Panera's bread rises to stardom

Eats

October 18, 2001|By Robin Tunnicliff Reid | Robin Tunnicliff Reid,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

FOOD snobs often turn up their noses at the prospect of going to a chain restaurant, dismissing such a place as nothing more than a food factory for hungry hoi polloi.

In doing so, they're failing to acknowledge the beauty of a decent chain, and that is the consistent comfort zone it creates. For example, you're alone, you're in a strange place and you're hungry. In such a situation, the restaurant you're familiar with looks mighty appealing.

A good chain to get familiar with is Panera Bread, a St. Louis company that used to be affiliated with Au Bon Pain. Panera has five restaurants in the Baltimore area and 304 more in 28 states. The food generally is excellent, and the warm mustard-and-wood interiors with comfy banquettes encourage diners to linger over a second cup of coffee.

Panera means "time for bread," according to a spokeswoman for the chain. And bread is the star here, whether it's used to make sandwiches or sold by the loaf. Although the dough comes from the company's commissaries, the bread is baked in the restaurants daily.

The tangy sourdough bread made dandy soup boules, just soft enough for the eater to scrape off bits of the interior walls into the broth. Of the two kinds of soup we tried, forest mushroom was by far the best, loaded with dried shiitake, wood ear and oyster mushrooms. French onion was average.

The portobello and mozzarella panini packed in more flavor than most vegetarian sandwiches, because the mushrooms were roasted with garlic, then marinated in balsamic vinaigrette. In addition to the dressed-up fungi, the sandwich includes caramelized onions, mozzarella, two thick slices of hot rosemary-onion focaccia and fresh basil. I couldn't detect any basil, but I didn't miss it either.

From the cold-food side, we liked the Sierra turkey, served on Asiago cheese focaccia with chipotle mayonnaise, a little mesclun and thin red onion rings. We inhaled the Fandango salad - field greens, toasted walnuts, mandarin oranges and crumbled Gorgonzola cheese tossed with the best fat-free raspberry vinaigrette around.

One cannot ignore bagels (also baked in-house) and coffee at Panera, because they're the first things customers see when they approach the service area. We managed to squeeze in a cinnamon crunch bagel spread with yummy hazelnut cream cheese and an I.C. Spice, a frozen swirl of espresso, honey, cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla. None of the drink's components outshone the others, nor was the espresso too strong.

Panera's breads are available for take-out. While the selection was limited when we went, we were lucky enough to buy the last loaf of Asiago cheese bread, which is one of the more popular kinds here - for good reason.

The chewy white bread laced with pungent Italian white cheese is terrific any way you slice it, hot or cold, with or without butter. We ate about half of ours right out of the paper bag.

Which brings us to the only real gripe we had with Panera: how the food is served. Putting a meal on a sheet of paper spread across a plastic tray cheapens it. And while counter service keeps human contact to a minimum, the staff barely acknowledged our existence.

Panera's good food deserves to be presented on a plate - and with a smile.

Panera Bread

Towson Marketplace

1238 Putty Hill Ave., Towson(also in Pasadena, Timonium, Columbia and Owings Mills)

410-821-9111

Open: For breakfast, lunch and dinner daily

Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V

Prices: Appetizers $2.95; entrees $3.25 to $5.95

Food: ***

Service: * 1/2

Atmosphere: ***

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