It’s a concept restaurant that was conceived in New York, initiated in greater San Diego and — except for a single outpost on the west side of Bend — is still found only in southernmost California.
But Croutons, whose menu of fresh foods, presented in a casual, quick-serve atmosphere was introduced to Central Oregon four years ago, has a much broader appeal.
“I think the success of the Bend location shows that our concept can work anywhere in the country,” founder James Watts recently told the San Diego Business Journal.
Salads, soups and specialty sandwiches are the fare. The salads in particular are excellent.
While attending graduate school in business at New York’s Columbia University in the late 1990s, Watts said he found himself frustrated in a search for a good lunch until he found a Broadway bakery that served fresh-made salads daily. Upon returning to his San Diego home, he and a partner launched themselves into the restaurant business. Their first Croutons opened in Carlsbad, Calif., in 2002. There are now three others in San Diego County with plans for more.
The Bend restaurant, privately owned under a franchise agreement, is an anomaly. Local franchise owner Bart Butler, who describes himself as a “third-generation, born-and-bred San Diegan,” moved to Bend five years ago after having researched the local restaurant market to determine the viability of a Croutons franchise here. He said he plans to open a second location in the Bend area when the economy picks up and hopes to eventually get involved in expanding Croutons’ market to other cities in the Northwest.
I, for one, am grateful Croutons has found fertile ground on Century Drive opposite the Safeway shopping center.
Abundance of salads
The idea is a simple one: Check out the blackboard menu, order at the counter, wait for your order to be delivered. You can dine in or take out.
The atmosphere is basic, but it works. Modern, clean and well-maintained, the restaurant has comfortable seating in one main room, with the counter area connecting to a second smaller wing. Wraparound outdoor deck seating is popular in warmer weather. The staff is prompt and friendly.
There are 17 salads offered, all generous in portion, none priced above $8. My favorite, from among several that I’ve tried, is the pear-and-blue cheese salad. Chopped romaine lettuce is tossed with a spring mix and topped with sliced fresh pears, crumbled blue cheese and candied walnuts. The accompanying poppy-seed vinaigrette dressing is relatively tasteless; I suggest having it on the side and adding only as much as you need to moisten your greens.
The Santa Fe salad is another made with a blend of romaine and spring mix. Large corn-bread croutons add a Southwestern flavor to the greens, complemented with chopped apples, kernels of corn, red onion, toasted walnuts and smoked Gouda cheese. The tangy fiesta ranch dressing that comes with this salad is quite tasty.
A Cobb salad was made with chopped romaine, tossed with diced roasted turkey breast, lots of smoked bacon, halved cherry tomatoes, sliced egg and avocado, crumbled blue cheese and house-made herb croutons. I opted for ranch dressing, but I could have been just as happy with blue cheese. As with the other salads, all the ingredients were very fresh and full of taste.
Sandwiches and soups
Croutons offers two types of sandwiches: the panini and the flatini. What’s the difference? A panini is cooked by pressing ciabatta or other Italian bread in a specialized grill. A flatini is similar, but it is made with folded flatbread.
In recent visits, I’ve tried the following:
• Turkey artichoke flatini. Roasted turkey breast and marinated artichoke hearts with roasted red bell peppers, provolone cheese and a sun-dried tomato pesto mayonnaise.
• Southwest panini. Roasted chicken breast, sliced tomato, a guacamole-like avocado spread, pepper-jack cheese and chili mayonnaise.
• Tuscan roast beef panini. Sliced medium-rare beef, red bell peppers, caramelized onions, provolone cheese and garlic mayonnaise.
• Granny Smith chicken salad flatini. Finely diced apples in a chicken salad with cheddar cheese.
My favorite of these was the turkey artichoke flatini, perhaps because the flavor of the sun-dried tomato pesto complemented everything so well. My least favorite was the chicken salad, which I felt was overly dominated by the apple flavor. That said, I would order any of these again, perhaps as a half-sandwich, half-salad combination.
I’ve only had one soup, and I found it disappointing. A bowl of tomato basil soup reminded me more of a marinara sauce for pasta than it did a hearty bisque. Had the tomatoes been chopped rather than pureed; had more cream and less basil been added to the recipe; I think I would have liked it much more.
Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Croutons restaurants sprouting up in places beyond San Diego and Bend. It’s a concept that may well be embraced by a lot of people.
For several years, Juri Sbandati has gained a steady word-of-mouth reputation in Central Oregon as a private chef, preparing authentic Tuscan-style meals for dinner parties in private homes. Now the native of Florence, Italy, has opened his intimate Trattoria Sbandati on Bend’s west side, in the former La Rosa space off Newport Avenue. Sbandati serves homemade pastas, salads, soups and sandwiches for lunch ($7 to $12) from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Four-course prix-fixe dinners (including 3-ounce pours of wine) are by reservation only at 6:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. 1444 N.W. College Way, Bend; 541-306-6825, www.trattoria sbandati.com.
The Good Drop Wine Shoppe has opened in downtown Bend next to the Astro Lounge. Owner Chris Oatman, previously the wine steward at Merenda and Deep restaurants, specializes in Oregon pinot noirs and other Northwest wines, as well as hard-to-find vintages from around the world. The shop is open 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. 141 N.W. Minnesota Ave., Bend; 541-410-1470, www .gooddropwineshoppe.com.
Fountains Bar & Grill (B): Fountains and greenery bring the outside indoors at this family-style cafe off the northbound Redmond airport exit from North U.S. Highway 97. Although the food and service are no better than ordinary, prices are reasonable, and the senior menu offers real bargains to those 55 and older. 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day. 3709 S.W. 21st Place, Redmond; 541-548-7213.
El Super Burrito (B): Serving burritos, tacos and other authentic Mexican street cuisine, this downtown Bend tradition has found new life — and a beautiful patio — in the Columbia River Bank Building. Speedy and well-maintained, it has a simple menu with nothing priced above $8. Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. 1133 N.W. Wall St., Suite 101, Bend; 541-312-2009.
900 Wall Restaurant and Bar (A-): Reopening in late May in the former Merenda space, 900 Wall shows substantial improvement from its popular predecessor. The menu is more focused, service is more consistent and structural improvements have made 900 a more comfortable place to dine and socialize. Open 11:30 a.m. to close every day. 900 N.W. Wall St., Bend; 541-323-6295, www.900wall.com.
The Crepe Place (B+): Downtown Bend’s lone dedicated creperie does a brisk business, serving sweet and savory pancakes in a subdued and charming atmosphere. Although it’s not always speedy, the price is right. Open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day. 824 N.W. Wall St., Bend; 541-317-5717.