Nellie Nichols has seen a lot of sandwich bars in her capacity as reviewer and consultant over the years, so to kick the New Year off we asked her for her top five nominations. So here they are, in no particular order.
If I had a quid for every time someone asked me which is my favourite food to go sandwich bar concept I wouldn’t be writing this now. I’d be enjoying a coffee on the deck of my dream beach house on the coast in Tasmania, gazing at the waves crashing against the shore.
Wafting from the kitchen would be the smell of home baked soughdough, almost ready to come out of the oven for my breakfast. I’d have it with some softly scrambled eggs, made with a dash of cream and slow- roasted tomatoes, a well-earned breakfast after a long jog along the deserted beach. The sun would be shining as it would be every day, a gentle breeze would be in the air, the dogs dozing on the steps with the warm sand beneath them.
However, in reality, the question has been asked now so many times I feel the answer is well overdue. Once I gave the subject the right amount of thought I realised the answer to my top five was even a little bit of a surprise to me. So, as the saying goes; in no particular order, here you are.
First up comes the renowned chain I reviewed all the way back in June 2005: Greggs, maybe for no better reason than they sold an impressive eight million mince pies at Christmas.
Now with over 1500 stores, it continues to expand, opening 68 new stores in 2011 with plans for a further 80 this year. Greggs is my wild card in a way. Not necessarily a constant cutting-edge product leader but the most successful of stalwarts, which just continues to grow like topsy. Having said that, I was twittering insanely about their stunning jaffa orange doughnut recently – not even Crispy Crème could come close to this – so their product innovation is definitely up there, just not necessarily focussed entirely on sandwiches. Does it even need to be?
Their classics are probably more dependable than most, which is why I like them. If ever I feel in the mood for a Tuna Crunch there it is, in either pillow soft white or brown bloomer, never, ever failing to be just a very, very good tuna sandwich. Something – in my opinion anyway – half the high street struggles to achieve. So, nearly seven years after my first review, I continue to be delighted there is a Greggs just a few minutes walk away from my house for that secret sausage roll moment I would never confess to.
Next up comes Mooli, which I reviewed in July 2010. I often contemplate taking a 45 minute journey across town for no other reason than just for a Goat Mooli.
This is mainly because I have never forgotten my first Mooli. Its kind of stayed in my food memory like lots of other remarkable tastes: the violet ice cream Henry Harris at Racine sometimes makes in the spring; the tobacco smoked salmon Jared Ingersoll serves in his restaurant Cotton Duck in Sydney; the charcoal-grilled spicy sausages you get in Jemaa El Fna square in Marrakech, that
come served on a plastic plate with no more than a fresh finely-chopped tomato – a Goat Mooli is right up there with the greatest, so it has to go into my top five.
The fact of the matter is, no one, till those clever boys Sam and Mathew came along, has been able to execute such simple, authentic, clean, innovative Indian-inspired food that could be executed so efficiently. If I have a
premonition about anything worth putting money on, it would be that within a few years there will be many, many Mooli’s all over town. Then perhaps I won’t have to go all the way to Soho for one.
Fernandez & Wells
I will always have a massive soft spot for Fernandez & Wells, which I visited in May 2008. For me, they were the first to truly flaunt the ‘everything has to go in a fridge’ rule by piling their wares up to the ceiling so lusciously all over their counters. Apart from being two of the most thoroughly lovely people I have come across in this mad food business, Jorge and Rick have never, ever shifted from their principles of shovelling quality and style by the spadeful throughout their business and for that I admire them both most sincerely.
When I think Fernandez & Wells I firstly think of their velvety flat white and stumpy coffees I’ve enjoyed there, the exquisite Portuguese custard tarts, the platters of charcuterie, not to mention the fabulous sandwiches in ciabatta buns and bocadillos.
One of my absolute favourites will always be the warm slow-roasted pork sandwich, or their incredible toasted cheese, made with Montgomery cheddar on Polaine bread, and the ever-changing surprise salads Jorge knocks up depending on his mood.
This is food laced with that magical touch that can only come totally naturally from within. And if you haven’t already, head down to their newly- opened fourth outlet at Somerset House.
Two to go and you might be completely surprised as I add Chipotle to this list, which I reviewed in November 2010. To coin their own phraseology, ‘it’s not just a burrito, it’s a foil-wrapped, hand- crafted, local farm supporting, food culture changing cylinder of deliciousness.’ Trust me, I’ve been invited
into their kitchens and there is no other operation that comes anywhere close to it.
Check out their awesome website and, believe me, every word is true, from their hand-mashed guacamole to their velvet whipped sour cream, their overnight-marinated chicken, slow- roasted shredded beef and hand-seeded and chopped fresh tomatoes – no ingredient gets out of the kitchen without its total share of TLC.
They’ve been quietly finding their feet in our totally different UK market, having established themselves as fantastically successful in the States, and now they’re well up for a roll-out with a second outlet open in Baker Street, following Charing Cross Road and a third opening shortly in Soho. To be honest, I have never ever been a massive fan of Mexican food and probably never will be, but this place does totally cut the mustard in terms of being undoubtedly the best in its class. So yes, finally I’m enjoying burritos.
The last of my five is Kaffeine, which I discovered in September 2010. Again I am driven by two food memories: of the best croissant filled with Italian roast ham, talleggio cheese, spinach and plum tomatoes, and of roasted fresh summer apricots, slowly roasted with mustard cascading and dribbling over some very thickly cut home-baked honey ham in some delicious crunchy bread.
That was some sandwich and I’ve been roasting apricots at home in the summer like that ever since. That’s probably one of the most wonderful
parts of working in this industry, coming across nuggets of someone else’s brilliance that turn a simple ingredient into something so insanely special they can transform a mainstream ham sandwich for ever.
Of course, there are many more I love, but I’ve limited myself to five with the criteria of being the best all-round most memorable concepts. Each of these continues to lead from the front in their own way, but all are driven by fantastic teams of people who deliver food that shows no compromise whatsoever.
Whatever their market, whatever their price point, they all exceed in their fields and deserve to be the success stories they have all become.
If I hadn’t written my Top Five in advance of visiting Foxcroft & Ginger it would have undoubtedly been included. As I had very good reason to select the original five, these would have then become my Top Six.