Everything about Montagu’s Gusto is unexpected, from its name and the size and breadth of its menu to its location on a nondescript stretch of Second Avenue off 35th Street, sandwiched between a reflexology parlor and a bizarrely named Chinese joint Profit.
Menu breadth aside, this unassuming spot (a 14-minute walk from the United Nations Secretariat building) worships the sandwich in all its glory. Dozens of variations, made with good ingredients from nearly a dozen breads from top New York City bakeries, are offered, and customers are invited to tweak as they please. For example, order slow-cooked pork with broccoli raven on a crunchy ciabatta bun — with pickles.
“Eat well, live well, salad well. . . Organic, Sustainable, Local” reads a sign in the salad area, while the chalkboard above the open kitchen boasts “artisanal” creations. A sandwich board on the sidewalk reads “Only Nature Grown Ingredients” while the staff’s sleek black shirts beckon customers to “Gusto Well.”
Some of this is poetic liberty, though Gusto’s owner Andres Montes says many of the salad ingredients are organic and he makes every effort to shop locally.
Montagu’s opened five years ago after Montes and his wife Holanda scoured the east end of Murray Hill, found a lack of lunch spots and felt they could put their food delivery expertise to good use. (He’s from Uruguay, she’s from Ecuador; they fell in love while toiling in a deli in Jersey and now have three children.)
Business was slow at first – not everyone knows that John Montagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich, invented eating without a fork, or that ‘gusto’ means ‘taste’ in Spanish. But the place took off after a juicy closeup of one of her creations showed up on Instagram.
This is not your typical New York City deli. “My sandwiches are created from scratch, we don’t copy anyone,” says Montes. “Everyone’s trying to save money, but we’re trying to make a nice sandwich on good bread that’s hand made” — with meat roasted and sliced in the back and stacked on top of Prestige Baker’s Bread to order. These are no small things in a world dominated by boar head, factory coleslaw and packaged egg whites.
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In the summer there will be tables and chairs outside, and there is also some seating in front of the shop. But inside, everything is mostly plain and simple, geared towards takeout and delivery.
At first glance it looks like Salad City, with a pleasant chop-chop-chop sound emanating from the forward attachment bar and greens, and every conceivable home-build add-on that comes with any number of dressings thrown (fig tahini, anyone?).
For those not in the mood to compose their own, there are house salads: Ultimate Cobb, Nice to Greek You – moaning names are a house specialty – even one called Skinny Buffalo. (Since you ask: fried marinated chicken, romaine, celery, shredded carrot, blue cheese, and ranch-style dressing.) For a satisfying texture and savory flavor, we recommend the Rainbow Spicy Thai: Zucchini Noodles, Sprinkled with Sweet Mango, Mild Avocado , tangy arugula, red and green peppers, scallions, and lively cilantro dressing (if you don’t want jalapeños, just say so).
Then there are the warm salads, with ingredients like quinoa, kale, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, Brussels sprouts, zucchini noodles, nuts, fruit and tofu, creatively mixed and inventively named. (Porto Alegre: as in, portobellos, raw corn, avocado and other things.)
Oh, and rice bowls. Plus a soup of the day.
But sandwiches dominate, as the creative use of sliced bread has a New York moment. On a recent visit, we were touched to see a burly police officer stoically watching his weight at the salad bar instead of keeping his eyes on the meat-and-cheese monster subs cruising at the next counter .
Selections, mostly in the $10-$15 range, include house standards like avocado, tuna, and skirt steak. But why make it easy on yourself when you can do something extra-extra? Turn your attention to the oversized specialty sandwich menu, where you’ll find inventive concoctions like Dear Emma — short housecorn ribs with kimchi, broccoli rabe and honey sriracha on a “soft” bun — and Gruyère Toasties: grilled cheese with caramelized onions and mushrooms on sourdough.
The beefy Habana Cuba is a masterpiece of “confit” pork — homemade, complete with crispy bits — succulent ham, succulent cheese and tangy pickles, layered on a ciabatta bun by the sandwich kingdom equivalent of an Italian mason. Like the portly Uncle Vinny, packed with aged prosciutto, brie, apple and arugula, it can serve two, as can the off-the-menu Frank Sinatra, a stunning take on Italian charcuterie and cheese garnished with lettuce, oil and vinegar.
“If you can do it, I’ll give you $100,” Montes jokes.
Customize each sandwich, including all-day breakfast options, by choosing from wraps and more than a dozen breads, including focaccia, most from Balthazar and Sullivan Bakery. Montes declined to reveal his secret sources for locally made bagels and soft buns.
We sampled the skirt steak and concluded that the meat’s generous cut counteracted the taste of the palate: ideally, the inside of a sandwich should give way to a quick bite. But we’d return for My Favorite Reuben, lured by its generously sliced home-made turkey, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut, delicately held together by Orwasher’s rye.
Some of the sandwiches, including the Reuben, could use a bit more bite, maybe more sauerkraut, vinegar, mustard or raw onions. Finding the perfect balance can be difficult, but like many fast food sandwiches, the right sandwich strives to combine melt-in-your-mouth softness with crunchy crust, its contents accented with extras and spices to make a whole that’s bigger as its parts.
Gusto’s regulars don’t live off sandwiches alone. The friendly staff are happy to see you or your preferred delivery service for all meals. The breakfast menu is inviting, although we wouldn’t necessarily recommend a scrambled egg and sliced chicken wrap. Damned if that isn’t an espresso machine loaded with a custom Lavazza blend. Or conjure up a solid main course like grilled salmon with one of the many side dishes at home. Desserts include brownies and cookies, including the requisite black and white dishes.
Montagu’s Gusto has an online ordering system at mgustonyc.com. We found it a challenge, partly because there are a variety of competing delivery services that process the orders and offer different choices and offers.
More fun comes by in person. Keep in mind that while Montagu’s has plenty of staff, it’s a challenge to move everything along quickly. If you’re wondering why your next meal is on hold, be glad that made-to-order hot sandwiches are carefully wrapped to stay warm in transit. Take a deep breath and repeat “ar-tee-son.”
Montagu’s rewards cash payments with a 10 percent discount. Gluttons are invited to purchase annual memberships for free delivery and additional discounts based on a membership fee. For example, for a 25 percent discount on all orders, you can purchase a $100 annual registration.
That’s a lot of sandwiches.
Montagu’s Gusto, 645 Second Avenue between 35th and 36th Streets (917-261-4129), is open Monday through Thursday from 9:45 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday from 9:45 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Saturday from 9:45 a.m. to 5 p.m