Jared Valentine and Drew Sterman aren't typical restaurateurs. They met at RIT, where Valentine studied industrial design and Sterman sculpture. Neither had worked in restaurants before they decided to create Open Face, and "create" is the right word. Both are artists, and the sense of style and design in their South Avenue shop is impeccable, at once interesting, attractive, and comfortable.
Two qualities that will help them succeed in this business, though, are their resolve and clarity of vision. Open Face offers interesting sandwiches served with a signature side, baked goods, and a cornucopia of non-alcoholic beverages, notably teas. Why no white bread? They can't find one they like. Why no choice of salad dressings? They're keeping it simple.
The roast beef sandwich is for true roast beef lovers, made with sirloin roasted on site. Ask for it rare, and you'll get it, buttery and rich. Spicy horseradish mustard, havarti, and mixed greens top it off. Is $6.75 too much for a sandwich? Not one this good, and not when it comes with delectable gingered carrots, a simple salad, or baguette chips.
Asked to describe the vision, Valentine talks about his Midwestern grandmother's cooking (the baked goods are made from her recipes). The idea is to take simple farm foods, and update them with contemporary spin. The sandwiches have traveled quite a ways from the farm, though. Horseradish mustard, havarti cheese, and brie aren't exactly farm food in this country, but maybe they should be.
Every sandwich displays conspicuous creativity. The roast turkey, for example, includes garlic mustard, toasted almonds, and a paremesan frico ($6.75). The flavor and texture combination is almost spectacular, but it's all a bit dry, and the thick breads exacerbate that problem (Sterman says that sandwich works better on wheat bread; I had it on sourdough). My wife had a similar problem with the flaked albacore sandwich ($6.95), though the tuna salad was excellent (with red pepper, celery, capers, and balsamic dressing).
There are several vegetarians options, including brie with apricot preserves and sliced pear ($6.50), rosemary-garlic peanut butter with goat cheese ($5.50), and a great black bean patty ($5.50). Can't decide? Get half of two for $7.50.
Open face usually has a couple of soups available. Curry-carrot-ginger was outstanding, and the chicken gumbo had a healthy kick (cup/$2.95, bowl/$4.95). You can have soup served inside a fresh-baked shell as a "pot pie" for $6.50. Half a sandwich and a cup of soup is $6.75.
Open Face gets the first Wilcox five-star rating for non-alcoholic drinks. Sterman grew up on cool soft beverages in the New York City area, and is deeply committed to them. Saranac sodas are excellent, ditto Sioux City sarsaparilla and Boylan seltzers. But the selection goes on, including an absurdly sweet espresso soda called Manhattan Special, Joe's chocolate soda, and Moxie, nice because it can double as paint remover.
The highly stylized menu includes two pages for the "tea pharmacy." Teas come loose in vials, and you make a ritual of preparing them yourself (though Jared and Drew will do it if you insist). Black tea, green, white, or decaf --- there are piles of choices. It's clearly a destination for tea lovers (not so much for coffee aficionados). The desserts, like everything else, are bold, not always totally successful. Zucchini bread and a chocolate cake-brownie phenomenon were dynamite; cookies are dunkers, a bit dry; and carrot-corn bread was on the strange side.
On weekdays from 9 to 11 a.m., the guys offer half sandwiches of peanut butter, brie, or smoked salmon. And on Saturdays, $3.25 scores a breakfast sandwich of seasoned eggs baked with peppers and onions, and cheddar or havarti. Oh, and if you have a scooter (who doesn't?), show up on it on Wednesdays for 15 percent off.
The customer service and the feel of the place are just great. South Avenue needs some businesses to put stakes in the ground and stick it out. Open Face could make a great stepping-stone along a path that already includes Premier Pastry, Cheesy Eddie's, and Beale Street.
The guys have a serious ginger problem. Those carrots are great, and their marinade doubles as the salad dressing. There was ginger in a soup, and there are even ginger candies. Ginger is a powerful spice, and fans of it are rabid. It's a bit symbolic of Open Face with its strong flavors in sometimes too-creative combinations. But Drew and Jared, while sticking to their basic vision, have the hallmarks of good businessmen. They're paying attention to their customers, and the rough edges will smooth over time.
Open Face Sandwich Eatery, 651 South Avenue, 232-3050. Hours: Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
The Orange Glory Cafe has opened next door to the Little Theatre. Jackie Powers, who had one of my favorite dishes at last fall's Festival of Food, is serving breakfast and lunch, as well as offering catering. Look for local artists' work on an orange backdrop. There are several tables inside and there will be more on the sidewalk when it's warm out. 232-7340
--- Michael Warren Thomas
Michael Warren Thomas can be heard on WYSL 1040 AM. Tune in Saturday and Sunday mornings. www.SavorLife.com.