"'Artisan' is rapidly replacing 'all-natural' as the meaningless claim of choice among food manufacturers."

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Photographs by Robyn Lee

Starbucks

Service: Starbucks-friendly
Compare It To: Dunkin Donuts, McDonald's, your local deli
Must-Haves: Artisan bacon sandwich, artisan ham sandwich
Cost: $3.95 for a 12-ounce drip coffee or latte with a sandwich, oatmeal, or coffee cake
Grade: Business class for "Artisan" sandwiches
Coach standby for oatmeal and reduced fat coffee cake

I don't know why, but the Serious Eaters, especially Erin, seem to be obsessed with Starbucks' breakfast offerings. All right, all right, I'll admit I'm kind of obsessed as well, and not just with breakfast.

I think it's the combination of the Shakespearean, almost Wagnerian drama that has enveloped the company. Here's the story arc: First everybody loved Starbucks, then Starbucks became the evil caffeine empire, and now it's fighting for its collective life and identity. Hey, now I understand why we're all fascinated by the goings-on at Starbucks. It's interesting stuff.

Especially their attempts at breakfast, which have been marred by the fact that no cooking ever takes place at a Starbucks. These paragraphs from a recent New York Times article tell all:

The food development team spent a year creating two breakfast sandwiches for the pairings. Although the eggs and cheese are mixed in huge vats, poured into tins, baked, frozen and shipped to distribution centers to be assembled, they wanted them to look freshly made to appeal to people who do not like fast-food outlets.

At first, the manufacturer that supplies Starbucks with egg patties came up with perfectly round eggs from a mold. Starbucks rejected them, asking for a more free-form mold to look more like the shape of a freshly cracked egg, said Lani Lindsey Sordello, Starbucks’s director for food and bakery. Starbucks’s food scientists mixed parmesan cheese with the egg to prevent the smell from seeping into the stores and overwhelming the smell of coffee.

The basic problem is that Starbucks breakfast food is essentially airline food formulated by food scientists. So the Serious Eaters ventured to our local Starbucks to see if the new sandwiches were first, business, or coach class.

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First up is the Artisan Bacon Sandwich, described in a Starbucks press release as "a flavorful, bakery-style sandwich made with a Parmesan egg frittata, four smoked bacon slices, and Gouda cheese on a perfectly baked, hand-shaped artisan roll."

Artisan is rapidly replacing all-natural as the meaningless claim of choice among food manufacturers. I emailed the Starbucks press department asking which artisan makes their artisan bacon and ham. No word as of yet from what I call the Coffee Intelligence Agency (CIA).

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Anyway, no matter what Starbucks' definition of artisan is, this is a surprising, almost shockingly tasty breakfast sandwich ($3.95, including a tall drip coffee), worthy of being served on a first-class flight. The food scientists have figured how to make the eggs look and taste like eggs instead of the stiff yellow ridge of protein matter that goes into the other still-available egg sandwiches at Starbucks. The bacon is crisp without being incinerated, the cheese is appropriately cheesy, and the artisan roll is an acceptable, most assuredly not artisanally made roll that is crunchy without being rock hard. And, according to the Starbucks food scientists, this baby has less than 400 calories.

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The Artisan Ham Sandwich (also $3.95, including the coffee), described in the aforementioned press release as "a delightful combination made with a Parmesan egg frittata, three slices of Black Forest ham, and mild cheddar on an artisan roll," may be even better. The Black Forest ham has plenty of smoky flavor and, let's face it, ham and melted cheddar go mighty good together.

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Reduced fat coffee cake and "Perfect Oatmeal."

Other new money-saving Starbucks combos include a wretched reduced fat coffeecake and the disastrously named Perfect Oatmeal (for $3.95 each of these comes with a tall latte), which is way less than perfect. If you have a hankering for quickly served oatmeal, go to your local Jamba Juice (it was our favorite in a recent fast-food oatmeal taste test). And if it's coffee cake you're looking for, opt for the classic coffee cake from Starbucks and just eat half.

You have to hand it to Starbucks. In their effort to serve the breakfast-sandwich-loving public (that includes me, to be sure) they have kept on keeping on. The "artisan" bacon and ham sandwiches are two small steps for breakfast sandwich kind.

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