Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The new Whole Foods: Glitz with your biodyamic organic probiotic grub

Coffee bar along Hamilton Street facade
The crowds were thick this weekend at the new Whole Foods just north of the Parkway. Which is why I waited until 7 a.m. Monday to visit.

I wound up spending the better part of 90 minutes sipping coffee and wandering its aisles, asking questions of the cheesemongers, fishmongers and meatmongers at this pantheon to conspicuous consumption of comestibles.

First, though, I need a caffein jolt, so after arriving I ordered a coffee and "Krough-Amann" from the coffee bar's small collection of pastry and bagels. This offspring of the cronut came in two varieties: one with ham, swiss cheese and topped with confectioners sugar and, the one I selected, filled with a little bit of feta cheese and a single stripe from a sun-dried tomato. Too greasy. I'd rather have a grilled cheese sandwich with bacon.

The coffee bar turns into a real bar at 11 a.m., with wine, beer and cocktails. The coffee itself is a Starbucks clone. Since I'm not a Starbucks fan I wasn't impressed, but that's a matter of taste; you might like it.

The store's designers are no doubt betting that a goodly number of the many Fairmount residents who walk by each morning on their way to Center City offices will stop by for coffee and more. Its entrances are aligned with the street to draw them in.

Some initial reactions to what I saw during my early morning stroll through the aisles:

Pre-made meal kits in one of the refrigerator cases, right next to pre-made whipped cream in clamshell containers. No aerosol Reddi-Wip here.

Over in the bakery department a good selection of loafs. What I particularly liked was the self-service bread slicer.  (They must have not run this by their corporate lawyers.)

The cheese selection is good but missing items it should have, like a really sharp cheddar, what I fondly call "rat cheese", the type of cheddar that crystallizes, crumbles and tastes intensely salty with a hint of sweetness. When I asked the cheesemonger how long the cheddars had been aged, he didn't know. He thoughtfully tried to find out, but their reference data sheets hadn't been organized yet.

Meat on the hook at Whole Foods
Meats have always been a Whole Foods strong point. At the old store there was a small case where you could see some beef aging; here they've got a big walk-in box filled with a couple of sides of sheep, pig and veal, as well as primal cuts of beef aging. At least one on-line commentator I read complained about having to view meat on the hook. Really? Where do you think your hamburger comes from?

Although Whole Foods hasn't shaken it's reputation as Whole Paycheck (most items are pricier than you'd pay elsewhere for similar quality) you can find the occasional bargain. One example: I regularly buy U.S. wild-caught frozen shrimp, shell on but cut and deveined at Wegmans in Cherry Hill for about $30 a two-pound bag. Here they were $20 for the same weight, although the shell wasn't cut along the back nor were the veins removed. Still, a very good price for a high-quality product.

The fresh seafood section at the new Whole Foods keeps up their quality standard and the prices, while a bit high, are within range, more expensive but better quality than the Reading Terminal Market, but less broad a selection. They will, however, cook whatever you like in-store, something I first encountered in midwestern supermarkets like Schucks in St. Louis.

I liked the idea of the self-serve fresh pasta case and will get around to trying them some day soon.

The produce at WF has never impressed me, the quality better and the prices cheaper at the Reading Terminal. In one news report on the new store, the writer noted that if they don't have a produce item, they'll order it for you, citing dragonfruit and prickly pears as examples; no need to order these at Iovine Brothers at the terminal, which stocks them regularly.

Next time I'll have to come for lunch to try out the four stalls from Dizengoff (hummus), CHeU Noodle Bar, Severino Cucina Rustica, and the vegan Wiz Kid from Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby. The pita at Dizengoff is mixed and baked on site.

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