Pret Crosses the Atlantic

Written by Adam Heimlich on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

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?

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

If you work
in midtown, there’s a Pret A Manger near your office. See
for exact locations, phone numbers and hours.

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.

: 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.

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,