Wegmans' wonders continue in cafe

Dining For $25 Or Less

November 17, 2005|By KAREN NITKIN | KAREN NITKIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In its short time here in Maryland, Wegmans has established itself as far more than a supermarket. It is the object of hero worship. The focal point of a cult. Weg-mania has swept the region.

Since the 69th Wegmans store - and the first in Maryland - opened Oct. 2, tens of thousands of visitors have flocked to the Hunt Valley shrine, I mean store, to buy fresh-made breads, marvel at its cheese selection and gape at the sheer variety of olives. Four weeks later, finding a parking space was still a challenge.

Wegmans has filled a hole in the culinary landscape that perhaps we didn't even know was vacant.

Central to the Wegmans experience is the Market Cafe - a cafeteria-style restaurant that puts other supermarkets, with their drab corner coffee shops, to shame.

The cafe is really part of the main supermarket, offering hot and prepared foods that customers can either eat on the premises or take home. Any item sold in the supermarket can be eaten in the cafe, and anything that can be eaten in the cafe can be taken home.

Customers walk from station to station, choosing what to eat, then park their carts (even with food in them), pay and head for the second floor, where more than 200 seats are available, many with views overlooking the sparkling displays below.

The supermarket aisles are designed to look like European streets, complete with backlit "windows" on the walls. The ceilings are painted a rich bronze. And there's not a note of bad music to be heard.

But enough about the un-supermarketlike ambience. What's to eat?

The vast Asian Wokery Bar offers dozens of dishes, including spare ribs, lo mein, fried rice, General Tzo's chicken, pad Thai, beef and asparagus, shrimp spring rolls, chicken and broccoli, and more, for $6.99 a pound.

There are not one but two delis, a pizza station, several soups, and fruit bins holding perfect strawberries and crisp squares of watermelon. At the "chef's creation" station, a changing roster of four or five hot meals plus a couple of sides and salads are offered.

And then there are the pastries. Gorgeous muffins and rolls in one location, an unbelievable assortment of decadent giant cookies in another and wedding-worthy designer treats in a third. We're talking fruit tarts, opera cakes, chocolate domes.

Mostly, the food is astonishing. Even the hot bar, which faces big logistical challenges, comes through. The beef in the beef and asparagus is tender and flavorful, the sauce not cloying at all. A chicken tikka masala is warmly spiced and yummy.

From the chef's station, a portobello mushroom sandwich ($6.99 with a side) was flavored with balsamic vinegar and served on focaccia with a smattering of bread crumbs and topped with tender leaves of spinach. A side of mushroom risotto, rich with parmesan cheese, was hearty and flavorful. A salad with shavings of parmesan cheese and slices of pear was crisp and fresh, the sweetness of the pear countered by a light vinaigrette.

Desserts, from the store's famous pastry bakery, were more than just good-looking, they were insanely delicious. A pumpkin creme brulee ($4.50) was topped with the perfect crackle of caramel, the inside silky, light and sweet, with a mild pumpkin flavor that tasted, simply, of a cool autumn day. A chocolate raspberry tart ($5) featured a rich ganache with a silky chocolate glaze, inside a buttery shortbread crust and topped with perfect berries.

Wegmans has earned its adulation. Yet, I would be remiss if I didn't note that at least a couple of items were less than perfection. So here goes.

The crab cake sandwich ($10.99 with a side) contained impressive morsels of delicious lump crab but lacked the essential Maryland zing of Old Bay. This was a Rochester, N.Y., version, with mayo and celery, topped with boring shredded iceberg. And a side of roasted veggies in a balsamic dressing was on the limp side. The pad Thai in the hot bar was dry and unexciting, the shrimp in a stir-fry tiny and tasteless.

Wegmans isn't perfect - yet - but it's close.

Market Cafe at Wegmans

Where:

122 Shawan Road, Hunt Valley

Call:

410-773-3900

Open:

The supermarket is open 6 a.m. to midnight daily, cafe items available 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays, 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.

Credit cards:

All major

Prices:

Vary

Food: *** 1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Service: *** (3 stars)

Atmosphere: *** (3 stars)

[Outstanding:**** Good:*** Fair or uneven:** Poor:*

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