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Friday, October 5, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Neighborhood Deals

Supping at the supermarket: the Whole story

Special to The Seattle Times

Whole Foods Market Cafe and Bakery

1026 N.E. 64th St., Seattle, 206-985-1500.

Cafeteria

$

Recommended

Hours: 8 a.m.-10 p.m. daily (coffee bar opens at 7 a.m.).

Major credit cards and checks / beer and wine for sale but no consumption on premises / no obstacles to access if you enter through supermarket.

If natural-food stores are like the Catholic church in their doctrine of abstemious forbearance, then the Whole Foods produce section is the apocryphal pornography collection in the Vatican basement. It's the only place I've ever been moved to use the phrase "beautiful turnips" (at Whole Foods, I mean, not the Vatican; at the Vatican I'd have to say "rapa bella").

Not far from the produce is the fresh sausage case, with no less than 20 varieties at any time. The only problem with the place, besides the steep prices, is that everything looks so good, you wish you could eat it right away.

That must have been the reasoning behind the Whole Foods Cafe, which takes up the southeast corner of the store. Banish the image of week-old lunch meats and imagine prime rib carved to order, seasonal roasted vegetables, and an immaculate salad and burrito bar whose only shortcoming is that one of its dressing options is "Bragg's Liquid Aminos."

The grill offers a daily selection of sausages from that amazing sausage case, but in the spirit of self-sacrifice I opted for pork tenderloin. After the grill cook had extolled the meat's leanness, he said, "I'd recommend that on focaccia with onions, peppers and a Jamaican rum glaze." How can you argue with that?

I nodded assent and watched him pile roasted peppers and onions into a skillet and expertly flip them as he heated them with a bit of that rum glaze. A couple of slices of herbed focaccia went onto the grill, and when they had taken on grill marks, the cook spread one with house-made mayo and more rum glaze, and piled the other with slices of pork and the peppers and onion.

I kept having to remind myself that I was in a supermarket.

You can also select from the well-stocked cheese counter, the freshly baked breads and rolls, or anything from the prepared-food case, which is always stocked with vegan options. There's a counter serving decent pizza (sometimes they'll trumpet their free samples over the loudspeaker), a sushi area and a steam table with options like Indian curries and roast chicken.

Maybe the reason I like the place is that it reminds me of all the options at my college dining hall, only here the food is actually good.

And we haven't even gotten to dessert. No second-rate supermarket baked goods here: Whole Foods has flaky croissants from Le Fournil, buttery sweet rolls in the morning, an archetypal molasses cookie called the Ginger Twinkle, and my favorite bar cookie, the Carmelita.

The cramped seating area is flanked by an espresso bar and a Jamba juice stand. On weekdays at lunchtime it's packed with Roosevelt High students, parents with young children, businesspeople, and UW students, even more eclectic than the average Seattle crowd. Because it's a warehouse-sized supermarket, Whole Foods is noisy and crowded, and by the time you get your food through the checkout line some of it may be cold.

This is not a fine-dining establishment. But the prices are low (unlike the grocery prices), nearly everything is prepared with care, and you can smack yourself on the head and say, "I had a good meal ... at the supermarket!"

Pork tenderloin sandwich: The pork was lean, all right, and a little dry, but pork tenderloin often is, and there was plenty of mayo and Jamaican rum glaze to moisten it. The peppers and onions, nicely caramelized, were ideal, and their juices soaked into the already flavorful and salty focaccia. There was no way to eat this tower as a sandwich, so I enjoyed it open-face and had an extra piece of tasty bread.

Macaroni and cheese: Its only upscale pretension is the use of penne pasta; otherwise, this is a classic mac and cheese that deftly walks the line between Kraft ephemera and the crushing richness of many homemade versions.

Raspberry linzer bar: This jam-filled cookie is fruity and moist. The secret? Lots of butter, of course. Maybe I'm not taking this health-food thing seriously enough.

Carmelita: This is nothing more than the classic Bake-Off-winning caramel bar cookie with nuts, oats and chocolate chips, but Whole Foods does it exceedingly well. Occasionally they're slightly underbaked and mushy; a couple days on the counter would probably firm them up, but no Carmelita has ever spent more than a few minutes on my counter.

Itemized bill, meal for two:

Pork tenderloin sandwich: $5.99

Macaroni and cheese: $2.64 ($4.99 per pound)

Curried carrot soup: $2.49

Assorted salad bar: $2.91 ($5.49 per pound)

Raspberry linzer bar: $1.49

Carmelita: $1.79

Organic apple juice: $0.99

Orangina: $1.19

Tax: $1.40 (Some items are taxable, some not.)

TOTAL: $20.89

Matthew Amster-Burton can be reached at mamster@mamster.net.

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