Libertines though they may be, chefs love making sushi because sushi is so limiting, so rigorous in what is allowed and what is not, so rooted in tradition and steeped in modernity. There is nowhere to hide with sushi, no cover for mistakes or dumbassery. You're either on your game or you're a goat — and everyone will know on which side of the fence you fall. It's a land of absolutes, and chefs like absolutes because so little else in their world is.
Chefs love soup for the opposite reason. With soup, there are no rules, no limits. Soup is nothing but cover. You can make a soup out of virtually anything. Vegetable ends? Sprouted onions? Celery too far gone for service? Sounds like a mirepoix to me. Gnarly bits of meat that not even a customer wanting well-done will eat? Pot of beans the new roundsman accidentally cooked down to wallpaper paste? Toss 'em in the pot, start 'em simmering and see what happens.
And chefs love sandwiches because they are a combination of these two impulses — the meticulous and traditional on the one hand, the carefree and (at times) goofy on the other. As with soup, almost anything that can fit between two slices of bread can be made into a sandwich. As with sushi, there are rules, considerations, ways to make a sandwich right and ways to make one wrong. And there are chefs who can raise the simple act of making a sandwich into something that approaches art. Because within the physical strictures of sandwich-making (there must be bread of some sort, there must be something in between) and the debatable philosophical conventions (should the mustard go on the top slice or the bottom?), almost anything is possible.
1575 Central Street
Hours: 7 a.m.-close Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-close Saturday-Sunday
Truffle egg salad: $7.75
Pork roll: $4.75
And then there's the sriracha — you know, the red stuff in the bottle with the rooster on it. Sriracha has become like a badge of craft among chefs slumming it on the wrong side of the culinary tracks. You see that bottle sitting on the table, lurking around the counter somewhere, and you know you're in a place run by a guy (or guys) who know from the international flavor palate, who've maybe done some time in the aisles of the local Asian market. I've seen it on hot dog carts, at burger stands, in the condiment caddies of joints that want you to know that they're in on the joke, too: that downscaling doesn't always mean downscaling even when it looks like downscaling. Sriracha is the lemongrass, the arugula, of the 21st century — a battle flag not of nationality or revolutionary intent, but of taste. It says: We know the good stuff, and we've got it here.
At the five-month-old Masterpiece Delicatessen in Highland, partners Justin Brunson and Steve Allee (both of them ex-chefs from elsewhere, both of them line dogs with years and addresses behind them) have the sriracha. It's set on the counter among the specialty mustards, the pour-top of cane syrup, the straws and napkins and jug of self-serve ice water. It's not an obvious thing, but it's there for those who know what's good for them, what's good for their sandwich. It's there for a certain restaurant critic who, already blown away by the fact that this tiny kitchen at hipster ground zero (2,000 miles from Pittsburgh and Philly and Cleveland and Trenton) was actually serving Taylor pork roll on a breakfast sandwich, turned just flat giddy to see the only condiment on earth appropriate for sliced and fried wads of pressed New Jersey pork product.
The pork roll came with a single organic egg, over easy (and then either steamed or basted to make the yolk gelatinous) with a hard grind of pepper and melted sharp cheddar all squished between the halves of a good, stiff and toasted bagel. It was already awesome, but dressing it with a shot of sriracha raised it to sublime. I was so thrilled that I didn't realize until far too late that I was choosing a sandwich off the breakfast menu (which, technically, stops at 11 a.m.) almost two hours late. Not that my gaffe slowed the kitchen down. In fact, they didn't even seem annoyed — another reason to like the place already.
But a couple of days later, I got my heart broken in the worst possible way. The schedule on the door claims that Masterpiece is open until 6 p.m. on Sundays, and when I'd called around 2 p.m., I'd been told that the kitchen would be serving until five. Which meant I still had three hours to get there, score myself one of those beef brisket sandwiches with red-wine gastrique, topped with taleggio fonduta and caramelized onions, maybe a little homemade pasta salad or, going whiplash-Asian, seared ahi on an English muffin with Korean slaw and wasabi aioli: four different countries on a single sandwich. Just the thing for watching CU kick CSU's ass.
But as I parked the car and headed to Masterpiece, I saw one of the waitresses out on the patio stacking chairs — two hours before the place was supposed to close. Then I saw her duck inside, and, through the side window, I spotted cooks scrubbing down, wrapping the cold table. Oh, no...no, no, no, no, no. Please don't tell me you're doing this — shutting down when I'm, like, twenty steps from the front door? I had this sudden, testosterone-heavy urge to go all John McClane in Die Hard — to sprint the last few steps, leap through the air in a bloody wife-beater, and get one hand between the door and the jamb before they could shut it and turn the lock. But I didn't do that. Instead, I watched the girl turn the sign around to "Closed," made puppy-dog eyes at her through the window and whimpered while she shrugged at me through the glass.
CU still won, but I had to watch the game without sandwiches. It wasn't nearly so satisfying.
One of the things I miss the most about working in kitchens is their smell. Lit burners, dry stock, charred bread, garlic and onions. There is no smell in the world so comforting to me as the smell of Laura's hair when she's sleeping. Second to that? The smell of a working kitchen on a cool afternoon with the first bite of autumn in the air. Stepping back inside two days later, right in advance of the lunch rush, all those smells come flooding back into me like a wind. The deli doesn't have an open kitchen, per se, just a kitchen — set against the back wall, blocked from the counter only by a pass shelf-slash-storage rack. Brunson, Allee and the crew work right out in the open, working the cutting board and cold table, turning around to wrap, jumping across a small gulf of space to shuffle pans on the burners. And they work fast, because when the rush comes on, it hits like a wave, forever crashing. Bikers and joggers and yuppies and neighborhood folk with kids or dogs or both all seem to converge at once, and where a moment ago I was the only one in the place — standing at the counter, trying to decide between the Reuben or the Cuban (to make it easy, I ordered both) — suddenly I am pushed off to a small circle of shrinking real estate by the door as the parties come in.
Masterpiece does take-away and sit-down service. Both are handled the same: Order at the counter, pay your green and wait for someone to shout your name over the din. You pick up across a separate section of counter — either in a brown bag or on lovely, modern plates, all white and in unusual shapes. Tables are provided, but the rest is up to you. There are deli cases offering some killer product (Thumann's deli meats, cured meats from Salumeria Biellese in Manhattan, a small but solid selection of artisan, international cheeses), boxes of this and cans of that scattered around every flat surface, and a cooler packed with Boylan's sodas and energy drinks. In the kitchen, Brunson, Allee and their crew make their own shrimp-and-tofu miso soup, cure their own gravlax and cook up desserts: Valrhona chocolate cake with housemade cashew brittle and chantilly cream; rhubarb crisp with vanilla ice cream perfect for the coming season; lemon-honey panna cotta for people who like panna cotta, which I don't.
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Masterpiece's Cuban sandwich is not traditional, but it's tasty. Done on a lard-less sandwich roll and grilled in a press, it contains slow-roasted and brined pork, sliced ham, dill pickles from the slicer, lots of mustard and a garlic aioli that is nice but, to a purist, maybe one step too far from Calle Ocho in Miami. The Reuben is wet and excellent, drooling Thousand Island dressing and kraut juice all over everything. And even the simplest of sandwiches — a grilled cheese with bacon — shows a little bump of genius, with the kitchen chopping the bacon before putting it between the bread so that you don't take a bite and pull all the bacon out in one fell swoop.
I also go for a black-truffle egg salad sandwich with brunoise red onions and capers that guarantees no one will kiss you (or, really, want to come within ten feet of you) for the rest of the day. I love egg salad but couldn't eat more than half of the sandwich without feeling stuffed and stinky and redolent of onions and fungus. It's not a smell or flavor that goes away easily, either; black truffle laughs at breath mints. Still, it's a great sandwich — luxury couched inside comfort, which is one of a chef's best tricks.
As a matter of fact, all of the sandwiches here are great sandwiches, classics done with fillips of brilliance, with touches of wild talent — proof positive that while all cooking is craft and some cooking is art, a simple and well-made sandwich can often be both: a masterpiece done in shades of food.