Side Order of Chaos
In every sense of the phrase, eatZi's is a happening kind of place. The high-class take-out at the corner of San Felipe and Post Oak has been open for just over a month now, and all indications are that Houston's haute have warmly welcomed the newcomer. The lines are long, the crowds are dense and the hubbub approaches what you might find in, oh, a mosh pit.
The hordes are flocking to the mecca of what's known in the trade as Home Meal Replacement, a concept that developed from the fact that there's a whole generation of folks out there who don't know how to cook and another that's too time-poor to even try. It's the same market that Yapa and its ilk have been catering to for a few years, but eatZi's is to Yapa as a Randalls Signature Store is to a mom and pop grocery. They basically do the same thing, but at a vastly different scale.
In eatZi's case, what they do is offer up restaurant-quality food that you then take home and reheat. But having visited this Dallas import (the first eatZi's opened 18 months ago in our neighbor to the north) often in the past few weeks, I find myself pondering two questions: Is it possible to be too popular? And is it possible to have too many choices? My answer to each query, at least as far as eatZi's is concerned, is a resounding yes.
At eatZi's, the pace is frenetic, the wait for service lengthy and the parking lot impossibly small -- all, I suspect, by design, and all to add to the ambiance of takeout food emporium as circus. (Want opera at 7 a.m. or chefs behind the grill who shout a merry refrain about the chickens they prepare? EatZi's offers both.) I wonder if, once the novelty diminishes, customers will continue to endure such things. Maybe so -- the Dallas eatZi's is still going strong a year and a half in.
It's not that eatZi's is always chaotic; after a while, I learned that the best time to visit is early in the morning or late at night. At these times, you may actually be able to walk around and get a feeling for what's available, might actually be able to notice the fine selection of wines, beers and fresh flowers and linger over the beautifully displayed produce and other specialty items. You can even enjoy a simple breakfast of cappuccino and croissant. And in the late of the evening, most of what's left (if there is anything left) in the refrigerated counter goes for half price.
Alas, every time I visited at more normal hours, I found more cacophony than convenience. It wasn't simply the lines, though they're everywhere -- to get in, to get served, to pay. It was also that the aisles are narrow and crowded with gawkers who know they should buy something but aren't sure just what. The more than 30 toque-wearing chefs add to the hubbub. You can be sure that every time you stop to examine something or ask for a sample of any of the multitude of foods available, you'll be blocking someone. I contemplated that in the amount of time I spent getting in and getting out, I could probably have eaten at a nearby restaurant.
The dazzling arrays of available stuff make decisions hard, a difficulty best seen at the deli counter. On my first visit to eatZi's I was on a tight schedule, and decided to zip in and grab a quick sandwich. Wrong. You don't zip anywhere at eatZi's. Since there were eight people ahead of me and only two servers, I decided to forgo the wait and instead grabbed some teriyaki spring rolls along with some shrimp spring rolls, which were disappointingly dry, as if they had been sitting in a refrigerator for hours (which they had). At the checkout, I asked how early in the morning I could get a sandwich. "As soon as we open," was the reply. Fine. The next day I entered at 7:30 a.m. and headed for the sandwich counter. "We're not quite ready," a server told me. "No problem," I replied. "When will you be ready?" "At ten." And so I left.
When I finally made it to the head of the line on my next visit, I understood why it took so long to be served. There are more than ten different choices of breads and ten different kinds of spreads to put on them, as well as 100 different cheeses and easily 50 different kinds of meats. There is no apparent end to the permutations available. Well, there is some: When I asked for liverwurst as my meat, I was told they didn't have it. When I pointed it out in a deli case just a few feet away, I was informed that I would have to purchase it from the deli counter (one line) then bring it to the sandwich maker (another line). I settled for a pastrami on rye with Swiss, with an ancho chili spread. It was large, and it was delicious. But I still longed for some liverwurst.
I encountered a similar frustration at breakfast. When I ordered my migas frittata, I thought how nice it would be to wash it down with a good cappuccino. I was directed to the coffee bar, where a lone employee was preparing for the day. I ordered my cappuccino (which was admittedly excellent) and asked to pay, since I planned to eat at one of eatZi's inside tables. He proceeded to place the plastic clamshell that housed my breakfast into a plastic takeout bag. Unsure whether he had heard me, I repeated that I planned to sit at one of the 14-odd high-top tables nearby, all of which were empty, and eat now. Unperturbed, he informed me that he had to place it in the bag; otherwise, he couldn't be sure I'd paid. When I pointed out that there was no one else around, all I received was a blank look.
Still, the food itself was memorable. The frittata, a one-inch high omelet with cheese, scallions and tomatoes, had a nice heat level thanks to some jalapenos. The tortilla strips at its heart had softened, but they still added a nice textural diversion. The new potatoes I chose as an accompaniment were pan-sauteed along with onions and red and green peppers; they proved perfect.
For all the frustrations, it's easy to get caught up in the electrifying energy and sheer excitement of eatZi's. Some people are fanatical about this place. Once, as I was pondering the multitude of dishes in the main serving area, an elderly man approached me, tapped me on the shoulder, pointed to some coconut chicken and muttered, "Try this, you'll love it." He proceeded to let me know that this was his fourth visit, and that things kept getting better. On the chicken, at least, he was right. I did love it. It was a delicious chicken tender that had been gently breaded, fried and then sprinkled with coconut. While it was wonderful reheated, it would be a serious contender cold for my next picnic.
EatZi's makes a big deal about its roasted chickens, and with good cause. Weighing in at close to two pounds, the one I tried remained moist whilst maintaining a crisp exterior. The herbal seasoning rub, heavy with garlic, sage and onion, penetrated the entire bird. I enjoyed this with some roasted corn on the cob. The chicken cordon bleu, with its crisp, breaded exterior and a cheese and ham filling, was also done well.
The on-premise bakery turns out more than 50 different piping-hot loaves of bread daily, and those loaves rival what's available at the Empire Bakery just down the street -- which is high praise indeed. The sun-dried tomato and cheese loaf is particularly interesting. It weighed in at close to a pound and a half and tasted a lot like cold pizza that had been left in the fridge. The tomatoes were woven into the dough, but the cheese was in the hollowed-out center, turning it into something of a sandwich.
Next to the bread counter is an incredible array of luscious pastries and cakes, all of which look worth sacrificing a few calories for. The English trifle was rich with cream, fresh fruit and the required sponge cake, though it was light on the sherry. The apple tartlet had a wonderful marzipan filling that was hard to resist. The apple feuillete, with its beautifully sliced and displayed apples on a flaky-pastry base, went well with coffee. The desserts were definitely delectable.
Too bad all this comes with a side order of delay. The first-rate food and reasonable prices deserve better. If only I could examine eatZi's menu on-line and place my order for pickup in the drive-through -- now, there's a thought.
eatZi's, 1702 Post Oak Boulevard, 629-6003.
coconut chicken, $6.99 a pound;
whole roasted chicken, $6.99;
teriyaki shrimp roll, $5.99;
migas frittata combo, $3.99;
sun-dried tomato and cheese bread, $4.99;
apple feuillete, $1.69.
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