Lunchbox: It looks good and sounds good, but it sure could taste better


The admirable interior of Lunchbox, chef Bryan Voltaggio’s new sandwich shop in Friendship Heights, isn’t matched by the menu of interesting-sounding food that turns out to be dull — or worse. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

Shortly before noon on a recent weekend, people are waiting in line to order at the Starbucks inside Chevy Chase Pavilion in Friendship Heights. Across the atrium, a friend and I can’t figure out why we’re the lone customers at the youthful Lunchbox.

Starbucks, after all, is a common chain with a corporate look. Lunchbox is the creation of star chef Bryan Voltaggio. His second attempt at a sandwich shop (the first, in Frederick, went dark last November) is an eyeful. Along with tried-and-true wood tables and brushed-concrete floors, the new Lunchbox is dressed with pails of silk herbs suspended from the ceiling by pulleys from an old Hershey’s factory. From the purse hooks under the bar to the house-made sodas, thoughtful details abound in the chef’s reprise, introduced in June on the lower level of the pavilion, below his upstairs attractions Range and Aggio .

Scanning the menu at Lunchbox, I wish I had more mouths in tow. Reading about the Southern Banh Mi filled with fried chicken and the B’more built with peppered pit beef, I want to order them along with every other sandwich on the list. Ultimately, three choices show up, swaddled in green-checkered paper and served on a metal tray. The utensils glisten like silver but turn out to be plastic.

It’s dislike at first bite of the flat-tasting banh mi, unrecognizable as the Vietnamese sandwich that helps pack the parking lot at Falls Church’s Eden Center. A catfish sandwich takes me a minute to identify, since the fish in the potato roll is all but obscured by a mass of gooey cheddar cheese. Braised pork shoulder “in 23 flavors,” with a mere veneer of kimchi, is a stretch. “One-note” is more like it.

Venturing into other parts of the menu does not fill us up. “Krunchie” — a heap of kale and collard greens tossed with timid bites of chicken and an odd Parmesan granola — “tastes like paper,” says my companion, showing off his astute palate. The single worst dish, however, is a cup of crab and “shells,” the mushy pasta on the verge of disintegrating into the murky shellfish broth.


A rare bright spot at Lunchbox: a cool swirl of soft-serve ice cream, which comes in a choice of two flavors. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

Lunchbox offers soft-serve ice cream in two changing flavors. When I ask a cook about his preference, he volunteers to make me a swirl of both cheesecake and malted chocolate ice creams. The result is cool comfort, and a far better conclusion than our other selection, a cloying brownie slathered with salted caramel.

Voltaggio says the original Lunchbox closed due to a lack of foot traffic on Frederick’s Carroll Creek promenade. His second attempt, on a busy stretch of Wisconsin Avenue, comes with a longer menu of food that’s more interesting in print than it is going down the hatch. “I want it to grow,” says the chef of his fast-casual idea.

That line snaking from Starbucks? For now, I get it.

5335 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-244-3470. voltlunchbox.com. Sandwiches and salads, $7 to $13.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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