Flour and Darwin’s
Sandwich Artists at WorkBy Winnie Yang
Flour Bakery + CafÉ
1595 Washington Street
148 Mt. Auburn Street
Little did John Montagu realize, back in the mid-eighteenth century, that his failed attempt to reach the North Pole would be a monumental event in history. Okay, no one really remembers him for that. However, as the fourth Earl of Sandwich, he is credited with the eponymous creation that consists of some meat placed between two slices of bread. (Incidentally, Captain Cook actually named a group of islands near Hawaii after the Earl to commemorate his voyage.) It is said that the Earl ate sandwiches to keep his hunger at bay during long bouts of gambling. Sandwich-making has very nearly approached an art form since Montagu’s time (when the standard filling was a few uninspiring slabs of salted beef). There are a handful of notable sandwich shops around town (Rebecca’s and Au Bon Pain pale in comparison), but they require a bit of searching.
A relative newcomer to the South End, Flour Bakery and CafÉ is a charmer. It’s the brainchild of owner/chef Joanne Chang, who graduated from Harvard with degrees in Applied Math and Economics. After an unrewarding stint in management consulting, she set her sights on culinary school, and the list of restaurants she has worked at since is quite impressive -- Biba, Rialto, Mistral, even New York’s famed Payard. Fortunately, she’s decided to stick around and set up shop here, giving us all a chance to savor her truly delectable baked goods.
In appearance, Flour is very much the friendly neighborhood bakery. The cornflower blue and white walls are cheery and inviting, and the blonde wood tables and chairs and matte silver lamp fixtures lend a clean modern feel to the interior. The artsy photographs of food hanging about the walls are nicely understated, but the aromas emanating from the kitchen, thankfully, are not. The glass case next to the counter houses a really attractive selection of freshly baked pastries and desserts. The bakery’s motto (“Make life sweeter ... Eat dessert first”) is easy to swallow, but we mustn’t forget Montagu.
Flour offers a bevy of sandwich options. The portabella melt, the balsamic vinegar-marinated mushroom topped with Brie, tomatoes, and a garlic pesto, all on a rosemary and olive oil foccacia. It was good, if a bit oily. The tuna salad with red peppers and tapenade -- a thick, pungent paste of mostly olives, anchovies, capers, and lemon juice -- seemed rather soggy and dense. The roast beef with red onions, sliced portabella, tomatoes, and field greens is an interesting idea; however, the vinegary mushroom easily overtakes the roast beef when all you really want to taste is the beef. These selections all take a backseat to the roast chicken with brie, arugula, and roasted peppers. The juicy sweetness of the peppers pairs perfectly with the creamy, tangy cheese, while the chicken holds it own, providing a satisfying, substantial meatiness. This sandwich is so tasty that Flour should make it just a bit bigger.
Both the gazpacho (only offered in the summer) and the potato leek soup were lacking in flavor. The gazpacho seemed mostly single notes of onion and tomato that contributed to the general sweetness of the soup. It would definitely benefit from a bit more garlic. The potato leek was unimaginative and unmemorable. Chang’s talent is clearly baking though, and I would be remiss in forgetting the extraordinary freshly baked bread that houses all the sandwiches. Or the desserts, for that matter.
As with the sandwiches, there are hits and misses with the desserts, but the successful ones are simply incredible. The crÈme brulÉe is well executed, the Boston cream pie nice and light, if fairly standard. The brioche sucre was unfortunately a bit old and tough, but the raspberry crumb bar is all buttery goodness, the sweetness a perfect counterpoint to the tartness of the berry.
While Flour might fall short on some points, it’s only because expectations run high when you walk through the door. However, it is ideal for a lovely relaxed lunch with friends.
On the other side of the river, hidden somewhere on the outskirts of Harvard Square, there’s a well-kept secret I’m (almost) unwilling to share. There aren’t enough superlatives to describe Darwin’s. At lunchtime, there’s always a line that snakes around and back the narrow aisle between the front counter and the shelves of gourmet foodstuffs. Darwin’s has a vastly different vibe from Flour; the charm here originates from the clutter and the coziness, the quaint country-store dÉcor, and the organic produce spilling from baskets sitting in the storefront windows. The hideous Busch sign hanging above the door is amusingly incongruous here, but the art deco “Darwin’s Ltd., Gourmet Comestibles” sign in the window lets you know where you really are.
The only place to eat in-house is on the stools at the communal butcher-block table in the adjoining room, and it’s extremely limited seating at that. The two wooden benches and even the curb outside take care of overflow. While the Flour workers are trendily preppy, clean-cut types in starched white aprons, Darwin’s keeps a battery of bohemian sandwich artisans behind the counter who are more low-key and colorfully arrayed and pierced than their counterparts.
Like Flour, Darwin’s keeps a case of baked goodies near the register, and they also offer a variety of freshly prepared salads, antipasti, and even some entrÉes. Adjacent, however, is a refrigerated case stuffed with imported cheeses and meats that would accompany the handmade pastas and preserves on the shelves nicely (and if you happen to need toothpaste, they carry toiletries and other convenience miscellany as well.)
The blackboard above the counter lists a few dozen specialty sandwiches (and while there’s the option to create your own, they’ve done a much better job than you could possibly ever manage). All the ingredients are fresh and tasty, heaped high on slices of the freshly baked bread (provided by Nashoba Brook Bakery) of your choice. The craft here has been honed to well-oiled perfection: while queued up, you listen attentively for shouts of “Brattle, anyone want a Brattle?” or “You don’t have to wait in line if you want a Hilliard! Who’s for a Hilliard?” Each of the workers can make two sandwiches at a time, so if someone orders something you want, you can skip the line if you’re quick enough to claim the other one. All the sandwiches here are named after streets surrounding Harvard: the Ash is boursin, roast beef, lettuce, tomato and sprouts; the Mount Auburn is smoked turkey, avocado, mayo, lettuce, tomato and swiss; and the Brattle is smoked salmon, cream cheese, capers, cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions. A handful of vegetarian selections include sandwiches like the Hubbard, (hummus, avocado, apples, sprouts, carrot, tomato), and there are daily pre-made sandwiches that can also shorten the wait. The portions are generous, making the walk back to Harvard Square almost not long enough. Darwin’s is especially generous with the turkey, and the sandwiches (the Fayerweather, the Hilliard) barely fit in the mouth with the two-inch layer of turkey piled inside.
If there’s still room for dessert, the Lakota Bakery cookies in the glass case are excellent. The lemon cream had a buttery dense exterior with very sweet frosting and a lighter filling, while the Florentine was delicate on the tongue, tasting slightly of nuts and caramel.
To truly appreciate how far the sandwich has come in the past 250 years, Flour and Darwin’s are good places to start sampling. But, before you bite into that PB and J or that tarragon-caper egg salad, first pay tribute to John Montagu. Here’s to the Earl of Sandwich for the best invention since, well, sliced bread.