BY ALEX SUNDSTROM
Gentrification around Harvard is not well liked. It displaces the poor and the downtrodden and drives up student rents. The gentry have to eat, however, and the rise of a market for fresh, toothsome $8 sandwiches that has accompanied rising land values is quite a silver lining. The best place to sample them is Hi-Rise Bakery’s Concord St. headquarters, where the restaurant cheerfully acknowledges its upmarket neighborhood with sandwich names like “Mr. and Mrs. Snob” and “Grace’s Newest Nanny.”
The bread is the strongest element of Hi-Rise’s sandwiches. Small bits of corn stud the corn bread, which is just sweet and doughy enough; the Concord bread is the perfect lofty, crunchy foil to any sandwich fixing. On weekends, the best brunch item is the toasted brown bread with cream cheese or preserves and rich Plugra butter ($4, tax included). Its flavor is dark and wheaty, and well balanced by juicy blueberries throughout.
All the breads are baked in plain view, with a short wall dividing the laboratory of flour-milling, dough-kneading bakers from the customers milling about picnic and café tables. Loaves of bread are sold separately from sandwiches – the $3 baguette is my favorite, as it is very large, with a chewy crumb that manages to preserve a distinct malt flavor. The baguette has a fragile crust, which inspires customers to nurture it and protect it from impact. It thanks them by being delicious.
As for sandwiches, the Nat Queen Cool ($8.25) best complements its toasted bread, with a thin layer of perfectly grilled, mostly lean pork loin, ripe avocados, a dash of hot sauce, cilantro, tomatoes and red onions. By sticking to fresh vegetables instead of messy sauces, the fillings do not beat the superb bread into soggy submission. This is the main problem with Hi-Rise’s less stellar sandwiches – the Loretta Come Back ($8.25) drowns steamed broccoli, cheddar and bacon in Russian dressing, while Linda’s Swinging Single ($8) similarly kills its bread and meat with sweet, runny coleslaw.
Sandwiches that avoid the curse of oversaucing do extremely well: the Vegetable Garden ($7.75) pairs a surprisingly smooth, nutty goat cheese with red leaf lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes and radishes, while the Classic Grilled Cheese ($6.75) uses fresh, acidic tomatoes and spicy mustard to cut the richness of its three cheeses. Bill’s Seoul Show ($8) is a simple BLT with a grilled chicken breast, raised to an art form by fresh, handmade ingredients. All the sandwiches go best with an extremely tart lemonade ($2) that is as sweet as fresh raspberries, but no sweeter.
Desserts do not quite meet the standard set by the bread; the chocolate fallen cake and the sweet breads are too bland. One wonderful exception is the brownie ($3), which is very dense and intensely flavored with dark, bittersweet chocolate. It is barely sweetened, avoiding the failings of other bakeries’ more pedestrian brownies, which are laced with too much sugar to mask mediocre ingredients.
Hi-Rise’s owner and head baker, Rene Becker, has been criticized in the Boston Globe for his pretentiousness: he also owns the upscale Real Pizza down Concord Ave, the name of which probably did not sit well with other, more blue-collar pizza places on the street. Hi-Rise’s name does sort of sound like an endorsement of global capitalism. The atmosphere of the restaurant, however, banishes all such pretension.
Well-off families are constantly streaming into Hi-Rise, and their children are far more often screaming and rending things before their meal than after. Hi-Rise’s enthusiasm for quality is infectious. The staff are much more pierced and alternative-looking than the clientele, but both groups are united by the open and friendly quality of the Hi-Rise operation. It shows bread being made, sells inexpensive wines, and consistently delivers great sandwiches. The food certainly sits better than the housing prices, but it is a comforting reminder that there are worse things than money well spent.