Hans Viertz has gone from being corporate head chef of Club Med, a job that entailed overseeing 31.2 million meals per year, to proprietor of Estate Wines & Gourmet Foods, whose "Euro table" lunch service features a butcher-block table with communal seating for twelve, plus five additional stools at a counter up front. You might think someone of his background would be sitting in an office while casually chatting it up with wholesalers, but Hans is too busy carrying warm sandwiches out from the kitchen, clearing plates, or helping out as needed. That hands-on work ethic by the owner is a European trait, one of many to be found here.
There isn't much room to maneuver as you enter the store; the walking space is narrowed by shelves of well-chosen imported snack foods on the right side, and, to the left, display cases of salads and premade sandwiches. Behind these deli displays are workers in chefs' jackets who are scurrying about to keep up with the steady stream of orders pouring in, mostly from a long line of people taking lunch to go. In the back of the room sits the dining table, which is surrounded by wooden racks filled with bottles of wine. There is something undeniably social and soothing about sitting at a large table surrounded by bottles of wine, even if you're not drinking any. The friendly attitude of the servers helps put everyone at ease as well.
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Estate's menu of soups, salads, and sandwiches is keenly focused on freshness and simplicity. The two daily soups available on our visit were a creamy French onion sans melted cheese and croutons and a carrot-flecked white bean, both subtly seasoned in a way that complemented their main ingredients. My only gripe would be the one stingy slice of French bread that accompanied each. Salads don't come with much bread either, and the selection never strays from the standards. Nonetheless chef, Greek, caprese, marinated chicken breast, and spicy tuna fish salads are crisply and cleanly rewarding.
"It takes a great bread to make a great sandwich" is what it says on Estate's menu, and freshly baked chiavattas, croissants, focaccias, baguettes, and whole grain baguettes really do make the sandwiches here special, if not exactly the kind that would impress people at a tailgate party (there are chain stores for those sorts of subs). It works like this: You choose your bread, then pick from charcuterie like French smoked ham, German garlic sausage, sopressata, duck galantine, and the more standard turkey breast, roast beef, and Black Forest ham. Your base ingredient can alternatively be one of a number of cheeses that don't often show up in sandwich shops, such as Brie, Gouda, and Manchego. Warm sandwiches combining meat and cheese, like chicken breast with Swiss Emmenthaler, or smoked ham, mushrooms, and melted Gruyre, also are available. The Euro influence is evident in the way the bread is buttered, how the sandwich is finished with cracked black pepper and a mustard seed/herb dressing, and the manner in which lunch is served on small wicker trays. Prices are more than fair for any continent: Most everything on the menu ranges from $4.95 to $6.50.
Desserts are divine but there are not enough of them: only a brownie, apple strudel, and a few types of cookies (the best of which looks like a chocolate drop but contains creamy coconut inside). Cappuccinos are served in oversize cups that look like soup bowls with handles -- again, trés European.
Estate Wines has developed a devoted following since it began serving food in 1994. In 1997 Hans opened another lunch spot at Douglas Entrance called Fountain Bistro, and his latest venture, La Ficcele, premieres on Blue Lagoon Drive sometime next month. These three restaurants combined won't come close to producing 31.2 million meals, but Estate's success does make clear that people really do appreciate a great sandwich and a light Euro touch.