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Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Veggie Panini at McDonalds...you still can't have it your way! 

McDonalds opened one of their new 'Bistro Gourmet' restaurants in the Tampa Bay area this week; there are only eight in Florida. Today we had a chance to sample the bill of fair at the remodeled eatery in Pinellas County just north of Tampa Road and Eastlake. On a day when the estate of Mrs. Ray Krok announced the bequest of more than 2 Billion dollars in charitable donations to the Salvation Army, among others it seemed the least we could do was revisit McD's and sample their new upscale bistro menu. Staff, editors, Mom and Dad in tow we descended on the golden arches, taste buds aglow in anticipation of culinary delights heretofore unknown.

The fast food interior design ambiance not withstanding our restaurant sports a handsomely trimmed display case filled to the brim with cheesecakes, gourmet cookies, chocolate and carrot cakes galore. Suspended overhead the bill of fare announced 'Bistro Gourmet at McDonalds, Gourmet our way' (which I took to be more of a threat than a promise.) Behind the case ready to take our order was the 'chef' appropriately outfitted in white chefs hat and blouse - I didn't make out any cuff emblems telling us where he might have attended chef school, I thought it best not to ask. We ordered the 'Veggie Panini' but declined the upgrade to a platter which included a regular fry and drink for an extra dollar, instead we chose ice tea, paid $5.50 for the panini and received a pager to await the freshly prepared sandwich. I lingered at the counter however to observe the panini process. I ordered a cappuccino for my mother in law while I waited.

The new veg panini, McD's version, consists of sliced eggplant, roasted red pepper, spinach, portabella mushroom and lots of cheese, Munster and mozzarella. The ingredients are pre-roasted or otherwise prepared in advance and stored in warmed stations entirely separated from the main kitchen - the 'burger and fries' section of the kitchen. I waited near the counter somewhat self consciously, as I'm used to standing in line at McDonalds and obversely, the 'line' seemed to view me with a degree of suspicion as if I had somehow failed to grasp the new rules at the new bistro, in fact it reminded me of milling about the front of Einstien's Bagels waiting for your name to be mispronounced signifying that your order is ready.

The chef quickly assembled my sandwich and placed it in the large commercial press to cook and turned his attention to my cappuccino. This was the first indication of trouble ahead. The panini press contained two other sandwiches besides mine; the paninis listed on the board were 'Philly Cheese Steak', 'Grilled Chicken' and 'Veggie.' I quickly calculated that my chances were less that 1 in 27 that all three were veggie, I was right. The veggie panini at McDonalds is not cooked on a separate grill and so inevitably takes on the flavors of steak and chicken during the cooking process. To be fair the advertising does not specifically proclaim 'vegetarian' cuisine only 'Bistro Our Way', though I suspect that McDonalds is being studied in its vague references to Veggie.

The panini arrived on an actual porcelain diner plate but heavy with cheese and slightly soggy. The pan bread was toasted to a golden and perfectly marked crispness but unfortunately, as anticipated, there was a distinct meaty aftertaste from the grill. Non-vegetarians would not notice this at all but any vegetarian after just a few weeks away from meat can taste the aromatic flavors instantly. That and the smell of cooking grease from the regular kitchen made for a less than perfect lunch experience. All in all this is still just a McDonalds and I fear that is not likely to change anytime soon. It's fast food, calorie laden and Bistro or no Bistro not much has changed accept of course the price.

Oh, and the cappuccino, Therese gives it wooden spoons out of 5. Well, its the thought that counts.


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