Bread and circus

Despite upscale pretensions, Eatzi's aims for a lowbrow market. Will it fly?

"You'd better get on down here," my friend said, calling from her cell phone. "It's a real pop festival."

She was talking about Eatzi's, the new store with the ridiculously bad name we've all been watching and waiting for on Oak Lawn.

Everyone knows Eatzi's is a new Brinker "concept," a joint venture with and the brainchild of Phil Romano, the brainboy of Brinker's. Everyone knows it's modeled after Harry's in Atlanta; or Central Market in Austin; or is it the old Dino DiLaurentis FoodShow in New York? (Eatzi's is definitely a major production.) Anyway, wherever the original idea came from--and, it being a Brinker operation, everyone assumes it came from elsewhere--Eatzi's is a sensation, as crowded as Joey's, as hot as the Cowboys. Everyone, including Shannon Wynne and Bill Clements, has been gettin' on down to Eatzi's and taking it to go.

Last Friday night, Eatzi's could not have been less sold out than the Bruce Springsteen concert, and from all accounts I've heard it was a lot more cheerful.

You enter Eatzi's through the kitchen between the foyer and the store. On one side is the bakery, where they're rolling out dozens of loaves of country-style bread; on the other, a regiment of bathtub stockpots is steaming and bubbling under the supervision of tall-toqued chefs (45 of them, according to one report). It's just a preview of the action-packed shopping ahead.

Eatzi's is arranged around a central refrigerated island stocked with prepared foods. You stroll and troll your way around this, perusing the cases and aisles stocked with staples, produce, and ready-to-eat servings. The center case displays everything from appetizers to main courses for lunch and dinner--bowls of bocconcini cheese, olives, artichoke hearts, pasta salad, chicken breasts with rosemary, grilled strips of flank steak, salmon filets in raspberry sauce, thick quesadillas, coconut chicken tenders, mixed vegetables, baked onions. One side is full of fresh meats, fish, and chicken--clean-looking beef steaks, pre-skewered kabobs, stuffed skinned chicken breasts, swordfish steaks, crab cakes. The sign says you can have your meat grilled there, free of charge. On another side are plastic-wrapped pizzas and house-made pasta, spaghetti, linguine, and fettucine in several flavors, and ready-to-cook pasta dishes, stuffed shells, ravioli, and manicotti.

Shopping at Eatzi's is like being inside a Veg-O-Matic: Everywhere you look, someone is slicing, dicing, or chopping. Crowds jostle their way around the central island, calling out their orders--for two servings of meat loaf, an order of eggplant rollatini, vegetable lasagna, quesadillas, coconut chicken--over the loud strains of opera. Lines are jammed into a crowd at the grill, where the cooks are flipping saute pans and cutting up chickens. Every now and then the arias are interrupted by the manager's voice. "Attention shoppers! Focaccia now being sampled at the grill! Walnut-raisin bread in the bakery! Lobster ravioli in the pasta department! JaJa de Jau wine is now on special!" The game plan is, you grab a basket and then try to make it around the store and out the door in time for dinner. Good luck.

So, when you enter, start at your right--stop first to sample the fresh, still-warm bread--it might be cheese-jalape–o or country wheat or sourdough--and some McCutchin's apple or raspberry butter. (By the time you finish shopping at Eatzi's you'll probably be so stuffed with samples that you won't want to eat the food you purchased.) Better buy a loaf while you're here:It's less expensive than Empire Baking Company down the street and just as good, mainly because the head baker is the same guy who opened Empire for its owner, Robert Ozorow. We bought a doughnut-shaped, thick-crusted loaf of striatta and a jar of the butter. Then we had to try the chocolate-orange bread, too.

While you're in this corner, you might as well consider dessert first. This is probably the weakest aspect of Eatzi's operation. The case in the corner is filled with French-style pastries and the refrigerator case is filled with plastic-packaged single-serving takeouts: rice or bread pudding, tiramisu (try one of the samples in the little plastic cups), tarts, everything with its appropriate sauce. The chocolate-chip cookies we tried were the heavy-and-huge variety, the tiramisu was textureless and bland, pound cake was dusty and dry, even the biscotti we bought were half- instead of twice-baked, with doughy centers. (We did find some good Heath-bar brownies. Look for those.) They need a first-rate American cake and muffin baker here, someone who can make a devil's food cake, a cream-cheese carrot cake, or an upside-down cake.

From the bakery, you pass through the grocery and produce section. Eatzi's intends to offer one-stop shopping, so here are the obligatories: onions, potatoes, apples, eggs. The first time I went to Eatzi's, I was pleased that the lettuces (priced competitively with the grocery chains) were not ruined by twist-ties; during the last visit, they had been bound and bruised with rubber bands. It's all window dressing anyway; except for the occasional brown-bag apple, why would you buy this kind of food at a store like Eatzi's?

The next case is packed with premade salads: Cobb with diagonal rows of chopped turkey, bacon, tomatoes, black olives, and blue cheese on a shredded lettuce base; fruit with a rainbow of melon and berries. Complete takeout preportioned meals, including shepherd's pie to sushi, even slightly silly side dishes (cooked white rice for $1.95), are in the next chilled bin at 90 degrees from the salads.

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