Supermarket Smackdown

Is Central Market worth it?

A few millennia ago, the Spartans settled a dispute by sending a single warrior to face the enemy's fiercest man in what ancient texts called "the battle of the champions." To the victor went control of the Peloponnisos.

We devised a similar test in response to this week's Burning Question: a cage match pitting Central Market against Whole Foods and Tom Thumb. At stake is America's complicated relationship with mass consumption, our alternating faith in past and progress, the oft-bitter rivalry between convenience and quality.

In other words, is Central Market really worth it?

You see, food has become a battleground, a disputed territory between multinational corporations rapidly assimilating all cultures into a homogenous McWorld vs. proponents of "slow foods" or quality ingredients. Stepping into a typical supermarket, shoppers encounter stacks of promotional items, banking facilities, cardboard Jeff Gordon props, oh, and food. Grocery stores have become massive convenience outlets. More than 90 percent sell greetings cards, almost half offer pharmacies and one in five provides gasoline. Their hallmarks are consistency, blandness and the brand name.

At Central Market, on the other hand, shoppers may catch a glimpse of some food item through a momentary, and all too narrow, breach in the crowd. To enter the place on a weekend is to experience a human traffic jam. Yet stalwarts will put up with the inconvenience, just so long as they have access to star fruit and Devon cream butter.

"At Central Market, the quality is there," says Marc Cassel, chef at the Green Room. "I go screaming from Albertson's and those places."

While a typical grocery store carries more than 30,000 mostly prepackaged items, Central Market stocks 30,000 different fresh tomatoes, or so it seems. Actually, they sell more than 700 produce varieties, 100 types of fish and seafood and so on. The Test
Three of Dallas' best chefs--Cassel from the Green Room, Gilbert Garza of Suze and David McMillan at Nana--agreed to participate in a scientific experiment so airtight, the results must be considered unassailable.

Granted, they only agreed after the Burning Question crew threatened to become regulars at their establishments should they refuse to participate, but still.

We gave them each $25 (the most we could pry from our editor's clenched fists; fortunately it matches the average per-customer transaction at American supermarkets, according to the Food Marketing Institute) and asked them to prepare meals created from ingredients purchased at one of the aforementioned stores. The experiment presumed the existence of a pantry. In other words, the chefs could use salt, pepper and other basic staples from their restaurant kitchens. Otherwise, everything came straight from the store.

Garza drew Whole Foods, Cassel pulled Central Market from the hat (actually a used Styrofoam cup) and McMillan got Tom Thumb.

His words when we revealed the news: "You suck."

To judge the event, we called upon an accumulation of talent not seen since Marcia Clark assembled Nicole Brown Simpson's legal team: chef Nick Badovinus of Cuba Libre, Bamboo Bamboo and Sense; Jim White, host of the KRLD Restaurant Show and critic for eatsanddrinks.com; and Brooke Gregory, an occasional Burning Question crew member who had never dined at a fine restaurant because she's generally comatose by the end of happy hour.

Of course, that could be said of any crew member.

Gregory, for one, was skeptical of our experiment's structure. Chefs, she reasoned, would skew the results: "Their main concern is taste, not getting the four food groups in." For the record, the Burning Question crew considers those groups to be salt (chips, bacon), sugar (cookies, gelato), coffee and alcohol. The Dinners
Suze (Whole Foods).Garza prepared four courses, starting with Ruby trout doused in cracked black pepper and lime juice. "I'd like to see people put that on the menu," White says. "It was an inspired choice." Inspired, and inexpensive: Garza bought one trout for $5.09 and sliced it thin. He shelled out an additional 50 cents for limes. Next he served a plum tomato and baby arugula salad with a balsamic reduction glacé, followed by braised rib (one each) over risotto, drizzled with hollandaise. "One of the most balanced presentations I've experienced," according to White.

The trick, Badovinus explains, is to satisfy the palate rather than stuff the plate. "It's a flavor-reward system," he says. "You don't need to overwhelm." Indeed, a whopping $1.69 worth of ribs and a $3.29 package of risotto worked for four people. "I couldn't eat the whole thing," Gregory agrees.

"The dish was great," Badovinus concludes. "It shows what you can do with a less expensive cut of meat and the correct method."

For dessert, Garza whipped up a bread pudding with blackberries reduced in orange and white wine. The wine perhaps pushed the limits a bit--he grabbed some from the restaurant's stock--and he slipped a bit on the spending rules, cashing out at $26.24.

"The biggest challenge was finding good product in small quantities," Garza says of the experience. Green Room (Central Market). Badovinus suggested early on that Central Market offered the greatest challenge under the rules. The place simply costs more than a traditional supermarket.

"I will say what they had was expensive," Cassel acknowledges. "There was a lot I wanted to use but couldn't afford."

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