Restaurant Review: Max’s Sandwich Shop, Crouch End, London

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My son and I tried before to eat at Max’s sandwich shop once before, but due to the fact he had not checked opening times in advance found ourselves instead eating burgers at The Old Dairy. Let’s start with a discussion on the nature of a sandwich and what constitutes value for money. This is, in short, my defence of the small, independent high-quality sandwich shop, whose owner cares about his customers.

The comparison with The Old Dairy is useful because said burgers with chips were roughly £6 pricier than Max’s hot sandwiches, each of which is £8.50 a time – increased from £7 because Max was forced to register for VAT. Some consider Max’s prices to be steep, but that depends what you compare with. To say this is “only” a sandwich shop is misleading.

If it’s mass-manufactured sandwiches sold in chilled packages in supermarkets, Max’s will seem expensive, but do you get what you pay for, and indeed what comparison is valid? A burger, for example? A burger is, when all is said and done, a form of sandwich, typically with more meat than you get in most English sarnies (though much less than in a deli sandwich at, say, Katz’s Deli in NYC.)

Against both standards, Max provides plenty in terms of quantity, but it’s quality that counts in this debate. The Old Dairy’s burger was expensive but was not hand crafted on the premises from fresh raw ingredients – all were bought in. By contrast, Max’s sandwiches are all made from scratch, even the bread (see how he makes his ham, egg and chips and his Korean sandwiches in these videos.)

This craftsmanship is surely worth £8.50 of anyone’s money, by which I mean they are made to order, taste fresh, have true flavour, and are never soggy or cold.  There might be many exceptions, but ultimately you get what you pay for, from the man himself, and without a hint of corporate cynicism or mass manufacturing

So what did my party make of the Max’s sandwiches experience? Firstly location: Crouch End is not the most auspicious of locations, but being a 10-minute trot from the hub that is Finsbury Park Max’s unobtrusive shop front is still accessible. Street parking nearby helps, particularly after 6:30pm.

Whether the nouveau-celeb Max himself is on the premises and cooking is not clear, though we did walk past him on our previous abortive visit. The guy has attitude and having such attitude on display helps.

The decor is largely cheap wood and downbeat, and the helpful staff appear in a variety of jeans and t-shirts, but then when you’re cool and hip and trendy you don’t need to try too hard – people will seek you out regardless. I appreciate the vibe, though turning the music down a notch would have made oldies like myself a tad happier.

Mercifully, the menus, food and drinks, are hand-written and short. A few extras apart, the dominant theme is four varieties of sandwich, numbered 1 to 4 and prepared in a tiny kitchen out back. Limited choice is, in my opinion, a good thing; it allows the kitchen to focus on doing a few things very well rather than a lot badly, and also means the customer is not blinded by sheer volume – and quality sandwich shops have a tendency to give hundreds of options and then bespoke the orders. To find a short menu of multi-layered options with one variety of homemade foccacia bread is a very welcome change.

In this case we went for and shared three out of the four sandwiches on offer, which omits the bizarrely but logically-named “Et tu Brute? Murdering the Caesar” in favour of the following:

  • Ham, Egg ‘n’ Chips: “slow cooked ham hock, a fried egg, shoestring fries, piccalilli, malt vinegar mayo”
  • The Bhaji Smuggler: “carrot bhajis, coriander, green chilli and peanut saba, yoghurt, sweet herbs, pickles, spinach, actual Bombay Mix”
  • The Korean Gangster:  “soy-braised beer, James’s kimchi and sauerkraut, two different types of deep-fried noodles, incredibly slutty gravy and ssamjang mayo” (at least that’s what the menu said!)

We also ordered a plate of “crushed, fried potatoes, rose harissa, yoghurt, sumac, tarragon, spring onions, pomegranate molasses” but neglectfully failed to order “deep fried jalapeño mac ‘n’ cheese balls.”

Tap water with lemon and ice is brought without asking, but we chose to drink two beers and one wine (and surprised the waiter by requesting ice in the wine) while perusing the menu.

Max may be nobody’s idea of a purist, but there’s no denying the sandwiches are effective and well-packed with great ingredients, each a marvel in its own right. The ham sandwich alone included chunks of tasty ham hock you are unlikely to surpass, and certainly a massive improvement on the frequently nasty commercial sliced hams.  In fact, every component added to the overall effect, including the freshly fried shredded potato. I’d have liked a bigger hit of malt vinegar from the mayo, but the sourness of mustard piccalilli compensated.

Each of these sandwiches proved a minor miracle in its own right, though for my other half too wide to eat. She, therefore, deconstructed her Bhaji Smuggler and ate it with a knife and fork. Maybe a slimmer flatbread option could be available for diners with smaller mouths, though I certainly hope Max does not sell out by listing half a dozen breads.

Our potato plate certainly looked like Max had thrown the kitchen sink at it.  A fascinating melange of flavours that would not suit every taste, but a very distinct change from the usual fries and wedges, and very definitely not straight from the freezer to the frier.

All told, a successful evening. I wish Max every success and perish the thought he ends up franchised like the horrendous Subway chain. Sandwiches of distinction are welcome, but mass-production should be rejected by diners everywhere. But then word of mouth via social media carries weight, and the buzz around Max’s place tells you all you need to know.