A LA SHOPPING CART
Reay's Cafe at Reay's Ranch Market, 9689 North Hayden, Scottsdale, 596-9496. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.
For well-heeled gourmands, a day spent cruising the aisles of a fancy supermarket can spark the same kind of intense excitement that a trip to Disneyland promises a 10-year-old. It can also be just about as expensive. Instead of wandering through Adventureland and Fantasyland, food lovers get to range through eye-catching, well-stocked destinations that could be named Bakeryland, Meatland and Wineland.
Upscale, full-service gourmet supermarkets have become as much a part of the modern urban landscape as drive-by shootings, although the two rarely share the same neighborhoods. The supermarkets' clientele--affluent, educated patrons, in tune with every culinary trend--demands quality and variety. To such folks, the sections of organic produce, imported cheeses, fresh pasta, prime meats and exotic condiments are irresistible attractions, a Pirates of the Caribbean or a Space Mountain for adults.
Reay's Ranch Market has been luring this sort of customer ever since it opened in Tucson in 1987. Now, the far-sighted operators, who recently opened up a second Valley store, this one in north Scottsdale, have come up with a new attraction: their own in-store restaurant spotlighting Reay's products.
It may turn out to be an exceptionally clever marketing move. After all, if picky shoppers trust Reay's enough to shop there, why can't they be induced to eat there, too?
Set off just to the side of the market, in an area that last housed a Swiss restaurant, Reay's Cafe successfully hides the fact that people are pushing grocery carts only a few feet away. Soft classical music sets the tone, but you won't be able to hear much of it. That's because the linen-draped tables are topped with glass, so that any movement of plates or cutlery creates instant clatter. Diners can gaze at restful sketches of vegetables along the wall to take their minds off the auditory assault. As veteran Reay's shoppers might expect, nowhere on the dinner menu will you encounter the term "deep-fried." The adjectives most likely to appear are "fresh," "whole wheat" and "saut‚ed." But this is no low-fat, seeds-and-berries health-food diner. If it were, the wonderful, warm Brie appetizer, featuring two large slabs of high-calorie soft cheese delightfully coated with a light, fresh tomato sauce, would be as out of place as pork chops at a vegetarian bar mitzvah. Vegetable lovers, however, need hardly despair. The caponata starter is a big mound of zestily seasoned peppers, olives, onions and eggplant, all to be scooped, like the brie, on thin slices of toasted French bread.
The main dishes tap heavily into the retail-supermarket connection. In some cases, that sort of restaurant-retail synergy works to Reay's advantage. The chicken-breast entree features Shelton chickens, "natural" birds that aren't pumped full of chemicals. The thick, grilled strips are deliciously moist and skillfully paired with fragrant basmati rice and herb-scented mixed vegetables. Who knows, now I may look for Shelton poultry on my food-shopping expeditions.
But this kind of brand-name link can also work against the market. The New York steak comes from Coleman meat, lower-fat beef fed on rangeland untainted by pesticides and raised without hormones, steroids or antibiotics. But I found the steak didn't measure up, either in tenderness or flavor.
So, are hormones, steroids and antibiotics the key elements in producing a great steak? Although that conclusion doesn't necessarily follow, the possibility does give me pause. But mostly, I just grieve that the luscious topping of caramelized leeks and mushrooms was wasted on a mediocre hunk of beef. The seafood mixed grill gave Reay's fish department a chance to show off. And the halibut, salmon and scallops did just that, aided by a perky Pommery mustard sauce. The side order of orzo provided a pleasing change of pace from rice or potatoes, and the first-rate asparagus made me contemplate buying some for home consumption, just as Reay's would have hoped. (The $4.99-per-pound price, though, quickly brought me to my senses.)
Pasta, as you might expect, gets its own menu section. And deservedly so--the fettuccine-and-vegetable platter is outstanding. The pile of thick noodles is scented with terrific saut‚ed broccoli, peppers and sun-dried tomatoes, all sharpened with herbs and Parmesan cheese. The price is also attractive--at $9.95, it's the cheapest entree on the menu. I never imagined shopping Reay's for sweets, but the desserts we sampled have changed my mind. The apple cheesecake is nothing short of scrumptious, and it's gilded with the best caramel sauce I've scooped up in a long time. The rich chocolate truffles also end the meal with a bang, not a whimper. Reay's is good, but still several steps short of what it can be. Cafe service is not yet as deft as it is in the supermarket area. The less-than-spotless rest rooms, inelegantly located behind swinging doors near the retail meat counter, might not bother employees, but they won't inspire a fussy public. And despite the supermarket connection, prices here are at regular restaurant levels. Dinner for two, with shared appetizer, dessert and coffee, can run $40 after tax and tip. Like any pioneering venture, Reay's Cafe is taking some risks. Is it alluring enough to attract diners looking for some Saturday-night sizzle? Is it priced to attract Monday-to-Friday-too-pooped-to-even-microwave working stiffs? I don't know. But for quality-driven, healthier-than-thou foodies with some disposable income--the typical Reay's Ranch Market shopper--the place is right on the mark.
AJ's Purveyor of Fine Foods, 5017 North Central, Phoenix, 230-7291. Hours: Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 4 to 8 p.m.
An old marketing axiom says it's best not to be an innovator in business. That way, you can learn from the other guy's mistakes, improve the product and ultimately siphon off customers. Maybe AJ's, Reay's upscale-gourmet-market competitor, is waiting to see how its rival's restaurant enterprise turns out. In the meantime, AJ's continues to dish out high-end, Styrofoam-packed dinners from its in-store kitchens, but only for home consumption. If your home is anything like mine, the ambiance will not approach restaurant levels. Our kitchen table is neatly positioned between a basket of cat toys, a deskful of unsorted January mail and dirty dishes bearing the remains of the kids' nonstop, after-school eating binges. Background music is provided by a constantly ringing telephone, bringing us endless message streams from carpet-cleaning companies, credit-card pushers and soccer coaches.
But while AJ's can't provide atmosphere, it does spare you the time and bother of cooking. And it cooks up many more hits than misses.
Two soups are offered daily, and the ones I tried are worthy starters. Manhattan clam chowder had a pleasing, briny tang. And because I served myself, I made sure I ladled out a thickly stocked portion, heavy on clams and light on the broth. The corn chowder is even better, a creamy concoction studded with corn, potatoes and red pepper. Excellent bread and rolls from the adjacent bakery make good soup supplements. AJ's prints out the week's menu on Monday, and it features two different dinner options every night. In addition, according to whim and what's available, the chef prepares two or three more main-dish choices each night. They're all set out in metal chafing dishes, ready for sale at about 4 p.m.
I don't know how often other diners have encountered beef Wellington as a supermarket take-home-dinner item, but seeing it at AJ's was a first for me. And what a sight: a gorgeous hunk of restaurant-quality beef, perfectly cloaked with mushrooms and pastry-dough crust. Short ribs in a lip-smacking teriyaki glaze is also a winner. Actually, it's just a single, meaty beef rib with a gnaw-to-the-bone quality. Unless you're a jockey, it probably won't fill you up. Perhaps AJ's could make this two ribs to an order and charge a couple of extra bucks. Pork Dijon was another strong part of that evening's lineup, a tender, mustard-coated medallion wrapped in puff pastry. The side dishes, though, needed lots of help. Scalloped potatoes had an unmistakable institutional touch. The mixed veggies had no business here at all--a dreadful blend of green beans, corn, lima beans and cubed carrots that looked and tasted as if it came right out of a bag. On another occasion, the main dishes batted .500. Shepherd's pie isn't a production like beef Wellington, or even pork Dijon, but AJ's ground-beef-and-mashed-potato version was all this dish could be. The veal stew, however, was an outright failure, done in by gristly, tough cubes of meat.
One of the perks of buying dinner at AJ's is the opportunity to wander around the store's wine and dessert sections. You'll have no problem finding something drinkable, in any color, from any wine-producing land. And the sweets are very good, particularly the cheesecakes that sport the heavy, creamy texture I admire.
Of course, the downside to all of this temptation is that will-power-challenged people like me may end up spending almost as much on a takeout dinner as a restaurant meal. One more note: AJ's really works hard on service. The people behind the various counters affably answered every inane question I could torment them with. The guy at the check-out counter sprinted down the aisle to pick up something I couldn't find. And not five minutes ago, as I write this, the store manager called up in response to a query I scribbled on a customer satisfaction card (under an assumed name) about short-grain rice. Gee. Good food. Good selection. Good service. What a novel concept.
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