Almost home-cooking

For the last few years, food-industry analysts have been babbling about a significant food-service trend emerging in response to consumer demands for freshly prepared packaged foods that can be reheated and eaten at home. The chatter has been on how this new trend is blurring the line between supermarket and restaurant. They've even coined a name for the shift: home meal replacement, or HMR.

For whom is HMR significant? People who wish to dine at home but who do not have the time or talent to prepare a complete meal. In other words, those of us whose gourmet repertoire is pretty much limited to aerosol cheese spread and anchovy paste on nine-grain bread.

The trend reportedly is swamping the food-service industry at such a fast clip that some restaurateurs actually consider grocery stores among their biggest competitors. Yet judging by the stuff proffered at more than a few grocery store chains, the only businesses that should be worried about this kind of competition are quick-lube shops.

Dining establishments remained worried though, especially when the market gave birth to Eatzi's, perhaps the most successful obfuscator of that blurring restaurant-supermarket line. Here was a gourmet grocer serving real "quick quality" food that was far more than edible--it actually tasted good. And Brinker International, Eatzi's owner, claims that 95 percent of food items purchased at its exceptionally cramped markets are consumed off-premise, which isn't too hard to understand as most Eatzi's customers wait to get off premise to do their breathing too.

Space is not a problem at Bon Vivant Market, the new gourmet grocer in Plano. With its warm, roomy interior soaked in muted yellows, and a wide center-island case loaded with pasta salads, fresh seafood, and prepared meats such as herb-encrusted tenderloin, you actually have time to browse for a meal without quickly shifting back and forth like a cowboy in a six-shooter jig while other people try to get by. There's also plenty of room to park, sit down, and eat, as this market has a relatively spacious bistro area with tall wooden counter chairs next to a narrow counter along with metal tables and chairs and patio seating. There's also a cold drink and espresso bar, a bakery offering fresh breads and rolls, a fairly broad selection of oils, vinegars, sauces, spices, produce, and other foods, and a full-service floral design studio.

And unlike Eatzi's, Bon Vivant has a vigorous wine focus with a separate department and a knowledgeable manager (Michael Winter) on hand to answer questions. Sure, they stock Wonder-bread labels such as Kendall Jackson. But they also have an intriguing collection of eclectic wines such as Sky Zinfandel, a light-bodied California red made by back-to-the-earth hippies, and Bonny Doon Pacific Rim Dry Riesling, a crisp, racy wine with clean fruit and a provocatively quirky label. And the prices aren't bad either. A bottle of Perrin Reserve Cotes du Rhone is just 10 bucks, while a Georges Duboeuf Syrah was only $7. And these are wonderful everyday wines, far better than the dreck you'll find in the supermarket in this price range.

The only drawback to this wine department is its location: Collin County. Because of local laws, Bon Vivant cannot legally sell packaged wine and beer and serve it from the same establishment. "In Collin County, they don't say that we're wet; they say that we're moist," says Leslie Ingendorf, who owns Bon Vivant with her husband, Jim.

Ingendorf says she and her husband, who worked in her father's wholesale produce business, have been developing this market concept for seven years. "What we are trying to create with the market is to bridge the gap somewhat between restaurant and grocery store," she says. "We wanted to provide restaurant-quality meals in a market environment." This all sounds rather canned and derivative considering all of the market trend talk as of late. But you have to remember that the Ingendorfs mapped this out years ago. In fact, Bon Vivant was incorporated in April 1995, almost a year before Eatzi's opened.

Does Bon Vivant succeed in its quest to build this bridge? Sort of. Everyone in the place is friendly and exceptionally accommodating. The gentleman behind the coffee bar constantly keeps his eyes peeled in the bistro, clearing tables and anticipating guest needs as if he were a tip-collecting server. Priceless conscientiousness, that--especially when you consider that the most you'll get from Eatzi's employees is a polite request to get your butt out of the way.

Yet despite corralling the talents of Dan O'Leary, who was once executive sous chef and chef de cuisine at the Mansion as well as executive chef at the Crescent and Fog City, more than a few of Bon Vivant's offerings were disappointments.

Sesame chicken--strips of chicken with a coating mixed with white and black sesame seeds--was waxy, dry, and chewy. But an accompanying cup of rich sweet-and-sour plum sauce added a good layer of flavor, mostly by masking the deficiencies of the thing being dipped. The rotisserie chicken picked up on this parched theme and developed it with a healthy dose of oozing chicken cellulite.  

While the Caesar salad was composed of fresh ingredients, the overall construction was a limp affair burdened with a dressing laden with an off-putting pungency.

Though slightly thin and tough, the grilled ribeye proved far better than the other samplings. The steak had a generously rich meat flavor accompanied by a side of perfectly cooked rice and steamed carrots that were crisp at the core and surrounded by a sweet, yielding exterior.

A peppermill turkey sandwich was quite good, with thin slices of tasty turkey and fresh bread. But the tomatoes were colorless, waxy, and void of flavor.

The chicken calzone, however, was another under-performer in this HMR roster. Speckled with zucchini, yellow squash, and large chunks of chicken in a melding of gooey cheese, this wood-fire baked pocket had a thick, dry crust and a distinct lack of engaging seasonings.

Bon Vivant is certainly a more approachable and less exasperating place to shop than Eatzi's. But it has none of the energy or sex appeal the Brinker sensation seems to drool forth as effortlessly as meat juices flow from a rotisserie. Absent are the robust sounds, the heady smells, and the intense splashes of color on the produce that often deceptively indicate freshness (Eatzi's Roma tomatoes are almost unnaturally saturated with color and brightness). Bon Vivant is crisp, clean and convenient, but it needs an aggressive infusion of gourmet lust to effectively complete the seduction.

There are plenty of stories about hidden dining treasures unearthed in quirky, out-of-the-way places--the hole in the wall that might not be much to look at but serves breathtakingly exquisite food. And because it's so off-the-beaten track, its pleasures are known only to those who happen on it or are within earshot of its word-of-mouth praises. When I first happened on Paesano's, I was primed for one of these ugly-duckling transformations.

All the components were there. Paesano's is located in a disheveled part of Plano on 14th Street just east of North Central Expressway. The lighted sign in the back of the whitewashed restaurant has only the first couple of letters in its name illuminated. The road along its side is thin and badly patched, making the approach a bit gut-jumbling. Directly in front of the restaurant is a used car lot displaying cars that look like they should spend what remains of their lifespans traversing a figure-eight track. Scattered in the back of that lot, the part directly in font of Paesano's, is a host of decaying wrecks with blown-out windows, hoods sticking up in the air, and engine guts spilling out onto the ground.

Needless to say, Paesano's has no valet.
Fortunately, things are a bit tidier on the inside. The spacious dining room with a wooden-slat and wood-beam ceiling and an open kitchen is simply furnished, holding several wooden tables and chairs and a row of narrow booths stretched over one wall. The booth seating is covered in green fabric, and sections of gray institutional carpeting cover the wall just above the tables and just below a narrow window slit covered with white and green valances. Fake grape vines are threaded through the beams and along the walls. In the bar, fastened to black metal grates hanging on the walls, are various holograms of such things as human faces and wild animals.

Even with service that is as friendly and attentive as you could hope for, it's all just a little odd. And unfortunately, instead of a culinary swan arising out of this quirky clean hole-in-the wall ambiance, the ugly duckling hangs on and waddles across the menu too. Chef Artur Pira describes the menu as meshing of Northern and Southern Italian with Mediterranean touches. But the only thing you can say about this menu for sure is that far too much of it is either improperly or inadequately seasoned.

With generous helpings of carrots, potato chunks, mushrooms, celery, broccoli, and spinach, the minestrone soup held promise. But the thin broth, served lukewarm, lacked rich, robust flavors. The house salad proved much better, with fresh mushrooms, green and black olives, cucumbers, feta cheese, onions, red and green bell peppers, and fresh greens in a light, lively vinaigrette.

Watery to the point of sogginess, the mollusks in the mussels pomodoro were completely lacking firmness in both texture and flavor. A sauce of pomodoro tomatoes, garlic, shallots, basil, dry white wine, and clam juice did little to compensate.  

The veal piccata was utterly dumbfounding. Not only did the thin slice of veal have an off flavor, as if it had been freezer-burned, the thing was drowning in an overly acidic gelatinous white wine butter sauce speckled with capers. The light flour coating on the veal thickened the sauce to the point that it covered the meat like a layer of slime. A side of pasta with marinara sauce was served on the same plate with the veal--an odd pairing indeed.

That odd freezer-burned meat flavor carried over to the roasted leg of lamb, which, slightly tough and very fatty, was sliced and served in a port reduction with sauteed carrots, mushrooms, onions, and celery. While the sauce was fair, the meat was unrecoverable.

Other selections were a bit of an improvement. The baked lasagna, with ground beef and veal, had a variety of cheeses including ricotta, mozzarella, asiago, a touch of cream cheese for smoothness, and a melted blanket of smoked provolone over the top. But the sauce had no rich zestiness, and despite the use of fresh basil, oregano, and garlic, the whole construction tasted completely unseasoned. The vegetable pizza was perhaps the best thing tried here. With green olives, red and green bell peppers, red onions, and mushrooms, the pizza had a crisp, chewy crust, the perfect smothering of cheeses and crisp vegetables. The sauce, however, was a bit lame.

Which at least denotes a high degree of consistency, something that will help your meal go down easier. Especially if you're coming here to celebrate the purchase of a car from the place next door.

Bon Vivant. 1801 Preston Road, Plano, (972) 818-1177. Open daily 9 a.m.-9 p.m.

Paesano's. 508 E. 14th Street, Plano, (972) 578-2727. Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Friday 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Saturday 4 p.m.-11 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

E-mail your comments to Mark Stuertz at

Bon Vivant:
Caesar salad $3.99
Peppermill turkey sandwich $4.79
Roasted half-chicken $2.99
Sesame chicken $6.79/lb
Chicken and vegetable calzone $5.29
Grilled ribeye $10.29

Minestrone $4.95
Mussels pomodoro $6.95
Vegetable pizza $8.95
Baked lasagna $7.95
Veal piccata $12.95
Roasted leg of lamb $12.95

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