When is something more than the sum of its parts?
It's a question easily posed, but not as easily answered. Sure, there are things like the Megazord, Captain Planet, or the Justice League, all easily more than the sum of their parts. But I'm an adult, which means I have to come up with a better answer than "superheroes" or "battle robots", even though those are clearly correct answers. I write about New York food on the internet, so I have to be insightful and delightfully droll and wear pants while I write.
Adulthood is overrated.
I ventured to Cobble Hill recently not looking for an answer to my Sphinxian riddle, but to try the fare at Pair Wine & Cheese. Adults sip wine and nibble cheese, so I guess I'll try some wine and cheese. Ugh.
Full of 30-year-old manchild angst and bitterness, I exited the subway and almost ran right into this:
Well, I mean, hell yes, but like... aren't you supposed to start eating salads and protein shakes and wine and cheese if you're an adult? How did this obvious non-adult get access to a chalkboard?
I walked into Pair angsty and freshly confused. Chung, the owner, was nice enough to meet me and set me up in a booth with a view of the whole restaurant. Pair resides in an old art gallery, and still remains a fantastic spot for people-watching. Young families with strollers had dinner, hipster couples sipped beer and two women just off work caught up over wine. The patronage was eclectic but relaxed, the ambience comfortable and cozy.
A glass of chardonnay came out with the first course, a... grilled cheese? I almost spit out the wine I was swishing around my mouth, as if I was someone who understood how to taste wine, when I saw the sandwich in front of me.
"Chung, there must be some mistake, I'm supposed to be reviewing fancy adult food. Are you sure this ridiculously good-looking grilled cheese is meant for me?"
Chung's reply was direct, and to the point. "Sometimes, the simplest things are best when you use the best ingredients."
The sandwich certainly was simple — raclette on buttered boroña bread. But damn, if it didn't raise the grilled cheese bar: sweet and nutty, with just the right amount off ooey-gooey pull-apartness, this sandwich brought grilled cheese out of the minors and into the big show. It came with a side salad of mesclun and vinaigrette,
I enjoyed sweet Riesling next as I chalked the fact that I got an amazing grilled cheese at a wine bar up to a simple oversight (though one I was more than happy to be the beneficiary of). I resolved myself to the rest of a night surely full of tiny portions and overly-fancy, foofy-doofy ridiculous "adult" plates—
"Your next sandwich, fried chicken with spicy slaw and a harissa aioli."
Chung stood at my table with a beautiful piece of Americana dressed in North African spices and a dynamite slaw in hand. I looked around to make sure I was still in an old art gallery turned wine bar, and not actually in the midst of the most wonderful fever dream I'd ever had.
Yep. Definitely not a fever dream. I eagerly took the plate from my knowledgeable, ever-patient host and dug in, and oh my god. Before I get into the highlight of this extraordinary sandwich, let me first say that the chicken was delicious, bold, and savory, and the aioli with harissa aioli was creamy, a little spicy, and brought the entire thing together marvelously.
But this slaw — good god damn. I believe that one of the key factors in determining whether or not a restaurant is a worthwhile one is the quality of their cole slaw, and this slaw was some top notch slaw. Spicy? This felt like the bolt gun from No Country For Old Men, but instead of murdering me on the side of the road it was reminding my taste buds what it felt like to be alive. Cole slaw is typically overlooked, dashed on the side of a plate with an ice cream scoop because you're just supposed to do that. Any place that decides to make a point with their cole slaw is a place that has earned my repeat business.
I was just about to really connect with the table next to me who had been politely ignoring my cole slaw theory for 7 and a half minutes when Chung brought over a Malbec and my next dish, a tuna melt.
"Hey Sean, wait a minute," you might say. "You just said 'tuna melt' even though you were supposed to be in a foofy-doofy wine bar."
I know! And I meant it. And before you think that this isn't so much a "wine bar" as it is a "place that sells tuna melts and also has wine", let me reassure you — this was the second-best tuna melt I've ever had in my life. The first best is every single tuna melt my mother made for me on my birthdays when I was growing up, so taking second to that means you're a pretty damn good tuna melt.
This wasn't any kind of canned stuff, either — this fish tasted like it had been swimming off a Long Island shoreline hours earlier. Thick, savory chunks of tuna wrapped in gooey, melted cheese, and not the runny stuff like so many tuna melts are. Sliced right off the bone and into the pan. Amazing stuff.
As I finished up and awaited my last dish, I noticed this on the front of Pair's menu:
As Chung brought over a sloppy joe (seriously, a sloppy joe), I asked him what "1+1=3" meant.
"In wine, if a bottle is bad, it's 1+1=1.
If it's ok, it's 1+1=2. If it's good, then it's 1+1=3."
One plus one equals three. I ate my sloppy joe (this place rules.) and thought about what that meant.
Sure, things like Megazords or Justice Leagues are more than the sums of their parts. But here on Earth Prime, Earth-616, the here and now, there's still a little bit of magic. Maybe it's how a family comes together, or a group of friends from Liverpool join each other to conquer the world. Or maybe it's something as simple as food. I was eating beef, tomato sauce, an egg and a potato bun, but I was also eating a sloppy joe paired with a french Malbec in an old wine gallery, taking notes on how I'd write this up for my sandwich blog.
Maybe we're all a lot of parts. Myself, I'm part 7-year-old Lego maniac, part 13-year-old nerd, part 17-year-old disgraced lineman turned leading man in a high school musical, part broke 21-year-old college student, and part 25-year-old idealistic struggling comedian. And that night, I learned that I don't have to be what I thought I was going to be. All those parts got me into that old art gallery with a mind-blowing grilled cheese, but the sum total of them was someone none of them ever thought they'd actually end up being.
I think a lot of people live their lives trying to please who they were five, ten, or fifteen years ago. A small few realize that that version of themselves knew as little about who they are now as they know now about who they'll be in five years. Maybe they'll be writing a sandwich blog, maybe they'll be running a landscaping business, maybe they'll live on the other side of the world. Maybe "adulthood" is just owning whoever you are, and being that version of yourself as hard and as loudly as you can.
Maybe sandwiches are food, if you want them to be.