After Peter Falk and Burgess Meredith, Graham Elliot is now the third-most-celebrated television personality to have inhabited historic Tree Studios. Of course the outspoken Elliot, who plays Good Cop on Gordon Ramsay’s MasterChef (and moonlights as a real chef), doesn’t actually live in an artist’s garret there, feverishly concocting wacky sandwich reinventions and crafting clever Tweets. Nor could a busy celebrity such as he be expected to spend a terrific amount of time in his eponymous sandwich shop. But he has left his unmistakable mark all over the narrow, tightly run ship, from the jaunty tweed tam-o-shanters the young sandwich jockeys wear in place of hairnets to the perfectly useless but oh so ironically nostalgic sporks handed out with the menu’s token mesclun shrubbery.
That’s for the occasional fan who’ll insist on eating something that requires a utensil. For the rest of us the eight main offerings are quintessentially Elliotesque tweaks on sandwich archetypes—the banh mi, the Reuben, the grilled cheese, etc. All but three are given some sort of pronounced sweet accent, because this is a chef who fully understands that we’re a culture addicted to our own dopamine. That’s why the banh mi, whose organizing principle seems to willfully defy the orderly harmony of the original, contains chunks of roasted pineapple among fat batons of pork belly and wads of creamy daikon slaw on a chewy, overly sturdy baguette that’s no improvement over light, crispy rice-flour Vietnamese bread. A raisin chutney is the candy on a smoked whitefish naanwich, referencing a curried chicken salad with its inclusion of a curry aioli, almonds, and shredded carrots enfolded in a cold, thin flatbread. On the turkey confit it’s candied yams and cranberry relish. A reference to the classic Thanksgiving midnight snack, this is my favorite of the lot—it doesn’t promise anything more than it is, built on a spongy “dinner roll” that compresses at the slightest touch. For a chef who trades so heavily in nostalgia, this is his most effective trigger—I was instantly transported to the cold, fridge-lit suburban kitchen of my parents’ house.
Oversweetening isn’t the biggest problem these sandwiches struggle with. On late-afternoon visits, the bread on each was uniformly spent—either cold or rapidly losing vitality. And they’re architectural hazards, their innards spilling out onto their brown butcher-paper shrouds the instant they’re released from bondage. At least Elliot recognizes the functional disaster that is the classic jibarito—usually precariously formed by two slices of pressed, griddled plaintains—and takes measures to correct it. In his jibarito “tacos” the fruit is sliced in thin chips and relegated to the interior of two corn tortillas, along with julienned mango and clods of pulled pork. Cheddar and curds make a poor choice for a grilled cheese with tomato marmalade: the application of heat separates the proteins, which soak into the bread, leaving clots of fat smeared on slick prosciutto.
The rye on the Reuben takes similar punishment, its toastiness obviated within its wrapper by the steaming it takes from melted Gruyere and generous hot pastrami shavings. A dug-out pretzel roll overwhelms the beef short rib covered with potato stix and sharing close quarters with pickled shallots and horseradish sauce devoid of any bite.
The most structurally sound sandwich among them all is a veggie tofu wrap tightly bundled in a vivid green tortilla. A time capsule dug up from 1972, when something like this could’ve made waves, its only hint of flavor and texture comes from a sprinkling of crunchy wasabi peas.
Ancillary $5 snacks are certainly generous. But the signature truffled popcorn that serves as an amuse at Elliot’s flagship (and is the source of the acrid fungal odor that permeates this place) is apparently not replaced when it goes stale and cold. A similarly hefty bag of chips dusted in cheesy ranch powder is a more reliable side, while thick-cut batons of rutabaga and squash with brussels sprouts and pearl onions provide crunchy, tart textural relief.
There’s a quartet of house-made sodas to wash it all away—none too terribly sweet or cloying. The orange-ginger has a nicely sharp hint of rhizome. And among two soft-serve options, Greek yogurt topped with pomegranate, chestnut, and chocolate has a respectably adult tang that’s sabotaged by its crystalline iciness. The caramel-apple pie ice cream bears a powerful load of cinnamon—apart from the popcorn, it’s the most pronounced expression of aggression on the whole menu.
Grahamwich isn’t designed for lingering. It’s cash only, there’s only one communal table in the rear, and there’s a four-sandwich limit per customer. Further, each sandwich order is tightly wrapped in the aforementioned paper whether you’re staying or going. I’d guess they’d improve if they weren’t given that treatment, but they’d still fall short of what you’d expect from a $10 celebrity sandwich.