There is a ham sandwich served at Mirabelle, a new restaurant near the White House, and it costs $26.
The sandwich, more precisely, is a “jambon beurre,” a classic French preparation that combines ham with butter on a baguette. In Paris, it's the ultimate grab-and-go food, the kind of thing that makes for a cheap and fast meal. At other Washington eateries, such as Bread Furst and Le Diplomate, similar sandwiches clock in at about half of Mirabelle's price tag. But those places aren't in the same fine-dining league as the French-American restaurant, which, within weeks of opening, has already vaulted to the upper echelon of D.C. dining rooms.
In a city where craft cocktails and small plates have made it easy to drop $100 on dinner, Mirabelle's sandwich is yet another example of skyrocketing restaurant prices and a quickly evolving dining scene. Diners with deep pockets have been clamoring for seats at Pineapple and Pearls or Minibar, where the tasting menus are close to $300, and paying $60 for steak or $9 for coffee. Now they're paying up for the critically acclaimed food of Mirabelle chef Frank Ruta, formerly of the White House and the late Washington favorite Palena.
At such top-tier restaurants as Mirabelle, where dining is not only about the food but also the experience, menu prices are affected by rents, which have as much as doubled in the past decade in sought-after neighborhoods, salaries for increasingly in-demand experienced staff, wine collections and actual build-out. Mirabelle owner Hakan Ilhan, for example, had to cut square footage from the private dining room at Ruta's request to accommodate a bigger pastry area, probably equating to several thousand dollars in lost revenue.
Plus, there's all the decor, often curated by design firms and collected from around the world. At Mirabelle, flourishes include custom-designed tables, brass fixtures, marble counters and handmade wood trolleys for desserts and cheese.
It has to look nice for diners “so they feel good about a $26 sandwich,” Ruta said.
As you'd expect in a town where chefs feel compelled by their own standards and diners' expectations to seek out the best, most interesting ingredients, a lot of time and effort goes into making that sandwich. For the ham, Ruta uses a pig from famed winery Barboursville Vineyards, which trades more in grapes but also raises a limited number of swine. Ruta estimates he paid about $5 to $6 per pound for half of the approximately 350-pound Berkshire pig — which was allowed to forage in the wild, of course.
“It was a pretty special pig,” Ruta said.
After being cured in a wet brine for several weeks, the leg and shoulder are prepared two ways: Some is cooked, some is smoked. Each sandwich gets a mixture of each, for a total of 4 ounces of meat, which is sliced before service.
It's a two-day process to make the baguette, which mostly features domestic organic bread flour with a little Canadian buckwheat mixed in. In the morning, a bread baker finishes the loaves for the restaurant.
Not surprisingly, Mirabelle makes its own butter, too, from high-fat cream brought in from Delaware. For the ham sandwich, half the butter is prepared simply with salt. The other part is mixed with cornichons, salt, mustard and honey.
Building the sandwich — which is served with mixed greens, pickled carrots and shoestring potatoes — takes about 5 to 6 minutes. One kitchen employee handles most of the sandwiches, which also include a burger with caramelized onions, an open-faced Wagyu on griddled whole-wheat bread and a tuna on baguette.
Those sandwiches don't come cheap either, with prices ranging from $25 to $28. Ruta didn't have exact numbers on how many ham sandwiches have sold, but he said the burger is usually the biggest daily seller, with the second-place position usually occupied by the jambon beurre, the salmon entree salad or the tuna sandwich.
Restaurant profit margins are notoriously small at full-service establishments, typically in the single digits. And as a fairly young operation, Mirabelle is still trying to figure out its targets in terms of volume and profit margins, Ruta said. Even more so than in the past, Ruta said he's come around to the idea of needing to make a profit on each dish, rather than taking a hit on some and doing better on others, a measure that could have helped keep some menu prices lower.
A friend warned the chef he'd be “tortured” over the price of the jambon beurre, and Ruta admitted he probably paid less than 10 euros each for the several he tried during a research trip to France. But so far, no complaints have come his way. “As people eat it, they love it,” he said.
He did take particular note of the compliment from one woman, who said the jambon beurre was just like the kind you'd eat in Paris.
Well, except for one thing.
Ruta joked: “There's no way she paid 26 bucks” in France.