Bread and circus

"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.

Circle on around the back and you're at the cheese counter--French feta, imported butter, domestic mozzarella, Italian asiago.

Then comes the deli counter. Another clue to Eatzi's target market, it's not packed with top-of-the-line meats. Its contents are just a cut above a high-end grocery store: Boar's Head brand turkey and ham, instead of the Schaller & Weber you'd expect, along with a few house-cooked items. (There was one imported prosciutto.) But the attitude was terrific. The enthusiastic white-jacketed chef behind the counter offered us a taste: a purse of red roast beef wrapped around an experimental mixture of French feta and horseradish he'd been mixing up. "What did we think?" he wanted to know. Delicious.

One counter down, salad bowls spin like runaways from Lawry's. The white-jackets here are tossing Caesar and multileaved salads to order, topped with shrimp, grilled chicken, or salmon for an extra charge, and crisp croutons made with the leftovers from the bread department. Behind the bowl-spinners are banks of greens--arugula, Boston, frisee, radicchio, romaine, washed and dried leaves by the bushel. It's the prettiest and most impressive part of the store, especially if you've had a lot of experience washing spinach leaves, and this Caesar is rich and heavy, bearing roughly the same relation to the castrated versions most commonly served that a boneless chicken breast does to prime beef. Hurry home with this salad, or the greens will have surrendered completely to the thick, heady dressing.

Next to the salad patch are custom sandwiches. It's all up to you: You choose the bread, the meats, the cheese, the spread (mayo, for instance, three kinds of mustard, sun-dried tomato, pesto), the fixings. They usually stack up to about $4.95.

If you go straight past the sandwiches, you're in the coffee bar. Here, if you're lucky enough to find an empty chair, you can take a break from the hubbub for a minute, or if you only want a few things, you can pay at this register and avoid the wait at the front. Tall, tiny tables provide a place to perch and eat your takeout in, or you can sit along the counter, read your USA Today, and sip a cup of cappuccino or cafe sorbetto while you wait for your bean order.

Finally, in the home stretch to the cash register is Eatzi's ace, the grill. Here, specials might be chicken and dumplings, shish kabob, vegetable focaccia, with a vegetable, maybe roasted sweet potato or sweet corn. Some of it, like the chicken, is cooked alread, but you can also have your fresh meat or fish grilled to order here, a unique takeout service.

Takeout has been tried in Dallas, most successfully across the street at Marty's, the first and foremost gourmet shop in Dallas, still the only serious one. Wine and cheese, good gourmet indicators, are still much more in-depth enterprises at Marty's (Eatzi's bottles are mostly under $15; this is a place to purchase picnic wine.) It's an in-your-face gesture to locate Eatzi's so close to the queen, even though Oak Lawn is the only upscale, high-rise neighborhood that requires this kind of service. The rest of Dallas has always relied more on suburban-style grocery stores, even for takeout, than the dozens of little chi-chi food boutiques that feed a mass-transit city like New York, which needs food on every block.

Still, as pretty as the product is--the appealing fresh vegetables, the half-pound packages of M&M's, the cartons of eggs and milk--a lot of Eatzi's seems, as I said, like a stage set. The idea at Eatzi's is that you can pick up literally everything you need for a meal--including fresh flowers and wine--but the point of Eatzi's is prepared food for the masses. So, only slightly surprisingly, whereas if Eatzi's was designed as a stand-alone, unique, top-of the-line emporium (like Balducci's, Harry's, or even Marty's), you'd expect to find a fabulous selection of things like olive oils, vinegars, wines, and spices. Actually, Eatzi's has a slightly less exciting collection than we already can get at Simon David.  

Of course, that's not the only difference between Eatzi's and Zabar's or the other famous food palaces. There's an attitude difference, too. Eatzi's staff people could have been trained in the Magic Kingdom: They're almost frighteningly cheerful and helpful. They seem to like their jobs. They seem to like the customers. The grill guys have a reputation already. Standing over their rotisseries and burners with giant ovens behind them, they chat it up, joshing each other and talking with their customers as they saute, roast, slice, and occasionally mix up custom marinades.

Most of the things we've brought home from Eatzi's were good. The bread grabs the crown from Empire as the best in town. The focaccia--thick, topped with garlicky caramelized onions and tomatoes--was delicious reheated. The manicotti was good, the noodles a little tough after reheating, but the filling smooth as cream, with a nicely balanced tomato sauce. Meat loaf, cooked too rare in the middle, was trickier to reheat. (Most things are slightly undercooked so they won't be ruined by reheating at home, but it takes a little practice to finish.) The loaf was as dense as pate, with no filler that we could taste and a nice herbal tomato sauce. Eggplant rollatini--long thin slices around a ricotta filling--were a light entree and would make an impressive first course, if you wanted to get fancy. The roast chicken, ready to eat when we bought it, had been cooked until the skin was crisp and brown. The pizza, which we cooked ourselves at home, was one of the best I've had in Dallas. And quesadillas looked fabulous, but it was hard to heat them without overcooking the tortillas or undercooking the filling.

However you feel about the food's taste, Eatzi's is food news. Nothing quite like it has been launched before. However dazzled the customers are right now by Eatzi's bread and circus atmosphere, the question is, will they be faithful once the novelty wears off? Rumors and insider info have been flying ever since the finish-out started. It's got heads shaking and people talking. They say Eatzi's has to gross $7 million a month to make it and that it employs 53 people on one shift. Every time I've been there I've seen groups of business-suited men huddled together, not ordering desk lunches, just talking, quizzing employees, double-checking prices as carefully as housewives on Thursdays, to see whether they've been hiked yet, running the numbers on this operation, wondering if it will work.

Ultimately, Eatzi's is, of course, designed to make money, and whatever its upscale role models, Eatzi's is actually aiming at gastronomically lowbrow business of Boston Market and the deli departments of grocery stores.

This isn't supposed to be a place for a few finicky foodies; Brinker plans to roll out Eatzi's across the country.

Dallas has offered little to the culinary world except the hybrid cuisine called southwest. Because money is our art form, our most notable contribution is the chain restaurant: packaged consistency.

Eatzi's is about volume, but its quality is high. Will it fly?
So far, the corporate guys should be happy. The cash registers are ringing, from early bird breakfasts to last-minute chickens. And the customers are happy. As the lady behind me in the checkout line said with a Texas twang, "Honey, it beats the heck outta Skaggs!"

Eatzi's, Oak Lawn, 526-1515. Open daily, 7 a.m.-10 p.m.

Ready-to-Cook Beef Kebabs
$1.99 Each
Mashed Potatoes $2.99 a pound
Caesar Salad $2.99
Lobster Ravioli $3.49
Vegetable Quesadillas
$5.99 a pound
Medium Cheese Pizza $6.95
Turkey Cobb Salad $4.99

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EatZi's Market & Bakery

3403 Oak Lawn Ave.
Dallas, TX 75219-4215


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