Free-ranging deli

I'm inclined to trust market research approximately to the extent that I depend on David Finfrock and his brethren's weather predictions. I like to think I'm not a cynic, but if I listened too closely to weathermen, I'd be wearing Birkenstocks in below-freezing precipitation. And I assume it was market researchers who advised someone that both a Gap and a Starbucks are necessary on every city block. Nevertheless, I'd like for the market guys who advised Brinker that now was the right time to open Eatzi's to buy me some lottery tickets, because they nailed this one. Not only has Eatzi's proven successful beyond Brinker's wildest dreams, but now every other takeout in town is expanding and enlarging--not necessarily in response to Eatzi's, but as part of the same wave.

The deli at Whole Foods Market is the most recently redesigned, though to be accurate you'd have to call it a work in progress. The official reopening date was February 2, but when we ate dinner there nearly a month after that date, things were still pretty much just patched together. Sheets of plastic covered unfinished areas, the walls hadn't been painted completely, and surely someone means to do something else with those metal posts at the entry.

This is the restaurant in Whole Foods that used to be called the "cafŽ"--a strong word for that particular space which had no more lingering charm than the adjacent grocery store, and worse lighting. Evidently, the redesigners at Whole Foods decided against an ambiance upgrade and retagged the place the "deli and juice bar," which better conveys what they must have in mind: Buy it here, but only eat it here if you have to, like if you're alone or something, or don't want to go home; don't in any case expect us to wait on you in any way; there are no servants here.

It's all part of that holistic, egalitarian, alternative, healthy and right-minded atmosphere that's Whole Foods' stock in trade. Whole Foods doesn't just sell organic produce and natural foods, you know, it sells virtue here. The strange thing about natural foods stores is the implication that you won't just be a healthier person if you buy free-range chickens and unsprayed apples, you'll be a better person. Maybe this is the paranoia of a confirmed BHT consumer.

At any rate, the new Whole Foods deli will be a good thing once it's complete.

All the existing departments you'd find in a takeout emporium like Marty's have been gathered into one area at Whole Foods, while the deli case and menu have both been greatly enlarged. Sourdough Bakery has been moved over near this space, though not yet completely, and so has the wine and beer department, which has traditionally been outstanding for a grocery store. The cheese case is here now, as well as the fresh pasta. The salad bar (still the best in town) angles in towards the refrigerator cases that are filled with serving-sized salads, meats, and prepared entrees to take home.

The number of selections isn't close to that at Eatzi's, but the niche here is the nominally "natural" and nutritious and planet-healthy foods are emphasized.

Some of the offerings happen to be delicious (a mozzarella empanada) and some, like tofu salad, are merely different. (I regard bean curd in general as a food of last resort. To sub it for chicken in a perfectly good salad when you have a free-range option seems absurd.) If you have lunch bags to fill, it really is worth it to get deli turkey from Whole Foods. It is far superior to the limp, waterlogged stuff available in most stores.

The muffaletta sandwich we took home erred on the bland side: It could have used more olive salad in proportion to the thick bread and turkey, and of course just saying the word "turkey" clues you to the fact that this wasn't the genuine article.

The takeout entrees were all hefty. A 4-inch-tall serving of spinach and cheese lasagne, for example, was really plenty for two, and the adobo, a layered casserole of corn bread and beans, was also enormous.

We ordered dinner to eat in, too, at one of the little tables, some of which have been covered with real art. You wait in line, order, pay, and wait for your name to be called, then pick up your order, silverware, napkins, and condiments, fix your own drink, and--voila!--dinner is served, though you have not been.

Lemon-broiled trout, an entree on whose successful execution here I wouldn't have bet a nickel, was excellent. Did the market researchers know that the same people who notice things like recycled paper napkins appreciate precisely cooked freshwater fish? The pristinely elegant pure-white fillet was cooked to moist pre-flakiness.

It came with creamy red-skinned new-potato quarters, rolled in oil and rosemary needles, a crumbly, honey-sweetened whole-wheat biscuit, and broiled vegetables--discs of yellow squash and zucchini, red-pepper strips and eggplant. Slippery tubes of firm organic penne pasta were seasoned only by other ingredients--grape-dark kalamata olives, acidic diced tomato, buttery artichoke hearts--so bland bites alternated pleasantly with bursts of strong flavor.

The endemic grilled chicken sandwich had a healthy twist. It came with alfalfa sprouts, tomato, and lettuce and the big chicken breast was undoubtedly free-range, beautifully juicy, thick, and chicken-flavored.

The grilled-cheese sandwich is one of the best in town--two slabs of sourdough bread with mozzarella cheese, tomato, and pesto-tinged mayo with thin-cut, skin-on French fries on the side.

The dessert selection is slim--only treats from the bakery--but you won't be if you eat these often. A deceptively simple-looking chocolate brownie was so rich with eggs and butter that it had the consistency of fudge. This is good for you only in your dreams.

It looks like this game of dining dominoes means the consumer takes all. There has been lots of excellent takeout food in Dallas that Dallasites for the most part have declined to take out. The time seems to be ripe now, considering the statistics on how often we eat out, for us to want to eat at home occasionally. There's still no time to cook. It doesn't take market research, just common sense and a week of living in the '90s to see that fast, good home-replacement meals are the answer.

Whole Foods, 2218 Greenville Ave., 824-1744. Open for breakfast Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-11 a.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 8 a.m-3 p.m.; for lunch and dinner daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Whole Foods Deli & Juice Bar:
Lemon Broiled Trout $7.99
Penne Pasta $6.99
Grilled Chicken Sandwich $4.99
Adobo Casserole $4.99
Three-Cheese Lasagne $4.99
Brownie $1.29

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