Unless you have the self-denying strength of a monk around a bottle of 55-year-old Macallan, you might set foot into WTF searching for, say, an everything bagel and walk out with a bag filled with sweets and savories you had no willpower to refuse: maybe a yeasted doughnut topped with coconut shavings, a puffed-up croissant hiding tiny caches of chocolate, a bacon-egg-and-cheddar sandwich constructed on a crumbly house-made biscuit or a buttery little hand pie stuffed with kale and fontina cheese.
This assault of the senses — and I’m just talking breakfast; lunch has its own bombardment of items — is Buben’s all-out ground-war strategy to protect his turf in a downtown increasingly invaded by outsiders looking for a piece of the action. I’m not just talking about Joe’s Stone Crab, set to open next year in the Union Trust building across the street, but a whole slew of national chains that compete with WTF for office workers’ empty stomachs.
“Originally we saw it as an adjunct to the restaurant,” Buben says, referring to Woodward Table next door. But that was before he installed his “more is more” strategy earlier this year. “We’ve kind of created a monster, because now it’s two restaurants.”
Buben’s field generals in his campaign are chef de cuisine Joseph Harran and pastry chef Ashley Ott, who must be marching their troops night and day to maintain this daily production of soups, sandwiches, breads, cakes, cookies, salads, pizzas, quiches and countless other items. Allow me to be among the first to salute them for their service. They must be exhausted.
For weeks now, I’ve been paying periodic visits to WTF, both tantalized and overwhelmed by the options. Every time I walk in, I discover something new, maybe a doughnut not yet sampled or an off-the-wall special, like chirashi sushi, that cries for attention. The shop has had a Sisyphean effect on me: I feel as if I’ll never fully experience the place. There’s always one more plate that seems like it will complete the picture.
In this sense, Buben has created the perfect gastronomic metaphor for the information age, a takeout operation that generates a feeling of perpetual, low-grade angst, as if you’re always missing out on something important. You know: the same feeling you get when friends babble about a new Internet meme or a headline story or a YouTube video about a ram that screams like a human.
The trick is to try to be satisfied with what you’ve ordered at WTF — and not what you haven’t. For the most part, that’s easy enough. While your sweet tooth may demand a meeting with Ott’s morning pastries (that delicate chocolate croissant, flecked with just enough salt, needs a small application of heat for maximum pleasure), don’t overlook the savory selections. Like the kale-and-fontina hand pie, a flaky vegetarian pocket that uses acid, bitterness and spice to balance the buttery crust. Or the egg-and-cheddar sandwich (I ordered mine with bacon), which is called WTF Biscuit — a strangely truncated name until you bite into the leavened square, baked soft and crusty, and realize the biscuit is the star of the show.
During the lunch hour, I must admit that, at times, I stood paralyzed by indecision. Sometimes, I picked wrong, like with the shrimp salad po’ boy, a paradoxically fresh-and-lifeless bite that played up its silken steamed shellfish in a roll so stale that its crust flaked off like old paint. That sandwich, by and large, was the anomaly here. The house-made pastrami, sliced meltingly thin, spoke in hushed tones, its spice and smokiness quiet but never silent next to the sharp mustard and sourdough rye. The duck Reuben may not precisely mimic the flavors of the corned beef original (the red-cabbage kraut wasn’t assertive enough), but I couldn’t care less. I devoured the beast.
The confit duck makes a cameo on one of the flatbreads during lunch, although the ultra-friendly WTF staff will warn you that the pizza requires 12-plus minutes to prepare. Allow me to translate: If you’re one of those Type-A Washington types who sighs loudly and punches the screen of your smartphone harder when forced to wait five minutes for lunch, you might want to switch orders. The rest of us can linger long and appreciatively over this crisp-and-chewy flatbread in which the duck is a bass-rumbling back note among the brassy polyphonic melodies: the smoked cranberry, sweet fig, pungent Gorgonzola, bracing balsamic glaze. I experienced the same symphonic pleasures with the “beet salad,” a colorful, citrus-heavy bowl that goes way beyond roasted root vegetables.
Good luck fleeing WTF without something sweet in your bag. Ott’s strengths appear to lie in her chef-driven interpretations of Americana classics, whether doughnuts or whoopie pies, although I must confess I didn’t get around to her cakes. Much like I didn’t get a chance to try the barbecue pork sandwich, the merguez sausage sandwich, the butternut squash flatbread, the . . .
Well, you get the picture.