Those familiar with France 44 will recognize the gourmet selection of cheeses, chocolates, crackers, jams, and multitudes of other appetizing items at the St. Paul Cheese Shop, France 44’s somewhat lesser-known, teetotaling sibling. The selection can be dizzying, so if you want to find out what the items on the shelves are capable of, consider their sandwich menu a demonstration.
The menu has about a dozen choices, from the speckwich (cured pork leg) to hummus to the newly introduced grilled cheese “melts,” (pictured below) to the Cheese Sandwich of the Week (CSOTW). The sandwiches are offered fully formed, so you won’t walk down a line choosing toppings. And there are no Dagwoods — most of the sandwiches have only four components (not counting bread). With widely varied ingredients like garlic-confit, olive tapenade, and quince paste, it is clear that a lot of thought has gone into the assembly of each sandwich.
The Smurk (pictured top) is the sandwich that I keep coming back for. This twist on a sandwich-industry standard has a few slices each of turkey and provolone, topped with caramelized onions and squeezed into ciabatta bread that is generously dressed in harissa. The turkey is of the high-quality deli variety and the provolone, not a cheese often associated with the word “gourmet,” tastes light, with a hint of sharpness that makes it worthy of a place in the shop’s cheese case.
There is a reason why this particular sandwich beckons me to leave my desk, get in my car, drive across St. Paul, and fight for parking on a busy Grand Ave intersection: the combination of caramelized onions, harissa, and crusty bread. The onions add a sweetness and softness that, atop the cheese and meat, perfectly fill out the rounded ciabatta corners, while the roasted hot pepper and cumin add zip and warmth that make me want to send a roasted turkey to Tunisia to say thanks for inventing harissa.
At $8, the Smurk feels like a bargain. Take your sandwich with chips or a side from the refrigerator case, but as you pass the cheese case and the shelves’ array of mustard, anchovies, and more, good luck getting out of there with just your lunch in hand.
St. Paul Cheese Shop, 1573 Grand Ave, St Paul, MN 55105; 651.698.3391