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Zen and the Art of Sandwich-Making

Paulie's offers inner peace through panini

Paulie's serene little Montrose deli has saved me from the fast-food circles of hell more times than I can count. Faster than you can say "Mickey D's," I've dashed in during errand-running marathons or in the throes of a 30-minute lunch and whizzed out again, clutching a paper bag of meticulously wrapped and labeled panini, pasta salads or cream cheese brownies.

I try to remember that it doesn't have to be this way. I could while away an afternoon in Paulie's sunny picture window with a good, thick book, as I saw another woman doing on a recent visit. Circlets of sunlight played over the table where she sat, quietly reading, a thick china cup of coffee scented with Frangelico at her elbow.

It's such a calm and soothing space; I'm always surprised how the plate glass muffles the Westheimer mayhem just outside. Brick walls and potted plants warm the cool gray color scheme, and gallery-lit black and white photographs invite contemplation. The latest exhibit features Louisiana photographer Leo Touchet's sensuous, curving sand dunes, wind-ruffled and unprinted by human feet.

Or instead of lounging there, perhaps I could host a ladies-who-lunch party and let Paulie's cater it. We could feast on green salads -- the infamous "Big," traditional spinach, eggless Caesar or the happy "Italian Family" -- drizzled with an astonishing variety of vinaigrettes.

Which reminds me: I should make the effort to order something other than sandwiches or salads. Even though Paulie's makes some of the best of both in town, there are heftier entrees to consider, including a nightly special hot plate. There's some serious pasta going on at Paulie's, like the rich, creamy fettuccine Alfredo with smoked salmon ($8.95) which lovingly echoes lox, bagels and cream cheese right down to the spunky little capers. But I rarely seem to get past those sandwiches.

My current favorite, although it's hard to pick from the blackboard menu's embarrassment of riches printed up in colored chalks, is the shrimp BLT. Paulie's upscale version of this lunch-counter standard ($6.95) starts with a fluffy round bun instead of toast, then layers on slices of smoky bacon, a fringe of deep green lettuce and ripe, red Roma tomatoes. Inspiration strikes in the middle, in the form of delicately butterflied and grilled jumbo shrimp dressed with a light remoulade sauce. With the included side order of parsley-sprinkled potato salad made with red-jacketed new potatoes and briny green and black olives, it's perfect.

Then there's the grilled portobello mushroom sandwich ($6.75). Dark slabs of meaty mushroom alternate with thick red tongues of roasted pepper, topped with lettuce leaves and a surprise filling of delightfully gooey goat cheese in between. I nibble this one round and round the edges to keep the cheese corralled inside till the last squishy bite.

Or maybe my favorite is really the K.C. Special ($5.50), created by and named for the distaff half of Paulie's husband and wife owner team, Bernard and Kathy Craft Petronella. (She's a 20-year veteran of Butera's; he's Nash D'Amico's first cousin and former partner, which neatly explains Paulie's juxtaposition of high-end deli and perfect pastas.) Kathy's own special sandwich is another legit vegetarian number successfully made delicious, combining multiple layers of mozzarella, roasted tomatoes and avocado, bristling with dainty sprouts and dressed with a pesto mayonnaise. It reminds me of a serendipitous refrigerator surprise, a deceptively simple trifle a clever cook whipped up from a seemingly bare larder. (It's a messy, slippery devil, too; plan ahead with extra napkins.)

While the sandwiches all sport buns, the panini arrive in style on chewy peasant-style bread, garlicky and grilled. For a light lunch, I'll go with the Yezzi's combination of fresh spinach, roasted tomatoes and feta cheese ($6.25); if I arrive ravenous, I lean toward the meatier numbers such as the Principe, with its Italian sausage, grilled onions and peppers ($6.95) or the muffuletta-like Torregrossa with ham, salami, swiss and olivada ($6.95).

These grilled sandwiches beg to be eaten the moment you get your hands on them; they suffer and sulk if bagged. So when I choose based on carry-out logistics, I'll pick Paulie's outstanding Mediterranean pasta salad ($5.75), which rides around in the car as happily as your pet pooch. Its predominant color is a pretty, pale, herbivorous green from the wedges of marinated artichoke hearts, shredded spinach, celery slices and deep green pesto vinaigrette, nicely accented by the bright bits of red roasted peppers, purplish black calamata olives and chunks of white feta cheese. Gobble it up at room temperature, and it doesn't matter whether that's office-polar-cold or car-seat-hot: A quick stir revives the salad nicely.

Another portable option, provided it's kept safely cool, is the chicken salad sandwich ($5.50). The industrial-strength sesame-seeded bun resists sogging out, with a little help from the protective lettuce layer, and the creamy salad itself is textured with fragments of toasted pecans and gently flavored with green onions and the faintest hint of black pepper -- just the way I like it.

Since I always seem to be feeling hassled when I seek out Paulie's oasis of calm, I always award myself a treat. Paulie's treats are legion and available for admiration in a glass bakery case. Cookie prices range from 95 cents to $1.50, and I favor the thick, crunchy peanut butter numbers, half-dipped in sweet dark chocolate. The imaginatively iced shortbread cookies are funny and appealing -- on last visit, there was a full set of pastel-painted sports jerseys laid on the shelves -- but I am more often seduced by the cream cheese brownies ($1.50). The thinnest imaginable bottom crust of crushed graham crackers is spread with fudgy, dark, moist brownie, followed by an ivory layer of cream cheese batter, delicately browned, the whole drizzled with fragile lines of sugar icing. I'm still amazed that this concoction is neither too sweet nor too heavy, but perfectly subtle and satisfying.

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