The traditional pairing of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich gets… (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE…)
Do you remember from your childhood how satisfying it was to pull apart the two triangles of a toasty sandwich and dip each imminent mouthful into a bowl of steam-wafting soup?
Plenty of restaurateurs are capitalizing on the possibility that you might.
The soup-and-sandwich combo, particularly versions of grilled cheese and tomato soup, appears on the menus of reputable eateries all around Washington, and for good reason. It’s nostalgic, comforting and a good value, both for the consumer (low menu cost in relation to other menu items) and the merchant (low food cost). And those are attributes that sell, especially in a down economy.
Offering something as humble as a soup and sandwich can send the message to patrons that fine-dining restaurants, and the well-known chefs who helm them, are accessible.
At Fiola, a stylish Penn Quarter “trattoria moderna,” chef-owner Fabio Trabocchi offers a sublime rendition of the grilled cheese and tomato soup combo: pappa al pomodoro with buffalo mozzarella toast.
At $14, it’s the least expensive item on a lunch menu where a bowl of pasta, albeit splendidly fresh, can set you back $25. Listed under the heading Soups and Antipasti, the dish is not quite substantial enough for a full meal, but it could qualify as a light lunch, especially with the addition of a small salad.
For that price, you have the right to expect refinements and you get them, down to the folded damask napkin on which the combo arrives at your table.
The pappa al pomodoro is piping hot, indicating that it was finished to order by a cook rather than ladled from a soup well by a server. It is bright orange, made with peeled and seeded fresh tomatoes slowly cooked with garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, chicken stock and chunks of country bread that dissolve and thicken it. When you dip the tip of your sandwich and let it soften in the soup, each bite turns into a molten Caprese salad.
The sandwich is a pair of diminutive crunchy, crustless triangles filled with oozy buffalo mozzarella and fresh ricotta cheeses. They are both so creamy you would swear there was mayonnaise involved, but fresh basil, salt and pepper serve as the condiments. Excellent ingredients handled expertly don’t need much support.
At Founding Farmers on Pennsylvania Avenue, the grilled cheese and tomato soup combo ($12; $14 with in-house cured and roasted ham added to the sandwich) is the most popular dish on the menu. According to corporate chef Joe Goetze, they send out about 500 orders per week.
The pureed soup, made with canned tomatoes, tomato juice and a touch of heavy cream, is a wee bit flat, tasting more like a sauce than a soup. That’s probably due to the scant proportion of the soup’s flavorings (among them Worcestershire sauce, garlic, onions, bay leaf, thyme, sherry) to its base.
The sandwich is an ode to abundance, mostly in a good way. Two thick slices of house-baked whole-wheat bread are spread with house-made mayonnaise (the secret to the sandwich’s richness, says Goetz), then filled with Gruyere, Muenster and cheddar cheeses. Once assembled, the sandwich is buttered and griddled to a pleasant crunchiness.
Speaking of abundance, the combo comes with a pile of fries. Is more fat really necessary on that plate?
Near the Convention Center, Acadiana’s pimento cheese sandwich ($12) garners points for presentation because its roasted tomato soup accompaniment comes in a stainless steel porringer, to be emptied into a large soup bowl tableside.
The concept of the dish is a good one: When dipped, brioche toast and jalapeno pimento cheese combines with beer-laced soup that on its own has a bitter finish. In theory, the richness of the spicy, cream-cheese-enhanced filling and the tanginess of the soup would come together harmoniously. But on our visit, the filling was refrigerator-cold. Warmed through, though, the sandwich could be a home run.
A couple of blocks from Acadiana, Cuba Libre chef Guillermo Pernot gets every element right with his Visit to Havana ($13.50). The dish, part of a rapido menu designed for on-the-go lunchers, includes a Cuban sandwich, a small bowl of black bean soup and a bright watercress-andromaine salad studded with kalamata olives: a well-rounded, complete meal.
The Italian- and Cuban-influenced sandwich combines slices of citrus-marinated roast pork loin, ham, Genoa salami, Swiss and provolone cheeses and a smattering of yellow mustard pickle relish between two slices of Cuban bread, all of which gets deliciously fused.
Pernot illustrates how ordinary foods can be transformed into extraordinary plates by chefs who think things through. At Vermilion in Alexandria, executive chef Tony Chittum drives that point home with the Intern ($12), a quick lunch offering of a small green salad, half a roasted squash sandwich and a cup of butternut squash soup.