Let’s begin in St. Paul, where a major bright spot (literally, given its vivid chartreuse color scheme) has materialized, thanks to the recent advent of Bars Bakery.
The recent downtown expansion of Selby Avenue’s sweet spot has elevated the culinary discourse among the capital city’s second-floor Habitrail, big time.
Co-owners (and mother and daughter) Sandy Younkin and Kara Younkin Viswanathan continue to make mornings bright with cinnamon-laced and lavishly iced rolls, spongy madeleines, flaky better-than-Pop Tart pastries filled with fruity jam, lovely little single-serving quiches, creamy scones and a gleaming, pecan-studded caramel roll that pretty much defines the genre. Oh, and premium coffee from Chicago-based Intelligentsia.
The month-old skyway outlet sets itself apart from the Bars mothership by offering a modest lunch menu, just a daily soup ($5), a simple salad of crisply fresh greens ($5) and a handful of sandwiches ($8).
True to form, the sandwiches are fantastic, prepared to order with obvious skill and imagination and worth the steep-for-St. Paul price tag ($8). Another tip: if there’s a savory focaccia ($4.50 to $4.75) or one of the kitchen’s lovely curried potato handpies ($4.50), by all means, order them.
My waistline is thankful that my office isn’t nearby, because the afternoon sweets are irresistible. Gorgeous free-form fruit and berry tarts. Cookies with tops collapsing into themselves, weighted down with butter. Hefty coconut macaroons, their spiky outer shell transformed by the oven’s heat to a dark, crunchy copper. And different plays on the signature house dessert, including a puckery lemon bar that has to be tasted to be believed.
As for the tiny bags of delicate sablés and shortbreads that linger near the cash register, they’re an impulse purchase waiting to lay ruin to the efforts of countless dieters across the 55101 ZIP code. Lucky them.
55 E. 5th St. (Alliance Bank Center), St. Paul, 651-222-2779, www.barsbakery.com. Open weekdays 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. An adjacent food court features plenty of seating.
Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, those staccato thwack-thwack-thwack-thwacks reverberating through City Center emanate from the chopping block at the Salad Bar.
Rather than encountering a slow-moving line of tongs-yielding customers reaching under a sneeze guard for broccoli florets, this newcomer drops the do-it-yourself routine in favor of a nimble crew that efficiently composes salads to order.
Diners can start by choosing from four lettuces (arugula, romaine, iceberg and spinach), enhancing that $6 foundation with a long list of no-additional-cost vegetables, nuts and croutons. There are proteins (bacon, shrimp, grilled chicken, tofu), eight cheeses or a few specialty items (avocado, quinoa, roasted tomatoes), all at $1 to $2 a pop.
Another route is supplementing 10 house specialties — Caesar, Cobb, Asian chicken, with prices in the $6.50-to-$9.50 range — with that long list of add-ons.
Speed is the operative word: Salads are quickly assembled, dressed with a dozen full-bodied options and then spend a few moments on the chopping block. Who knew that bite-sizing a salad would make it so easy to scarf down the day’s requirement of leafy greens and fresh vegetables during a time-pressed lunch hour?
For those preferring a sandwich, the crew rolls salads into tortillas.
If the format seems vaguely familiar, it’s because the Salad Bar has a doppelgänger on the next block: the Field Greens counter in the lower level at Macy’s, which offers an analogous point-and-pick format, a similar selection and a comparable price point.
The resemblance ends there, because the store serves its salads tossed, not chopped.