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.
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.
This soup-and-sandwich combination presents butternut squash in a glorious light. The soup is golden yellow, like creme brulee, and Chittum serves it in an oval ramekin one would use to bake that velvety dessert. He tops the soup with crushed amaretti, spiced pumpkin seeds, diced apples and pumpkin seed oil. Textures interplay with sweet, salty and acid tones.
The sandwich is just as cunning. Caramelized half-moons of butternut squash, shaved apples, ricotta cheese and apple butter nestle between toasted ciabatta slices; the effect is so hearty it conveys meatiness.
In addition to this chef-composed plate, diners can put together their own soup-and-sandwich combinations from among menu options such as Jerusalem artichoke soup with pork meatballs and a crispy Amish chicken sandwich with broccoli rabe, sharp provolone cheese and sun-dried tomato aioli.
We came upon two other excellent options in the DIY category. If your taste for grilled cheese and tomato soup hasn’t yet been satisfied, Cheesetique will fill it, either at its Alexandria outpost in Del Ray or at its new location in Shirlington.
In addition to being a cheese and wine shop, Cheesetique is a cafe whose menu showcases the wonderful cheeses it sells. So there is a whole section devoted to grilled cheese sandwiches (croque monsieur, pimento cheese and more; $7 to $9) with which you can pair tomato, onion or broccoli cheese soup for $3.
Our favorite was the ABC Panino ($9): full-flavored, stretchy Comte cheese, crisp peppery bacon and thinly sliced apples pressed between generously buttered slices of dark honey-wheat bread.
If you’re up for a road trip, an outing to the Lunchbox, chef Bryan Voltaggio’s sandwich shop concept in Frederick, merits the drive.
Voltaggio lends the same finesse to this endeavor that he does at Volt, the fine-dining restaurant he owns a few blocks away, even if the low prices ($5 for most sandwiches; $3 for six-ounce cups of soup) might make you think otherwise.
A puree of shiitake mushrooms cooked in mushroom broth, then strained, is topped with a delicate sabayon of peanut-infused cream thickened with egg yolks and finished with droplets of chili oil. Match that with a pressed sourdough sandwich of chunky portabellos, Cherry Glen goat cheese, roasted piquillo peppers and basil oil for a sensational meat-free lunch.
Another way to go is the celeriac and chicken soup. Its buttermilk dumpling topping disintegrates as you dig in, transforming the soup into a cross between potpie and stuffing. Team it with the Pilgrim (turkey, orange cranberry glaze, sage and cream cheese pressed between slices of multigrain bread) and you’ll think it’s November all over again.
And what could be more nostalgic than a Thanksgiving flashback?
Roasted Squash Sandwich
Butternut Squash Soup
Sopa de Frijoles; Cubano Sandwich
Pappa al Pomodoro; Buffalo Mozzarella Toast
Hagedorn’s Sourced column appears monthly in the Food section.