The Supermarket As Restaurant

Market-prepared foods are giving restaurants a run for their money.


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(page 2 of 5)


When I got dinner on the table, the food was, well, uneven.

Best was the seared ahi—or as Whole Foods redundantly calls it, seared ahi tuna.

This was ahi as steak—sashimi grade, deep red in the middle, flavored along the seared crust with wasabi, ginger, green onion, garlic, a bit of cilantro. The only thing I could see wrong with this was that it cost $21.99 a pound. Three pieces, each about as big around as an orange slice, weighed more than a quarter pound. “Eat up,” I insisted. “These are $2 a slice.”

They were good enough, however, that I didn’t want to dwell on price. Three slices, some greens, a nice sesame dressing, and you’d have a fine light dinner for one.

My three slices of chipotle lime London broil were nowhere near as successful, and almost equally expensive. These were interesting in the sense that they had been marinated in tomato and lime juices, honey, garlic, cilantro, oregano and cumin, giving a kind of kick to the outside. But this was top round, not roast beef, overcooked and tough. At $15.99 a pound, this baby isn’t going to get many dinner invitations.

Whole Foods’ crab cakes were made with whole wheat breadcrumbs, in case you are terrified of refined flour. Almost every market I visited had crab cakes or something like them; none worked. How could they? Crab cakes are good when you eat them immediately, not when they’re cooked, cooled and then zapped in the microwave. Save your $5.29, which is what they cost apiece.

We applauded the $10-a-pound pizza, right out of the pizza oven, thin crust in the Italian style, authentic tomato sauce, excellent mozzarella, slices of a flavorful, large pepperoni. But a pound is not a lot of pizza, so maybe you’d be better off with takeout from California Pizza Kitchen next door.

On the advice of the woman next to me in line, I purchased a container of raw kale salad. Kale is a crunchy, bitter green. I thought it was brilliant, lightly dressed in olive oil and lemon juice, its bitter edge set off by dried cranberries and toasty pine nuts. Nobody else would take the smallest bite.

Far more popular was the caprese—a classic tomato and fresh mozzarella salad. Also, I’d heavily loaded my salad bar container with Ha-ma-kua mushrooms, not a bad bargain at $8.99 a pound. They taste great all by themselves, dipped in Whole Foods sesame dressing.

Finally, I bought two less high-tone items, a Mainland-style potato salad with eggs and celery, and a container of mac salad. I took a forkful of mac salad and thought, “At last.”

My wife, who grew up here, took her first forkful and said, “These people need to go to Zippy’s and learn to make this.”

Whole Food’s mac salad is Mainland style. It has tang: cider vinegar, mustard, sour cream, bell peppers and, instead of bottled pickle relish, cured cucumbers and cauliflower. It’s got crunch, flavor and acid to balance the mayo.

Much as I’ve adapted to local-style mac salad, it’s merely an excuse to break out the Best Foods. Whole Foods may have to change, though at $9 a pound, I doubt it’s going to sell a lot of mac salad, except possibly to me.

Whole Foods differentiates itself by selling food that’s organic and “natural,” with meat from humanely treated animals (though how you humanely treat a crab is a mystery to me).

I can’t comment except to say the prepared food at least seemed fresh and alive with flavor. Especially as I washed it down with Whole Foods’ “certified organic” Greenbridge chardonnay, produced south of San Jose in an area of California more noted for garlic and outlet malls than wine grapes. Still, at $9.99 a bottle, not bad, and it was the only part of the meal that seemed like a bargain.

“You ate the wrong stuff,” said a friend when I recounted my Whole Foods adventure. “Try the hot food.” When I returned, I couldn’t bring myself to sample the steam table offerings, which looked a little sad at 7 p.m. But the Asian food counter was bustling—and this is where Whole Foods shines.

The udon has al dente noodles in a classic broth (the broth comes in a separate container, should you wish to take it home), all under a soft carapace of spinach and seaweed.

But let me extol the kimchee fried rice, grilled to order. It comes with fresh tofu squares on top and lots of chopped zucchini and summer squash, adding some nice texture contrasts. But it’s meatless—no Portuguese sausage, no bacon, no SPAM even.

Still, it’s incredibly “meaty,” because it’s made with the kind of kimchee that includes shrimp paste. That disqualifies it at the last minute from being vegetarian, but qualifies it as rich, warm, spicy and a joy to eat. You get 10 ounces for $7.35, too much for one. Even me, and I really tried.
 

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