A simple pleasure, the sandwich nonetheless deserves the royal treatment. Although perfection is unattainable, here are four places where the sandwiches come close.
Snubbed by fine-diners in search of social distinction and by people who are addicted to overblown menus, the sandwich is a modest and popular snack that, when done well, can be a genuine delight for an unprejudiced food-lover. Intelligently constructed and skilfully balanced, combined with a ripened cheese, brought to life with a sun-dried tomato, or softened with some fruity olive oil, bread can be heavenly. As long, of course, as the standard pitfalls are avoided: badly spread butter that smells like a fridge, insipid pink-tinged ham, yesterday's bread, or subpar mayonnaise. When it comes to the perfect sandwich, my heart is torn between a few different places. In one place, it's the bread that is unrivalled. In another, it's the fillings. In a third, it's the variety on offer and the friendly service. In a fourth place, it's the sense of being transported, the impression of leaving Brussels for the Basque country.
It is still L'Atelier Gourmand that I find myself drawn to most often. Christophe Vanderkelen took over this place in Ukkel/Uccle in 1996. He turned it into a high-quality all-in-one artisan deli, rotisserie, and delicatessen (L'Annexe). It makes sense: the man trained with some of the greats, having worked at Maison Troisgros and Paul Bocuse following a long stay in the Rhône, a region for which he has a lasting passion due to his love of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, of which a fine selection of bottles is available.
A lover of good products, Vanderkelen does not scrimp on the quality of suppliers, from the chickens from Bresse to the cured meats that come from his own farm in Corsica. The good news is that, despite his aristocratic taste for excellence, this chef does not neglect hungry people on the go, snacks to be eaten in a hurry. In fact, eating in is not an option. The selection includes salads and dishes typical of a traditional traiteur as well as inspired sandwich fillings.
My favourite is, without a doubt, the ham mousse. It is quite simply divine, smooth and elegant with great depth of flavour. Although different, the mousse brings to mind the one that Pierre Wynants used to make in the halcyon days of Comme chez Soi. The taste lingers in your mouth in a similar way. For €4, I chose to combine it with some watercress, which added a delicious touch of green to the sandwich. To be totally honest, this sandwich had one drawback: the bread was not as good as some I know. Available in two versions, with or without grains (I highly recommend the version with grains), the crust lacked a little of that crunch, often designated by the expression à l'ancienne, which is essential for the perfect sandwich. The ham mousse was so delicious, however, that I didn't even mind. No sooner was I finished than I was thinking about my next one. To me, that's an excellent sign.
L’Atelier Gourmand, rue Vanderkinderestraat 472, Ukkel/Uccle, 02-344.51.90, www.lateliergourmand.be
di/ma/Tu > vr/ve/Fr 8.30 > 19.00, za/sa/Sa 8.30 > 17.00, zo/di/Su 8.30 > 12.30
Three other sandwish places we recommend:
Friendly Catherine serves all her cheeses on bread, including pottekeis (made with a little geuze/gueuze). In the winter, don’t miss out on the raclette sandwich.
This pocket-sized Basque shop offers cured hams and strings of Piment d’Espelette. You can invent a sandwich there (for €5), and customise it with Bayonne ham, Basque pork pâté, etc.
Thérèse & Dominique
This remarkable sandwich place does beautifully crunchy baguettes. The highlight is the Ciccio Bello (€4.80), which combines chicken in breadcrumbs, tomatoes, mozzarella, aubergines, roquette, and freshly made tartare sauce.