That describes many of the foods I favor. I crave flavors that startle and tantalize, in dishes that I never would be able to make properly at home.
Yet every so often I need a fix of good old-fashioned homemade soup and a well-made sandwich to recharge my culinary batteries. Fortunately, there are several fine places in north Fulton to satisfy those desires.
The newest of these is Fresh Lettuce, a small sandwich shop located in the same east Roswell space that was home to Jules Café and Grill, which gave up the ghost last year. I really liked Jules’ food, but his meld of Afro-Caribbean and soul food probably wasn’t right for the area demographic.
Fresh Lettuce definitely won’t have that problem. Owner Lauren Havican has claimed a niche that combines healthy eating with a gourmet sensibility. Her food is approachable and familiar yet notches above the average lunch offerings in both quality and character.
For starters, she doesn’t use pre-packaged meats for her sandwiches. All of the meat and poultry is brined, roasted and sliced in house. That alone makes a noticeable difference in the integrity of the paninis and sandwiches.
On the chicken pesto panini, for example, the poultry is moist and tender, not dry or oversalted as packaged chicken normally is. Like all salad dressings, spreads, mayos, soups and sides, the basil pesto is made in the Fresh Lettuce kitchen. Breads are fresh, delivered daily.
Though a staffer there told me it was one of their top sellers, while good, the chicken pesto panini was my least favorite of the four we tried. Much better, in my opinion, was the Reuben. The corned beef was roasted slowly and sliced paper thin, mounded on marble rye with sauerkraut and Russian dressing.
Hailing as he does from the New York area, my dining companion pooh-poohed this as a Reuben wannabe. If your only standard of comparison is Carnegie Deli, he’s right, of course, but to my palate this is a very pleasing sandwich. It’s somehow much less leaden than the traditional version.
More to Companion’s liking was a hearty braised beef short rib panini accented with horseradish mayo, fontina cheese and pickled red onions. We could have eaten two each, but I suspect that wouldn’t have qualified as the “healthy eating” Fresh Lettuce espouses.
Far and away the most creative sandwich we ate is a panini of thick-sliced bacon, goat cheese, fresh pears and pear glaze. The interplay of porky crunch and saltiness with the mellow sweetness of the fruit and the tang of the cheese is remarkably tasty.
You might expect a place called Fresh Lettuce to have some vegetarian offerings, and Havican does not disappoint. There’s a pimiento cheese panini, grilled portabella panini and fresh mozzarella, tomato and pesto panini.
Got a yen for salad? There are nine choices, everything from the simple to the more complex. Two in particular caught my eye: arugula, goat cheese, figs and walnuts, and a seared ahi tuna salad seared to medium rare with greens, shredded carrots and snow peas with wasabi vinaigrette.
But I’ll bet they make a bang-up Cobb salad, too, and the retro lettuce wedge with bleu cheese, tomato and bacon probably also rocks.
Sides of potato salad, pasta salad and cole slaw all benefit from a slight vinegary tang and modest amounts of mayo.
Homemade soup sounded terrific on one of the cold, gray days we visited Fresh Lettuce. But the last cup of the soup of the day, turkey chili, was sold to a woman in front of me in the order line, so I tried the vegetarian veggie. It had a lot of obviously fresh veggies, none of which were mushy. But the broth had no depth of flavor, no real seasoning. I found out later that Havican uses very minimal amounts of salt in her cooking, preferring to let diners add it to suit their own tastes and health concerns.
A graduate of the culinary school at the Atlanta Art Institute, Havican knows exactly what her market wants and how to put it all together in a tasty package. Open only since December, she said her business has quadrupled just in that short time. I look forward to seeing how Fresh Lettuce evolves.
8465 Holcomb Bridge Road, Johns Creek