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Lunch for Two Under $15: Artisan Cellar

By Roger Kamholz in Food on Mar 30, 2011 6:00PM

If you're like us, lunch hour is an endless ground war against monotony first and excessive expense a close second. You've tried everything within the circle around your office, and you're bored. In an attempt to shake up that routine, we've been seeking out tasty lunch spots that won't set you back more than around 15 bucks for you and a buddy. Artisan Cellar, somewhat hidden in plain sight on the first floor of the Merchandise Mart, fits that perfectly.

In its early life, Artisan Cellar was a boutique wine and spirits shop. And it still is, but about six years ago the team added lunch service to the liquid offerings. From 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily, you have your choice of 11 made-to-order sandwiches ($7.50 including tax) and an ever-changing salad of the day (typically $7 including tax; price varies based on ingredients). To drink, you can also grab an Illy coffee, an Italian soda, or even a chilled craft beer.

There’s no denying what attracts us to AC's menu: the variety of cured meats. Spanish Jamon Serrano, Prosciutto di Parma and Molinari Toscano Salami each has a namesake sandwich on the list and is paired with complementary cheeses, tangy spreads and roughage. The Jamon, one of our favorites, includes salty Mahon cheese, sweet membrillo (quince spread) and a measure of spicy mustard, all served up warm on a hero-style ciabatta roll. The Beefeater has also made our rotation; it includes dry-roasted beef, horseradish mayo, red onion and Cheddar cheese. They may not be the most radical combinations in town, but these sandwiches make up for that with fresh, honest and satisfying flavors.

If you're not feeling meaty, the vegetarian sandwiches are tasty, if a bit predictable. There's a classic Caprese with pesto, and the Portobello, which has balsamic-marinaded mushrooms, roasted tomatoes and bold blue cheese. The salad of the day (ingredients are announced every morning via twitter) is always fresh and generously portioned. In fact, on a recent visit our salad - a bright, fresh mix of greens, kalamata olives, cucumbers and feta dressed with sun-dried tomato and tahini vinaigrette - came with an almost comically-large helping of cheese. (Then again, we still ended up finishing all that zesty, savory feta.)

As we mentioned, Artisan Cellar is still very much a wine shop that sells sandwiches and not the other way around. So while there are a few tables to eat at, we tend to take our order to go and seek out more scenic or comfortable digs before digging in - say, beside the Chicago River or at one of the Merch Mart's cushy public seating areas. Now with the weather improving, grabbing an AC sandwich and a quiet spot by the river is a routine we're eager to resume.

Artisan Cellar is located at 222 Merchandise Mart Plaza on the first floor.