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Plat du Jour October 12, 2012: Pear Cocktail for the Weekend and Why Smørrebrød is the Ultimate Sandwich

As the heart of Autumn is now upon us: foliage season is ending, postseason baseball in full swing, chilly temperatures even in California; it’s prime time for apple cider and pears.

But, before Happy Hour commences on this mid October Friday, here’s one consideration to ponder that started in Scandinavia and has since started making waves in the U.S.

Smørrebrod art at Aamann’s

The sandwich of course began in England, at least according to food history folklore, when the Earl of Sandwich in the 18th century asked for the radical idea of his meat meal to be served between sliced bread. Incredible, a meal with bread as the utensil?

It is perhaps the same concept of being hurried and distracted that has kept the conventional sandwich in the same form, between two slices of bread (unless it’s a club sandwich). Why is this? Why is it that the only commonly seen open faced sandwich is for Thanksgiving leftovers with gravy splashed all over the turkey and the bread?

Well, there is another form of increasingly common open faced sandwiches. That would be the smørrebrød, as frequently eaten in Scandinavia for lunch as a regular ham and cheese on wheat sandwich is here in the U.S. The one trait nearly all smørrebrød share is the bread- a form of seeded rye bread that is soft, yet sturdy so the toppings don’t melt through the bread and the sandwich can be held up like a solid platform.
Toppings vary all over the place. I had smørrebrød in Denmark that was no more exciting than a piece of cheese or a smear of  very funky tasting and smelling pâté with some mayonnaise on rye bread.

Bar Tartine’s Smørrebrød

Then on the other end of the spectrum, smørrebrød can be edible landscapes, vehicles for both gastronomic art and visual art. Adam Aamann is often considered the father of modern smørrebrød in Copenhagen, where the open faced sandwich masterpieces are far too beautiful to disturb, yet far too impressive culinary creations to resist beyond a quick picture. The toppings almost seem like small cities: cornichons can be towers, watercress as trees, strained yogurt with ramson as a parking lot.

Aamann soon will be opening a shop in New York’s TriBeCa neighborhood, hopefully bringing his full arsenal of dizzying sandwich art with him. Best recently in Copenhagen was a spectacular steak tartare version from Denmark’s Jersey beef with an emulsion of tarragon and egg riffing on sauce Gribiche, more fresh tarragon, cornichons, capers, onions, and potato crisps. Then again, I’d fly back to Copenhagen again just for a smoked mackerel smørrebrod complimented by that strained ramson yogurt, some pickled green tomatoes, and crisp rye crumbs (rye on rye here). Or the simple yet stellar Danish bleu cheese with hazelnut cream and hazelnut praline, or an impressive (almost vegetarian) version with Danish asparagus, organic eggs, chervil emulsion, and some free range pork cracklings.

Meanwhile, Nick Balla, the chef of San Francisco’s Bar Tartine, is crafting equally whimsical and beautiful smørrebrod, with a slightly more compact selection than at Aamann’s. Of course this being Bar Tartine, the restaurant owned by the city’s best bakery, Tartine, the seeded rye bread is stellar. You don’t need anything except some olive oil with it.

However, Balla is also a brilliant chef and artist with these slices of bread. Balla has turned Bar Tartine into one of San Francisco’s most exciting restaurant, leaning on his Hungarian-Eastern European heritage for inspiring his superb menu (excellent sour cream and garlic langos, various kinds of pickles…), but Scandinavia inspired the smørrebrød at lunch and weekend brunch. Most impressive recently was a riff on bagels and lox featuring sliced lox, along with lox mixed with onion and quark (a soft Farmer’s cheese) for a version of cream cheese. Then Balla adds a pool of deep purple beet relish, some sharp horseradish, and dill.

Then again, equally impressive was the cobb salad rendition with bleu cheese, bacon, avocado, an egg, and a sprinkling of fried shallots.

We never eat sandwiches for dessert, except in ice cream form, but there isn’t any bread involved there. With smørrebrød, of course you can have dessert on bread, open faced style! Balla’s chocolate mousse and hazelnut butter smørrebrød has to be one of San Francisco’s premier sweet treats presently. It becomes messy and lick your fingers and plate sensational, like top notch barbeque.

Smørrebrød has only one piece of bread: so carb-o-phobes can be less concerned than with regular sandwiches. Conventional sandwiches often get slathered with mayonnaise and mustard, then when all of the ingredients are slapped together everything can become a single, anonymous flavor, with a dreadfully soggy texture.

Bar Tartine’s Pickles

And of course, smørrebrød is beautiful. They are canvasses, works of edible art. With regular sandwiches, who finds any visual pleasure in fillings shielded by a top layer of bread. That is, unless you have a pastrami on rye à la the Carnegie Deli where the stacked meat is at least a foot high, so bread is pointless.

It’s wonderful to see these edible art pieces making progress in the U.S. Let’s continue to learn from Scandinavia about the open faced sandwich, making lunch a much more enjoyable experience.

Enough with lunch now, here’s your weekend Happy Hour recipe for this Friday from a cocktail making friend of mine. The drink is not named yet, so please chime in!  There is pear, ginger, and vanilla: perhaps call it “The Foliage?”

2 oz. Ketel One vodka

1 oz. Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur

1 oz. lime juice

1 oz. pear nectar

3/4 oz. simple syrup with vanilla added while simmering

There you go, enjoy this weekend with some pumpkin ice cream and duck breast with apples.

Cheers!

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