Tuesday, April 20, 2010

St. Louis Bread Company (Panera Bread)

I’m going to take some flak for this one; this week’s review covers an establishment that is the source of considerable pride around here. But take the flak I will, I can only be honest.

The Place:
Festus MO.
Located in the same common parking lot as the Home Depot, east of the I-55 ramps. It is a large free standing building next door to a McDonalds.
Angel and Adam had been there a few times, as I can best recall I’ve even been to one in Sunset Hills, though I couldn’t recall the specifics. Angel raves about the bread.
The place was not near as busy as the McDonalds. McD’s was hosting some sort of classic car show, their lot full of shiny muscle cars and their mostly middle aged owners.* We entered the building and stopped by the counter. I was miffed. The only menu was overhead, like at McDonalds. I queried Angel about this, she answered that just like a fast food place you place your order, then wait for it, then take a seat. I was hoping for something a little more elegant. I had not prepared, (sometimes I’ll check out menus prior to going to a restaurant) I had no idea what they offered or what might be recommended.
The pressure was on, in only a moment Angel and the usually highly selective Adam were ready to order. I was not. I was still trying to figure out the possible combinations, none of which looked that bad, none of which made me drool. I went for a default. A roast beef panini and a bowl of baked potato soup. Roast beef is a common go-to for me. When Angel goes to Subway because she didn’t have time or motivation to make anything she knows what to get me. I get it because it’s easier than trying to come up with an alternative, since I don’t really know what else they have. The problem here though was that I’d had roast beef wraps my two previous meals at home, from a homemade roast and my choice of fixin’s.
We each placed our orders, I was immediately wishing I’d ordered something else, though looking at the overhead again I still couldn’t figure out what it might be. I just knew I wasn’t going to like their prefab sandwich as much as I liked my own wraps.
They handed us clear disposable plastic cups. Adam pointed out the drink fountain. There it was, a 30 cup pot of tea that had probably been last cleaned and refilled back in the winter. There was also pop, pop, pop, and pop. None of which do I like. It’s the carbonation and the sugar/saccharine, I’ve explained this before. So tea it was. There were lemons, sitting on a plate by the tea. Two slices left, barely any fruit on either of them. I recalled a recent news story where they sampled room temperature lemon wedges at restaurants and found mega-colonies of bacteria, germs, spores and other microscopic life forms, some of which, as I recall, are flesh eating and others carrying diseases that wiped out half of Europe during the dark ages. So I took one and dropped it into my tea. I’m not squeamish. I’ve spent decades systematically building up my immune system by putting things in my mouth that I probably shouldn’t.
I headed around the corner and found a booth, sat down and got bothered by the sticky spots on the table. I looked around at the other tables; they were all flecked with crumbs and drippage. Oh well.
The interior was modern and pleasant, a giant mural consisting of what appeared to be an airbrushed trio of chili peppers against a smeared green background centered the sitting area. Lights that resembled box kites were suspended from the ceiling. I couldn’t quite come up with a name for the décor, perhaps modern Bohemian. That was reinforced by the contemporary yet overly cautious jazz music emanating from unseen speakers. I spotted a patron across the aisle, reading a book and sipping some dark coffee, I then recalled where I had seen this sort of décor before, Barnes and Noble. It was what Bohemian looks like if designed by mega-corporate MBA executives.
Angel brought the flashy pager thingy and plopped it down on the table. It went off almost immediately. I sat and listened to the music. It was sporadically interrupted by another sound a mechanical, air powered puff followed by some sort of reset, then again, puff, hiss, reset. I assumed that somewhere beneath this roof there was a robot repair shop.

The Food:
Angel ordered a Caesar chicken salad (She thought/may have ordered the salmon Caesar salad, but she got chicken) and cream of tomato soup. Adam had the smoked turkey sandwich and the (yuk) broccoli soup. My roast beef panini and potato soup lay in front of me, looking no better than I had imagined. I decided I had just chosen poorly and that I should judge it on its merits, not the fact that it could not possibly be as good as my own wraps.
Angel and Adam had picked up a couple of packaged cookies as well, Adam’s a Chocolate Duet, and Angel’s a butter toffee with brasserie nuts, or Brazil nuts. (I can’t read my writing.) I was offered a cookie back at the ordering line, but by that time I was so pressured and distracted about my feeble meal choice that I was too flustered to pick out a pretentious cookie, probably nut laden, so I passed.
My soup was okay at first, definitely potato, with lots of butter. As I dug down I realized that there was probably too much butter as it started tasting greasy. There was potato, a hint of onion, butter, and, and, actually that was about it. If there were herbs or spices they were in hiding. So it was pretty much a watered down pureed baked potato.
The panini, a thin grill-pressed sandwich was interesting at first. There was a sweetness, onions, lots and lots of caramelized onions. About one quarter of the way through the sweetness intensified; too many caramelized onions. I could barely sense, much less taste the beef. I stripped the sandwich open and separated a strip of beef. It had no flavor of its own, just the onions. They had drowned, suffocated, a perfectly good slice of cow. They had also overcooked it, no pink, somewhat leathery and completely lacking in moisture.
Angel asked me to try her salad, which I did. It was a Caesar salad, greens with that dressing that can and often does include a hint of anchovies. It tasted exactly like a Caesar salad. Her soup which she had abandoned was thick and familiar looking. She said it was too rich to finish. I tasted it, and agreed. To me it didn’t taste like cream of tomato soup, it was more like what it looked like, Ragu, the canned spaghetti sauce. It was very sweet and herby, almost exactly like Ragu, and just as thick. It would have made a great bread-dipping sauce, but as a stand-alone bowl of soup, not so much.
Adam finished his sandwich though he admitted it was a little too mustardy, the (yuk) broccoli soup was ‘excellent.’ Angel’s salad was in her words ‘good’.
The thing she had raved about, the complimentary bread, was also up to her expectations. It may be just a style - difference thing, but I found the bread crust too thick and rubbery. The taste of the interior was quite good, but it was tough to get to. I tore open the thick crust and started plucking the inner meat out, like a hyena on a zebra carcass.
I am told the cookies were awesome, but since they contained nuts** I did not actually try them.
We had to bus our own tables, just like at McDonalds. There was no service of any kind. I swept the half sandwich into the small hole over the garbage can and stacked the dishes on the crowded tray.
The meal came in, including cookies, at just under thirty two bucks. Not exactly pricey for a meal, unless you drill into it. There was no service, not even frequent table cleaning; In my mind this is just fine for cheap fast food places, but for classier, more sophisticated offerings I’d like to see a little less burger joint (though Gordon’s burger joint offered counter service and bussed and wiped down after we were done) and a little more bistro. Also the portions were small for the price, we’re talking a cup of soup and a small sandwich or salad. Not exactly hungry-man fare for the price of a full-bore three thousand calorie Mexican combo meal.
I can get a five dollar foot long at subway, with the exact same level of service. STL Bread Co.s’ sandwiches are nowhere near as large and have fewer fresh ingredients and not near as much variety. I’m not sure I know what I’m paying for at the Bread Company. The soup? Are you kidding? Soup is the golden hen for restaurants, I don’t care what the ingredients are, a cup of soup costs about a quarter to make in bulk, fifty cents if you add lobster. (Just ask Gordon Ramsey.)
According to Wikipedia, “ In a 2008 Health magazine study, Panera Bread (St. Louis Bread Company) was judged America's most healthy fast food restaurant.” I get that in this case simply because there wasn’t that much food and I didn’t finish it anyhow, so I took in significantly fewer calories than I normally do for a Saturday dinner.
The food was not awful and I readily admit to having chosen poorly. One of the sandwiches was finished, and only one of the three soups was. This may be a fine lunch place, or a shopping break once you’re locked into something they offer you actually like, but for me there is just no draw. The three of us don't completely agree, Angel likes the place Adam seems to as well. I'll not set a score out of respect for their different opinion. Let me know what you think!!

Oh, and on the way out I discovered the source of that robot-noise. It was a bagel maker/cannon at the front. Every hissing thump-whoosh produced a warm bagel out of the end of a tube. I’m not sure the value - add of the device, but at least it was distracting enough to have me daydream about robot factories for a few minutes.

* Classic cars. After we finished our meal we crossed over the curb to look at the cars. Angel led us that way so we followed. She stopped at a powder blue vintage Corvette, its hood open exposing an impossibly shiny engine compartment. The engine was not original equipment, but an aftermarket monster that required modifying the hood for it to fit. I’m not a car nut, especially muscle cars, but I like shiny old cars a little. I preferred the Studebaker and the Corvair that were there more than this thing. She asked me about the ‘vette, I admitted it was nice enough, and added; “If you really, really have to have an extra penis I suppose it’s just fine.” She laughed and muttered something I didn't quite hear.

** Nuts. I like nuts, most kinds, but never, ever, ever as an ingredient, especially in cookies. I don’t know exactly why, it’s not the taste; it may just be the context. I can sit and eat large amounts of most nuts by themselves. In a soft, fluffy, perfectly good cookie however, I just don’t like coming across hard, sharp edged gravel. Angel has countered me on pointing out that I did in fact prefer chunky peanut butter rather than creamy, but that’s different. In peanut butter the chunks are just incomplete grinding, like lumps in mashed potatoes, that’s a huge difference in my mind. ( I also like pecan pie, without the pecans.)

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