Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Better Expression

Corner Bakery Café
255 East Basse Road
(in the Quarry, at the southern end, closest to the Basin)

This sort of minimal-service restaurant is approaching done-to-death territory. Stand in line, order at the counter, and your food is brought to you at the table. National chains from Jason's Deli to Zoë's Kitchen to Pei Wei use it, as do local chains like Hearthstone Bakery Café and even single-outlet shops like Mina and Dimi's, the excellent Greek place out by Lackland. Theoretically, it exemplifies the benefits of capitalism: reduced wage and benefits costs translate eventually into lower prices for consumers.* I always wonder when those lower prices are going to kick in. I'm still wondering.

But the unremarkable prices aside, Corner Bakery Café does this type of restaurant a little better, in some ways, than its competition. The food here is well-prepared and there are many interesting choices, as at most similar restaurants. The added feature that I appreciate is that, here, the menu board shows basic nutritional information about the various dishes. I was thus able to make my choices with more confidence that I would not be surprised to find unexpected fatty additions to my lunch. It also reminded me, at the moment of crisis, that I would rather have a light, low-calorie lunch than a gigantic sandwich or other heavy dish.

The caloric information on the menu board prompted me to order a soup-and-salad trio, consisting of spicy Thai coconut soup, edamame salad, and tuna salad. It had less effect on my friend Rick — who, to be fair, is less obviously in need of self-restraint on that score; he ordered a Reuben sandwich. We also agreed to split a peanut-butter whoopie pie, because I kept my eyes off the menu board and on the display case long enough to forget the concept of will-power. Plus I deserved the reward for having been good already in ordering my main meal. Does this remind anyone else of an Aesop's fable? I have The Lion and the Lamb in mind.

As we were fixing our own drinks, the counter attendant came over and apologetically told Rick that they were "out of Reuben." I'm not going to speculate on what, exactly, that means — perhaps their cabbage didn't rot on schedule — but the upshot was he chose instead a turkey club sandwich as his lunch.

We naturally started with dessert, as Life Is Short. It was unimpressive, which was doubly disappointing, as the Corner Bakery, you would think, would excel at baking. This whoopie pie was two under-flavoured sticky, soft chocolate cakes held together by a peanut-butter-flavoured center. Now, my own experience of whoopie pies (or, as I prefer to think of them, woofie pies) comes from the forests of Maine, where they were apparently invented by people who get more than ordinarily excited about naming desserts. (I know some partisans misguidedly argue that whoopie pies originated with the Amish, but if that were true — and it isn't — no one would ever have known.) Anyway, the Corner Bakery's whoopie pie was too sticky and too chewy and too mild to be mentioned in the same breath as one you might get at any general store in Penobscot County.

The other foods were similar in their adequacy. The spicy Thai coconut soup was indeed spicy, and had a rich tomato base, but the coconut flavouring was so faint that I had to ask an employee to look at it and tell me what kind of soup it was. The edamame salad was reasonably fresh and crisp, and the unexpected serving of plain ol' green salad that I found on my plate beside it was also nice enough. Nothing special, though.  The tuna salad was a little on the dry side, but if you like a little crunch in your tuna salad (I'm not wild about it, myself) you'll appreciate the chunks of celery and red onion, sufficient to sharpen the dish without being overbearing. I would, though, have liked a cracker or a piece of bread to have with it.

Rick's panini-pressed turkey club was pretty good in flavour; sourdough bread, lots of turkey, some tasty bacon (and yes, I know, "tasty bacon" is redundant, but I like the rhythm of the phrase), and the tomato in it was juicy and flavourful. It also had a seasoned mayonnaise sauce that added just the right amount of moisture, and complemented the flavour of the other ingredients nicely. Overall, it was the best thing we had at that lunch.

Last city inspection: April 2012
16 demerits
Besides the nutritional information on the menu boards, where the Corner Bakery really excels is in the ambiance of the place. The interior is very comforting, with a high techno-chic black ceiling with old-fashioned light fixtures, large windows surrounding the dining area, café curtains, and a dark hard-wood floor to give the place the charm of a Gilded-Age bistro. The booths and tables are mahogany stained wood, adding to the illusion of grace and charm, and a room divided topped with fluted glass completes the theme. There is a deck surrounded by trees just out to the south, which, when the weather moderates, should be a wonderful place to relax. The traffic of Basse Road and, more surprisingly, US 281, are separated by only a short distance from the deck, but because of the drop in terrain and the curtain of trees, they seem invisible to customers. I made it a point to step out on the balcony and gauge the noise level from the road, and was pleasantly surprised to find it inoffensive.

Corner Bakery Café on Urbanspoon

* Of course, in theory, over time the relative higher profits for this type of restaurant, and the relative lower profits for the traditional type, will drive more restaurateurs to switch to the minimal-service restaurant, reducing the number of traditional table-service restaurants and creating greater competition among minimal-service restaurants, thus shaving profits and lowering prices to consumers. Maybe we're just getting to that stage.

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