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To Market, To Market

Head for Whole Foods.

Normally I avoid opening events like the PR plague they are. Soft openings, hard openings, grand openings, invitation-only VIP openings -- all really just code words for the same thing: amateur night. While I understand the necessity of openings and the point of such parties (everyone has to have a first night, and better that those first-night jitters are inflicted on friends, family and professional leeches from the press rather than on actual paying customers), only one thing is guaranteed true at a restaurant's opening night: No other night will bear any resemblance to it in terms of service, menu, music, vibe, attitude, anything. I've seen restaurants bring in guest chefs for openings, hire mercenary servers and bartenders to crutch up their floor staffs, cook menus with absolutely no relation to what will eventually be the daily board of fare -- and in my time on the other side of the swinging door, I've committed all these same sins myself.

Last week, though, I got swept up by a different kind of opening -- this one for the brand-new Whole Foods Market in Tamarac Square -- and I had so much fun the first time through, I actually went twice.

Why? Because I am seriously in love with Whole Foods. And this isn't some drippy little juvenile foodie crush, not some smitten, puppy-dog infatuation where my objet d'amour can do no wrong. No, this is hot culinary lust tempered by a certain mature understanding of the pitfalls of modern romance. I am a grown man. I know how passions can go sour. I also know that no relationship is perfect, which is why I can comfortably say that the Whole Foods in Cherry Creek, with its lot full of valet-parked Range Rovers, makes me want to puke, and that the fleet of straight Alpha soccer moms out at the Highlands Ranch location, all cruising the aisles with their jogging strollers, looking for free-range tofu and sugar-free sugar, makes me want to bait a hook with a Krispy Kreme, cast it into the masses and lead them all out into traffic. Frankly, I'm not up to leg-wrestling some World's Greatest Grandma over the last bag of cruelty-free peaches or fighting my way through a knot of vapid trust-fund hippies comparing the carbs in a hundred brands of bottled water just to get to the cheese counter. And the thought of paying fourteen bucks for a couple of breaded veal cutlets -- no matter how well the baby cows lived, how lovingly they were tended or how peacefully they died -- makes me itch. So clearly, my love affair with Whole Foods is not a perfect one.

But if you are overcome by the same kind of awe and quivery joy that I am when stepping into a crowded market; if you've ever stayed up all night just to see Fulton Fish Market (pre-Bronx) or Union Square at dawn, when the chefs and their buyers are out in force; argued over cases of lettuce or strawberries with some direct-to-market farmer trying to shaft you by hiding small heads or rotten berries at the bottom of a weight order; spent an hour on the phone with your butcher gossiping about meat; or tried to plan an entire vacation around a visit to Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, then you will understand when I say that there's something close to nirvana about stepping into this place.

Its 50,000 square feet boast a fresh produce market, aisles and aisles of groceries, industrial kitchens, its own clutch of restaurants, prepared foods, ethnic foods, a chocolatier, bakeries, butchers, sausage makers, an entire section devoted to seafood with fresh deliveries six days a week, beautiful cheeses, a sushi bar, a noodle bar, an olive bar, a salsa bar, fresh-pressed tortillas, a barbecue counter, a deli and a wine store (called Merchant of Vino and offering microbrews, artisan wines, and thousands of bottles brought in from growing regions all over the world). And when I turned a corner and found myself face to face with a meat counter that seemed to stretch for a mile, I was like Augustus Gloop in the candy factory. It's going to take the cleaning crew a week just to scrub my nose prints off the display cases.

Sure, I'm feeling a little big-box guilt over this. I could make the Starbucks argument here and get all hysterical over how this chain of 170 stores (which raked in $3.9 billion last year) is ruining the market for the little guys, for the mom-and-pop grocers and the neighborhood butchers. I could say that the coming of this newest Whole Foods is going to doom Tamarac forever, serving as the anchor for more chains and more big retailers that will come in and further glut the market with their cheap products and soul-killing homogeneity. And if I wanted to, I could certainly make the case that when retailers like this begin taking control of a former niche market (in this case, the organic/natural/free-of-everything grocery niche that used to be the sole provenance of hippies, granola-eaters and radical, cash-rich activist vegetarians), they invariably over-exploit and ruin the insular charm that once made the niche so attractive.

But I'm not going to make those arguments because, frankly, I don't give a crap. To me, food matters more than consumer morality, more than agri-politics or some nasty big-guy-versus-little-guy dirt fight, so I'll drown my liberal guilt in artisan pinot and stinky cheese and mountains of local Belvedere chocolate. I've never seen meat trimmed quite so beautifully as the steaks, chops and loins laid out on display at Whole Foods, nor seen so many varieties of handcrafted sausage in one place. I've never seen so much beautiful, natural produce -- a lot of it bought from Colorado farmers -- spilling out of faux-rustic baskets. And I've never seen a funnier first-day snafu than the Whole Foods employees all crowded around the machinery in the tortilla-pressing zone, trying to figure out which button turns the thing on.

My first time through, I didn't even buy anything, because I was too busy sucking down the free samples thrust at me from every direction. So on my return visit that same day, I came with a plan. I bought membrillo and date cake, a block of Irish cheddar, smoked summer sausage made in-house, and butternut-squash ravioli in sage-brown-butter sauce from the Front Range Trattoria stuck right in the middle of the floor, close to the registers. I tried the ravioli right there and found the pasta tough and the squash inexpertly cooked. It wasn't inedible, but it wasn't great, either, and it worried me that the girl working the burners described brown butter as "just like regular butter, but brown."

I drifted over to the seafood market, bought, tasted and then immediately threw out a cup of lobster bisque that tasted inexplicably of licorice and cinnamon; followed that with a cup of Key West conch chowder, which was excellent. After a long conversation with one of the butchers about the all-natural meats, I went for a pulled-pork barbecue sandwich from the house-branded Paradise Barbecue that wasn't pulled pork at all (it was chopped) and was served on a soft, buttery kaiser roll that would've been a sin in barbecue country, where pulled-pork sandwiches come on Wonder Bread or Piggly Wiggly hamburger buns and nothing else. But it was still a great sandwich, stuffed with juicy pork that tasted of applewood, hickory, mesquite and time -- the most important ingredient in hardwood smoking. The sauce was a shade too Texas for my tastes, though it worked well with the half-pound of brisket I bought for the drive home.

Back home, I discovered that despite my plan, I'd forgotten to buy the chocolate I wanted, forgotten to buy sauté butter (Whole Foods stocks them by country of origin: Irish, French, Danish, English and so on), forgotten to try the cold udon (though with Oshima Ramenright across the parking lot, there's not much point) or the sushi or even look at anything in the dry-stock aisles except the cookies. (I did buy two boxes of something that tasted like a generic Oreo, minus the flavor.) But that's okay. I know I'll be back.

After all, this was only opening day.

Full burn: More grand-opening festivities last weekend attracted gourmet wannabes. Home and the Range, an all-Viking specialty store at 286 South Logan Street, had hung out its shingle about five weeks ago, but finally got around to celebrating its birth. The shop -- about 2,000 square feet of nothing but Viking ranges, Viking refrigerators, Viking dishwashers, blenders, mixers and small wares -- is the first independently owned Viking-only retailer in the country specializing in the residential market. It's owned by Pete Dines, who already has a lock on the high-end fireplace, hot tub and BBQ grill market with his Home and Hearth Outfitters store at 999 East Evans; Dines has brought on executive chef (and former Viking employee) Jennifer Chick-Gray to do cooking demos at the shop and test-drive some of these monsters for the public.

If you're one of those talented amateurs who thinks what's holding you back is that stock, two-coil electric stovetop in your home kitchen, stop on by. Four grand for the base model six-burner in classic chrome (or eight large for a tricked-out, top-of-the-line burner/flat top/double-oven Cadillac) is a lot of green, but if you've got the money for that, maybe you can handle the sticker shock over fourteen-dollar veal cutlets at Whole Foods.

Leftovers: Granted, I ask a lot from a market or deli. I want it to be everything -- well-stocked, run by grumpy old geniuses who are like scientists gone mad in blood-spattered white jackets, and open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, just in case I get a 3 a.m. craving for fresh pancetta, bocconcini mozzarella or a nice, fat T-bone. And while no place imaginable could ever live up to all of my dreams, Oliver's Meat and Seafood Market has always come close.

Since 1923, Oliver family members (currently Jim, Chris, Berryand Rich) have been operating their meat market to their own high standards, offering beautiful, dry-aged meats hung in-store for up to three weeks (a far cry from the modern, vacuum-bag, wet-aging process that takes all of a couple days but results in a steak that tastes like tinny salt water rather than, well, meat), real Genoa salami, real Serrano ham and real Parma prosciutto (which, though it clocks in at a killer $22.49 a pound, is worth every penny).

Oliver's recently moved to new digs down the street, at 1718 East Sixth Avenue. In the old store, there was plenty of room for dry goods and canned goods, pastas and cheeses. But now Oliver's has a lot less space, so it's concentrating on custom butchery, steaks, chops and deli meats. Which is fine with me, because that's what they do best, anyway. When I stopped in last week, the aged steaks in the butcher's cases looked lovely, dark, nut-colored and marbled with veins of pure, white fat, the fresh-cut chops and loins gleaming purply-red. And Oliver's now has a lot of their machinery -- the bandsaws, slicers and cutting tables -- right out behind the counter, so you can watch the butchers while they work.

I bought a tub of mozzarella, so fresh it was almost like eating a handful of butter (but without the guilt of actually eating a handful of butter), some of that prosciutto sliced thin as a dream, and a half-pound of Genoa salami, all of which I ate in Oliver's large parking lot -- a rarity along Sixth, and one of the benefits that came with the move. Which means that Oliver's is now missing only one thing: a round-the-clock schedule. I wonder what it would take to convince them to stay open all night?

Sadly, Glazed and Confuzed isn't open at all anymore. The doughnut shop opened by restaurant rookie Elliott Vigil at 110 16th Street closed a few weeks ago without warning. C'est la guerre.

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