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Cheap Eats; Corner Bakery Cafe's extensive menu filled with healthy choices

The Corner Bakery Cafe, which just opened its first restaurant on Transit Road near Sheridan in Amherst, is a sleek new competitor in the niche of semi-fast, casual, healthy food.

In some ways, the Corner Bakery Cafe, which will have six franchises open in the region in the next few years, might remind people of Panera Bread because its baked goods, as well as the bread used in sandwiches and French toast, are made in-house. Another similarity with Panera is that customers line up to order at a counter.

But Corner Bakery has the fireplaces (two per cafe) and comfy armchairs of a Starbucks, and the ample dark wood trim and local photo montage that adorns the walls makes the place seem a bit more personalized.

It was about half full on the Sunday morning when John, Pat, John and I stopped in for breakfast and/or lunch. A stack of menus near the door is a good idea, because the choices are too extensive to stand and scan the large menu behind the counter, unless you've been there before and have an idea what you want. After ordering, each group gets a number, which you place in a tall rack on your table, and the food is delivered by a team of workers.

On the menu, each item's calorie count is listed next to it. This trend, which will certainly become more widespread and possibly mandated, was interesting without being off-putting, because most of the choices are designed to be relatively healthful.

The menu includes salads, specialty salads, panini, a daily selection of five or six soups and chili, signature sandwiches, simpler Mom's sandwiches, pasta, breakfast scramblers, egg sandwiches and oatmeals. Almost every selection is in the $7 range, with egg sandwiches and yogurt closer to $5. Combos allow customers to mix a half-sandwich or half-panini with a small salad or cup of soup, a small salad with a cup of soup or a small serving of pasta with a salad, each for $6.99 to $7.69. We really appreciated this option, which allowed us to sample two soups and one salad along with the panini or sandwich of our choice and pay less than $8 per meal.

Breakfast is served all day, so we started with baked French toast made with cinnamon-spiked brioche baked in vanilla custard, served with scrambled eggs and applewood smoked bacon ($6.99). This dish was excellent. The French toast surpassed expectations in both taste and texture, and because of its richness, the medium-sized chunk was a perfect size. The eggs were light and the strips of bacon delicious and perfectly crispy.

Our second selection was a sandwich combo, half of a smoked turkey cobb sandwich on brioche flatbread and a bowl of chicken noodle soup. The combo, normally $7.29, was a buck more because of the bowl, rather than the usual cup, of soup. The sandwich, made of smoked turkey breast, applewood smoked bacon, sliced hard-boiled eggs, blue cheese crumbles, lettuce, tomato and homemade avocado mayo, was delicious. The chicken noodle soup, one of five or six widely varied types available, was also excellent, with plenty of carrots and egg noodles in the flavorful chicken broth. However, possibly because it was served in a large, shallow bowl, the soup was not as hot as it should have been. I like to see steam when soup hits the table, and while this was hot, it wasn't steaming and quickly cooled right off.

The soup in our second combo (also $7.29), a club panini on sourdough and a cup of cheddar broccoli soup, was not only rich and flavorful, it was steaming. The half-sandwich, made with hickory smoked turkey breast, applewood smoked bacon, white cheddar cheese and plum tomatoes, also got high marks.

Our final combo choice (also $7.29), half of a grilled ham and Swiss sandwich and a side Caesar salad, was a hit, too. The Caesar dressing was creamy and delicious on the crisp, cool greens.

Although the combos lured us with their offer of endless options, I am now sorry that nobody tried the pasta -- penne, chicken carbonara, cheese ravioli or pesto cream sauce pasta all between $5.99 and $7.99 -- the steel-cut oatmeal ($3.49) or the Asian wonton ($7.99) or Edamame side salad ($3.69). We'll have to go back.




3.5 pennies (out of four)    

"Quick, healthful menu."    

WHERE: 7662 Transit Road, Amherst (204-8239)    

HOURS: Open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sundays.