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Wednesday, July 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 58.0° F  A Few Clouds


Cosi is palatable but not a destination

It was a slow day at the Cosi in Middleton.
Credit:Linda Falkenstein
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As far as I can tell, the best deal at Cosi, the new fast-casual establishment with storefronts on State Street and at Middleton's Greenway Station, is the morning omelet sandwich with a grande coffee for $3.50. The baked egg with cheese comes on a tasty bagel. Don't be alarmed that the bagel is square. I don't know why it should be square, it just is. The coffee's pretty good, too.

The combo is tastier and cheaper than Einstein Bros. hot bagel omelet sandwich ($ 3.50, without any coffee). And Cosi's trendy Tuscany-meets-modernism decor is warmer and more inviting than the dimly lit, cement-floor/industrial look of Einstein's, if you're going to sit and linger.

That said, it gets harder to find the deals at Cosi after the breakfast special. There was something kind of pathetic about my little turkey-cranberry salad sandwich lying there in its paper pocket. (Everything comes in a paper pocket, like a McDonald's hash brown.) Which is too darn bad, because it tasted pretty good, what there was of it.

Most of Cosi's sandwiches run about $6.50, and they come with a choice of baby carrots or a bag of chips. They're smaller than similarly priced sandwiches at rival upscale bakery-cafe chain Panera Bread, and Cosi lacks the half-and-half flexibility available at Panera, where you can order half of any sandwich with a cup of any soup or a half portion of any salad. At Cosi, you can add salad to your full sandwich order for an extra $2, but the only salad you can get is the side salad '- not any of the seven specialty salads on the menu.

While I liked my sandwiches at Cosi, I'd have to give the edge to Panera. (If I'm eating at a fast casual chain, that is. It's probably a better deal to get the more expensive, but expansive, sandwiches at a place like Marigold Kitchen, and save half of it for a late-night snack or tomorrow's lunch.)

The big deal at Cosi, and what might keep customers coming back, is its rustic flatbread, in white or wheat. According to the Cosi website, "Our signature flatbread is based on a two millennia-old recipe, similar to the breads first produced by the Romans," and it's baked on-site in a brick oven which customers can see behind the counter. The bread's better warm and comes as a side with soup and the salads as well as the base for its sandwiches. If you have been known to bake yourself a focaccia and proceed to eat the whole thing warm out of the oven, this bread's for you.

One of my colleagues swears by Friday's soup -- clam chowder with lots of soft clams -- and the daily "Pollo e Pasta" is a creditable Italian version of chicken soup, with chickpeas and zucchini and other Mediterranean veggies, with tiny beads of a pasta billed as couscous but that looks more like orzo.

Cosi makes pizzas ($6-7 at lunch, $9 and up at dinner) and serves a tempting fondue-style "s'mores" dessert. It's hard to ruin anything that includes melted chocolate. Overall, Cosi is definitely palatable, but more of a "oh I'm hungry and there's a Cosi right over there" kind of stop, rather than a "Where do you want to go to eat? Let's go to Cosi" destination.

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