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Published October 14, 2013, 11:15 PM

Review: Bread and dessert highlights at Panera

FARGO - If Panera were a bakery and only a bakery, it would earn three and a half stars out of four. My only complaint would be that the desserts err on the sweet side.

By: Eric Daeuber, Special to The Forum, INFORUM

FARGO - If Panera were a bakery and only a bakery, it would earn three and a half stars out of four. My only complaint would be that the desserts err on the sweet side.

Panera is clearly a place to stop by for a dinner-time loaf or a special treat to tuck between the rolls at a weekend breakfast table.

Between bread and dessert though, something seems to go wrong. I imagine it has to do with Panera’s place in the larger world of casual franchise dining. It’s not about the best of anything as much as it’s about a little bit for everyone. And it’s a bit of a pity.

The breads are fresh. The sourdough crusts are chewy and dark and taste a little of molasses and clay. Big holes of slow-leavened goodness impart a complex flavor and the comforting texture of bread baked outdoors. The French bread crusts crackle, and the semolina sandwich bread is soft without being insubstantial.

The ingredients at Panera are interesting enough. The menu reads like the ingredients of a grandma-meets-Napa cookbook.

There are oatmeal cookies with a little autumn cinnamon and twists with snappy pecans. There’s a delightful chocolate cupcake ($2.79) that might give half a star away for what was an adequate chocolate filling when the rest of the cupcake was asking for a more thoughtful ganache in the center.

You can sense a real fresh, crisp heartiness to the Roasted Turkey Harvest Wheatberry Salad ($8.79) trying to break free from a little too much sugary dressing. On a particularly busy day it seemed more thrown together than tossed.

The bright color and genial texture of the Autumn Squash Soup ($5.19) lends itself to its name. But if it doesn’t come to the table piping hot, it gets a little heavy and starchy and turns salty and sweet in your mouth. I’d order it again though for the sourdough bowl, which is so good it could save cornstarch slurry.

Sandwiches are saved by the bread, too. The Steak and White Cheddar Panini ($8.79) seems more like deli beef and cheese, but the grilled French bread gives way to the teeth like great French bread should.

The Napa Almond Chicken Salad Sandwich ($7.19) fared better with subtle flavors and a healthy almond and celery crunch. To be fair, these are flavors we have come to like, but they don’t show fresh and fun ingredients at their best.

The atmosphere is uninteresting, but the staff is helpful, friendly and careful not to rush you. Busy times are better staffed rather than hurried.

There’s no doubt Panera will be a favorite for some, and with a little experimenting, almost anyone can find a favorite dish that soothes the more primal pangs of hunger. But it’s not subtle, and the ingredients don’t get to speak for themselves.

But the bread. Did I mention the bread?

Panera - West Acres

Address: 4000 13th Ave. S. in Fargo

Hours: Monday to Saturday 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Phone: (701) 492-4598

Reservations accepted: no

Alcohol: no

Dress: As you like

Credit cards accepted: Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover

Cuisine: American

Food: Two and a half stars

Service: Three stars

Ambiance: Two stars

Eric Daeuber is an instructor at Minnesota State Community and Technical College. Readers can reach him at food@daeuber.com.