A lot of foods taste particularly fine with a cold beer: pizza, hot dogs, a pig's foot. So when chef Alex Pope decided to put his food inside Bridger's Bottle Shop — the suds emporium that Phil Theis, Eric Flanagan and Aaron Beatty carved out of a portion of the Westport building once occupied by the America's Pub nightclub — he knew he'd focus on dishes that went with beer.
"My first thought was to serve, during the dinner hours, small plates and charcuterie platters with smoked meats and cheeses and pickles," says Pope, best-known for Local Pig and Pigwich, his butcher shop and sandwich truck in the East Bottoms. Sure, there would be sandwiches at midday for people eating lunch at Preservation Market, which he opened inside the bottle shop in March. But Pope figured that people would want something different at night.
He was wrong.
"After the 15th customer in a row comes into the place asking why they can't have the same sandwich at dinner that they ordered during lunch, you realize that the customer really is always right," Pope says. "They know what they want, and you have to give it to them."
After the first week, Pope did away with his separate lunch and dinner lists to make just one menu with 11 choices: four salads; five sandwiches; a single charcuterie plate (instead of three in different sizes); and, for dessert, a cookie platter. There's also now a daily sandwich special (sometimes two) as a way of introducing new ideas to the small menu.
That narrow focus has allowed Pope — who created the Preservation Market menu with chefs Andrew Heimburger and Devin Campbell, both Local Pig and Pigwich veterans — to do things like reframe a favorite sandwich from his boyhood in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. "As a kid, I loved ham-and-cheese sandwiches with mayo," he says. "Our version for Preservation Market was a lot fancier, of course, with smoked ham and gruyère and house-made pickles."
Pretty much all of the sandwiches at Preservation Market are fancy — at $9 apiece, they'd better be. (That price, the same for all of the sandwiches, includes one side dish: crispy house-made chips, a chilled barley salad, or a good gluten-free corn muffin.) Westport has no shortage of sandwiches and wraps (many from chain operations), but the ones here are of noticeably high quality.
The bread in all cases is a baguette-style hoagie roll from Le Monde Bakery, in North Kansas City, which Pope says delivers "just the right amount of chew." I agree. And from that all-one-style base, Pope builds combinations of flavors and textures into his sandwiches that are sometimes as complex as the interior of a Joseph Cornell box (and maybe as mysterious). Preservation's spin on a jerk-chicken sandwich, for example (the No. 7), concentrates the traditional jerk seasonings into a paste, which is applied with artful discretion.
"These can be overpowering spices," Pope says. "Allspice and clove can be very strong spices. We walk a fine line with that sandwich because it has, like, a thousand different flavors going on. We can't let any of them be the dominant note." Those notes include a subtle habanero crème fraîche, house-made butternut pickles and a slightly sweet fig-and-cashew spread.
Pope and his kitchen crew like to tuck unexpected sweetness into spicy offerings. When they were creating the lamb-meatball sandwich (made with Needham Farms lamb, egg and baguette breadcrumbs), they felt something was missing even after they'd begun adding salty feta cheese, fresh cilantro and pickles. "Andrew started rummaging through the refrigerator," Pope says, "and found a jar of the fresh orange preserves that we created for the charcuterie plate. A swab of that orange jam was just the perfect touch of sweetness to balance the sandwich out perfectly. It's a well-choreographed dance of flavors."
It's got the moves, all right — the lamb-meatball sandwich (the No. 8) is my favorite here. But it's a close race. Hot on its heels is Pope's smoked pork-loin sandwich (the No. 9), made with the barbecue sauce he created for Pigwich last year, the secret ingredient for which is olive juice. Pope marinates the pork loin in a concoction of fresh fennel bulb, salt and sugar before smoking the loin and serving it cold, with provolone that his staff also smokes ("We've got a tiny smoker out in the back," he says) before folding it into one of the hoagie rolls with sweet pickled corn and fried onions.
The Italian beef here (the No. 6) is, in this Italian-American writer's opinion, this city's best example of the classic Chicago creation. Mind you, that's not because it's especially authentic; it simply tastes damn good.
"It's really my homage to the Italian steak sandwich as opposed to it being the real thing," Pope says. "As we were playing around with ideas, we thought, 'What would an authentic Italian person make? So we use fried garlic, our own giardiniera (made from scratch), fresh basil and a red-pepper spread. It's very labor-intensive."
A less spicy sandwich, but still boasting a full symphony of flavors, is made with pork roast rubbed with orange zest, jalapeño, fresh garlic, oregano and lime. That No. 5 puts the pork alongside swiss cheese, spicy pickles, cilantro, raisin relish and a bold cumin aïoli.
"We created the raisin relish for the charcuterie plate," Pope says. "There's no better combination than capers and raisins for that sweet-salty note."
It's a deft note indeed for a sandwich that has a hell of a lot going on — but not too much. Almost its equal was a recent special sandwich: cold roast beef with zucchini pickles and caramelized onions. If it were in regular rotation with the menu's permanent sandwiches, I'd order it again.
But I'm not holding my breath. "We'll have more specials," Pope says, "but we're keeping the number of sandwiches and side dishes to what we have now."
At least you'll see that sharp little array in one other spot soon. Pope says he'll offer his Preservation Market menu to Off Key, the karaoke bar set to open next month in the other half of the former America's Pub space. "If the business is good enough, we'll keep our kitchen open later."
Hear that, Westport? Get ready to sing for your sandwiches.