April 8, 2017
Photo: Courtesy G Restaurant
It’s a fact that New Jersey is heaven for sandwich lovers. Between the chicken parm hoagies, the meatball subs served up at ubiquitous Italian delis, the top notch cheesesteaks that spill over from Philadelphia into the south Jersey suburbs, and the unique creation known as Taylor Ham (or Pork Roll, depending on who you ask), a superlative sandwich is never hard to find. So it is no surprise that it took a New Jersey transplant, Mike Isabella, to come up with G, a stylish sandwich shop just north of U Street that brings the medium to an art form.
The District’s 2016 Restaurateur of the Year and a former judge and competitor on various cooking shows (i.e., Top Chef and Top Chef Duels), Mike Isabella has become a bona fide celebrity chef. His growing empire includes Italian trattoria, Graffiato, the newly opened Spanish and Portuguese restaurant Arroz, and the Greek concept Kapnos, located right next door to G. While none of his entries are overly formal in their atmosphere, G is the most casual spot on the roster; the only one in which orders are placed at a counter. High end or not, it still identifies itself as a sandwich shop, after all.
When it first opened, G served sandwiches only during lunch hours; at night, it transformed itself into a more traditional Italian restaurant, with a $40 price-fixed menu. But high demand for the sandwiches drove Isabella to serve them all day. Although many of the options betray Italian influences, the range is eclectic. The most original creation — and perhaps also the most satisfying — is the Spiced Baby Goat ($13), in which tender pulled meat is slathered with the perfect amount of harissa sauce (made with chilis) and fresh oregano. Mini potatoes are sprinkled throughout, which means that this is one filling sandwich. The roll is large enough so that one could comfortably consume one half for lunch and save the second for dinner.
Isabella stays true to his roots with three classic Italian deli sandwiches: the Meatball Sub ($11), Chicken Parm ($12) and Italian Hero ($13). Homemade, carefully seasoned meatballs and chicken are divine fillings for big bready, Italian rolls, soft enough to soak up all that tasty tomato gravy. One of Isabella’s signature sandwiches, the “Jersey Mac” ($7), is sort of an upscale play on a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin, in which two decadent duck fat English muffins sandwich several thin slices of Taylor Ham and Muenster Cheese, along with and a duck egg.
The beauty of the sandwich is that unlike say risotto or coq au vin, most people have tried to construct one of their own at one time or another. In appreciation of the sandwich’s do-it-yourself quality, Isabella actively encourages local patrons to try to match his wizardry with their own concoctions. To coincide with March Madness, G sponsors “Sandwich Madness,” a bracketed tournament in which eight journalists (and amateur chefs) pit their own sandwiches against each other.
G’s menu temporarily offered all eight sandwiches and planned to determine the winners based on sandwiches sold. Sandwiches put G on the map, but pasta and antipasto have kept the crowds coming back. Chewy arancini balls ($9) and citrusy olives ($8) are irresistible finger-poppers. Generous portions of house made pasta, such as the Cavatelli with lamb Bolognese, pistachio nuts and feta ($15) are ideal comfort foods for cold nights, even during relatively mild winters.
On Sunday night, G offers its “Sunday Gravy,” an homage to the feasts that Isabella used to enjoy with his family at the end of each weekend. The selections on the price-fixed menu form a veritable highlight G’s offering: a creamy hunk of burrata, a plate of lemony fritto misto and a big, hearty pot of meat sauce (or “gravy”) to be poured over spaghetti. All of it is served family-style, of course.
Mike Isabella seems to excel at whatever cuisine he tries: Greek, Mediterranean, Spanish, and Japanese. But his best dishes are still the Italian classics of his youth, the same comfort food that now comforts the masses who flock to G.