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I can’t say that I was completely surprised by the Tuscan banh mi on the menu at Dino, that Cleveland Park temple to the art of regional Italian cooking. I mean, the restaurant’s owner and chef Dean Gold is a notorious forager, known for his online dispatches from the hinterlands, whether Wheaton or Annandale, on all manner of international cuisines, the more offal the better.

Of course I had to order Tuscan banh mi when we took Carrie‘s mom, Kay, to Dino for Mother’s Day — and not just because the menu noted that the “panini” had been “Served at the Beard House!” I typically avoid items that need an exclamation point to drum up excitement. More on the sandwich in a moment.

But first some background, courtesy of Gold himself. I asked the owner to provide a little history on the sandwich, including its evolution. He wrote a dissertation back via e-mail, part comic, part serious. It’s after the jump:

While we have been using a lot of non modern Italian touches lately, mostly in the area of spices from the Saffron King Behroush Sharifi, there is actually historical antecedent: when Italy was at its economic peak in the 1400’s thru the 1600’s, spices were a large part of Jewish/Italian cooking. There are small outposts of spice based Italian cooking like Anice Stellato in Venice, La Solita Zuppa in Chiusi Tuscany and places in Southern Tuscany and Northern Lazio that consider themselves part of Eturia or modern day Etruscans. But the Tuscan Banh Mi is not based on this aspect of Dino.

It is a genre I call “white guy” Asian: a real item with a history and context, being yuppified {if anyone still uses that work} or “tarted up” {my favorite phrase from the British wine press usually used to denote over alcoholic & oaked wines} that could easily fall short of a great version of the original. It’s also just using some of our typical things we make at Dino put together in a rather tongue in cheek way. Obviously there is no authenticity in any of this, which goes against my grain. But I think it is a lot of fun.

We always have too many duck parts at Dino. Buying whole duck, there is simply less demand for liver, gizzards etc than there is for the breast and leg. Hence I am always trying to do something with the livers. It started out when I proposed a Don Rockwell duck dinner. We would do a series of small plates followed by some more typical menu like items. The small plates were called silly stuff on the menu and I was trying to recall flavors if he past and put a Dino/Italian spin on them. Thus was born the Baci Italiani {Italian Rumaki with scallop playing the part of the water chestnut, duck liver playing the part of the chicken liver, pancetta replacing bacon and dates replacing the OJ marinade my mom used to use.

I had had a banh mi craving and had has a few in Wheaton at the time. I thought: Banh mi with our duck liver spread. We can use up a 1/6 pan of the liver!!! Duck pate, duck prosciutto, house pickle and a hot sauce. WooHoo!

Then I had to do a dish for the James Beard House DC All Star’s night. I started out proposing a wild boar crostini. But as we got closer, I wanted to do something flashier for the JBH, the Duck Banh Mi was feeling too ducky and I didn’t want to source duck prosciutto that we didn’t use at the restaurant. So I went with the current ingredient list: chopped duck liver {inspired by my mom’s recipe for chopped chicken liver}, wild boar pate, wild boar prosciutto, turnip & carrot pickle and a neon orange anchovy Sriracha roasted garlic sauce, still on a crostini. I served it at the JB House and it was a hit. I got not only a lot of comments from the fellow chefs, but the staff and customers of the JBH sought me out to comment on it.

At the time it was still a crostini and we served it as such at Share our Strength. The idea of making it into a sandwich came for Easter Brunch and we tried several bread combinations. None really worked except for griddled baguette slices. So that was what we went with. But on Mother’s Day, things being what they are, the sandwich went out on a striata roll instead. I am still trying to figure out the bread before I add it to the menu or I might just keep it as a crostini until I do.

So how is the sandwich? I thought the flavors were spot-on — piquant, salty, spicy, and sour — and I loved the richness of the house-made pâtés, which not only give the sandwich an appropriately chef-driven touch but remind you that the Vietnamese banh mi has its roots in French cooking. The only off note to me was the striata roll, which was thick and airy. The ratio of bread to sandwich fillings was off; I felt like my tongue had to fish around in an ocean of bread to find those pearls of flavor. Plus, I missed the crackle of a traditional Vietnamese-style baguette.

With that said, I’d love to try it on crostini, which would certainly solve my crunch problem.