Thursday, January 26, 2012
No More Overpriced Faux-Pizzas! Just Good Sandwiches, Great Soups, And Wonderful Baked Goods! Panera Bread Is The Best Fast Food Can Offer!
The Good: High quality fast food, Good service, Good ingredients, Awesome soups and desserts
The Bad: Pricey for portions and some of the standards
The Basics: With great ingredients, wonderful service and desserts one might run over one's mother to get to, Panera is the most satisfying fast food option on the market.
I must have driven by Panera Bread shops for years without honestly giving them a chance. I have a good friend who loves Panera and when she wants a Panera run, lately I've been the one to either bring her to her comfort food or pick some up for her. Now, when I travel, Panera is on my list of safe places to eat because the various establishments I have dined at have had a high level of consistency (and I've eaten at Panera Bread restaurants now in three different states, so my sampling is pretty extensive!).
If you've not had the pleasure of dining at this (still relatively new) high-end fast food establishment, here is what you may expect:
They seem to be popping up everywhere lately! I've found Panera Bread shops in New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. No doubt they will continue spreading out. They have a website at: www.panerabread.com which will allow you to find them as they continue to expand.
Panera Bread tend to be located in or near malls. Most Panera Bread I've found tend to be located in shopping centers (more like strip malls than enclosed malls) and they are usually evident by their bright orange logo.
Panera tends to be organized more like a cafe than a sit-down restaurant. Most have an extensive bakery near the cashiers where the baked goods are displayed. Tables and booths tend to be arranged throughout the restaurant, so entering the average Panera means walking through seated customers to get to the main counter. Most have at least two cashiers; one to take orders, another servicing the bakery and dealing with orders that were called in ahead of time.
Panera Bread's tend to be modestly decorated. They usually have tables and mildly uncomfortable booths. The walls tend to be decorated with hotel-style artwork, a kind of bland, safe art that puts just enough on the wall to create desperate conversations if you're out with someone you don't truly know or are uncomfortable with.
Panera Bread does not use traditional waiters or waitresses. Like a fast food restaurant, the customer walks up to a counter and places an order with a cashier. Usually, food will be prepared immediately, though for some of the signature dishes, there is a wait and the customer will be given a pager which will alert them when their order is done being prepared.
Panera must have a very generous compensation package. I postulate this because no matter where I've visited a Panera or when, the cooks, cashiers and managers have always been friendly, enthusiastic and honest with me. They always seem to be smiling and the managers have gone out of their way to rectify problems.
For example, on one of my first visits to a local Panera, I called my order in for take-out because I wanted a Crispani (see below). When I arrived, it turned out the cook had read the order wrong and cooked only one of the two crispanis. I was in a hurry and could not wait the fifteen minutes needed to make the second one. The manager came right out, refunded the missing crispani and provided me with both a dessert and an entree. That's customer service!
The cashiers at my local Panera recognize me when I come in, even though I only eat there once or twice a month. That they recognize me - and remember what I tend to order! - astonishes me. I cannot think of another fast food restaurant with staff that attentive. And I have to say, this is something consistent through their many branches in my experience. The cashiers are attentive to details, friendly and efficient.
Panera Bread, despite its name, is not all bread. Until I first went with my friend, I labored under this misconception as well! :) Panera Bread serves soups, salads and hot sandwiches. As well, they used to have a signature sauceless pizza called a Crispani. The emphasis at Panera is on balance, with most of the dishes having balance between different food groups. Many of the foods served at Panera use organic ingredients and most of the menu is low fat. From my experiences at Panera, my review will include a fair sampling of the menu.
My first taste of Panera came in the form of the Broccoli Cheddar soup. My friend had gotten soup and decided not to share it with her mother like she originally planned. Anyone who can get food as a fringe benefit to petty family conflicts should certainly partake. :) Quite simply, this was the best restaurant-produced soup I have ever had in my thirty years of eating. I mean that. Right off the bat, this hot soup wafted an aroma of broccoli. Anyone who has smelled fresh broccoli steaming will instantly recognize the scent of this vegetable and this soup is strong in broccoli. The broccoli cheddar is a delightful blend of broccoli with the cheese accenting the flavors of the vegetable. So, while the initial aroma is distinctly of the broccoli, when one takes a spoonful of this thick soup, the cheese taste does not overwhelm the broccoli. This soup is best likened to a truffle; like a filled chocolate that one lets melt in one's mouth, this soup presents the flavor of broccoli, then melts away to the sharper taste of cheddar. The broccoli cheddar soup is every day.
One of Panera's eccentricities is that some dishes are available only on specific days. The baked potato soup, for example, is only made Monday, Wednesday and Saturday and when my local Panera runs out, they're done for the day. It's easy to see why the baked potato soup is so popular. This is a creamy soup with large chunks of potato. The potato chunks are always well-cooked, so they give easily when chewed. The flavor is strongly potato, so while there is a creamy broth, the potato taste dominates. The baked potato soup is like being able to drink mashed buttery potatoes. I've never had the soup taste anything less than perfectly balanced; there's never been too much or too little salt to the taste, preventing the soup from being either bland or too salty. This is an excellent choice on the days it is offered.
I know Panera makes its Greek salad fresh because I'm very picky about what goes into my salads. The staff at Panera has never complained when I ask for a Greek salad without olives or onions and they usually seem quite happy to throw in extra feta. The greens are always crisp, never wilted. They are always clean and cool. The dressing is always in adequate proportion to the greens (I have a habit of getting Panera via take-out, so it comes in a little container) and it's always full of lettucey goodness (c'mon, how much more can one say about a salad?!).
Panera, building its reputation on being a bakery, had a signature dish called a Crispani. The Crispani was essentially a sauceless pizza that is baked fresh to order any time after 4 P.M. The three cheese Crispani is created using a light coating of olive oil and garlic and topped with fontina, mozzarella and ricotta cheeses. The best way to describe this is that the three cheese crispani is a glorified quesadilla. Despite trying this a few times in various locations, I've never had one with enough cheese to satisfy me. The three cheese Crispani is dominated by a doughy taste (like pizza dough, which makes up the breaded "crust" of the Crispani). The Crispani is about half the size of a small pizza and shaped like a flat french bread. The three cheese is mildly flavored and dominated by the bland, floury crust taste.
Conversely, the pepperoni Crispani was a recurring favorite of mine. The pepperoni Crispani had the dame doughy crust as every other Crispani, but it is topped with the light oil, "all-natural" pepperoni, chunks of tomato, and Asiago-Parmesan cheese. The pepperoni Crispani overwhelms the tastebuds with the flavors of basil, tomato, and pepperoni. Every bite has a different combination of those three flavors, but the taste is distinctly not that of the bready crust. The pepperoni Crispani is still more like a quesadilla in composition, but more analogous to a pizza in taste. The pepperoni Crispani tastes good; the crust is usually soft without being mushy and the ingredients taste fresh. At $8.99, it is not a good value, though. This is expensive for a faux-pizza.
That might be why my new favorite at Panera is the smokehouse turkey hot panini. The hot panini is essentially a pita-type sandwich where the ingredients are stuffed into a pocket of bread and heated. The smokehouse turkey is a wonderful blend of turkey, bacon, and cheddar with a hint of mustard. I'm not a big mustard fan, but the tomato ale mustard balances perfectly the meat and cheese and it flavors any of the bread that is not packed with other food. I've never had one of these where the turkey was dry; the turkey is always hot, moist and flavorful. The smoked bacon is always hot, crispy, but not burnt and in decent proportion to the turkey. The cheddar is layered in sufficient quantity to keep me happy and because the sandwich is served hot, the cheese is always well melted and just about every bite of the smokehouse turkey hot panini has a decent mix of the meats, cheese and bread. The bread for this sandwich, a three cheese bread, is delicious on its own.
It's hard to escape Panera Bread without sampling from their wonderful desserts, which are wisely placed front and center to entice the hungry customer. I started my Panera dessert experiences with their chocolate raspberry brownie. Baked fresh, this is a rich dark chocolate brownie topped with a thin layer of raspberry sauce (like a jam). This is a well-balanced dessert and the bakers wisely did not make the fruit layer overly sweet. Instead, the brownie has the flavor and punch of the raspberries without being overly tart. The chocolate taste clearly dominates the brownie and each time I have had one, it has been soft, chewy and delicious.
My risk dessert one night was the cobblestone. The cobblestone is a combination of a giant muffin (in shape) and a coffeecake (in composition). So, it looks like an enormous muffin, covered with nooks and crannies of brown sugar and the first time I saw one, I was intrigued by wary. My fear of the cobblestone was simple; it looked delicious, but it looked like it would be dry, flaky and I feared it would be bland. Wow, was I wrong! The cobblestone is soft, with brown sugar not only topping it, but being wrapped in, so each bite is sweet, flavorful and delicious. There is a perfect blending of cinnamon and brown sugar that stimulates the nose and tongue and this is anything but bland or dry. This is one of those desserts that when one tries makes it easy to believe Panera is using all natural ingredients whenever possible.
Panera Bread is a place I'm happy to shop. As a progressive, I was relieved to note they support progressive causes, including donating bread at the end of the night to local food pantries. So, when I splurge on Panera, I at least feel like my money is going to the causes I support.
I like how healthy the food at Panera is and the truth is, it all tastes good. My real issue with Panera is the price. This is not inexpensive food and the value of the meal is completely dependent on what is being ordered. The soups, desserts and that smokehouse turkey hot panini are all great values. The Crispani's, while enjoyable, were not good value for their cost. Given that the Crispanis no longer seem to be something they make, I can confidently recommend Panera Bread as the best fast food restaurant!
Given the choice, though, when I'm out there's nowhere that comes to mind that I'd rather eat while shopping. And I do find myself getting take-out from Panera for nights that I just want to curl up, not cook, and watch a movie.
For other restaurants, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Hard Rock Cafe Times Square
For other food reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here for an organized list of all of the food reviews I have written!
© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.