Hordes of customers, food on Wegmans' opening day

October 05, 2005|By ROB KASPER

I ate my way through the new Wegmans, a massive upscale grocery store in Hunt Valley.

I am not just talking about the free samples handed out in the grocery store -- the slices of California cheddar, the piece of double cream brie, the seasoned shrimp on a toothpick, and the cup of crab and corn chowder. I ate those as well. Who wouldn't?

In addition to polishing off those morsels, I also ate some sit-down fare. I had a latte and an almond croissant, a crab cake, an oyster po' boy sandwich with tomatoes and blue cheese on the side, some seaweed salad, edamame (I was feeling experimental) and, as a reward for going indoors on a beautiful day, a cup of chocolate mousse.

All these were sold in the prepared food section of the store, which appeared to take up about 20 percent of the floor space of the store, which, by my rough calculations, takes up most of the middle of the Hunt Valley shopping center.

On Sunday, opening day, there was grocery cart gridlock in the store. I got there at 10 in the morning, three hours after the doors had opened to a line of customers who had camped out in the parking lot, some overnight. Go figure.

The store was so crowded you didn't walk through it, you shuffled, slowly moving behind grocery carts filled with goods, kids or some combination of both. The congestion reminded me of the parking lot tangle after a Ravens game when cars from all directions angle their way to the exit. But as is true after a Ravens win, the mood among the grocery store throng was mostly upbeat and cooperative.

I did get clipped on the ankles by a couple of carts, and I was temporarily trapped by the deli hordes, but I eventually worked myself free and I was never in danger of starving.

As soon as I got inside the entrance of the store, the crowd swept me to the right. This turned out to be a fortunate turn, because that is where the coffee shop was located. There was a line, of course -- there was a line everywhere -- but it moved. An expediter announced that any customer who wanted a simple cup of coffee could hand him a dollar, and he would give them a cup that they could fill up at the self-service dispenser. It was a smart gesture of good service, one of several I encountered during the day.

I got my latte and almond croissant for $4.17 and carried them up the stairs at the southeast corner of the store to a balcony. Seated at one of the 275 chairs and accompanying tables there, I looked down on the Market Cafe section of the store. There, cart-pushing customers lined up for breads, pastries, meats, seafood, potato pancakes, sushi and prepared foods, including a buffet of Asian dishes. The view looked like Grand Central Terminal at Christmas with throngs of customers hollering greetings to one another, and with the crush of carts trying to get on the right track.

While Wegmans is based in Rochester, N.Y., the crab cake sold in this store is prepared, I was told, by locals. I bought one for $10 at the section of the store called the Chef's Case, and warmed it up in a microwave in the balcony. The crab cake was moist, full of crab meat (I found a piece of shell) and slightly seasoned. It went well with a remoulade sauce served with it. It is a good grocery-store crab cake, but it is not a threat to reigning local crab cakes such as those sold at Faidley's in the Lexington Market.

The oyster po' boy, with crunchy fried oysters on a seeded roll with a thick slab of tomato, was outstanding. It was also a value, at $7.99 with a savory side dish of fresh tomatoes, sprinkled with blue cheese.

Ordinarily I don't eat seaweed salad or edamame (cooked immature soybeans). But I figured it was a day to eat daringly, to dine on the "green side." I found some packaged in boxes at the sushi station.

The $4 seaweed salad was very green and very chewy. It was seasoned with red pepper and had quite a bit of zing. I'm not sure I liked it, but I thought that eating it would be good for me. Anything that green and heavily textured must, I figured, purge toxins from my body.

As a kid growing up in the Midwest, I saw plenty of soybeans but they were in the farmers' fields, never on the supper table. The edamame ($2.75) confirmed my boyhood view of where soybeans ought to be. I took several polite bites of the beans and said no thank you.

To compensate myself for eating a soybean or two, I bought a $4 cup of chocolate mousse at the store's patisserie.

Not only was it gorgeous -- the cashier swooned over it as she rang me up -- it was also delicious, a remarkable mix of chocolates. It ranked up there with the mousse turned out at Patisserie Poupon, the town's top pastry maker. Not bad for a grocery store, even one that sells soybeans.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

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