Restaurant Reviews

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.