Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Fresh Choice

Fresh Choice is a glorified salad bar that I stayed away from for about ten years, but there are reasons to go.

I stayed away because I thought it was overpriced, but it's only $7.99 for pretty much everything (drinks are extra), which is really very reasonable. I started going again because my Mommy & Me group goes almost every week.

When you start out, you can get a prepared salad like a Caesar (I don't get this, because although it doesn't list all the ingredients, classic Caesar dressing contains anchovies) or another salad of the day (once it had strawberries and feta, today it had mozzarella balls and tomatoes), or you can make your own. I prefer to make my own salad, and you can choose between mixed greens, romaine, or spinach. Next up are the "extra proteins" (mostly not vegetarian and for an extra price, so I just slide on by). Then they have a few composed salads, like rotini pasta, couscous salad with black beans and corn, and quinoa salad with fresh peppers and other veggies. These tend to be quite good. They also list the ingredients on a small card, so it's easy to see whether they're vegetarian at a glance.

Next up are the toppings for the salad. There's a huge variety, including your standards (cucumbers, tomatoes, chickpeas, kidney beans, peas, cheese) and some slightly more unusual choices like tofu and edamame. There are a ton of choices, including both raw and blanched broccoli. There are about eight salad dressings to choose from, several of which are fat-free or low-fat.

You pay after getting your salad, but then there are a number of other options as well. There are soups, breads and muffins, pizza, pasta, fruit and desserts. The soups and pastas all have a descriptive card that lists whether they are vegetarian or vegan, and there are at least a few of each. On two occasions, the vegan soup was pho, and it wasn't bad at all (you had to ask for the vegetarian broth). On another occasion there was both lentil and potato leek. The pastas include a plain marinara sauce, and on at least one occasion there was a ratatouille with squash and mushrooms.

I haven't tried the pizza, so can't comment, although there is a plain cheese pizza. The breads are many and varied, including a sourdough, a "brown" bread, several muffins, brownies, and the like, and are accompanied by several compound butters.

The fruit is limited, and usually includes honeydew and cantaloupe. Next to it is a dairy-free soft-serve. Yep, vegan ice cream right there at the Fresh Choice. And it's tasty, not weird. If the sign hadn't indicated its non-dairy-ness, I'd never have known. There are several toppings for the soft serve as well, like sprinkles (or "jimmies" if you're an East Coaster). There is a selection of puddings as well.

As for the atmosphere, well... I wouldn't want to go there on a date. But for the Mommy and Me group, I have to say we've gotten excellent service. They always find room for our big group, including many strollers, and they jump to offer to carry our trays for us as we wrangle the babies. Really, I can hardly say enough about the great service, so I think that offsets the big noisy cold atmosphere.

Meat-eating companions seem to be happy with the selections of soups (including clam chowder) and the pizza (pepperoni), and some of the composed salads like Chinese Chicken. Overall, though, it's exceptionally vegetarian-friendly.

I am surprised to find myself reviewing a Fresh Choice -- as surprised as I was to return to it after many years -- but I'm even more surprised to give it a positive review. Four Sackatomatoes out of five, with a special nod to the great service.