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February 25, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, February 25, 2005

A mixed brown bag A mixed brown bag (February 25, 2005)

Bakery famous for its cakes and cookies now offers lunch

By Jennifer Aquino

As a child my parents took me to a restaurant, the name of which I've since forgotten, featuring the most obscenely-sized and gluttonous desserts I'd ever seen. Over the cash register there was a sticker that stated: Eat dessert first; life's too short.

Walking into The Prolific Oven recently, I smiled to myself, thinking of that sticker. I was there to review the 8-year-old establishment's new lunch menu, served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., but my mind kept straying to the case of shiny chocolate cakes and giant-sized cookies.

The bakery and coffeehouse recently began offering a small lunch menu of sandwiches, soups and salads. Though the fare is based on the same fresh, homemade principles that make its desserts so popular, its baked goods are still the stand-out. Not to say that the lunch menu is disappointing; the sandwich breads are fresh, the ingredients high-quality and offerings diverse. It's just not the kind of interesting food that you would expect to emerge from a place called The Prolific Oven.

The Prolific Oven, run by Henry Chan and his wife, is part of a three-store chain of bakeries and coffeehouses in Saratoga and Santa Clara. It sits on Waverley Street in Palo Alto as a throwback to what a coffeehouse used to be, pre-"Friends," before couches, big chairs and whirring espresso machines became the norm. It's not the kind of place you would necessarily earmark as a hip spot for socializing and dining.

But it's got a charm and comfort to it that makes it feel a bit familiar. The interior looks part loving-hands-from-home with mismatched chairs, vintage tables and piles of newspapers and part '80s pie shop with a maroon awning over the glass dessert case and gold trim. The case of cakes and cookies, simplistically designed but comfortingly familiar, look like those out of a Betty Crocker cookbook.

The crowd at The Prolific Oven trickles in and out in a steady stream. It's never really empty or really full. On a warm Tuesday during the peak lunchtime hour, there were a few tables of lone diners, a few taken by business executives in suits and some by older ladies chatting over a cup of coffee.

The lunch menu, featuring nine sandwiches and six salads, is posted above the dessert case, but is easier to read from a small paper menu that you can pick up near the cash register. The offerings are all typical cafe food, from the trendy panini sandwich to the more classic turkey cranberry or the chicken Caesar salad. Each item comes with a small dessert-of-the-day.

The best of the sandwiches is the Alpine ($5.50), ham and Swiss cheese with green leaf lettuce, tomato and honey mustard on a freshly-baked croissant. I ordered the sandwich as part of the cafe's 50/50 special ($5.50), half a sandwich-of-the-day and a heaping bowl of the day's soup. The croissant was divine, buttery and golden on the outside and flaky and light on the inside. The rich pastry paired well with the sweet ham, tangy mustard and pungent Swiss cheese. On the other hand, the soup, a salmon-colored, cream-based, roasted red pepper and corn concoction, lacked flavor.

One of the highlights of The Prolific Oven sandwiches is the bread. The Wisconsin's Pride ($6.50), filled with roast beef, extra-sharp cheddar, onion, tomato and horseradish spread, came on some of the best baguette I've had -- crunchy on the outside, but so soft and chewy inside, like it was taken fresh from the oven and toasted. My only issue was the lack of flavor -- it seemed there wasn't enough of anything to make the extra-lean roast beef shine. The horseradish spread was a small dab and the cheese, again, a thin slice.

It's a problem I found with many of the Oven's offerings: great ingredients, just not enough of them. The Tacino panini ($6.50) features a turkey breast, Muenster cheese, baby lettuce and sun-dried tomato pesto on Ciabatta bread. The bread is soft with a crunchy exterior and soaks up the tomato pesto. While the sandwich was good -- the turkey fresh and Muenster a creamy contrast to the pesto -- it was a bit sparse. On the panini, there was only one paper-thin slice of Muenster and the pesto spread was so light for such a thick, absorbent bread.

Likewise, the Pilgrim's Delight ($5.95), a classic turkey breast, cranberry with green leaf lettuce and cream cheese sandwich, was a bit spare on the cream cheese spread. The cranberry sauce and earthy, juicy turkey were wonderful on the soft wheat bread, but I wanted more cream cheese. I think with a heavier hand dispensing the fixings, these sandwiches could be greatly improved.

Of the salads, the Chicken Gorgonzola ($6.95) is a winner, with thick, plump slices of tangy chicken, romaine lettuce, walnuts, green apples, gorgonzola cheese, onions and tomatoes. It's served with a creamy gorgonzola dressing that sets off the tartness in the apple and the walnuts. The tuna salad ($5.75) is also good, with a scoop of peppery white Albacore tuna mixed with red onion and celery on top of romaine lettuce, Kalamata olives and cherry tomatoes. I chose the herb vinaigrette to go with this salad. Though Kalamata olives are not listed as an ingredient in this salad, they were wonderfully flavorful, bursting with a vinegary bite.

Nothing, however, can top what awaits you at the end of your lunch. With each entree comes a small dessert. On one occasion, I got a hunk of chocolate cake lathered with cream cheese frosting. Another time, I received the orange almond cake smothered in cream cheese frosting. Both were fluffy, moist hunks of cake that remind you of why you came here in the first place -- dessert.

What The Prolific Oven has done well for years is turn out some of the finest cakes, cookies, pastries and pies around. They care less about presentation and more about quality -- something I find a lot of bakeries have backward. The Oven's cakes are thick layers with rich frosting. The best example of this is the chocolate on chocolate cake ($3.95 per slice) and the carrot cake ($3.95 per slice). The chocolate cake is rich and fudgey with thick, ganache-like frosting. Likewise, the carrot cake is rife with raisins, walnuts and the sweet taste of carrots. It's topped with some of the best cream cheese frosting ever; it's tangy and fluffy and everything that a carrot cake lover lives for.

The cookies ($1.30 each) are also sublime -- chewy and soft, like they just came from the oven. The best are the oatmeal raisin cookie -- a thin moist biscuit with strong hints of cinnamon and rolled oats -- and the brownie-like chocolate walnut cookie.

Service on every visit was fine and the takeout was swift and easy. You can call in a lunch order that will be ready within 15 minutes. I arrived a bit early, expecting to wait and was promptly given my order. A word to the wise: they seem to run out of croissants fast. The second time I visited The Prolific Oven they were fresh out of the pastry at only noon. They also only accept cash and checks.

On my last visit to The Prolific Oven, my dining companion ordered a heaving slice of carrot cake, unaware that her sandwich would also be accompanied by a small dessert. As we waited for our sandwiches, she looked sheepishly at the carrot cake and asked whether it's bad to have cake before lunch. I smiled and said that I thought it would be OK.
Dining Notes

The Prolific Oven 550 Waverley St., Palo Alto 326-8485
Hours: Monday 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Tuesday-Thursday 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 7 a.m.-11 p.m.; and Sunday 8 a.m.-7 p.m.
Reservations: No Credit cards: No Parking: Lot, street Alcohol: No High chairs: No Outdoor dining: Yes Banquet facilities: No Takeout: Yes Catering: Yes Noise level: Low Bathroom cleanliness: Moderate

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