Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Oatmeal #3: Au Bon Pain

Time for oatmeal #3, which is from Au Bon Pain. Please try to refrain from crashing the server in your excitement.

Au Bon Pain, or ABP, as violently monolingual people such as myself call it, is yet another fast-casual bakery and cafe that is very prevalent in downtown Chicago. Since there is a location about 7 steps from my office door, I have made it a frequent stop for a morning oatmeal and coffee. They also have an extensive collection of soups, salads, and sandwiches, as well as miles and miles of pastries that make me wish I were five again and could actually eat such nonsense. "Au Bon Pain" is apparently French for "At the Good Bread," even though nothing in or about the store emphasizes its bread and the purported goodness thereof. Nor is it in any way French, except there is a charming picture upon entering the store of a French boy running down the street with a baguette. The caption says "Willy Ronis: Le Petit Parisien, 1952," thereby implying (to me, anyway) that this "Willy Ronis" was just a whimsical, bread-loving, French child who was able to fulfill his boyhood dream of owning a chain of bright yellow restaurants that serve premade/frozen/shipped/thawed soups and pastries. (Really only four steps away from being homemade! But I still enjoy them.) Though I suppose as a French boy, it was either that or learning how to valiantly surrender in every war ever after about 10 minutes. But alas, it is all a clever ruse, as ABP was founded in Boston in 1978 by two American dudes, and Willy Ronis was just a guy who took pictures of people in France. (Side note--though pretty much this whole blog is a side note--I started by reading the Wikipedia article on ABP and 10 minutes later had somehow progressed to reading about the finer elements of Peat Pulp Baths. Wikipedia is incredible.)
Anyway, enough of that pointless drivel. What you REALLY want to know is if that little fake French boy can make good oatmeal.
  • Price: $2.99 + tax. There aren't any breakfast discounts or anything with oatmeal, so with a 16 ounce coffee, my total was $5.33. (There are breakfast deals with bagels and breakfast sandwiches. This is why I have this blog: to fight against this inexplicable oppression of oatmeal.) It's the most expensive oatmeal I have had yet, but it also has the largest portions and (spoiler alert) the best toppings. So the higher price is somewhat justified. But the anti-oatmeal activism is uncalled for. (7)
  • Size: 12 & 16 ounces. Since you fill it yourself, no worries about it not being full. I do kind of wish they had one slightly smaller size available, but having a choice and being able to fill it on your own is nice. (9)
  • The toppings are by far the best selection I have seen yet. They let you put them on yourself, and all of the choices are lined up for you in what is surely the most delectable array of oatmeal toppings glory ever assembled. This is definitely the highlight of my day. Choices are: chocolate chips (feel free to pop a few of these in your mouth instead of in your oatmeal), maple syrup, brown sugar, cinnamon/sugar, dried cranberries, honey, granola, slivered almonds, raisins, and cocoa powder. Since it's self serve, you are limited only by your imagination, your taste buds, and what your container will hold. If you don't have far to go, I say forget the lid altogether and pile it high. I have had ABP oatmeal several times, and generally I alternate between chocolate chips and a cranberries/brown sugar/almonds combination. As you can see from the photo, I went a little overboard this time and kind of got...everything. But before we get too excited over this Triumph of Toppings, I must caveat that ABP provides all of these for a reason, which I shall reveal soon. (Yep, that's foreshadowing, y'all!) (9, because there is not a fresh fruit option.)
  • Texture/appearance: It has a pretty decent oatmeal color, and it usually looks pretty appetizing, as far as oatmeals go. However, the texture is rather bewildering. It is extremely goopy and sticky--at times, practically a solid. Generally, I make several valiant attempts to scoop it into my bowl, only to have it stubbornly stick to the ladle with some sort of super cosmic force that I can only assume is magnetic and somehow associated with the Dark Side. Therefore, I must resort to violently shaking it, inevitably splattering myself and all passers-by with free samples. Another rather alarming element is that, as it cools, it develops this kind of film over the top that is strikingly similar to what happens to Cream of Wheat when you leave it out. Not very appetizing. (3)
  • Temperature: OK, as I mentioned, I have had this oatmeal several times, and let me say, they have serious temperature modulation problems. On at least three occasions, the oatmeal has been too cold to even begin to melt my chocolate chips. In this particular instance, however, it was astoundingly hot. Normally, this would be very welcome; however, the aforementioned texture problems proved to be my undoing. I was performing the traditional "Let's All Shake the Ladle" routine to get the oatmeal into my container, and it was dutifully splattering everywhere, including my hands. Well, the oatmeal was so hot, it began to burn my hands, so I started shaking those as well, resulting in hot oatmeal globules all over my face, hands, and the counter. Pretty much everywhere but IN the container, naturally. I am sure this was an amusing spectacle for all to behold. (3)
  • Taste: OK, the plain oatmeal itself is pretty unfortunate. The website lists the ingredients as only oats and water, but somehow it manages to acquire a very strange, almost chemically taste. I am convinced that the vast toppings offering is simply an attempt to create a cover so people don't realize the oatmeal itself is actually kind of bad. But I am not ashamed to admit that I am falling for their little scheme. With all of the nonsense I add to the oatmeal, I don't even notice the strange taste. (5)
  • The 12 ounce size has 210 calories, which isn't terrible, but obviously it's the toppings that kill you. A couple spoonfuls of chocolate chips easily adds another 100, and all of the dried fruits/nuts/syrups are very calorie dense as well. So if you aren't careful, you could be downing a 500 calorie breakfast.
  • Intangibles: I must mention that I have been to ABP probably 20 times, and every time I have gotten exemplary customer service. The employees are incredibly helpful and kind, even when I have come in with an order for 8 people 10 minutes before they close. They also have a good coffee bar that is available all day (though they don't have raw sugar). And making the oatmeal bar self-serve was ingenious. So bravo, ABP. (+7)

TOTAL: 7+9+9+3+3+5+7=43

Oooh this is a tight competition. This oatmeal is kind of all over the place--some really good stuff and some really bad stuff--and so far, cocky Cosi's consistently solid oatmeal is keeping it in the lead.

Meanwhile, someone showed me this link the other day, and it has pretty much made my life. Love or hate Wal-Mart, you can't deny the incredible displays of diversity it provides on a daily basis.

1 comment:

  1. The caption says "Willy Ronis: Le Petit Parisien, 1952," thereby implying (to me, anyway) that this "Willy Ronis" was just a whimsical, bread-loving, French child who was able to fulfill his boyhood dream of owning a chain of bright yellow restaurants that serve premade/frozen/shipped/thawed soups and pastries.

    To me too! I'm disappointed to learn this is not the case.