Mile End gets a glorified cafeteria

Le Sanbox offers Montreal’s first “prêt à manger” lunch counter. But is it any good?

Le Sanbox’s hot food offerings.

Inspired by trendy U.K.-based Pret à Manger chain, le Sanbox opened shop in Mile End, offering fast food that’s not fast food: reasonably healthy, restaurant-quality soup, sandwich, salad and hot food combos pre-assembled and packaged to go.

The bistro’s hot and cold specials change daily, with everything streamlined for maximum speed and portability — on a slow day, you could be in and out with a complete hot meal in less than 30 seconds. Heated dishes are kept in a reflective-metal hot-lamp chute (à la McService), while an open fridge display is lined with drinks, salad boxes, sides and sandwiches. Even the baked goods’ packaging is designed to be tossed into your shoulder bag.

Le Sanbox definitely has one genius trick up its sleeve — it’s located right across the street from the Ubisoft building, at the corner of St-Laurent and St-Viateur. The software powerhouse (and its famously workaholic office culture) has undeniably given a huge boost to the neighbourhood’s food scene, but is this bro-centric lunch focus dragging down quality?

To find out, my lunch buddy and I each selected a main and a side, opting to share the hot meatball wrap and Thanksgiving-inspired cold sandwich, with the beet and macaroni salads as sides (sandwiches cost $6.25 or $10 with a side and beverage). We each tried a daily drink special — an apple-beet-carrot juice and a minty lemonade.

Turkey, stuffing and cranberry sandwich.
Turkey, stuffing and cranberry sandwich.

The cold sandwich was packed with turkey, cranberry sauce and stuffing, but the overall result was uninspiring — the bread a bit mushy, the stuffing a bit meh. It bore more than a passing resemblance to le Pick-Up’s classic Post-Reveillon sandwich, without being anywhere near as good. Overall, it tasted pretty much like any other paper bag lunch would after a few hours in the office refrigerator.

We both liked the side salads — props were given, especially, for the American-style macaroni salad, with large chunks of smoked ham in a mayo-heavy dressing — although both were a little on the small side. The beet salad was also good, if tiny, brightened up with a little dill and also in a light mayo dressing. While I liked my juice blend, we both found the house lemonade a bit boring — and this is a drink that young children have famously been nailing for decades.

The only real winner that day was the meatball wrap. We both thought the wrap format was a little weird before tasting it, but that sandwich was a compact tube of yum, with tightly packed meatballs in a spot-on Bolognese sauce gushing with a molten cheese blend — though my lunchmate complained that it was still too pricey for its size.

Le Sanbox salad bowls.
Le Sanbox salad bowls.

A little dissatisfied with these different impressions, I set my mind to trying it again. My second time, I got it right: I was running late and starving, with a ton of work left on my plate. I bought the shrimp bowl ($7.50), a good-sized salad packed onto a base of sweet couscous, with mixed vegetables and a generous portion of sweet-and-spicy grilled shrimp in a curry vinaigrette, and carried it home to eat. The quantity of fresh produce and protein in there made the price point seem more reasonable, and I ate it distractedly while answering emails and the like. It seemed perfect under the circumstances — probably because it was precisely this situation the restaurant was designed for.

Le Sanbox serves its purpose — it’s a clean, forward-thinking cafeteria offering pretty good, portable food for those who forgot their lunches at home but still plan to eat at their desks — but it’s not a destination. The cutesy wall mural, minimalist layout and smartly appointed service areas don’t quite fail to mask its heritage in the institutional food service, the school/prison/hospital cafeteria with which it still has way too much in common.

Essentially, le Sanbox is the perfect place to eat for the discriminating consumer who is way too busy to taste the food. ■

Le Sanbox
5448 St-Laurent
Booze: no
Vegetarian-friendly: Yes
Wheelchair-accessible: One step up
Le Sanbox on Urbanspoon

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