The NoMad, Daniel Humm's new-ish semi-casual-but-still-not-cheap spot in the NoMad hotel cooks a mean chicken. There's no question about that. Stuffed with brioche and truffles, injected with liquid foie gras, roasted until burnished and crisp, it's one of the finest chickens we've had anywhere. It also costs $79.
So when I heard that The NoMad was offering a sandwiched version of this same chicken—foie gras, truffles, brioche, and all—on their brunch menu for only $26, I suddenly thought to myself, hey, now I can finally afford to eat Daniel Humm's roast chicken whenever the mood strikes, before my line of thought stopped with a big mental record-scratch: wait a minute. That's a $26 chicken sandwich. Twenty-Six-Dollars. For a chicken sandwich. I know prices have been steadily rising, but are we ready for the era of the $26 sandwich? Could it possibly be worth the price?
I saw it as my duty to find out.
As I stepped out of the subway in the Flatiron District and started walking towards The NoMad, the irony of passing a crowded McDonald's with a window display advertising Hot'n Spicy McChicken Sandwiches for only a buck struck me as humorous. While we waited in the NoMad's gorgeous lobby for our table, the old question about whether you'd rather have fifty $1 prostitutes or one $50 prostitute flashed through my mind. I distracted my wife from her book long enough to ask her: Could a single chicken sandwich from The NoMad be worth 26 Hot'n Spicy McChickens?
As she often does when I ask her deep philosophical questions of this nature, she rolled her eyes and looked back down at her book. Obviously not born to be a deep thinker, I muttered under my breath.
We were finally shown to our table in the center of the airy, light-filled atrium, flanked by hotel guests and New Yorkers alike, digging into giant ricotta-stuffed pancakes and wonderfully luscious looking quiches that quivered like custard. When you glance at the menu, you can't help but see that sandwich. It sits in a box set apart from the rest of the menu, paired with Le Poulet, their custom-brewed beer designed to go with the roast chicken at dinner.
Before ordering, I asked our server if it indeed was the same chicken that they serve at night.
"It's the same chicken from an Amish farm, but the sandwich is breast meat only, and it's not roasted the same way. Instead of roasted skin, you get a little side salad with crispy pieces of skin on top."
"Ah, so no brioche and truffle stuffing between the skin and the meat like with the roast?"
"No, sir, unfortunately not. We order the chicken breasts specifically for the sandwich, so we don't start with whole birds here. But the breast meat is injected with foie gras, so that flavor penetrates, and there is a truffle spread on the freshly baked brioche."
Good enough for me. I ordered the sandwich, while my wife ordered one of those awesome looking quiches, along with a side order of fries. You can't not order fries when they're in the hands of a talented chef.
I sat there, sipping my Michelada ($15) as we waited, doing a bit of pointless mental math. From my hazy memories of McChicken sandwiches (I believe I've only ever had them mildly hungover), the patties are deep fried, and are pretty small—about 3 ounces, say, with about 2 ounces of actual chicken (in recombined matter form) in an ounce of fried crust.. There's a small handful of shredded iceberg lettuce, a dollop of McDonald's sweet and tangy mayo, and a toasted bun. All told, I'd guess in the range of 350 calories. Let's say 300 to be conservative.*
* I looked this up when I got home— according to McDonald's, it's actually 360 calories.
So if we're talking from a purely calorie-per-dollar count, The NoMad's chicken sandwich would have to tip the scales at 7,800 calories. A whole chicken comes in at about 1,400 calories. I briefly pictured the maiître-d' walking over and lifting a cloche to reveal a brioche bun with five and a half whole chickens stuffed between it, perhaps a truffle shoved into each of their five and a half beaks.
What actually came to the table was not too far off. You could see heads turning, the aroma of butter and truffles leaving a near-visible wake as it made its way through the dining room. Its lustrous golden brown domes wove their way elegantly between the tables, as it reclined majestically on its wooden cutting board, like a Roman emperor being borne on a litter. It was certainly the largest sandwich I'd ever seen outside of a 6-foot-sub setting.
It was placed in front of me—arrived, is more like it—and I spent a moment admiring it. It's a sandwich that demands attention from the get-go, commanding in its sheer mass, with glistening slabs of chicken peaking out from within, garnished with leaves of celery and thin rounds of shallot.
I gingerly picked up the knife from its embedded slot within the cutting board (you've got to admire that level of attention to detail) and split the sandwich, offering half to my wife, who was already lost in her quiche and the crispy roasted fingerling potatoes it came with.
If there's one remark that can be made straight off the bat, it's that this is not a $26 sandwich. It's two $13 sandwiches that happen to be conjoined. I couldn't fathom finishing one on my own.
As I tend to do when faced with a new dish, I started by gingerly picking at each individual element. Brioche bun—gorgeous, buttery, and tender. No complaints. Chicken—practically oozing juice, with the heady aroma of foie gras built right into it. So far, so good. Celery and shallots—fresh, crisp, and meticulously picked and sliced. Spot on. Black Truffle spread—rich and aromatic, probably made with frozen truffles, but even I don't expect fresh black truffles for $26.
I moved onto the side salad it came with.
Endive, radicchio, and Little Gem lettuce—crisp, sweet, mildly bitter, and perfectly dressed. Chicken skin crisps—a little chewy and underseasoned. One mark off, but a very small one.
I got excited—with ingredients and flavor like this, it was certain to be one helluva first bite. I took it, chewed, swallowed, took one more, put down the sandwich, and stopped.
This is not a good sandwich, I whispered to my wife.
Well, it was tough to say. How could perfect chicken and a flavorful truffle spread on great brioche help but be anything but wonderful? Then I realized what it was. It was not the fault of a single flawless component, but a basic breach of the First Rule of Sandwich-Making: a sandwich must be greater than the sum of its parts.
There are implications to this statement. In order to achieve sandwich greatness, you don't necessarily need to start with great ingredients—so long as when you add those ingredients together and put them between bread, if they are thus improved, then you have succeeded at the art of sandwich-making. A grilled cheese made with American cheese sandwiched between buttered Wonderbread may not be gourmet material, but children of any age can attest to its success as a sandwich.
In fact, I'd say even the lowly McChicken succeeds in this respect, the peppery crust of the chicken tempered by the creamy acidity of the mayo, the iceberg lettuce adding its signature sweet crunch, with the bun as a soft contrast. You might be grossed out by the quality of the chicken in there, but there's no denying that it's at the very least a carefully planned sandwich that brings the most out of some very inexpensive ingredients in a harmonious, balanced fashion.
The NoMad's sandwich breaks this rule. As you eat it, you taste fine chicken, truffles, and brioche, no more and no less. The synergism is not there, and the sandwich lacks focus and balance because of it; It's as if The Beatles had consisted of four Paul McCartney clones without Ringo's' down-to-earth sensibilities or John and George's acerbic wit to balance him out.
Adding a bit of the side salad between the buns to buttress the celery and shallots improved matters a bit, providing the crunch and acid necessary to counter the assault of buttery richness, but even so, I found myself getting bored about halfway through my half sandwich. I eventually resorted to opening it up and tasting the components individually and found myself enjoying it far more.
Don't get me wrong—it was a wonderful brunch with faultless service, great drinks, and largely excellent food (those fries!), but it was tough not to feel a little disappointed on my way home, having peered over the precipice of greatness, but not having been allowed to take the plunge.
As we passed that McDonald's again, I gingerly tried to steer my wife towards the glass doors, feeling like I was on a quest that needed some sort of logical resolution. She sensed it and chose to keep her gait straight, instead turning to me to say, stop thinking about it. Focus on what's important.
Good point, I thought to myself, as I looked into her pretty eyes. There are far more important things to think about in life.
Like that quiche, I said. That deep, moist, quivering, quiche. Hands down, far and away the best I've had anywhere.
I involuntarily licked my lips and she rolled her eyes again. Sometimes I feel like she just doesn't know how to read my signals.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.