Panera Bread: Where the bread is the star of the mealtime show

When thinking about sandwiches, one can’t ignore what goes between the slices. But even if that’s peanut butter and jelly, bread has a lot to do with making it satisfying.

So, it goes without saying that a restaurant in which “bread” is half of its name is going to take this seriously. Panera Bread certainly does.

This restaurant and bakery isn’t only about sandwiches, but that is the bulk of the meal menu, and on our recent visits we found sandwiches in which the bread was a whole lot more than just a delivery system for meat, dressing and condiments. The bread was as much the star of the mealtime show as what went inside. We very much liked the results. Based on the crowds we encountered, others feel the same way.

The bacon turkey bravo ($7.49) was essentially a club sandwich, and a good club sandwich it was, starting with the tomato basil bread, which had a hint of its namesake flavor, and was incredibly soft except for a firm, thin crust. (The texture was similar with other breads.) The smoked turkey breast, applewood-smoked bacon, gouda cheese, lettuce and tomato and tangy sauce made for a filling, satisfying sandwich, which came with a dill slice and restaurant-brand potato chips, which were thicker and a little less salty than what you’re likely to get in grocery stores.

The Italian combo ($7.99) was a pleasure to eat, with seared steak, smoked turkey breast, smoked ham, salami, Swiss and peperoncini melding into a filling and flavorful sandwich. The Fontega chicken panini ($7.49) accented the chicken breast meat with mozzarella, tomatoes, red onions, chopped basil and a light, not overpowering chipotle mayo on grilled, pressed Focaccia bread.

The only sandwich we sampled that left us unenthusiastic was the Mediterranean chicken flatbread ($4.59), which we ordered as part of a lunch combo with a salad and baguette on the side. The sandwich was tasty, but it was also a bit of a let-down. Panera Bread’s menu described a wonderful array of ingredients — “curried lentil hummus, feta, cucumber and napa cabbage blend with tzatziki sauce on flatbread.” It tasted more like chicken and a salty cole slaw. It was good, but not what was expected. The classic salad came with a light balsamic vinaigrette that perfectly accentuated the fresh greens, cucumber and chicken. Slightly warm and crispy, the half baguette was most enjoyable — a firm crust covering a soft, delicate bread that we enjoyed by itself, but would be a perfect receptacle for sopping up some of the remaining dressing or for butter.

Panera Bread also has several pasta and salad options, as well as a variety of soups.

Pesto Sacchettini ($8.59) featured small, roundish pasta filled with a six-cheese blend, tossed in basil pesto and topped with asiago and parmesan. While we would defy even the most cultured and finely honed taste buds to distinguish the courses of all this mild cheesiness, we have to say the result was light and pleasing, which one expects with pasta and pesto. The texture of the dish, soft to the bite and with the light chew and delicate flavor of the cheese blend, make this a perfect choice for someone who wants something satisfying but not too filling.

Likewise, the strawberry poppyseed and chicken salad ($8.59) was a great summer dish, with strawberries, blueberries, pineapple, mandarin oranges, pecans and poppyseed dressing creating cool, refreshing bursts of flavor to go along with the chicken, which is advertised as all-natural and antibiotic-free.

The restaurant also has a few flavored teas, and lemonade that was lip-smacking good.

If you go during the weekday lunch rush, expect some company. We thought we’d circumvent that by arriving at 11:30 a.m. We thought wrong. The larger-than-expected parking lot behind the restaurant was nearly full, and the line extended roughly 20 people deep. But, with four people taking orders, things moved along fairly quickly. Although there is a drive-through line, most people came to the tastefully decorated dining area.

Panera Bread

7877 Jefferson Highway, Baton Rouge

PHONE: (225) 325-3180

HOURS: Open 6:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 6:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday, 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, and 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday