I think a lot of it is pretty tasty stuff, but given that I also consume a fair amount of meat I tend to be less impressed with it than my vegan or vegetarian associates. Much as I malign bacon around here, faux bacon is a sad, sorry copy of the real thing. That’s likely to be true no matter how tasty faux bacon is, and in my estimation that’s too bad. I’ve had more than a few things that probably would have been more enjoyable if I didn’t have an unfair comparison to make.

Which brings us to Native Foods, who, for this particular item, steer clear of the issue. Elsewhere on the menu it gets a bit problematic, but this here just lets jackfruit be jackfruit, and I’ll be darned if I wasn’t seriously impressed. The jackfruit has a real body to it, a good chew, and smothered in a smoky sauce and paired with an Asian slaw it makes for a fine sandwich. There’s some filling creep, but nothing beyond what you’d expect from the style, and the bun is soft enough that you can press down enough to keep most of it together. There aren’t many faux-meat sandwiches that are unqualified successes, but I’m very glad to have found one.

Grilled Sweet Potato and Cherry Salsa – Made at Home

sweetpotatoAs any enthusiast knows, a great many sandwiches start with leftovers. I’d happened to make some grilled sweet potatoes with cherry salsa, going by a recipe I happened upon when looking for something delightful but vegetarian. The potatoes were grilled and then tossed with lime zest, cumin and chili flakes, while the cherries were combined with scallions, fresh ginger, a dose of lime juice and more zest. It was delicious, and a few days later I pulled the leftovers out of the fridge with a sandwich in mind. It would have been simple enough to just toss the two onto some bread and be done with it, but in my mind leftover sandwiches don’t end with whatever you have in the fridge, you start there.

The flavor profile already had plenty of sweetness from the potatoes and the cherries, and there was more than enough brightness from the lime. Not bad, but it all lacks depth. A deeper richness would really round things out, and for that two ingredients occurred to me. On the left above there’s a layer of peanut butter on the bottom bun, and on the right I went with avocado. Both are creamy and have plenty of fat, bringing that richness I felt was lacking. The salsa also hadn’t been as spicy as I’d like, so some hot sauce went on both sandwiches.

Ultimately, these weren’t spectacular. They were good, but some of the sandwiches I’ve made have really knocked me over, so it’s hard not to be a tad disappointed when something doesn’t gel completely. Maybe a different bread might have helped, the whole wheat kaiser rolls I had on hand were a bit dry and not so flavorful. Some sandwiches are a bit tricky to figure out, but luckily doing so is plenty rewarding.

Kale & Roasted Eggplant Sandwich – Made at Home

kale-eggplant-sandwichI’ve put together a few kale sandwiches before, and the results were quite pleasant. Vegetables get short shrift in the sandwich world, rarely given an opportunity to stand as starring ingredients. There are plenty of reasons for that, some of them valid, but the fact remains that it need not always be that way. It’s a bit tough to make out all of what’s in there, but this sandwich consists of roasted eggplant, caramelized onions, kale sauteed in cabernet sauvignon, all on a homemade buttermilk white bread that had been spread with a bit of roasted garlic butter. That’s a short step away from a vegan sandwich, you’ll note, and switching out the butter for something like Earth Balance would hardly harm things.

Now, it’s possible that this sandwich could have been even better with something smokey and fatty. This was delicious on its own, and the world is better off with more than a handful of light, tasty, meatless sandwiches.

Turnip Sandwiches – Made at Home

turnipsandwich1Turnips! When’s the last time you saw someone go wild over a turnip? It’s been some time, I’d wager. One of the less popular root vegetables, people have been growing them for something like the last 3500 years, and within that stretch someone’s been jazzed about them about 15 times. Usually you see the opposite sort of reaction, and indeed a short time ago a pair of respected associates were on Twitter disparaging turnips. I’ve never been a big fan of the turnip, but it happened to strike me that maybe they might make some fine sandwiches, and so I set to work. Roasting the turnips seemed the natural move to me, as it leaves you with a better flavor than boiling them, and removes the work of changing water mid-cooking.

The turnip is a starch, of course, and that makes it a tricky thing to work with. There are some good sandwiches with fried potatoes in them, but in general adding such a thing throws off the starch-something else-starch balance that is the sandwich. So I figured if I was going to work with turnips, I had to include some rather large flavors to prevent a bland, starchy experience. That meant some smoked herring fillets, which have a heavy smoke, distinctly fishy flavor. So now I had the turnips, which bring a woody, earthy flavor, and smoky fish. I thought something sweet might play well in there, as smoke and sugar tend to pair exceedingly well, in barbecue and elsewhere. Caramelized onions are my go-to move for sweet on a sandwich, but I thought I might take it a step further for this occasion and I cooked up a batch of onion jam. Recipes vary, but in this case it was mostly a few pounds of onions cooked down in a couple cups of red wine and a honey gastrique. So the turnips, fish, and onion jam went down on some pretzel bread with a bit of horseradish mustard, and that was that.

I liked this sandwich quite a bit, but I’m not so sure that was about the turnips. The onion jam was delicious, I like canned fish, and pretzel bread is always a nice change of pace. This was quite good, and the turnips were a part of that, but they were hardly the star.

turnipsandwich3 My second attempt aimed for more simple ends. A New York strip steak, thinly sliced, salted and peppered and thrown in a skillet for just about a minute, went over some roasted turnips and under some provolone. Melted under the broiler, the whole thing came together as a fairly standard cheesesteak sandwich, except it also included turnips. I can see some cheesesteak aficionado not caring for what I did here, but I was quite pleased with it. The steak and the cheese are each assertive enough in flavor, but neither so much that they might drown out the turnips. Instead, the turnips give an extra dimension to what can easily be a fairly flat sandwich, and I thought it was quite welcome. turnipsandwich2Finally, I wanted something without meat. I’m celebrating a root vegetable, it would be downright negligent of me not to include something my herbivore associates can enjoy. I’ve still left the vegans in the cold, but this one is easily adaptable to their needs. For the third sandwich, I cut some heirloom tomatoes into slices about as wide as I had the turnips and gave them the same treatment, a stretch in the oven to boost up their sugars and break them down a bit. I’ve had my own issues with tomatoes before, but going heirloom helps make the most of things. Roast tomatoes and turnips isn’t quite enough for a sandwich, so I roasted some garlic as well and combined it with some minced scallion into a compound butter, which was spread on both sides of the sandwich. This one was a bit of a mess to eat, as the tomatoes had little structure left, but that didn’t prevent it from being all sorts of tasty. The garlic, tomatoes and turnips all have their own sweetness, with varying levels of subtlety, and it was a delight to have them working together. This was rich, vibrant, and the turnips helped establish the sandwich as substantial.

If you’ve got no love for the turnip, I can’t imagine the above would sway you. But if you’re just not sure what you might do with them or why they might be enjoyable, I hope I’ve laid out some things that you might find intriguing. Turnips! If they were good enough for 1500 BC, they’re good enough for you.

Bali Bliss – Veggie Grill

veggie grill

Veggie Grill is a West coast chain, with locations throughout California and up into Oregon and Washington. It is, as near as I can tell, some kind of attempt to pitch vegetarian cuisine as a sort of All-American comfort food. I want to say “like Applebee’s except made of soy” but I think they’re aiming higher than that. I hope they are. You get the idea. “The perfect indulgence,” they say. Pitching tempeh as an indulgence is a new angle, and I wish them all the best in their quest.

The tempeh is joined on the bun by lettuce, tomato, red onion and chipotle ranch. That’s the official list from the menu, anyway, but what ended up interesting me was the garnish. As you can see square in the center of the above tempeh patty, there’s a bit of relish. It was as tangy and tasty as your standard relish is, and it would have gone a long way into making this something special. Lettuce/tomato/red onion is a storied lineup, but it doesn’t exactly make me think that there’s something special going on. And that’s about the summation of this sandwich; there wasn’t much special going on. A liberal dose of hot sauce brought some flavor to things, but the sandwich itself was a bit bland and rather disappointing. The relish may or may not have saved things, but sitting around and wishing for a condiment is no way to spend a meal, and the Veggie Grill didn’t do much to help me avoid that fate.

Lutenica & Ajvar Sandwiches – Made at Home

al-jarsI had never heard of lutenica and ajvar when they were suggested to me. Native to Eastern Europe, I simply hadn’t come across them. But they came from a noted associate, so though it took me some time to get around to them, now that I’ve done so I’m glad I did. The challenge with these sorts of sandwiches is that if you include too many ingredients you risk losing the focus of the sandwich, and if you don’t add enough you simply haven’t much sandwich. Condiments are condiments for a reason, in other words. But I like a challenge, so ajvar and lutenica sandwiches it was.

al-capreseAjvar is built around roasted red peppers, with plenty of eggplant and garlic to round out the flavors, and chili peppers to give it a backbone of heat. The idea you see above came from a different associate, and is simply switching ajvar into a caprese sandwich in place of the tomato. This resulted in a fine sandwich, with the spicy finish of the ajvar giving it a dimension the standard caprese sandwich doesn’t have. A fine sandwich, but not one that represents a tremendous degree of difficulty. I had bigger plans in store.

al-zuchinniBut first, the lutenica. Built around tomatoes, peppers and carrots, this was sweeter than the ajvar and lacked the heat on the finish. (I understand that lack of heat may be atypical for lutenica, but the contrast between the two served me well.) With concerns over overwhelming the relish in mind, I paired it with some zucchini, panko breaded and baked, and a fried egg. Zucchini don’t have a tremendously assertive flavor, and the egg is resonating on a different level than the relish. This one worked as planned, with the vegetables in the relish playing well with the zucchini and the egg giving the sandwich a rich body it would have otherwise lacked. But this also wasn’t too adventurous. The challenges of building a sandwich around a spread deserved a bold gambit.

al-carrotThat, friends, is a wheat roll with ajvar, roasted carrots, and nutella. Ajvar is sweet and spicy. Chocolate and spice go quite well together. Was it so crazy to believe that the key to a sandwich built around a spread was another spread? But two condiments does not a sandwich make, and that left me considering the middle. Contrast didn’t seem like it would be the right play, something bitter or with too much contrast would just throw off the harmony. There are only a few ingredients here; if they aren’t working together there isn’t much left. So that meant carrots. One of the sweetest of vegetables, a roast carrot had the crucial sugars to play along with the rest of the sandwich, but a nuttiness that brought something the other two were lacking. This was a sandwich that doesn’t sell itself on the first bite, but if you stick with it, there’s something very enjoyable going on. I like this sandwich. I’m not going to make it every day, or even every week, but if I found myself entertaining associates on a Saturday afternoon, I just might put together a few just for the thrill of making people eat chocolate carrots.

al-sausageLastly, a sandwich that is a nod to the fact that these are, ultimately, condiments. That is not a criticism, mind you, just a note that they actually go quite well with any number of things. Here I went with a bed of spinach, and some vegetarian faux-sausage with ajvar piled on one half and lutenica on the other. It was delightful, and any actual sausage would have worked just as well. That’s sort of the point, that most anything would work. Any sandwich enthusiast should be able to put a spicy/sweet condiment to work on a dozen different sandwiches without strain. If you’re willing to sacrifice the spreads as the central element of the sandwich, the possibilities are nearly limitless. I’ve now got two nearly-full jars in my fridge, and a good number of tasty sandwiches in my future.

Brussels Sprouts Sandwich – Made at Home

brusselssproutsTheoretically, one could make a sandwich out of anything. One shouldn’t, though, because there are lots of things that simply don’t lend themselves to the format. After spotting some gorgeous green and purple Brussels sprouts at the farmer’s market, I had to wonder just how they would fare. After a while, it was clear that the only way to test it out was to give it a shot. So I thought about the kinds of things normally served with sprouts, and in short order I had my game plan. If Brussels sprouts were ever going to work, they were going to work in this sandwich. Roasted garlic on the bottom. A layer of bacon over that, and deeply caramelized onions on top of the bacon. Then the sprouts, which had been tossed with salt and pepper and a touch of bacon grease and then roasted until beginning to brown. On top of the sprouts went some blue cheese crumbles and toasted walnuts, both scattered so as to not appear in every bite. Brown mustard capped things off, and the lot of it went between two pieces of sourdough, the particulars of which I will come to in a moment.

Friends, I was struck dumb. It’s a feeling familiar to many enthusiasts, but I took a bite of this sandwich and then stopped, staring down at my hand. It was transcendent. Every piece worked in concert with every other piece, and together they formed a rich medley that was far beyond the sum of its parts. The roasted garlic was as delicious as roasted garlic always is, bacon was salty and savory (let it never be said that I am categorically against bacon), the onions brought a welcome sweetness that tempered the deep richness of the sprouts, and the bites were divided between being capped by a tang of cheese or an echoing nuttiness. It may seem that I stacked the deck, but I genuinely felt that sprouts had such a distinct flavor they needed all of this to create the harmony that a great sandwich requires. The nuts could probably go and they wouldn’t be missed, but with any other ingredient removed I feel like this sandwich takes a big step down.

A note about the bread: Brussels sprouts, shaped as they are, present a great risk of filling creep. Even after being halved for the roasting, they still make for tricky sandwich assembly and even trickier eating. In order to solve this problem I cheated a bit, namely by selecting bread that had a nice dome to it. I used a miniature sourdough round, but anything with the proper shape will do. After slicing it in two, I went about scraping much of the bread out of the top half of the sandwich. This always feels like a bit of a betrayal to me – bread brings so much to sandwiches and here I am, telling much of it to get lost. But that’s the only way this works, is to hollow out the top half so that it forms something of a cap over the ingredients. When constructing the sandwich I left a clear lip so that the bread might be flush with the bottom half at the edges, and all together the sandwich was as manageable as could be. There was still some creep out of the front, but it really was as stable as I could reasonably ask.

I am usually fairly conservative in my home sandwiches, preferring to let more skilled chefs explore the margins. But if a few more sandwiches turn out like this one, it won’t be long before I’m keen to put just about anything between bread.

The Club – Real Food Daily, Santa Monica, CA

real food clubWe’ve featured a vegan club sandwich here at On Sandwiches before, more than once, but this is a different non-animal. Where those were tofu and tempeh, respectively, this one is seitan. Joining the replacement protein are lettuce, tomato, avocado, and tempeh bacon.

There’s a bit of a hitch in being a non-vegan reviewing vegan food, namely that I both know what the actual sandwich tastes like and don’t mind eating it. That leaves a sandwich like the above struggling to get over the “good for what it is,” hump, held down by the soft bigotry of low expectations. Tempeh bacon is a good example. It’s tasty enough, and miles above soy bacon, but it hardly comes without shouting distance of the real thing. (If turkey bacon is ordinary bacon photocopied on to very heavy cardstock, soy bacon is a photo of turkey bacon screen printed onto a paper bag.)

By its own merits, this was a good sandwich. The construction was tidy (no surplus of veganaise), the flavors meshed well and overall it was quite tasty. I’m sure any of my vegan associates would be delighted with this sandwich, but for me it suffers from the same problem that plagued the Mendocino Farms not-so-fried chicken sandwich: it can’t escape being a reminder of a sandwich I’m not eating. I’m not saying you shouldn’t eat this  sandwich, far from it, just don’t eat it because you’re craving a club.