Thursday, May 8, 2008

Hi-Rise Bread Company

As big fans of sandwiches, Anna and I often take weekend walks to one of the two Darwin's Ltd. locations in Cambridge, or if we are feeling lazy we just wander a couple of blocks to Oxford Spa. All-Star Sandwich Bar is also an option, especially if there is something else we want to do in Inman (like visit Christina's spice shop), though it's appeal is more dependent on what the daily specials might be. Regardless, they are all quite good and I thought I had a pretty good handle on where the best sandwiches in Cambridge are until I ran into the comments section of the Ezra Klien post that also introduced me to the concept of a banh mi.

Anna had seen the place in her travels, so we decided to make a field trip.

Hi-Rise has two locations, one in Huron Village (Concord and Huron) and the other on the edges of Harvard Square (Brattle). With both in easy walking distance, but the Harvard Square location being reportedly much smaller, we elected to head over to the one in Huron Village.

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Now, if you check out the reviews on Citysearch you'll see a fair number of complaints that focus on poor service and overcrowding... which seemed to be most likely related, so we chose a weeknight for our first trip.

The location itself is fairly large, but is mostly dominated by the bread making operations so the area for seating and waiting in line is on the small side. There are two long communal tables with benches as well as maybe a handful of two person tables on the edges of the room. I was surprised to find that they sold wine as well as sandwiches, bread, and desert. I didn't look too closely, but it seemed like they were in the $10-20 range and many had fairly detailed descriptions/reviews with recommended food pairings. They also sold boxes of "mix packs" of six bottles for $55 as "daily drinking wine", which struck me as a pretty unique and really good idea... especially if you like the taste of their sommelier. In addition, they sold some stuffed hearth roasted chickens for $12 that looked pretty good though it grossed the vegan out that they put them so close to the pretty bread. In that regard, as you might expect from a bread company, they had dozens of types prominently displayed and available by the loaf that all looked tremendous.

They might have close to thirty different sandwiches on their menu (significantly more than Darwin's at any rate) as well as a dozen or so salads, 5 or 6 of the sandwiches explicitly vegetarian but of the cheese eating kind - and they looked at Anna like she was an alien when she asked to be spared. From the reviews it's indicated that they don't care for substitutions on their sandwiches, but despite severe shock and disbelief, they didn't have a problem not including cheese for her. So Anna's choice was a half sandwich called "DDC Olive's Fix" which consisted of grilled portabello, onion confit, swiss, spicy mustard stacked onto concord bread and grilled... while my selection was "Andi's Loose- Knit Crew" which was grilled portobello mushroom, gorgonzola, crispy bacon, monterey jack, spinach, red onion, special sauce on concord bread which was also grilled. They came in littel baskets and were simply gorgeous (I wish I snapped a picture)... certainly well done on the presentation. Both of us really liked our sandwiches, and all the ingredients appeared to be high quality and well prepared. What really made the sandwich seem exceptional was, perhaps not surprisingly, the deliciousness of the bread and added flavor of grilling. In my case anyway, I really appreciated the melty gorgonzola and jack cheese with still hot portobello and wilted spinach... and I've never really been that drawn to hot sandwiches or paninis, but perhaps I need to reevaluate. Overall, I would definitely say the sandwich I had, if indicative of their other items, suggests that they are indeed worthy of all the praise they get... and perhaps the best sandwich shop in Boston/Cambridge, though I don't think I'm ready to bestow that ranking after a single meal.

As far as crowds and service, it really wasn't bad at all on a Wednesday evening (we arrived around 6:30 I'd say - they close at 8 pm on weeknights). There was certainly a line, maybe 6 people long, that didn't get much shorter until well after 7... in addition, all of the two people tables were taken and pretty much stayed that way, but the benches were fine and only sparsely populated. Service seemed quite nice to me, didn't present any problems, and our wait for our food was pretty normal. I imagine this isn't the case at 1 pm on a Saturday, but Darwin's is pretty terrible in that regard as well, so it's really what I would expect... but if you want to try it out without overwhelming crowds I think you'd do fine in the Monday-Friday late dinner range.

Speaking of dinner, they also offer a "gourmet to go" option which daily/weekly changing menu (though chicken seemed to always be available) at around $18 per person. I guess a good choice for the presumed multitude of Cambridge residents with $40K kitchens who don't know how to use their stove but would like to pretend the do... based on their sandwiches I'm sure it's all quite delicious and would look great on those granite counter tops. To be fair, it doesn't seem like a bad idea for surprising the Sig Other with a romantic dinner at home if you aren't an expert cook. I guess it's not any more expensive than a restaurant and you have the bonus of being closer to the bedroom if it goes well.

Price might actually be the major negative mark against the place actually, as all of the sandwiches are close to $10, a couple bucks more than Darwin's, though they buy local I think, so depending on your politics it might be worth it... and the sandwiches are really good, but probably not an everyday thing.

So with those caveats, Hi-Rise is highly recommended.