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Bread, Not Alone
By B.A. Nilsson

Joe Putrock

Panera Bread Co.
Crossgates Commons, 161 Washington Ave. Ext., Albany, 862-9281.
Serving Mon-Thu 6:30 AM-9 PM, Fri-Sat 6:30-10, Sun 7:30-7:30.
AE, D, DC, MC, V.

Food: ***½
Service: Self

Ambience: Cheery

My childhood not only took place in some of the most white-bread states—Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey—but also featured long loaves of white Wonder Bread that I assaulted with butter, mayo, peanut butter, Marshmallow Fluff, anything sticky and fat-filled and sweet, always taking care not to rip the pasty bread.

Part of the baby-boom rebellion, I believe, has been the discovery that bread actually can have substance. And flavor. And that’s what places like Panera Bread Co. are cashing in on. In the case of Panera, they’re doing it very well.

Think very snazzy cafeteria—and you’re still not there. The principle is the same: Order at a counter, pay and pick up your food. But the execution is a whole lot nicer. And, of course, we’re talking about food of an entirely different order. Panera Bread Co. makes the cafeteria work for it, which is smart. It saves on table service and the necessary staff, and it speeds the operation, which is one way to compete against the dreadful fast-food emporia.

Such casualness comes at a price: I was dismayed to see an employee spritz the pastry- protecting glass shield with blue ammonia solvent, but I mentioned this to Panera headquarters and was assured such practice will cease.

Another way to compete is through pricing, and while Panera isn’t offering a menu of 99-cent offal burgers, you can get a good sandwich for five bucks or a bowl of soup for three. Three bucks also gets you a bagel with cream cheese and a large cup of coffee.

So you can grab a quick lunch or a breakfast muffin, or take advantage of the comfortable surroundings and dally for a snack or extended meal. It’s all very modular, and looks like a place where you can settle in for a while, abusing, if you’re like me, the free-refills privilege.

Decor differs from shop to shop—there are some 369 of them in 30 states, including one in Latham, but not counting the soon-to-be-opened outlets in Wilton and Clifton Park—with an eye to blending into the environs.

That’s not easy in a place like Crossgates Commons, which has no environs to speak of. The ongoing effort to turn that section of Albany into an arid stretch as soulless as suburban Chicago would seem to defy any effort to beautify an individual shop. From the outside, Panera Bread Co.’s most distinguishing feature is its colorful sign; inside, the landscape is a warm array of earth tones and blond wood.

I arrived one recent evening with my daughter, who chose one of the tables that’s stand-up height but offers high stools. She clambered aboard.

While awaiting my wife, I chose a bowl of soup and a couple of beverages. Lemonade for my kid; iced tea for me (love those serve-yourself refills, with slices of lemon beside the supply). Soup: ginger tomato Florentine, in which tomato and spinach, in well-chosen amounts, is mixed with pastina for body. Very serviceable.

Other soups typically available include broccoli cheddar, French onion, chicken noodle (lowfat) and vegetarian black bean (also lowfat). And they’re also available in a bowl of bread for $4.25.

Once Susan arrived, we dived into the sandwiches. There are more than two dozen to choose among, including hot panini. Frontega chicken ($5.85) features smoked meat with mozzarella, tomato and fresh basil with a chipotle mayo. From the cold sandwiches we chose a bacon turkey bravo ($5.45), which also includes smoked Gouda and your choice of bread (we went with the default, which is a crunchy country loaf).

Both sandwiches featured a good filling-to-dressing ratio, with the judicious use of cheese to give you a smooth textural transition from crunchy to gooey. Smoked meat or bacon also helps push the flavor range beyond the merely sweet.

To assuage dietary guilt (no way was I finishing one of those sandwiches—they’re large), I ordered a Greek salad ($4.75). No surprises here: fresh romaine lettuce, kalamata olives, feta cheese, onions and pepperoncini in a good-sized portion with a no-surprises dressing. Other salads include Asian sesame chicken, grilled chicken Caesar, fandango (walnuts, Gorgonzola and mandarin orange slices with the greens) and a plain old garden variety, each in the $5 range.

With take-out bags already assured, we added to the haul by ordering a baker’s dozen bagels, offered in an inventive array but really no better than supermarket bagels. I like the sun-dried tomato cream cheese, though.

We shared a big, nut-filled chocolate chip cookie for dessert, and Susan hoarded a lemon mini-bundt pastry. Dinner for three (but minus the bagels) was $25.

Metroland restaurant reviews are based on one unannounced visit; your experience may differ.

Food Rating Key: ***** An exciting, fulfilling experience; the food and service are everything they set out to be. Brillat-Savarin would be proud. **** Way up there with really good food, definitely worth your dining dollar. Julia Child would be proud. *** Average, with hints of excitement. Your mother would be pleased. ** A dining-out bogey; food probably isn’t the first priority. Colonel Sanders would be disappointed. * K-rations posing as comestibles. Your dog would be disgusted.

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