From the window of the Wilmoore Cafe, downtown Raleigh's newest independent sandwich shop, you can watch lunchtime diners stream into the national chain grab-and-go sub outlet across Wilmington Street and muse on the words of James Beard: "Too few people understand a good sandwich."
Count the folks at Wilmoore among the enlightened.
Here they know that the success of meat, cheese and vegetables stuffed between two pieces of bread relies on the superiority of those ingredients. Only if every one has integrity will the sandwich assume a value greater than their sum.
Consider the Wilmoore's BLT ($5.25). The tomato and lettuce come from local farms; the salty, crunchy, nitrate-free bacon is from Top Hogs pork producers in Greenville, N.C. Duke's mayonnaise binds it between two slices of honey whole wheat from La Farm, Cary's premier bakery. The construction is simple. The results are sublime. This is what is possible when a sandwich maker understands.
The man who fosters this understanding is David Fowle, who owns the Wilmoore with his wife. Fowle has been making coffee in downtown Raleigh and elsewhere around the world for years, so that may be why you recognize his face. His chef is Jackson Harris, veteran of the kitchens of Herons at the Umstead Hotel and Raleigh's 18 Seaboard.
The Wilmoore occupies the old House of Style men's store next to the Busy Bee. The deep picture windows on either side of the front door, where hip-hop T-shirts and high-dollar sneakers formerly reigned, now offer cozy tables for two with great views of the foot traffic on Fayetteville Street.
Inside, soaring ceilings, refinished hardwoods, exposed brick and cozy booths provide a setting for local artwork and photos of Raleigh landmarks. Order at the counter from an array of smoothies, coffee drinks and baked goods as well as sandwiches and sides. Carrboro Coffee Co. beans fuel the java, and baked goods include cupcakes and biscotti. They also serve beer in bottles, including selections from Big Boss.
Lunch service begins at 11 a.m., and if you need a little something to tide you over, the smoothie will keep you full until mid-afternoon. After sucking down a dairy-free strawberry-banana concoction, made with gobs of fruit and a touch of sugar syrup, I could eat only half of my 6-inch Italian sandwich ($8.75).
This was a shame, because it was great. My only beef was with the bacon. I know what you're thinking: Who complains about bacon? It's just that the prosciutto, salami and pepperoni packed so much fresh, meaty flavor that the bacon was overkill.
The pork bahn mi, meanwhile, achieved proportional perfection. The combination of roasted, sliced pork and a creamy slaw of cabbage and carrot recalls the flavor profile of the traditional North Carolina barbecue sandwich. But the bahn mi acquires extra zing from the layers of thinly sliced jalapeños and cilantro. The fresh ingredients reinvent the familiar and leave a slow and satisfying tingle on the lips and the back of the tongue.
The menu is seasonal. These days it includes 11 sandwich choices, including two vegetarian options: the PLT (portobello, lettuce and tomato, $5.95) and the Salad Sandwich ($5.95), a combination of fresh and pickled veggies, mixed greens and roasted tomato relish. A house-made pickle spear, reminiscent of my grandma's bread-and-butter creation, is included. Sides are 95 cents each: fruit, a salad of green and red leaf lettuce and arugula, or house-made chips. Both the fruit and the greens are achingly fresh and satisfying, but if you've been good, reward yourself with the chips. Supermodel thin and crisp, they wear a sprinkling of fresh dill, and they'll make you wonder why you'd ever eat bagged chips again.
A changing soup option is also on the menu. On one of my visits, the variety was turkey squash. It had great body, provided by a base of well-made stock, bright color from the yellow squash and zucchini, and tender slices of flavorful turkey. It needed salt, though, and the table offered no shaker so I had to get up and grab one from the beverage area, proving that counter service has its limitations.
The culinary imaginations at the Wilmoore, however, seem blissfully uninhibited. And when it comes to sandwiches, they definitely understand.