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Betsy Block

Restaurant Review: New England Soup Factory

Well, the Campbell's people had one thing right: Soup is good food. At least, it starts out that way. But imprison it in a can, store it on the supermarket shelf for a year or so, and let's just say you haven't done the soup lobby any favors.

So it's lucky for us Boston-based can-haters that we have the New England Soup Factory. The folks here know that at its best, soup is a meal in a bowl. Place a few crusty rolls on the side, slurp and dunk, and minutes later you're good to go. Locals who live or work near the store's Brookline, Newton or Boylston Street locations have easy access to a changing roster of fresh, homemade zuppa at this bastion of takeout. Lucky them.

I love soup. Who doesn't? But what makes it lovable is its character. Too many shops chuck some tired vegetables into a pot of watery stock and call it the real thing. Listen up, you big chains: You can't make soup without adding a dash of love along with the salt. Didn't you know that?

Marjorie Druker and her husband Paul Brophy do. I bet that when Marjorie has friends over for dinner she serves them too much food. And when it comes to soup, she and her husband think big and bold: Thick, spicy, salty bases are home to all sorts of chunky meat, seafood and veggie combinations. There are no identity crises here; both the food and the decor are writ large. The Soup Factory palette is yellow, purple, lime green; the food boasts lots of herbs and tons of personality.

The house specialty of chicken vegetable soup is a saline wonder with chunks of breast meat and gigantic carrot rounds. Tiny noodles are added a la minute. The corn and clam chowder is thick, creamy and rich. (We all knew about pairing tarragon and lobster, but now we learn that this sweet herb works with clams, too.) Do pumpkin and crab make a happy couple? One taste of the thick, spicy, salty pumpkin and crab puree proves that they do, indeed.

But say you're someone who hates soup. Fortunately, there's plenty for you, too, in the form of salads, entrees, sandwiches and lots of house-made desserts. You can try sweet, tangy barbecued chicken; bright, fresh salads (the sesame noodles in the Oriental chicken salad pack a spicy punch); or a twice-baked potato that rings in at seven bucks and measures nearly a foot. Is a potato this big a good thing? I'm not sure, but at least it tastes good, even if it might leave me glowing in a sort of genetically-modified, possibly irradiated way.

As for desserts, they're filled with buttery, creamy, chocolatey, nutty goodness. Everything I tried - pound cakes and brownies, bread puddings and lemon squares, oh, toffee bars and I forget what else -- satisfied my ever-expanding inner child.

Not everything hits the mark, though. On one visit the beef stew was mushy and contained hardly any meat or veggies, but I have only myself to blame for ordering it. That's because I could have asked for a taste, which they graciously proffer even if there's a line of customers out the door. Definitely ask for one before committing to something as important as dinner.

One more thing: The restaurant's name is misleading. There's nothing factory-like about this place. After five years, I expected the Brookline storefront to look a little dingier, the colors dull, scuff marks on the walls. You know, battle fatigue, or the five-year itch. Instead, the opposite has happened. Not only is the space just as bright and the service as upbeat as it was when it opened, but the menu has grown. (One note, though: It would be great if they recycled all those plastic containers.)

I have two main problems with the New England Soup Factory. One is that being there brings out my greedy side (I want everything), and two is that there's not one in my neighborhood. Marjorie, call me. We'll talk soup.