Though the site of increasingly frequent sightings of tween celebrities, Toluca Lake is unmistakably suburban, thus far without real culinary stars to claim as its own.
Imagine my excitement when I heard of new-comer Sweetsalt, a tiny cafe slash to-go retail counter opened by former Top Chef contender Alex Eusebio (Season 5).
I love the simple, clean layout of the store and its concept - with its serene white interiors with black trim, and its centerpiece marble counter - it reminds me of Joan's On Third, but at about a fifth of the size. It's an intimate space with just a handful of tables inside a turn-of-the-century-style storefront (and two tables outside). It also reminds me of a place that you would see on the main strip at St. Helena up in Napa Valley - and I actually did feel like I had a mini-getaway at lunch! Diners place their order at the counter, get a card with a number to put on your table, and a server brings out the food when it's ready.
The menu consists of mouth-watering sandwich creations (including lavender duck confit, short rib roll), salads (fig with mache, bacon and blue-cheese crostini, champagne chicken, organic grains - a mix of quinoa and couscous with veggies. You can also make your own!), daily soups, a cheese and charcuterie plate for $15, and homemade desserts.
I find it difficult to resist anything with the word 'truffle' in it - so my eyes, and money, immediately went to the Shitake Truffle Panini ($9) - which was probably the best sandwich I've ever had in this neighborhood - with Shitake mushrooms, sottocenere (my favorite cheese), alfalfa sprouts, onion confit, and truffle oil. The panini comes on a rustic silver metal plate with a side of mesclun with a simple vinaigrette dressing. The truffle flavors were infused throughout the sandwich - which caused me to practically inhale it.
My friend got the Pesto Panini - with basil pesto, roasted pepper, mozzarella, and arugula - and though a bit oily, she enjoyed it.
We were happy to get the table for two right by the sun-lit window, and found the experience a very pleasant way to pass our lunch hour.
For dessert, we split an 'Xtreme' sweet ($3.75) - a red velvet cookie that looks like a giant Parisian-style macaroon, with some graham cracker crumbs on top. I had high hopes for this sweet, but unfortunately the cookie was not nearly light and flaky enough, and the center filling was a single-note disappointment - so sugary I couldn't taste the vanilla. Whereas everything else in the store was reasonably priced, we were soured on the experience with the 'Xtreme Sweet' - that is one we are unlikely to repeat.
Sweetsalt is, all-in-all, a great lunch spot, for those who want a great gourmet sandwich and refuse to settle for Subway just because they happen to be in the Valley.
On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 5 bites
Presentation - 4.5 bites
Originality - 4 bites
Ambience - 4 stars
Service - N/A
Overall experience - 4.5 bites
Price - $ (1 bite mark)
Probability of return visit - 90%
10218 1/2 Riverside Dr., Toluca Lake, CA 91602