DINING OUT Taking It Out and Eating It In

Home meal replacement- the biggest trend in the food business today-means culinary confusion.

THE WOMAN BEHIND US IN LINE AT LA Madeleine Cuisine was trying to get it straight: “You mean, I can’t have anything on this menu?” she asked, waving the printed one in her hand. “No, this line is just for the food we’ve already made,” the server answered. “The idea is for it to move fast.”

How can the line move fast when you know what you want, but when you get to the end of the line, you find out you can’t have it? We were stumped.

We couldn’t have our turkey sandwich without cheese, or cut the mustard on the ham sandwich, or opt for chicken salad on wheat instead of a croissant. And we certainty couldn’t figure out why we had to wait in line at all for pre-wrapped sandwiches prepared that morning. Marty’s puts its pre-made sandwiches in a case so you can just pick them up and go. Eatzi’s makes you wait in line so they can make your sandwich just the way you want it.

The confusion at La Madeleine Cuisine, Patrick Esquerre’s new takeout, a takeoff on his highly successful bakeries, reflects the confusion in the whole HMR market. HMR-that’s restaurant-speak for “home meal replacement”-is the biggest trend in the food business today.

Everyone’s talking about it. But no one in Dallas seems to know quite how to handle it.

The restaurant business is dancing like Savion to respond to the public’s mixed message: We want it our way, and we want it right now. The result is a hilarious game of musical dining chairs: Takeouts like Marty’s add tables and become eat-ins. Restaurants like Cafe Izmir package food to go. Grocery stores, like the new Simon David II, prepare the food for you. Takeouts, like Eatzi’s, cook it to order in front of your eyes. Restaurants like Mark’s cook it tableside. Chains like Gourmet to Go cook it elsewhere and package it as prettily as Chanel lipstick. Everybody wants to be a little bit of both, hedging their bets while they try to figure out what’s happening to the American dinner table.

According to The New York Times, market researchers have speculated that by the year 2000, Americans will be buying more precooked and pre-packaged meals than groceries. Right now, only half the households in the country actually cook meals from scratch. Teenagers regard a “home-cooked” meal as any food not picked up from a window, any food they have to reheat at home. Advertising understands: When the kids on the commercial say, “Mom’s making cookies!” Mom’s actually in the kitchen, slicing and baking. No need to cream butter and sugar. And the word “meal” has gained a broader meaning: A breakfast bar and a soft drink consumed in the car, a bagel and coffee at your desk, cappuccino and biscotti after a movie- these may all be considered a “meal” by today’s standards.

It’s easy to imagine that those teens’ parents-that’s me-could be the last generation of home cooks in America. HMR has dominated industry news for a couple of years now. but this is only the hors d’oeuvre.

Outside New York City, the trend for restaurants to offer takeout was predicated on the pizza boom, and home meal replacement was the natural next step, an urban solution to a suburban lifestyle. Every block in New York City has a place like Eatzi’s because the city’s fast pace and small kitchens combine to make cooking an inefficient, outmoded way of getting nutrients. But it doesn’t matter how big your kitchen is if you’re never in il, so here in Dallas, established food niches are both expanding and contracting to fill the new need.

La Madeleine Cuisine is smaller than the standard La Madeleine chain store, and there’s not a loaf of bread in sight. In fact, in a true French paradox, every dinner order comes with, not petit pain or a baguette, but a couple of slices of soft sandwich bread, like the white bread that comes with your Henderson’s fried chicken to soak up the grease. And although the place, with its cafeteria line and quantity “bon marche” menu options, seems to encourage taking food home, it turns out that the best meal (traditional, three course) we ate at La Madeleine Cuisine was in the dining room. Not lunch, when the line ended in frustration and blocked the entrance, but at dinner when we left the line with a nice piece of rosy salmon, a perfectly cooked (barely crunchy) wild rice pilaf, a salad of wild greens, even a glass of wine.

The night we called in and pre-ordered worked well, too, though the piece of salmon was only about the size of two fish sticks and cost nearly S9. A stew of lamb chunks, perfectly cooked potatoes, and carrots came in a rich brown sauce. (Actually, it was a gravy, but we don’t really use that word anymore, do we? Especially in a place with French pretensions.) A potato galette with little potato strands sticking out like Brillo had been browned but was difficult to reheat, as was the fish. (Reheating is the downfall of HMR-no wonder the kids regard it as home cooking. Reheating something so it tastes good is actually harder than cooking it from scratch.) A mountain of ordinary oiled spaghetti with sliced garlic ordered ’’bon marche”-that is. family-size-could easily have fed six. (I could also easily have made it at home in the time it took to pick it up and reheat it.) We wanted the pizza proven?al from the limited paper menu, but there we ran into French frustration again: You can’t have the pizza described, you can only choose the daily version.

It’s hard to understand why there’s no bread for sale; and actually, that’s probably the difference most customers will notice between Esquerre’s “new” concept and his old one. It’s not really a cafe-the inefficient line and self-service make it a lot of work for a dinner you could be graciously served elsewhere. And the takeout menu isn’t that much greater than the one offered at the parent bakery’s. La Madeleine Cuisine seems less convenient and harder to use than La Madeleine, At least, at La Madeleine, you can pick up some croissants for breakfast while you wait for your dinner order.

In the end, La Madeleine Cuisine turns out to be nothing more than an expensive cafeteria where you still end up asking the big question-leave the dishes or clean the table? The selection is too limited to help with the daily dinner question, and the rules are too confusing to be convenient. It’s hard to imagine that an operator as savvy and shrewd as Patrick Esquerre could make this many mistakes with what seems to be an easy concept. Yet the only thing really well-designed about the place is its door pulls.

But then, Preston Center has become a petri dish of experimental dining options. In addition to La Madeleine Cuisine and the soon-to-come branch of Corner Bakery (that’s right, a bakery that’s also a takeout), there’s the new Simon David II.

Coming from the other side of the business, Simon David II is an experiment in grocery shopping. Something between a supermarket and Eatzi’s, it is smaller than any new grocery store by several thousand square feet. Perhaps this is a concession to the usually unrecognized fact that in today’s lifestyle, supermarkets actually tend to make groeery shopping more difficult.

My mother, like most domestic engineers a master of organization, taught me to plan a week’s worth of meals, then write a grocery list-in columns corresponding to the supermarket aisles-of all the ingredients necessary. The idea was to shop once a week for everything you’d need, a typically American, functionally Ford-like approach to food. Everything according to an efficient schedule, nothing according to mood or taste. In New York, where kitchens are tiny, storage is a greater challenge and foraging makes more sense than grocery shopping. You stop at the fish market for a piece of fish, at the bakery for bread, in a specialty store for fresh pasta, and at the green market for vegetables. Or, if you don’t feel like cooking, you order in or pick up a complete dinner.

But grocery shopping, American-style, is a project. The stores are purposely designed so the shopper must walk nearly every aisle to get staples, thus allowing for the maximum number of impulse purchases. {1 mean, who really puts Count Chocula on the grocery list? You see it, you want some.) Picking up the few items necessary for dinner several nights a week means making a hike worth changing your shoes. That’s after your nine-hour workday.

Simon David II, across Preston Road from La Madeleine Cuisine, seems different from most new supermarkets the minute you enter-and not jus! because of its size. (It’s actually smaller than the original Simon David on Inwood Road, where you had to make three-point turns with your cart to travel the aisles.)

Grocery stores are not just attractive lineups of food and necessities. Every item’s placement has been studied-the number of feet from the floor that the Count Chocula is displayed puts it at the height where your child’s (or your) attention is most likely to be engaged. For a grocery store to deviate from industry wisdom is a radical move.

Perhaps industry wisdom is changing with our lifestyle. Lots of grocery stores have expanded their HMR department beyond the unidentifiable white salads and pastel gelatins that used to make the menu. But Simon David II seems to be more about meals than groceries.

Most traditional grocery stores feed you into the produce section because that’s their showpiece, the beautiful part of the store. Simon David II has reformulated its design because raw ingredients are-as any teenager knows- just a little bit passé.

Here you walk straight into what you need: the deli section. Glass cases are filled with cakes, muffins, breads, and bagels, all brown and Euro-crusty, a far cry from the fluffy, neon decorated birthday cakes that used to fill commercial bakery cases.

The look of these cases offers one more telling detail about how and what Americans eat these days. We’ve always gladly bought convenience-that’s as obvious as sliced bread. But our culinary standards are getting a little higher and our palates a little more adventurous. The grocery store’s poly-bagged bread is giving way to daily-baked, hard-crusted unsliced loaves like these (thanks in part to numerous chains of European-style bakeries like La Madeleine), and the selection of prepared foods is anything but all-American. Pesto is now as common as ketchup, and pasta has usurped potatoes.

Mounds of ice surround a vast array of salads, and chickens spin on spits behind the counter, There’s an olive bar with jars full of kalamata, spiced, and green olives. There’s a big cheese display including locally made cheeses. And here in the grocery store, you can order your sandwich the way you like it-white meat of chicken salad with strands of carrot and bits of celery on white. I bought a whole chicken for less than a serving would cost at La Madeleine and a serving of pork and mushroom stew in a wine sauce that didn’t remind me at all of gravy.

The staff behind the counter was anxious to accommodate, and there were tables on the sidewalk outside this American grocery store, as there were down the block at the French traiteur. In case the unpredictable and contradictory dining public wants to eat their takeout in.

Patrick Esquerre has opened a takeout that’s really a restaurant. Simon David II is a grocery store that’s really a takeout. When The Mansion opens a drive-through, we’ll really have all the options open.

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