Gogh on home

A lot of us thought Larry Shapiro's ears were endangered when we heard his plans for the new Marty's: Had he lost his mind? Could Marty's, the monolith of gourmet food in Dallas, really be so threatened by Brinker's (admittedly brawny) baby Eatzi's across the street that Shapiro needed to sink to the popular level and engage in actual warfare? Did he have to present us, so embarrassingly, with "Cafe Tugogh"? What's with the name, anyway? That particular pun has already been claimed by DMA, and Marty's already has a name, and a reputation to go with it. The mutation at Marty's seems larger to Shapiro than it does to the many consumers who are already used to thinking of this as a gourmet, not a liquor, store. The additional name is only confusing. But everything is confusing about Cafe Tugogh.

At first, Marty's decision to leave the liquor business made sense--we've all heard about the decline in hard liquor sales. Americans are drinking less. But they're also drinking better--so what about cigars, what about single malt scotch, what about single barrel bourbons, boutique tequilas, and infused vodkas? The shift has been upward, to sophistication, to quality, which was Marty's forte, anyway. So the whole impetus behind Cafe Tugogh, to move from a clear and established concept--high-end liquor, wine, and gourmet take-out--to something ill-defined and untried--seems as crazy as Vincent. And my visits to Cafe Tugogh (that name!) confirm what I've always said about Marty's as well as my suspicions about this new venture.

This is possibly the most confusing place in town to eat, although it's improved somewhat over the months the concept has been in place. I haven't reviewed it until now because I couldn't tell whether the concept was in place or not. You still can't tell, but that seems to be the way it's going to stay until it goes. Goghs. Whatever. The first time I went in after the Cafe Tugogh sign had taken its place next to the Marty's logo, I left, baffled, without buying anything.

Marty's original redesign, done decades ago, was never a good idea--those "entrance only" and "exit only" doors flanking the cash/wrap smack of the supermarket and false efficiency. They don't correspond even slightly to the traffic flow, and Marty's regulars have always ignored them altogether. Inside, the design of the store makes as little sense. Once the space was clearly bisected by the cash/wrap into understandable gourmet and liquor sections. The same layout is completely unsuited to the many functions it's supposed to fill now.

Here's how it doesn't work. If you do happen to come in by the "enter only" door, you'll find yourself near a small alcove of refrigerator cases, somewhat sparsely stocked with prepared meals, desserts, soups, salads packed in plastic takeout containers--this is the "cold food" section. Walk in a little further, and you're in Marty's gourmet department, reassuringly familiar. There's the cheese case, the pates, the sweets, the bars of Hawaiian chocolate, the chipotle salsa, the pheasant mousse, and the caviar, where they have always been. There's the traiteur section, the long case of prepared entrees and side dishes for you to take home. Let me say right now that you should do that.

But, if you fulfill Mr. Shapiro's dream and want to eat in Cafe Tugogh, somehow ignoring the name, you place your order (from a separate, changing menu) at one end of the entree case. Don't be concerned if the server doesn't seem entirely familiar with the menu. Evidently, he's just a worried guy, and he got our order correct in spite of that ominously furrowed forehead and the beetlewing brows. Maybe, knowing the gauntlet ahead, he was just empathizing with us. He jots down your order--say, marinated salmon, rice, and the vegetable du jour, which might be asparagus, or tortellini with basil. But then you place the same order again at the central island behind you, so the computer will know about it, and if you want a piece of chocolate rock cake, or a hello Marty's bar, or a slice of New York cheesecake (the real stuff from Carnegie Deli), you order that, then, too, and it will be handed to you in a plastic box. If you want a salad that's not in the case, you go back to the cold food section and pick one up in a plastic box.

Then you find some drinks which are also in the cold food section, but you'll probably want wine at this point, so you'll pick up a split from the refrigerated case near the stairs, and finally you head for the cash register where you pay for everything. If you don't want to pay separately for coffee after your meal, better buy it now, then eat fast so it will still be hot. You have to pay for your wine ahead, too. Then you carry your bits and pieces of dinner through the wine bins to the other side of the building, where the tables and chairs are, and where you find that you could have ordered wine by the glass--except no one is there to serve it. If you're trying to eat dinner, which according to my observation is a meal only dining critics eat at Cafe Tugogh, chances are you'll have to sit in a designated area because often most of the seating is reserved for Marty's (excellent) wine classes. At $25-$30 a head, Marty's is making more on those than they would on two turnovers of takeout diners, and I suspect that that's what the pretty, brick-walled room (that used to house a lot of premium vodka and gin) is really designed for. (It also refers back to the name with a row of Van Gogh prints, though they ought to hang a portrait of Mr. Shapiro in there, too.)  

Wait until they call your name, trek back across the building through the wine department to the far end of the deli area, and pick up your tray, loaded with plastic plates of food. Don't forget your flatware and napkins, or you'll be taking another hike.

And if you can't finish all that tortellini, you have to go back and ask for a takeout container to pack it out.

This is convenience?
Set aside for a moment the lucid moistness of the salmon filet, its fat edges just crisped, the perfectly budded stalks of asparagus, the al dente pasta pillows bathed in savory pesto. This was a hassle, and everyone from the cook to the cashier seemed to think so, too. I don't blame Shapiro for not ripping down the building and starting over, but in spite of all the claptrap in his press kit about Cafe Tugogh offering "rapid selection through checkout," a direct dig at Eatzi's infamous checkout lines, Shapiro's concept defeats Eatzi's in terms of inconvenience. You can't be everything for everyone. Is Cafe Tugogh a cafe? Is it a take-out? One thing's for sure--if there had been any viable business going on--we have been the only dining customers when we've been--this system would fall apart. It's just too confusing.

So my advice is, except at lunch when no one cares, that you take the name literally and get your dinner to go. Set a civilized table in your own home and properly enjoy the food, which remains stellar--even reheated, this is better than most restaurant food. Without all the logistic considerations of eating in Cafe Tugogh, you can better appreciate the talent in Marty's kitchens. The chicken lasagna is a beautifully-constructed brick of cheese, pasta, and juicy chicken. A more sophisticated version layers spinach and wild mushrooms. Tomato basil soup is velvet--an elegant supper for one with a Caesar salad (the heavy dressing and house-made croutons are thoughtfully packed on the side) and a thick slice of bread. Baked salmon, reheated briefly in the microwave at home, rivaled salmon prepared to order in the store--moist, rich, fresh. A crumb-coated lobster crab cake was packed with rosy shellfish, much better than the ubiquitous patties served in most restaurants. We didn't try to reheat the beef tenderloin (and no instructions were provided with anything), but the rare slices were excellent cold. Even Marty's meat loaf was good. In fact, some things were better at home. The asparagus we ate in Cafe Tugogh was cooler than the stalks we nuked ourselves, and the saffron rice served in the store was a strange mixture of fresh and previously cooked, so that in every bite we encountered hardened, teeth-endangering grains, impossible to eat.

My mother has always claimed that ice cream tastes better from a silver spoon. But for most people, desserts taste the same whatever they're served on, wherever you eat them. Cake is cake, and Marty's sweets are reliably good, both European and American styles. We liked the cheesecake at the cafe as much as the rock cake at home. The hidden advantage of taking your dinner home is that you get to ad lib, play a little with your meal. We topped the peach-cherry pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and added chipotle salsa to the meat loaf. We bought a container of the amazing olive-feta salsa--an incredibly redolent mixture of broken olives, crumbled feta, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes--and found a dollop over the lemon chicken breast made a mundane dish wonderful, that a spoonful spread on sourdough with a few slices of the rare beef made a memorable sandwich.

Wine, of course, is Marty's raison d'etre, and probably the best thing about the silly Tugogh idea is its approach to wine, a subject this store understands. It appears that Marty's, which has had a reputation for being snobby and expensive as well as excellent, has finally recognized the importance of the entry-level wine drinker. The famous collection of 2,000-plus wines includes over 100 varieties of chilled, half-size bottles for single drinkers who want some now, and selections by the glass in Cafe Tugogh's wine bar are sold at retail, not restaurant, mark-up, encouraging people to explore. Classes, held several nights a week, examine the properties of wines from around the world, and there's a rack of special wines priced under $10. You can also book Cafe Tugogh for private wine tastings, and there will be special wine events featuring wine makers and experts.  

In fact, wine is probably the best reason to go to Cafe Tugogh.

Cafe Tugogh, in Marty's, 3316 Oak Lawn Ave., (214) 526-4070. Open Monday-Saturday 7 a.m.-9 p.m.

Cafe Tugogh:
Lobster Crab Cake $5.25
Baked Salmon $9.95 pound
Marinated Salmon Plate $7.95
Chicken Fingers $10.95 pound
Marty's Meat Loaf with Vegetable du Jour $5.95
Chocolate Rock Cake $3.35

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