As the eye of the storm approaches, we naturally turn our thoughts to upscale tuna sandwiches. As is their wont these days, certain restaurateurs have taken what was once a humble staple of brown-bag lunches and Automats and submitted it to a process of historical revisionism. No less than Danny Meyer and Daniel Boulud have put their own imprint on the sandwich, at Untitled and Épicerie Boulud, respectively. And so earlier this week we took ourselves uptown to compare their respective merits.
Our first stop was Épicerie Boulud, the chef’s very casual takeout joint across from Lincoln Center. Its menu features a $9.50 pan-bagnat, which is what a tuna sandwich is called if you happen to be eating it on the French Riviera. The sandwich is a specialty of Nice and its environs, and much like the salad Niçoise, the city’s other great contribution to lunch, it features tuna, chopped hard-boiled egg, and plenty of olive oil.
At Épicerie Boulud, the fish has been poached in olive oil, which gives it a silky, pleasantly unctuous texture. It’s crowded between two halves of a focaccia bun with thick, ripe slices of avocado, bits of egg, chopped black olives, juicy tomato slices, and a few leaves of spinach.
All of the ingredients are very fresh and well-seasoned, and balanced in ideal proportion to one another. Every bite threatens to force them out of the focaccia, which is sprinkled with fleur de sel and a wee bit tough around the edges, but generally pretty delightful. The latter could be said of the entire sandwich, which convinced us that there really are tuna sandwiches that merit a $9.50 price tag.
Next we went east to Untitled, which Meyer has styled in the manner of a diner that just happens to be located in the basement of the Whitney Museum. So it follows that the restaurant’s tuna sandwich is $12, is served on rye, and features pole-caught tuna.
What doesn’t follow is how paltry and frankly underwhelming it is. We’ve had tuna sandwiches made only with Chicken of the Sea and a tub of Hellmann’s that were not only a better value, but just better, period. The tuna salad in Untitled’s sandwich is bland, dry, seemingly devoid of seasoning, and cottony. It’s lumped between two slices of rye bread that have only slightly more surface area than a MetroCard. The bread had been toasted, and while that’s something we usually appreciate, here it colluded with the tuna salad to create a sandwich with the mouthfeel of Tyvek siding.
The quarter-cup of Israeli couscous salad that accompanied the sandwich was a nice touch, but didn’t go any way toward making us feel that this sandwich merited its price tag. Claiming to model your restaurant’s food on unassuming diner fare and then charging $12 for a skimpy tuna salad sandwich is not only tacky, it’s mean. We understand that running a restaurant in the Whitney Museum costs money, but it seems completely counter to Meyer’s celebrated brand of hospitality — not to mention his track record — to serve such lackluster food at such an inflated cost.
Obviously, then, Épicerie Boulud wins this battle, not only for its quality, but for its value. We’re glad that they’re using pole-caught tuna at Untitled, but based on what we ate, they would do well to throw it back.
Untitled at the Whitney Museum
945 Madison Avenue