Sandwiched at the Whitney: Chefs, Lunch, Art, and You
Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York NY 10021 (b/n 74th and 75th; map); 212-570-3600; website
Service: Clunky and time-consuming, if friendly
Setting: Temporary "pop-up" cafe at the Museum, through the fall of 2010
Must-Haves: Ham and cheese, smoked turkey, lemon whoopie pie
Cost: Sandwiches $5.50-$14.95, most around $9
Grade: B (but we're expecting improvement)
I was fascinated when I heard that Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group was going to open a sandwich joint in the Whitney Museum featuring items designed by its chefs and pastry chefs. Why? Because it raised so many questions.
Are chefs necessarily the best sandwich architects? Would the people making the food be able to effectively execute those sandwiches? Would the food be influenced by the museum setting? And how would the USHG bridge offer delicious food at fair prices, given the markups that museum settings inevitably entail?
So many questions, so many sandwiches, and so little time to waste—it's just a limited-time operation, after all. So last week we headed up to the Whitney to figure things out.
What happened next answered all the above questions, and then some.
We walked through the doors of the Whitney. "General admission tickets?" asked the security guard.
We shook our heads. "Sandwiches." And he pointed us to the right, down the stairs. As we walked down the staircase to Sandwiched, we found ourselves staring down a formidable line. Though I'd ordered and paid the check after ten minutes, the first sandwiches arrived more than half an hour later (served with a smile, we should say). Points for the friendly service, but don't expect a quick lunch.
The sandwiches arrived in oversized plastic baskets that cried out for something else —pickles, cole slaw, some chips, something, anything that would distract you from the fact that some of the sandwiches looked quite dainty, given their hefty, museum-fueled price tags.
But I've eaten enough sandwiches in my day to realize that there's often an inverse relationship between sandwich size and quality. You can hide a multitude of sins in a big old five dollar sandwich—who's going to complain about a five-dollar sandwich? But in this case, the smallest sandwich of the bunch—a ham and sharp cheddar cheese sandwich on a potato onion roll, designed by Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern—was a perfect creation. Slightly heftier but just as serious is Blue Smoke chef Kenny Callahan's applewood-smoked turkey and gouda; and Carmine Quagliata of the Union Square Cafe came up with a killer cured (not smoked) salmon sandwich with avocado cream cheese on sourdough rye. All three of these sandwiches hit the often-hard-to-find happy medium between dainty and hefty.
Other sandwiches ran somewhere between tasty and fairly priced, and egregiously pricey and forgettable. We polished off a beefy onion soup in minutes; a chicken soup, however, was devoid of salt and herbs and seasoning. And desserts suffer from another price-value conundrum—ranging from a delicious, but three-bite s'more ($3.75) to a much better-valued lemon whoopie pie that I'd come back for.
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The USHG folks have so many things to balance here. So many balls in the air—they're trying to showcase their chefs; trying to serve great sandwiches quickly and easily; trying to cater to both museum-goers and neighborhood residents; and trying to make all of the above simultaneously affordable and special enough to befit the chef-anointed status.
As it is, they're a good bit of the way there, and tweaking things every day. Some prices need to be rethought and brought down, even if others go up to compensate; and it may be worth considering whether frying items to order is feasible in what is, for many, just a quick stop between exhibitions. But order right, and it's possible to have a fantastic and filling meal at Sandwiched for less than $10—something the neighborhood sorely needs.