Regular visitors to my online Funhouse of Food know that I usually don't write about fast-food places or chain restaurants. Not that there's anything wrong with them, but they're all the same, and that is their goal, after all. Some, however, do stand out for service, cleanliness, unusual fare or whatever, and when they do, I write about them. We are fortunate here in Rehoboth to have one of the better sit-down chains, Panera Bread, as a new member of our Coastal Highway gastronomic line-up.
I do a fair amount of traveling, and I have yet to have a bad experience at any Panera Bread. This doesn't happenby magic: They have a strong training and quality control program in place (in Rehoboth we have Training Manager Brooke Wells to thank for that) , and they will do just about anything to please their guests. They cook/bake in small batches, so everything tastes fresh. I love to mix and match toppings, breads and sandwich ingredients, and each one is met with a smile. So far, the new installation near Midway is no different.
Let's start with the bakery department. There are few bear claws as good as Panera's bear claws. Don't know what that is? Shame on you! I do suggest you wait 'til you get home to eat yours, however, as 8 seconds (no more, no less) in the microwave warms the almond paste filling just enough to raise this pastry to new heights. If you get there after 2 or 3:00, they might be out of bear claws. Panera doesn't let any pastry sit out too long, and this means that demand might occasionally outstrip supply. Interestingly, when supply occasionally outstrips demand, the local Panera donates the pastries and breads to local charities such as the Epworth UMC.
At least when you do hit the bear claw jackpot, they will be fresh. But not to worry: The cherry/cream cheese danish runs a close second. I don't suggest the micro on this one, which means you had better buy two: One for the car and one for when you're watching Mad Men, Weeds, CSI or, better yet, Dexter reruns.
For a long time, good bread has been a problem here in Rehoboth Beach. Yes, you can get OK stuff at the big grocery stores, but they have a limited variety because of the volume of business they do. (And you can't forget Maya Contractor's delicately crispy French baguettes and pastries at Café Papillon in Penny Lane, either.) But there has been a bread explosion this year in Rehoboth Beach! The newly opened Root Gourmet sells all sorts of fresh bread. The Point (where Oby Lee used to be at the west end of Rehoboth Avenue) turns out hot bread and focaccias for sandwiches and also for off-sale. Touch of Italy opened a central bakery at Five Points that turns out loaf after loaf of warm bread for off-sale and for their stores in downtown Rehoboth, Lewes, Rehoboth on the highway by Nage and their newest in Ocean City at 67th and the ocean.
Well, add Panera to the list. Their Asiago Cheese demi, 3 Seed demi and 3 Cheese Demi are all quite good. I don't even know why I'm telling you this! It's hard enough to get a 3 Seed demi after 1 or 2:00, and now I'm adding to the demand. See what I do for you, my faithful readers? Well, in for a dime, in for a dollar: I make my famous garlic bread from diagonally cut slices of the 3 Seed. I can't tell you my secret recipe (I don't love you THAT much) but I'll bet your favorite recipe will taste even better on this amazingly crunchy and flavorful loaf. (Hint: toast it about half-way before adding your toppings.)
My Favorite Foodie loves the broccoli-cheese soup. Of course it's commissary prepared and delivered sous vide, but it is quite delicious nonetheless. Modern advances in shipping and preserving are not lost on this little gem. It's held in small batches, so every bowl is tasty. You can also order any of their soups in a Sourdough bread bowl (btw, all of Panera's sourdoughs share the very same yeast starter. Cool, huh?).
For breakfast, the oatmeal is a crunchy surprise, and you can get blueberries or strawberries, depending on the season. Of course, you would expect breakfast sandwiches, and the award for star of that show is a toss-up between the Choice of 4 Egg Soufflés baked in sweet French pastry and the straight-ahead-and-delicious-on-ciabatta Bacon, Egg & Cheese sandwich. Bagels also come in sandwich form, and a dozen to carry out contains 13. I found the Mediterranean Egg White on Ciabatta sandwich (with roasted tomatoes, spinach and pesto) to be a bit overwhelmingly spiced for breakfast, but the sandwich does have its fans. Have you tried it?
Sobi Noodle Bowl1/15 Ham & gruyere breakfast sandwich2/15 Panera Bread3/15 Stop loafin'! Ride your bike!4/15 Panera Bread5/15 The broccoli cheddar soup. One of the stars of the show.6/15 Bacon Turkey bravo on an asiago demi7/15 Classic Cafe salad8/15 Try the cookies!9/15 Drive thru……10/15 Curb appeal.11/15 The lobster salad sandwich.12/15 Outdoor dining13/15 The bear claw & cherry-cheese danish. Sleepers both.14/15 Roast Turkey avocado BLT15/15
Panera has a seven choices of panini-style sandwiches, and my favorite is the Cuban Chicken (served on focaccia) and the Tomato and Mozzarella (served on ciabatta). The latter is like a little Caprese Salad on-a-bun. Of their Signature sandwiches, my favorite is the Bacon-Turkey Bravo. They pair it with Tomato Basil bread, which is OK, but I like to sub the Asiago Demi for the tomato basil. The kicker here is the smoked gouda cheese. A close second place is held by the Napa Almond Chicken Salad on Sesame Semolina. Grapes are the star in this one.
They have a new add on the menu that's right up there with the BT Bravo. It's called the Roasted Turkey & Avocado BLT on Sourdough. Simple, straight ahead, not pretentious, and delicious. Like all the sandwiches, it comes with a pickle and a bag of chips.
Panera offers a reasonably priced “You Pick Two” deal where you can get a half sandwich along with small soup or a half-salad (the perfect lunch). I pair the Bacon Turkey Bravo with the Classic Cafe Salad and the balsamic vinaigrette dressing. So nice. There are a couple of other contenders for Favorite Salad: The Steak & Blue Cheese Chopped and the Asian Sesame Chicken.
Another sandwich that was a surprise (on several levels) is the lobster salad. I was already mad by the time it arrived because it wasn't 'til then that I noticed I had paid $17. Gadzooks! But after seeing how much lobster salad is stuffed into that roll, all was forgiven. It stands up to pretty much any lobster salad in town, except perhaps for the old and long-gone McQuay's. I still mourn that lobster salad.
Of course, all breads, pastries, etc., are available for carry-out, and our Rehoboth location has something that no other Panera I've seen so far has: A drive through. The prices are fair (the B/T Bravo goes for about $7 and some change), and the service is quick. Inside, you order at the counter, collect a numbered ticket, then they call out your number in true Baltimore Kosher Deli style. You scamper to the pick-up area, figure out which one is yours, and collect your booty.
Panera bread is at 18423 Coastal Highway in a free-standing building just a block south of Midway, directly across from Starbuck's and Pier One Imports. There's plenty of parking. In-season hours are from 6 a.m. to 9, 7 days. Call 302-644-4414 in the off-season just to make sure. Take a look at the menu here. (B., L., D). Price range: Inexpensive, +.
(PS: Yes, I gave it 5 stars for food. Before you freak-out and run to your email, I will repeat that the ratings are not intended to be comparisons to other restaurants. That would be silly, since all are rated on the same scale. Obviously Panera Bread is not Back Porch Café. Read the Ratings and Standards section to see that the ratings are a measure of how a restaurant succeeds in being what it's supposed to be. For a sit-down chain, Panera certainly succeeds in being what it claims to be.)
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