Gerald Koh won't make claims for his superlative sandwich shop, Bon Fresco. The word "gourmet" never appears on the menu. The furthest he'll go is a mission statement printed on the back of his takeout menu that begins, "Bread matters."
Bon Fresco is housed in a strip mall in Columbia, and walking in you might think you'd stumbled on a Quiznos or Panera knockoff: a small seating area, counter service, cases stocked with premade salads and desserts, a roster of sandwich options. There's one difference: the wonderful yeasty aroma of fresh bread.
Koh is so passionate about bread that he won't take shortcuts in the 30-hour process that takes him from mixing to kneading to overnight refrigeration to baking. He goes through more than 50 pounds of flour a day for the baguettes, ciabatta rolls, and focaccia that give his sandwiches real distinction.
Bon Fresco is Koh's latest venture in bread. For years the general manager at downtown DC's Breadline, he tried to buy that place when owner Mark Furstenberg put it up for sale. Furstenberg eventually sold to a French company, and Koh moved on, opening the deli Wheatberry in DC's Cleveland Park in 2005 before launching Bon Fresco four years ago. (The name combines the French for "good" with the Italian for "fresh.")
You might expect prices to be commensurate with the owner's commitment to quality, but all sandwiches are $6.50 to $6.95 and generously piled.
A new creation, listed only on a piece of paper tacked to the cash register, stacks tender, thinly sliced London broil and provolone into a ciabatta roll so perfect you can hear the crunch as you take your first bite. It's the best cheesesteak I've had in years. Koh's invocation of a hoagie--Genoa salami, soppresatta, mortadella, provolone, and roasted red peppers on ciabatta--isn't going to displace any affection for the Philly original, but it's terrific on its own merits. Turning vegetables into a satisfying sandwich is tough, but Koh succeeds by draping strips of grilled zucchini and roasted tomatoes onto a warm baguette and slathering on a black-olive tapenade. The best of the long list is an unlikely masterpiece featuring thick slices of Brie tucked into a baguette along with caramelized onions and a smear of sun-dried-tomato pesto.
There are soups ($2.95 to $3.95)--including a very good chicken-and-rice and an excellent tomato-saffron--and salads ($6.50 to $6.95), among them lentil with mozzarella and grilled zucchini slicked with olive oil.
It's refreshing to discover a small, independent restaurant that takes a purist's approach and yet remains inclusive and unpretentious. That might not qualify as gourmet, but as Koh might say, buzzwords don't matter. Bread matters.
This article appears in the April 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.