Eatzi’s Market & Bakery’s “Chef’s Case” is designed to elicit the kinds of sweet aahs that ring like music to the ears of so many underpaid kitchen grunts. It’s a jewelry case with a cooling system, the focal point of an enterprise whose 70-odd chefs understand that most of what they create will never be enjoyed without first getting cold and then traveling, via plastic container and then, presumably, microwave, to the diner’s plate. Still, the prepared dishes enclosed in glass make for great browsing. As they move like cattle around the oval-shaped counter, you can see many customers painting mental still lifes of the case’s contents: poached salmon in raspberry vinaigrette, green beans inlaid with almond slivers, flank steak cooked rare and sliced just a hair thicker than carpaccio.
The food seems to go on foreverwhich can be maddening if you’re looking for a quick fix. “OK,” gripes one woman too old to be seduced by Eatzi’s brand of grocery modernism, if not its occasional bargains. “I’ve looked everywhere. Where are the pasta salads? I’ve got a coupon.”
Eatzi’s is tailor-made for a culture that finds sustenance in the act of shopping itselfthe experience is as much a part of the sell as the products. The store’s an assemblage of food venues reduced to what are essentially kiosks. The chef’s case is surrounded by a bakery, a pastry/sweets counter, a wall of produce, shelves full of designer condiments, a microbrew-and-soft-drink-stuffed cooler, and a wood-fired grill station replete with rotisserie chickens, ribs, and skillet-cooked corn bread. And that’s just the half of it. There are also a deli, a cheese counter, a sushi/caviar bar, bins of olives, crates of wine, a cafe, and a catering station marked with a sign that reads: “The joy of not cooking.”
“Joy” is a strong word, but there’s no doubt that Eatzi’s is on to something. The Dallas-based chain is in the business of “home-meal replacement,” and it has marked the D.C. ‘burbs as an area ripe with busy Type As who would rather display their Williams Sonoma wedding gifts than actually use them. The store is positioned as an American equivalent to a classic European market, but Eatzi’s fits perfectly well into the Rockville Pike landscape. The wines are arranged in groups with labels like “My Cousin Vinny” (those would be the Italians) and “Fire Engine Reds” (cabernets); the sound system blares opera in between announcements urging customers to bring home items such as crème brûlée; a board announcing the rotisserie chickens promises, “The only way to get a fresher chicken is to be a rooster.”
The efforts to dumb down what is already a self-explanatory enterprise are funny, but the fact of the matter is that there’s a market for this kind of thing, as evidenced by Eatzi’s lines, of which there are many. The idea is that you’re buying not just food, but boutique food. Obtaining items from most of the stations requires a human-to-human transaction, which, if you’re trying to assemble a rangy meal, can take all day. In some instances, the wait’s no bother. If Eatzi’s baked goods were sold down the street from me, I’d probably buy some; the baguettes are crusty, poppy seeds give the multigrain bread a flavorful twist, and the sun-dried-tomato-and-cheese focaccia is a guilty pleasure, nuance be damned. The roasted chickens are herby and crisp-skinned. The pesto couscous is delicious. And I’m tempted to think that meatloaf is more enjoyable when you don’t have to muck around in a bowl of raw ground beef to get it.
Still, creating a niche is not the same as filling a need. Some of Eatzi’s staffers are affable, but most are clearly not into their work. You can safely assume that people who would rather reheat marinara-covered pasta than cook it themselves are not maestros around the stove, but still Eatzi’s offers almost no expertise on what it sells. The woman at the cheese counter asks me how to spell Gruyère and then wonders aloud if it’s actually cheese. When I ask the “chef” who brings out a plate of veal piccata to advise me on the best way to reheat it, he looks at me as if I have asked him something personal. “Maybe zap it,” he says with a shrug, failing to mention that the container isn’t microwave-safe. As a result, I get to eat melted plastic with my dinner.
I’m glad I learned at least that lesson before bringing Eatzi’s food home for a dinner party. It’s definitely easier to have someone else cook for my guests, but it’s not entirely hassle-free; after transferring the food from container to heating plate to platter, I’m left with a messy kitchen despite not having actually cooked. The best food turns out to be the stuff that’s ready to gothe olives, the smooth, tart-tasting salmon pâté, the raw-milk cheese, the spicy bean dip, the wine. Still, the de facto caterer has almost nothing to do with the fact that the evening is basically enjoyable. In staking out a niche somewhere between a restaurant and a grocery, Eatzi’s can’t claim to provide the experience of the former or the pleasure in creation that begins at the latter. When you sit down to a meal of fresh-made dishes that have been put aside for future use, they’re no longer fresh; they’re leftovers.
Eatzi’s Market & Bakery, 11503 Rockville Pike, Rockville, (301) 816-2020.
The entire Picnic restaurant would take up only a corner of Eatzi’s; it’s basically just a room with a few tables and a fridge filled with sandwiches and salads. The limited menu, designed by Jacques Van Staden of Café Olé, is quite good. Sandwiches come on firm, chewy baguettes or flavorful breads, and although I quite enjoy the one made with smoked trout, watercress, and apples, you can do just as well if you go for something simple; both PB&Js and BLTs can be had at reasonable rates. The miniature picnic tables are a touch precious, but I have to commend the folks involved for resisting the temptation to serve food in baskets.
Picnic, 1901 L St. NW, (202) 331-8100.