Pret Crosses the Atlantic
Midtown Manhattan's lunch scene is America's greatest arena of food competition?a cutthroat little industry where everyone is always either sinking or swimming, and the parameters change every day. No one on Wall Street has as much immediate pressure to get his product, marketing and service just right. A super-salad-bar-cafeteria-deli can gear its operation to provide thousands of office workers hundreds of different popular takeout options, and serve them all within 90 minutes, and then, as easily as you can say, "Let's try getting lunch over there today," the whole thing can come crashing down.
To midtown full-timers, it's quite natural that concern about quickly grabbing a decent lunch precludes notice of the once-favorite deli that suddenly goes out of business. A market so dense and fickle is like a writhing beast. Visiting from beyond the borders of midtown's maelstrom of culinary capitalism, though, the gimmicks, whims, enticements and tastes that spur the animal migrations are baldly fascinating. Any blip can ripple into a pattern. If you keep track of the ripples, maybe you can glimpse the whole picture, and comprehend some algorithm of evolving popular preference. I guess the next step would be to open your own lunch factory.
Others prefer to dive in head-first, setting up shop and researching as they go along. It's not so crazy, maybe, for a company that dominates another very intense takeout market. In London everyone knows Pret A Manger?the chain is about as much a part of the urban landscape as newsstands are here. Brits, natural nicknamers, call it Pret. That's the moniker the company seems to have chosen for its stateside branding operation, which is wise, because a significant percentage of New Yorkers will never in their lives pronounce "mon-ZHAY," for any reason. Pret's image is sort of striving-middle-class. It specializes in premade sandwiches, assembled fresh daily without preservatives, and packaged in characteristic triangular boxes. What they don't sell at the end of the day, they let you know, goes to charity.
Because Pret arrived on our shores with a menu very close to the one offered in England, there must have been a time, last year, when New York's homeless dined on double cheddar and Branston pickle sandwiches. They didn't fly off Gotham shelves. Pret is now up to six stores in midtown and one in the financial district, and management is well into the process of revamping and Americanizing their offerings. One of the new sandwiches is plain (dolphin-safe) tuna salad; another is smoked mozzarella.
Happily, Pret's wide array leaves plenty of room for lunch-scene innovation. Some sandwich customs that might strike New Yorkers as weird have so far survived the purge. Most prominent of these is a gung-ho tendency to pile on ingredients. I find this Dagwood Bumstead sensibility (was he English?) quite endearing. It comes off gleefully mischievous, as if your sandwich were constructed by a creative child. The Turkey Lunch, for example, has red onion, spinach, bacon, mayonnaise and cranberry sauce. I strolled around midtown munching this sandwich (the diagonal cut invites Pret consumers to eat with one hand) and imagined my precocious sandwich inventor at the drawing board, saying, It'll be just like their 'oliday, Thanksgiving, and what's there to be thankful for without a strippa bacon?
Pret's new, unadorned tuna doesn't seem to be replacing the more interesting Oriental Tuna (Don't they know you're supposed to say "Asian Tuna"?even though in the UK "Asian" means not "Oriental" but "Pakistani"?). It's decent fish, and some lightly mayoed versions are usually available, so you can taste it. The adornments are red pepper, spinach and some of that pickled ginger you get with sushi. It's good on tuna. I think the English version of this sandwich also has wasabi, which is even better.
The most olde-school flavor still offered is Coronation Chicken: creamy chicken salad with mango chutney, almonds, lettuce, tomato and "coronation sauce." You don't taste or otherwise sense chicken when you eat this sandwich. The nuts and vegetables crunch, the fruitiness oozes, the pastel-yellow sauce, um, coronates and the flavors bounce like funhouse music. One time I overheard an office girl describe this sandwich to her friend as "nasty." I didn't jump up to defend it, but Coronation Chicken has an authentic, countryside-picnic feel that communicates a lot for $5.25. Maybe the problem is that the price doesn't inspire an attempt to get one's head around the lunch's foreignness. You can't eat it and forget that Pret is packing a whole lot of cultural baggage in with all those toppings.
The way they're carrying it conveys a measure of good faith, despite the necessarily meretricious adjustments. Good faith and good value don't manifest as market forces, and that's the flaw in capitalism off which sensitive critics earn a living (so don't trust the ones who complain about it). We all want lunch, and those who own the means of lunch production all want to sell us whatever we want for lunch. From there, much is left to the outsize influence of trivialities and chance. Most of the new chains and super-delis market an Earth-friendly wholesomeness, and a middlebrow superiority to fast food, even while they strive to be as cheap and quick. The quality of attention to consumers at Pret, however, is tangibly different from that of its big competitor in the sandwich sector, Cosi. It's tough to imagine a human behind Cosi. And the way Pret's managers are selling out to Yankee taste feels significantly more prideful, and respectful, than what their countrymen at Time Out did on our shores.
The three sandwiches described above come on a nutty multigrain of the sort I wouldn't normally order for myself. It goes well with Pret's amiable onslaught of healthful ingredients. The chain's pastrami, though, is on a surprisingly sturdy rye, with robust Kosher mustard, a slice of Swiss cheese and deli pickle slices?like the turkey's cranberry sauce, placed directly on the meat. (It takes a certain inborn attitude to infer from the traditional proximity of a sandwich and a side that the latter can and should be piled into the former. Maybe it's the mark of a true sandwich lover. In any case, it's like being lefty?not a decision but an instinct.) The pastrami itself is lean and peppery, tender and resoundingly tasty. Compact and inexpensive (at $5.50 it's among Pret's priciest dishes), the sandwich really throws a spotlight on one of the shames of the city: a preponderance of greasy, overbuilt, tourist-trap pastrami sandwiches giving lie to New York's rep as a Jewish-deli town. Pret's pastrami sandwich is a winner. It's as if the burritos in Mexico City were better at Taco Bell.
The Pret locations I visited were doing quite well. Kind as it is to pastrami fans, the company seems to be finding its niche among American Bridget Jones types like the one who hated Coronation Chicken. A smaller series of sandwiches on firm, narrow baguettes?notably the goat cheese, roasted tomato and basil?seems to move quickly, as does Pret's selection of crisp salads. There's also two-dollar "Pret Pots" of yogurt and fruit?or yogurt, granola and honey?which you can blend to your liking?smart marketing. Plenty of professional women want that inter-Continental vibe, without pickles on meat.
It'd be a shame if Pret USA became a low-cal specialist, because baked goods is where it really leaves homegrown yuppie eateries in the dust. The store's cakes actually taste as good as Starbucks' look. The chocolate brownie has complicated bittersweet chunks. The granola alternative is the Fruit & Oat Slice, which amounts to an extremely moist oatmeal cookie bar with nuggets of fresh dried fruit inside. I doubt many of those are making it to City Harvest come closing time.
If you work in midtown, there's a Pret A Manger near your office. See www.pret.com for exact locations, phone numbers and hours.
Don't Stop To Eat
Loving eating while walking might be even more rare than loving side dishes in your sandwich, but I've noticed that even in this I'm not quite alone. In honor of spring, and of the occasion of a review of a premade sandwich chain, here're a few notes on other handy, for-the-people food products.
Luna bars: People who don't eat them really have no idea what depth of relationship a person can develop with the futuristic concoction of soy protein, rice flour and cocoa that lends Luna bars their unique consistency. Suffice it to say that breakfast nutrition units have come a long way, and that folks who skip the meal or eat garbage in the morning shouldn't scoff. They're marketed to women via low-calorie counts and high percentages of RDAs; for me it's about a rectangular slab of light yet chocolatey flavor with my morning coffee. Luna's four new varieties seem to indicate an attempted incursion into candy-bar territory. All four?Cherry Covered Chocolate, Chocolate Peppermint Stick, Peanut Butter 'N Jelly and Sweet Dreams (peanut and chocolate)?are sweet like jellybeans. Luna's Lemon Zest and Chocolate Pecan Pie will remain more popular. I wish Luna's parent company, Clif Bar Inc., would give up on mediciney natural flavorings and spend more effort making sure the preservative-free Luna bars on New York's shelves are never stale.
Sicilian focaccia: Thanks to my Sicilian friend Mike for directing me to Red Hook's Ferdinando's, a real Sicilian focacceria, where you learn that real Sicilian focaccia is real different from any sort of pizza. Ask for focaccia at Ferdinando's and the nice ladies there will direct you to the "Panelle" section of the menu, and if you want to take away walkin' food you'll be steered toward a panelle sandwich. It's patties of deep-fried chickpea flour on a doughy roll?$3.25 without ricotta, a bit more with. The weighty white bread is lightly toasted and a little sweet; the patties unspiced, starchy, oily, mushy and preternaturally warming. It's less like falafel than a British french-fry sandwich, but mostly it's its own, venerable thing. Amble around Red Hook or Carroll Gardens eating one of these old-country belly-fillers, and the foreign and familiar will merge.
151 Union St. (at Hicks St.), Brooklyn, 718-855-1545. From the Carroll St. F station, walk west on President St. until you hit the BQE. Use the overpass on Union St., cross over the highway and you're there.
Supreme callaloo patties: Some other nice ladies tipped me to Flaky Crust. This excellent West Indian bakery was right under my nose for years, just off Fulton Mall, near the Chase ATM on Flatbush Ave. A bakery that produces good pastry is rare enough that it alone is enough to recommend it. Descriptively named Flaky Crust goes the extra mile with some topnotch Jamaican patty fillings, especially their callaloo. Brooklyn customers are so carnivorous that many local Jamaican joints hardly bother with the sweet, funky green. Flaky Crust's leafy callaloo is lovingly seasoned, guaranteeing savory, harmonious union with the crispy pastry that houses it. Check out the restaurant's amazing portrait of Louis Farrakhan before hitting the road with the Zabar's spinach knish of downtown Brooklyn.
Flaky Crust Bakery and Restaurant, 255 Livingston St. (betw. Nevins & Bond Sts.), Brooklyn, 718-797-4779.
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