food & drink

Food Dude

May 26, 2011 |

By Jim Duncan


Humbling times for food snobs


Former Gourmet editor Barry Estabrook resurfaced this month in the Atlantic with "The Farmers Market Myth" debunking the perception that farmers' markets are expensive places where "only rich food snobs can afford to shop." Estabrook cited two studies, with one by Iowa State University's Leopold Center, showing that fresh produce is actually less expensive at farmers markets than at supermarkets in the same towns. His conclusion: "It's getting harder to be elitist these days." No kidding. Zagat, the "Burgundy Bible" of restaurant ratings, jeopardized their brand in recent years by including fast food chains. Food snobs such as I rarely venture to such places because industrial corporations don't allow much creativity, and independent restaurants do more for local economies. However, if Zagat dispatches its food snobs to review chains, I felt duty bound to check out their champions.

Zagat's latest survey divided fast food chains into three categories — large chains (up to 5,000 outlets), mega-chains (more than 5,000) and quick-refreshment chains (specializing in frozen desserts and drinks). Wendy's was "top food" champion amongst mega-chains. Its burger also finished atop all locally represented chains. I found little new on my visit to Wendy's, just some lukewarm fries being touted for their "natural cut" and "sea salt." My burgers had a good sear but did not taste at all like they were fresh off a grill. Buns were cold and stale. Wendy's single burger also cost as much my usual go-to burger — the always fresh-off-the-grill quarter-pounder at Big City Burger & Greens, which is always served on a freshly baked potato bun with superior condiments. Wendy's also charged for cheese on my cheese-less burgers.

My first-ever visits to Panera Bread Company impressed me much more. Zagat rated Panera's salads the best of all chains and their facilities the best among large chains. Ironically, my salads were the least impressive thing I found at the handsome, sparkling downtown Panera's. Service was stellar, sandwiches were generous and featured good, freshly-baked breads. However, salad greens were unvaried, brownish and served with dressings that seemed inappropriately heavy on emulsification. My visits will not sway me away from La Mie, which is less expensive, bakes exquisite breads, makes bone stock soups and purer salad dressings served on fresher, more interesting greens. Still, Panera impressed me more than any other chain I visited.

Zagat cited Jason's Deli for best "healthy options" among large chains. My first-ever visit found an all-you-can-eat salad bar and "free ice cream" somewhat off message. I noticed folks piling half a dozen boiled eggs on their salad plates. Still, a manager told me the store had removed all trans fats, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and artificial dyes from its foods. I guess they don't count soft drinks like Coke, which is a major delivery system for HFCS. My usual deli favorites didn't survive the menu cut. Mortadella, corned beef or pastrami briskets, prosciutto, sorpressata, capicola and pepperoni had been exorcised for leaner meats like chicken and turkey breast. So Jason's seems to walk the "healthy" walk they talk.

I also visited Chik-fil-A for the first time. It was runner-up for "best food" among large chains and top rated overall for service. A manager actually carried my tray for me, justifying that latter accolade. My top rated grilled chicken though was over seasoned and over cooked.

Zagat also cited McDonald's as "best value, best value menu, best fries, best breakfast, most child friendly, and the best drive-thru." KFC was rated "best fried chicken," Long John Silver's "best fish," Starbucks "best coffee," and DQ the "best milk shake." I found nothing new that could add or detract from anyone's long-held opinions about any of those familiar products and services.


Side Dishes


None of Zagat's top five rated "quick refreshment" chains (Ben & Jerry's, Häagen-Dazs, Brusters, Peets and Rita's) have outlet stores in central Iowa. Nor do Five Guys ("top burger") or In & Out ("top food" among large chains). Casa di Vino's going out of business sale began this week. All inventory is discounted until sold. CV


Caption: Panera's generous sandwiches were served of freshly baked breads.