A chain restaurant that specializes in sandwiches, salads, soups and pizza sets my expectation level at “meh.” Newk’s Eatery, however, turns it up a few notches, to “hmm.”
The Mississippi-based chain spread mostly throughout the Southeast recently arrived in Baton Rouge’s Towne Center (another is planned near LSU) and proves the adage that if you limit yourself to what you know how to do — even if it’s relatively common fare — you’ll probably do all right. My review visit this week was my first. I’ve already made another on my own dime.
Newk’s is geared to those who are interested in food that’s light, fresh and a touch creative. Almost everything on the menu seems interesting, and if it isn’t interesting enough, just pass by the condiments table to see how you might dress things up.
A side note: This marks one of the few times I’ve particularly noticed a condiments table, and definitely the first time to remark on one in a restaurant review. Usually, it’s a place to pick up a little extra mustard, mayo or ketchup for a sandwich, maybe some relish or hot sauce.
Hot sauce, you say. Newk’s has three distinctive brands: Tabasco, Cholula and Sriracha. Plus roasted garlic, shredded sport peppers, pickles, jalapenos, bread sticks and dry spices. It wouldn’t take much effort to convert any dish to something the kitchen wouldn’t recognize.
Consider that last sentence an illustration, not advice. We liked our food without extra adornment.
From the list of a dozen artisan pizzas, we tried the Mediterranean ($8.75), which features grilled chicken breast slices, sliced Roma tomatoes, kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, feta and mozzarella cheese and diced red onions. This is a fairly dry pizza, since it lacks tomato sauce, but it works quite well, in no small part due to the crust, which has the softness of quality po-boy bread — even on the bottom. Whether the pizzas with sauce use the same crust or a more traditional, crisp crust to keep things from getting too messy to eat will require another visit.
Each day, Newk’s cooks up a different set of soups. Tuesday’s selections included lobster crab bisque, which we paired with half of a sandwich called The Royal as one of the menu’s combo options ($8.39). The pumpkin-colored bisque was creamy and tasty. You could taste the seafood, cooked down substantially, so don’t expect much in the way of chunks of crab or lobster. The Royal was a modest, but good-looking rectangle of Parisian-style French bread filled with ham, salami, roast beef and turkey, Swiss cheese, Romaine lettuce, tomato, mayo and Creole mustard. The bread was toasted and is a specialty of Newk’s. All that meat makes this sound like a heavy sandwich, but that was not the case. There was enough of each ingredient to register its presence, but nothing overwhelmed, and the Cajun mustard mixed with mayo gave it a welcome bite.
Our other combo sampling included half of a club sandwich and mac and cheese, which the menu suggests is a side order in which Newk’s takes particular pride. It shows. The creamy mixture of Asiago, Vermont white cheddar, imported Parmesan and Ammerlander Swiss cheeses is topped with yellow cheddar and baked. It is a higher form of macaroni and cheese good enough for you to forget that blue box variety ever existed.
All the sandwich ingredients — smoked ham, roasted turkey, thick-cut bacon, fresh lettuce and tomatoes and two types of cheese — were high-quality, and the honey mustard complemented the flavors instead of overpowering them. The bread was perfect. With a crispy crust and soft inside, it was not as chewy as some French breads.
We were likewise pleased with the Greek salad ($6.99). Served in a large red bowl, it was pretty to look at and tasty with each bite. Romaine lettuce, feta cheese crumbles, artichoke hearts, imported Kalamata olives, cucumbers, crunchy pepperoncini peppers, sliced red onion and grape tomatoes were all tossed together and well-coated with a flavorful made-from-scratch Greek dressing. All the components were in the right proportions so as to get a nice mixture of flavors with each forkful (no pile of lettuce left over there).
There are several cakes, brownies and crispy treats on the dessert menu, and the red velvet cake ($3.49) is delightfully moist and satisfying.
Also worth noting: Customers pay after ordering at the counter, and the credit card receipt leaves no place to record a tip. When asked, the cashier said Newk’s discourages tipping.