On a gloomy Saturday, midterms loomed, and a group of athletic undergrads engaged in a midday study session on the corner couches. With their sneakered feet propped up on low tables, oversize MIT sweatshirts, and plates of sandwich crusts and piles of graph-paper notebooks, the posse exuded an all-American collegiate air. But the accents were international, from Germany, India, Israel, and Atlanta, too. The group reflected the restaurant where they sat. The three-month-old Passport: A Taste of Europe, which touts its fare as gourmet takeaway, marries the über-American need for convenience and speed with flavors from around the world. Partly the brainchild of Austrian-born chef Roland Czekelius, who served as executive chef for the Boston Park Plaza Hotel in the ’80s, Passport has a commitment to freshness that’s reminiscent of the UK’s famed sandwich chain Pret A Manger and the squeaky-clean functionality of a café you might find in Munich. Fresh food comes quick, and the entire menu is under 10 bucks.
Passport sits on a quiet Cambridge side street in the no-man’s land between Central and Kendall Squares. Counters along the windows overlook the local biotech jungle. While the surroundings possess as much color as the gummy grayness of a chicken McNugget, Passport and its food are fresh, bright, and new. The Brie-chicken panino ($7.25), with caramelized onions, baby spinach, rotisserie-chicken chunks, and a quarter-inch of gooey Brie, comes warm on thick grill-pressed bread: a gourmet grilled cheese if ever there was one. The " Half and Half " deal offers a choice of any two halves (soup, sandwich, or salad) for $7.50. In the roast-beef-bleu sandwich, with tomatoes, watercress, and Danish bleu-cheese spread, the meat takes a back seat to the intense bleu-cheese taste. The baby-spinach salad, topped with fresh parmesan shavings, comes with strips of portobello mushrooms the size of your pinky. The dry punch of the cheese plays the perfect foil to the moist portobello and the delicately dressed spinach leaves. Paired together, the salad and sandwich halves prove a filling bargain.
Everything in the dessert case is fresh-baked and tempting. The brownie ($3.50) has a heavy-duty, not-too-sweet chocolate density and intensity. And the tiramisu ($3.50) comes topped with a dusting of chocolate and bottomed with sugary nectar, with layers of custard and cake in between. Passport also sells a variety of imported international groceries. The jams, biscuits, chips, noodles, syrups, spices, and spreads hail from around the world.
Passport: A Taste of Europe, located at 70 Pacific Street, in Cambridge, is open Monday through Friday, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., and on Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Call (617) 577-0000.