Although this mac ‘n’ cheese doesn’t fall under the gourmet noodle dishes that many restaurants are trying to exploit and that I’m intent on taste-testing, I had to include it in my Ultimate Mac ‘n’ Cheese Quest because it’s a fairly new addition to Panera’s already extensive menu (less than two years old, which is right in line with this “gourmet” macaroni and cheese trend) and it’s utterly delicious!
The deli-bakery’s Signature Macaroni & Cheese is the “More” under the Soups & More section of the menu. It can be ordered in a large (pictured) or small – basically like ordering a bowl or cup of soup. It’s also one of the many items you can combine in a “You Pick Two” meal. The large size is enough on its own for a meal, but the small goes well with a half salad or sandwich. Unless you request a substitute side (apple or chips), the pasta comes with a baguette – a Panera staple – which ends up being a bit of a carb overload. As tempting as it can be to tear into the center of the baguette, I highly recommend setting it aside and saving your entire carb allotment and all the room in your stomach for the mac ‘n’ cheese.
The cheesy goodness is served on the slightly soupy side, but because it’s also typically served piping hot (can you tell I’ve had it more than once?), giving it a little time to cool down thickens the cheese sauce right up. At that point, give it a little stir to coat every shell and it’s just right. According to the website, which currently has the dish featured in its “What We’re Celebrating” section, “When we created our Macaroni & Cheese, we tried 20 different cheese to find the right blend. The winner: Vermont white cheddar with a touch of mild American.”
The cheese sauce is what does it for me. It’s creamy and smooth with lots of rich flavor. It’s different from others in the sense that it’s not gooey and stringy in the melted-brick-cheese kind of way. Maybe that means its creamy in a powdered-cheese kinda way, but I try not to think about that. I think one of the reasons I like this mac ‘n’ cheese so much is because it’s very similar to my favorite boxed macaroni and cheese: Shells and White Cheddar Pasta Roni (a review of this will come later).
One disappointing aspect is one that I only discovered today, as I write this review. I happened upon Panera’s nutrition guide and saw that the large serving has 980 calories! I guess I should have figured as much, but it tasted a lot better before I knew that. But the fact that it has 70 percent of your daily calcium is a plus, right?
The restaurant: Panera, Santa Monica, CA (nationwide chain)
The plate: Signature Macaroni & Cheese
The ingredients: Enriched frigate pasta, skim milk, American cheese spread (cheddar and Colby cheese), cheddar cheese, soybean oil, cream
The verdict: Though it’s on the basic side, it’s a tasty mac ‘n’ cheese that leaves you licking the bowl when it’s gone.