With all due respect to New York’s majestic delis, my universal theory of ham sandwiches holds that you will almost assuredly find the best ones at venues that specialize in French food. The key is that Gallic-leaning chefs always seem to treat this plebeian staple with the level of richness one would expect from a stunt item at the Texas State fair. There is the famous jambon beurre, airy baguettes stuffed with meat, cornichons, and sometimes up to a half stick of butter per person. The croque monsieur is even more indulgent; it’s a ham-and-cheese sandwich slathered with drippy bruleed bechamel. And if that’s not enough, consider the croque madame, a version of the previous sandwich but with a runny fried egg on top.
One might think it impossible to match the excess of any of these hammy classics, but Ghaya Oliveira, one of the country’s most heralded pastry chefs, might have done just that at her self-titled bakery in Long Island City. Her sandwich is an edible, elegant monster truck, a Parisian Gravedigger, if you will. It contains eleven layers, roughly half of them cured and sliced pork, the other half, emmentaler cheese. And instead of using a crusty baguette, Oliveira places this all on a sliced and toasted croissant. She then brushes the bread with brown butter, tops it with more cheese — so technically, that’s twelve layers — and lets everything get crispy in the toaster oven.
The Tunisian-born Oliveira, a James Beard award winner, rose to fame at the restaurants of Daniel Boulud; if you’ve not tried her grapefruit givré with rose loukoum and sesame halva — still on the menu at Boulud Sud — you’re missing out on one of the city’s great desserts.
Oliveira left the Boulud group at the end of 2019; since then she’s been flying somewhat under the radar, having opened Ghaya around this time last year at the orthographically-challenged Jacx & Co food hall in Queens. Her menu includes bone broth, Tunisian pkaila (a stew of spinach and chickpeas), multi-colored macarons, and a very good chocolate croissant. Rather than create yet another stuffed pain au chocolat, Oliveira takes a regular croissant — with a strikingly symmetrical honeycombed interior — and slathers the exterior with a layer of homemade Nutella. It is most definitely a knife-and-fork-pastry.
The chef’s ham-and-cheese sandwich, however, is one for the ages. When I asked Oliveira what inspired the preparation, she said it was not a savory dish, but rather a sweet one that led to the unique structure. ”My favorite dessert is a classic mille-feuille, with flaky and crunchy layers of puff pastry and a vanilla custard layer, and that sweet fondant glazing on top. Le grande classic!” I also asked her if I might encounter a sandwich of this lofty style elsewhere. She said I would not. The alternating layers of pink ham and white cheese results in a creation that appears fused together, like a pale candy cane terrine.
Anything stuffed with so much animal protein and dairy would appear, at first glance, to be unbalanced. It comes with a small side salad, but the sandwich itself contains no iceberg lettuce or any other canopies of vegetation that one might find on, say, an Italian hero. No one has applied tart onions, giardiniera, or even mustard to cut through the richness. This is simply a pile of meat and cheese stacked as high and plain as with a pastrami sandwich. And yet it still works.
Oliveira uses a low-salt jambon de Paris that doesn’t overwhelm the palate; it’s gently sweet and thickly cut. The cheese, in turn, provides a touch of neutral ooziness while the warm laminated dough adds requisite levels of Napoleon-style crunch and toasty brown butter aromas. Finally, that slice of crisp emmentaler on top provides a bit of frico-like chewiness and a touch of funk. Could a sandwich like this benefit from some arugula or pickled Calabrian chiles? I like to think so, but so be it, because what we have here is already close to perfect. Be sure to note the short strands of ham sticking out from under the edges of the croissant dough; the oven renders them slightly dry, like ham jerky.
Oliveira’s sandwich doesn’t so much recall an actual ham sandwich as a Wes Andersonian fantasy of one, meant to be consumed by a mustachioed 19th century robber baron with a purple suit, a monogrammed ascot, and a checkered past. One could eat it with their hands but it’s tempting to bring it home and cut it apart with heirloom flatware while drinking an expensive Burgundy from a Baccarat crystal chalice. Or to borrow a more practical line from above, one could absolutely treat it as a knife-and-fork sandwich. It costs $13.25 and I’m rating it as a BUY.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).