- SOUP AND SOURDOUGH: Even the shell is good.
At one point in “The Odyssey,” as Odysseus and his companions disembark on yet another mysterious island in search of provisions, Homer's wandering hero turns to his men and says: “Let us go and see if there are men here who live by bread.”
While ol' Odysseus didn't have a very good sense of direction, he was nobody's fool. Both he and Homer knew that bread is the Bar Exam for would-be civilizations. At the very least, bread means your society has progressed beyond the hunter/gatherer stage — that you understand seeds and soil and germination. The need to stay put and tend the wheat fields means houses and villages, which means at least a rudimentary form of government. It means you or somebody in your village knows enough about woodworking or metals to build the plow. And if you've got the plow, it means you've got domesticated animals to pull it. Finally, baking means you understand the near-alchemy behind turning flour into dough and dough into bread — a ballet of grinding, grain, water, yeast, dough, time and heat.
While modern man has progressed way, way beyond pounding grain into flour in a cup-shaped stone, we still pine for good bread. There's something primal and elemental about the smell of baking — something that speaks to our souls. Which brings us to this week's outing: Panera Bread Bakery and Cafe. While it's hard to imagine what ol' Homer would have thought of its snazzy decor and free Wi-Fi, the nugget of what Odysseus ventured ashore in search of is there.
Part of a chain with outlets in three states (a St. Louis-born friend informs us that Panera started there, as St. Louis Bread Company), the Little Rock incarnation of Panera opened back during the summer. It certainly falls into the “sophisticated” category, with a lovely interior, smart furnishings, an espresso bar and a bistro feel.
There are two lines at Panera. The first is for the bakery, which offers over 15 different kinds of fresh-baked artisan bread. We took home a loaf of the three-cheese, and we can report that it was delicious with everything from sun-dried tomato pesto to tuna salad to turkey and cheese. The bakery also offers a number of sweet goods, including muffins, tarts, pies, mini bundt cakes, bagels and a fruit-filled pastry ring that our friend from St. Lou swears by as a get-together favorite.
The second line is for the cafe, and that's what we were there for primarily. From the long list of items we tried the tomato and mozzarella sandwich on Ciabatta bread ($6.49), while our companion tried the chicken Caesar sandwich on three-cheese bread ($6.59). Just to try and get the full experience, we also ordered a bowl of cream of chicken and wild rice soup in a sourdough bread bowl ($4.89).
While we're not huge on the whole soups-and-sandwiches thing for dinner, what we had at Panera was really surprising, with large portions and really fresh-tasting ingredients. We were a bit underwhelmed by our tomato and mozzarella offering, which we wished had been a bit more smoky or spicy. Is “kicky” a word? Yeah, it needed that. Maybe a bit more sun-dried tomato. Better was the chicken Caesar sandwich: nice chunks of marinated grilled chicken, served with romaine, red onion, tomatoes and a creamy dressing that soaked wonderfully into the three-cheese bread. Similarly good was the soup; a nice, creamy mix of chicken, rice, celery, onion and other vegetables, all served in a hollowed-out orb of perfect sourdough bread. The best part, Companion and I agreed, was the soft bread inside the bowl, which had soaked up the soup. Even the leathery outer shell of the bowl made for a chewy surprise. Yummy.
For dessert, we decided to try one of the giant cinnamon rolls from the glass case of delectables at the front. Easily as big as a salad plate, the roll we got was just as lovely to look at as it was on the palate: a spiral of flaky pastry that got progressively more moist as we worked our way into the sweet singularity. Covered in a crumbly white icing, the only thing that could have helped it would have been the morning paper, a pair of slippers and a stiff cup of coffee.
In all, Panera is a nice little place for a bite — as quick as fast food, but with decor and quality that have it leaning toward something like Starbucks' more mature big sister. It should definitely be on your list of possibilities if you end up on an odyssey for something good to eat in West Little Rock.
Panera Bread Bakery and Cafe
11525 Cantrell Road, Pleasant Ridge Town Center
For you West LR early risers, Panera offers a hot breakfast menu until 10 a.m., right when the bagels, bread and cinnamon rolls are fresh from the oven. Choose from three different breakfast sandwiches on Ciabatta bread, and four different kinds of baked-egg souffle: four-cheese; turkey sausage and potatoes; spinach and artichoke, and spinach and bacon.
Monday through Saturday, 6 a.m. – 6 p.m.; Sunday, 7 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Credit cards accepted, cheap to moderate prices. No alcohol.