Running hot + cold

Eating at Whole Foods, with both serve-your-own and trattoria-style
By BRIAN DUFF  |  June 6, 2007

A visit any midday reveals that Whole Foods is Portland’s hottest new lunch spot. I guess this was to be expected. The true appeal of eating at Whole Foods is the space. The store has a pleasant buzz, and the tables out in front are a good spot to see and be seen. There is also the in-house restaurant, the “trattoria,” which is spacious even as it is tucked off in the corner, and looks great with ample sunlight spilling in on the artfully slanted ceiling, and pleasantly distressed wooden furniture. The patio is not bad if you get a shady table, despite the bleakly industrial view.

Though the trattoria has its own menu, you notice that everyone is carrying around a big green bowl. This means they have cobbled their meals from the buffet-style food bars that occupy the northern end of the store. They have made a mistake. I advise you to beware the green bowl. Much that looks good as you peruse Whole Food’s steamless steam-tables is actually clammy and flavorless. The biggest problem is the lack of heat. A fried cake of zucchini and cheese had lost any appeal in growing cold. Both the Asian beef and the General Tso chicken were slimy with fat that might have tasted rich at higher temperatures. The pork empanada was not bad, but only in a next-day-leftover sort of way. The meat had no stringy-salty personality, and the casing looked flaky but did not eat that way.

By forgoing the green bowl for a to-go container, I don’t know that you would be better off. While the empanadas are clearly begging for a George Foreman Grill, it would take a maestro of reheating, a Thomas Keller of the microwave, to know how to make the best out of the variety of offerings at Whole Foods. Someone should start experimenting and create a blog. Even the offerings that are meant to be cold at Whole Foods disappoint a bit. I ran into some salad bar aficionados who complained at the lack of sprouts, cottage cheese, salad cheese in general, and fresh fruit.

There were some exceptions to the general pattern of chilly mediocrity. The pizza slices, reheated in the wood-fire oven, seem great. Mine had a reasonably crisp thin crust, and creamy ricotta lurking in the valleys between brown bubbles of mozzarella and parmesan. I was tempted to ask the guy to slide my green bowl in that oven to see what happened. The various tofus won me over. Generally sweet, they had sort of tough exteriors that offered a good chew while the viscera was hollowed out. The slaws hit different notes with subtlety — a hint of sesame in one, a citrus zing to another.

The great benefit of the trattoria menu is that you get to eat your food at the proper heat. The side dishes, very inexpensive and in huge portions, stood out. The white beans, prepared with chevre and fresh herbs, gave a dignified resistance to the teeth. The chevre added a mild creamy tang where it showed up. Some beans looked pan-seared, while others were a virginal white. The broccoli rabe was a touch wet and vinegary, but it was much better once we tracked down the organic salt at the bar. The chard wore its sogginess much better. Bits of diced garlic clung to the slightly bitter leaves.

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