You can have all the trendy restaurants, cafes, bars, clubs and jazz joints you want. You can even convert all the old buildings within a two-mile radius into co-ops and lofts. But if you don't have a place where you can buy white-truffle oil at $12.95 for 3.52 fluid ounces, or imported pasta for $4.59 per kilo, can you consider a downtown to be truly civilized?
You will be relieved to hear that Houston recently achieved that milestone with the addition of Urban Foods, which characterizes itself not as a grocery store but as an "upscale full-service emporium," offering everything from paper towels to take-out food. It's owned by Richard and Doreen Kaplan, who also own the Acute Catering Company and the Acute Café, provider of the Wortham Center's preperformance dining.
Urban Foods' mundane grocery items (ketchup, toilet paper) will no doubt gratify grocery-store-starved downtown dwellers. But the place aspires to be much more than a neighborhood shop: It's the kind of store sure to get under the skin of any food-crazed Houstonian.
For example, there's a whole section dedicated to oils -- organic olive oils, grapeseed oils, flavored oils, you name it. My salads especially profited from a dose of Wine Country Kitchen's oil flavored with roasted garlic and wild mushrooms ($7.89 for 12.7 ounces). The same company also makes a terrific garlic-parmesan dipping sauce ($9.99 for 11.8 ounces); it begs to be matched with the crunchy-crusted loaves of eatZi's bread delivered here daily.
On Urban Foods' other aisles, you'll find upscale stuff such as Napa Valley Pantry's San Francisco sourdough pancake mix ($4.49) and Native South's white-chocolate sweet-potato biscuits ($3.99 and delightful). The cheese selection includes a distinguished Double Gloucester Blue Stilton ($8.99 a pound) and a satisfying Old English cheddar ($15.99 a pound). Unfortunately the Kaplans are still looking for just the right Parmigiano-Reggiano; I can hardly wait till they find one that meets their standards.
Even better than the store's selection is its service. When I couldn't find a high-quality cocoa powder, suitable for ice cream, the owner offered to special-order it for me -- and to have it the next day.
As you'd expect from a grocery store run by caterers, Urban Foods offers takeout that's a significant notch above a Randalls or Rice Epicurean: There's a terrific assortment of salads, sandwiches and hot dishes meant to be reheated at home. (Note the "at home" part: There's no microwave here. But you can eat your sandwich at one of the tables outside.)
The Italian meat pie ($6.99 a pound) looks like a quiche on steroids, with its egg-and-cheese custard studded with capocollo, prosciutto, ham and salami; it tastes as wonderful as it sounds. Just as delightful is a cool salad of grilled garlic shrimp tossed with tomato, artichokes and salty grated ricotta ($12.99 a pound). And a daily special of salad ni¸oise ($7.99 per serving) proved to be a marvel. Chilled, freshly grilled ahi tuna lolled on a bed of greens dressed with a garlic vinaigrette, with tomatoes and haricots verts: the taste of summertime.
And there are desserts, and beer and wine, and fresh fruits and vegetables, and good canned imported tomatoes, and anything else you'd want and expect from a gourmet food store. And as for that white-truffle oil: I did buy a bottle and use it in risotto, pasta, fresh mushroom soup I've even taken to drizzling it on scrambled eggs.
Civilization. It's a wonderful thing.
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