CHOICES What to have, and where to take the picnic?
All ideals are oppressive, and the ideal picnic is no exception. It's not that good food is hard to find, but rather the elusiveness of all the incidentals. You don't have the right blanket, a basket, or even good company most of the time. It's too windy, too hot, or too chilly. So I was glad to try the Picnic Basket in the dead of winter, when there is no reason not to settle in at one of the eclectic set of tables in the cozy second room. The room has a wall of wine and lots of artisanal jars of this or that jam or mustard. It has a very Stonewall-Kitcheny look. There are twigs clinging to the track lighting.
It further favors a winter meal that the hot sandwiches are better than the cold ones. It was good to get a reuben sandwich, for example, that is not all glop and mess. This one was done more in the old Jewish-deli style. We tend to think of an old-fashioned reuben in terms of a cartoonish pile of meat, but in fact it involves a restrained balance between the particular sour flavors of the corned beef and the sauerkraut. Here the balance was just right, with a little dressing to lend some sweetness. A hot roast beef sandwich had just enough little chunks of grilled onion and pepper spotting the cheese to give it some sweetness. The sandwich needed a bit of supplementary mustard, so remember to ask if you get it to go. Hot sandwiches at the Picnic Basket get pressed, rather than pan-fried, and the bread gets a crisp french-fry crinkle without getting greasy.
A restrained approach did not work quite as well on the chicken salad sandwich. The salad was too cold and firm, and did not have enough flavors and textures around the chicken. There was some very sweet cranberry chutney in there, but it needed more mayo for creaminess, more herbs for flavor, and more walnuts for crunch. All sandwiches are served with a big, firm, crisp, mildly sour and salty deli-style pickle. It was so good we ordered an extra.
Punctuating the display case and the refrigerator are several other plastic-boxed options to round out your meal. The best of these was the quiche. It was custard-soft in texture, with a buttery crust and big juicy pieces of ham. With each bite you can taste the richness of cheese and a peppery, cayenne-like heat. A macaroni salad was creamy and almost herbless, with lots of ricotta and a bit of mozzarella, spotted with sautéed mushrooms and onions and topped with toasted bread crumbs. A quinoa salad was filled with flavors of citrus and sweet. The crunchy little granules clung to chunks of soft avocado, and candy-sweet raisins were as juicy as small grapes. Spotted among them were almond slivers and twists of sugared lemon-rind.
There were cupcakes and whoopee pies that looked too big and sweet to be reasonable. If you want wine there are some good bottles available. I noticed a St. Francis merlot for about a third of what it costs on the Fore Street wine list. The proprietor seems to run the place herself, and the slow pace might be more suitable to a lazy weekend than a business lunch. If you are in a hurry, call ahead.