There aren't a lot of gimmicks left in the restaurant industry that haven't been played out ad nauseam in both independent and chain spots, even here in the often behind-the-times Bay area dining scene. I'm talking novelty that's not just for novelty's sake, and innovation that appeals to the needs of the customers. But that kind of innovation is exactly what new downtown Tampa restaurant Fresh has to offer, thanks to a devotion to breakfast cereal.
A coffee shop/cereal bar concept made a go of it in downtown St. Pete a few years back, but never caught on, perhaps because the potential of the genre wasn't pushed to its limit and the non-cereal options were extremely limited. Not so at Fresh. Here, cereal is just one part of a greater formula involving sandwiches and salads, featuring an overwhelming multitude of choices, along with pre-set dishes that remove stress for the chronically indecisive.
Save the cereal for dessert, if you can, and start with the basics. Sandwiches are pressed like panini and assembled from dozens of potential ingredients, from grilled chicken or sliced meat to the usual veggies and cheeses, along with more esoteric add-ons like bacon-infused Russian dressing or thinly sliced granny smith apples. Although Fresh prides itself on making everything possible in-house — like roast turkey or corned beef, and all the sauces and dressings — none of the ingredients shine like they could, and the sandwiches are hampered by the very basic sliced wheat and white that are the only bread options.
Why a massive salad bar of fixin's but only the most boring bread options? Not sure, but the result are sandwiches that are tasty, but never titillating.
Of course, you can take better advantage of Fresh's more than 100 prepared ingredients by just ordering a salad. There are a couple dozen combinations on the big board behind the salad bar, or you can start pointing out things to include on a whim, trusting to fate to make a good match. Those ingredients live up to the restaurant's name, and there are well over two-dozen different dressings to douse them in, ranging from subtle miso to powerful steakhouse Moody Blue cheese.
There are also two homemade soups available, but Fresh's strong point is more in offering ingredients than actual cooking — the restaurant's chili is bitter with dried herbs, while garlic potato soup has a viscous texture and single-minded pungency that would require a serious amount of mouthwash before returning to a work environment.
The saving grace are the prices — under $8 for salads, under $7 for sandwiches — all low enough to make Fresh a fine choice for a quick lunch or dinner. And anyway, all that sandwich/salad stuff is just a pretense for the main course: breakfast cereal, and lots of it.
Fresh has a short bar built into the front of dining room, facing a massive wall of canisters loaded with every sugary cereal you were denied as a child — or deny yourself as an adult. Above that are two flat-screen televisions, one playing sports or news, the other blaring Nickelodeon. Chances are, however, your eyes will be focused on the bowl in front of you.
Actually, bowl isn't quite right. Fresh serves its cereal in clever paper containers, sturdy and milk-tight, perfect for eating in or taking out and big enough for a hearty bowl. For $3.69 you can fill yours with a mix-and-match of up to three different cereals and two toppings, with the additional option of adding a shot of flavor to your milk. What toppings? Gummy bears and crushed Oreos, nuts and dried or fresh fruit, chocolate syrup and vanilla frosting. It's enough to make you clutch your chest in painful delight.
Fresh's pre-set combinations are worth an order, especially the decadent "cupcake" — Chex, Cocoa Pebbles, strawberries, mini M&Ms and vanilla frosting — or the deceptively healthy "special" — Crunch Berry, Special K Red, strawberries and strawberry milk. If you want real health food at Fresh's cereal bar, you'll have to arrive before 11 a.m., when the restaurant dishes out hearty steel-cut oatmeal. Don't worry, you can still load that steaming bowl of cholesterol-fighting whole grain with as much candy and sugar as you'd like.
The cereal makes an excellent dessert — or indulgent dinner — but it also points out the fundamental problem (and power) inherent in Fresh's concept: None of the food is better than what you could make for yourself at home, but chances are you'd never go to the trouble of assembling the ingredients yourself.
That's even more apparent when it comes to the cereal bar. Sure, a bowl at Fresh is about the same price as a whole box of Captain Crunch, but do you really want that box staring you in the face every morning? Better to use Fresh to limit your intake to an occasional indulgence. And to give you the permission to glaze your cereal in frosting and chocolate syrup.
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