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    Sunday, September 24, 2023

    Bold flavors, house-made ingredients make Press On a sandwich destination

    Stacked slices of mildly pickled egg are surrounded by juicy pastrami, Swiss cheese, kraut on one side and slaw on the other and grilled rye bread. That's the Holy Grail from Press On Sandwich Crafters in North Stonington. (Jill Blanchette/The Day)i
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    As I become more ensconced in the local restaurant scene, I'm beginning to develop a sense of culinary cartography. I seem to know, at any given moment, exactly how far I am from really good food.

    The range of my internal gustatory positioning system recently was expanded to the north when I ventured into the small but mighty Press On Sandwich Crafters in the Holly Green shopping plaza on Route 2 in North Stonington.

    The cozy dining room is filled with natural light and has a neighborhood feel. Diners come and go, greeting each other with first names and catching up as executive chef and owner Mike Davies hustles up their orders behind the counter. But there's plenty of room to dine in, with five tables — three four-tops and two two-tops — plus two leather easy chairs and a comfy-looking leather couch. In the summer, there's a sunny patio for outdoor dining.

    Davies' smiling mug on the restaurant's website looks much like it does in the tiny open kitchen as he works his grills and chats with regulars. Although he's clearly busy hand-making fresh daily nearly all of the fillings for his creative sandwiches, preparing each to order as he coaxes his somewhat sluggish counter help through the ordering and payment process, he seems to be having a good time.

    He clearly loves mixing bold flavors in his sandwiches — roasted peppers, pesto mayonnaise, fig jam and rye bread; herb-roasted vegetables, garlic confit and hummus; jerk spices, goat cheese and mango-pepper relish. The same is true for his soups — on this day it was Ginger Curry Chicken — and his homemade complimentary sides. The spicy Thai peanut pasta salad knocked my socks off. The balance of heat to nutty to sweet to spice was just right. I could have eaten a bowlful.

    The menu offers a selection of meats, cheeses, breads and toppings for those who want to build their own sandwich, $6-$8. There's even peanut butter and jelly or grilled cheese, $4 each, for the kids.

    Then there are the Signature Sandwiches, with names like Tim the Enchanter, Trojan Rabbit and Black Knight. Clearly Davies is a Monty Python fan.

    But on the road to the casino, it's the breads, the house-roasted meats, the fresh produce, the handmade dressings, chutneys and other spreads that really set Press On apart.

    On the day we visited, the service paled in comparison. I didn't realize that with one sandwich in our order, there was a choice of wrap, and the lethargic young man at the counter didn't enlighten me. I ordered a bowl of soup, but it was not included in our take-out bag. I wasn't charged for it either, so at least there's that. And ultimately, he never asked us to pay. I could have walked out and enjoyed an unintended lunch on the house.

    Of course, these lapses are nothing in the context of the quality of the food. We certainly enjoyed our lunch. Here's what we sampled:

    Robin's Minstrel — Roast turkey, herb aioli, smoked gouda, apple-yam chutney and romaine lettuce on grilled whole-grain cranberry walnut bread, $10. The bread was divine, sweet and tangy with dried cranberries and redolent with walnuts that provided a terrific crunch throughout. The turkey breast was thinly sliced and generously stacked below crispy leaves of romaine and a slice of that smoky cheese. The aioli and the chutney tied it all together.

    Holy Grail — Lean pastrami, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, pickled egg, coleslaw, homemade Russian dressing on rye, grilled, $10. This sandwich had me at pickled egg. Layers of juicy pastrami surrounded stacked slices of the egg. Blanketing the meat on one side was the kraut, with slaw on the other. The Swiss and the sweet-sour dressing were perfect complements, and holding everything in place was the rye, zippy with caraway and buttery from the grill. Again, the bread was terrific, tender yet substantial enough to absorb most of the drippings.

    French Taunter — Roast beef, dressed arugula, horseradish-cheddar crisp and French onion mustard on grilled sourdough, $10. If freshly cooked roast beef, rich mustard, spicy-bitter arugula and undeniably sour sourdough were all that comprised this sandwich, it would be worth ordering again. But then there's that horseradish-cheddar crisp — a pile of shredded cheddar and a bit of horseradish melted and crisped on the grill, then added to the sandwich.

    Although the idea is spectacular, in execution it was more of a slab than a thin, lacey wisp. As such, if it had been crunchy once, the moment it came into contact with the other ingredients it began its chewy transformation. It wasn't bad. It was quite tasty in fact, more of cheese than of heat, but I'm not sure the texture was what the chef had in mind.

    Bridge Keeper — Roast chicken breast, romaine lettuce, homemade creamy garlic-asiago dressing on a choice of wrap, $8. Garlic-asiago dressing, a creamy, caloric potion that is salty with asiago and pungent with garlic, has ruined me for all the rest. I will be safe from vampires for decades. Every inch of every chunk of juicy chopped romaine was thoroughly bathed in dressing before being swaddled in the tender wrap with a handful of freshly toasted, buttery croutons and a scattering of chicken cubes. This one was my favorite — so simple, yet each component so perfectly tendered.  

    There's plenty at Press On for vegetarians and for those who don't eat gluten. Any sandwich can be ordered on gluten-free bread or on Romaine lettuce leaves. There's a trio of entrée salads, $6-$10, and house-made dressings, and a selection of house-made desserts, including jumbo cookies, $2, flourless brownies, $3, and Dream Bars, $2.

    Press On also offers brewed and French press coffee, and along one wall, old-fashioned spigot dispensers of lemonade, iced tea and cucumber water. Davies also does catering, "From burritos to braciole," notes the sign, and with two days notice, cookie platters, $1.50 per person; sides by the pint, $5; and soup by the gallon, priced to order.

    This version corrected to include final edits.

    Press On Sandwich Crafters

    391 Norwich Westerly Road, North Stonington; (860) 415-9906

    Cuisine: Unique, grilled sandwiches on local artisan breads; soups, sides and desserts from scratch

    Atmosphere: Homey, neighborhood feel

    Service: Counter service a bit sluggish, but the chef keeps things moving.

    Prices: Sandwiches, $5-$10; salads, $6-$10

    Hours: Tuesday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (breakfast, 9-11 a.m.); Saturday, lunch only, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

    Credit cards: Yes

    Reservations: N/A

    Handicapped access: All on one level. Roomy dining area.

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