The budget epicure

Eating out for lunch can pose something of a dilemma. When you go out for dinner, you expect to spend some time—and that’s no problem, usually, because you have no place to be, unless there’s a Kings game on the tube. And breakfast is not usually a problem, either; on the weekends, you can kick back and enjoy a leisurely meal. But at lunch, you’re faced with trying to cram some food into an hour that, for most professionals, is also devoted to running pesky errands like dropping off dry cleaning or paying bills. Sure, you can make a fast-food run, but a steady diet of Taco Bell and McDonald’s can get pretty monotonous.

Attractive, high-quality lunch places that will get you in and out the door quickly are worth their weight in gold. Luckily for those of us who live in the hinterlands, Pluto’s has outposts now in Davis and Roseville. Pluto’s, whose slogan is “Fresh Food for a Hungry Universe,” works via a concept that has proved highly successful for chains like Fresh Choice and Boston Market, but with a more upscale twist. You walk in and grab a guest check/menu from a central kiosk. Then, you proceed in a line around the food stations—Greens & Things, Meat & Poultry and Veggies & Spuds—and then to the cashier. As a diner makes a choice, a server punches the diner’s ticket, making for more streamlined service.

What sets Pluto’s apart from an ordinary cafeteria is the quality of the food and the ambience. The setting is warm and inviting, with a sort of Starbucks feel to its décor. Seating choices include a small counter and tables facing an exceptionally high-backed banquette running the length of the room. A low wall prevents the line of diners waiting their turn at the stations from spilling into the dining area.

The food, too, is exceptional, with an emphasis on fresh produce and enormous servings. All meats are freshly roasted or grilled and are carved to order. The salads of farmers’ greens are huge and can be ordered plain or with a topping of grilled chicken or marinated flank steak. Prices range from $3.95 for a side Caesar salad to $5.80 for a main-dish salad topped with sliced steak. “Fixings,” or toppings, include standard offerings such as cucumber and plum tomatoes as well as more exotic fare—grilled fennel, roasted peppers and jicama.

I’m a fool for a well-constructed sandwich, and Pluto’s delivers. All sandwiches ($5.15-$5.75) are served on a choice of fresh-baked sourdough or herbed focaccia (real focaccia). Meat options include grilled and marinated flank steak, herb-roasted Sonoma turkey, grilled herbed chicken and smoked poultry sausage. Vegetarians can sink their teeth into a sandwich of grilled eggplant and roasted red pepper or try the grilled portabella mushroom. Pluto’s also offers a special, the celestial sandwich of the week, for $5.75. On a recent visit, this proved to be tri-tip on focaccia, layered with a gorgonzola spread, avocado, sliced pear, caramelized onions, watercress and tomatoes. This may sound like a mess, but the flavors harmonized perfectly. Pears taste great with a strong cheese and bitter greens, but I would never have considered putting them into a sandwich. Yum.

If the special sounds too complicated for you, you can’t go wrong with just a plain old sandwich. The flank-steak and the roasted-turkey sandwiches were equally good, with the meat tender and flavorful and the mixed greens adding some textural interest. Diners also can opt for any of the meats on their own ($3.75-$3.95) or accompanied with a staggering selection of side dishes ($1.60-$1.80). The smashed spuds of the day come with your choice of beef sherry or turkey gravy. Though good, they were not exceptional, but this was probably because of the chef’s light hand with butter and other fats. The mushrooms of the moment on a recent visit were strongly flavored with fennel. They grew on me after the first few bites, but fennel haters might do well to bypass this dish. And only diehard garlic lovers should order Saturn’s garlic potato rings; these crunchy curly fries come heaped with chopped raw garlic and parsley.

Because of the setup of the restaurants, you are really at the mercy of the servers. One slow carver can make a line move more slowly than it should. And one good wave of UC Davis students or Galleria shoppers can pack these places in a hurry. But if the stars are in alignment, you can get your food, stuff yourself silly and be out the door in about 20 minutes. Pluto’s is worth taking a chance on.