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A third option is to buy raw product, such as jumbo shrimp, marinate it in a jarred sauce, then grill or sautée it. On the advice of the counterperson, who told me which steaks had been butchered that morning, I purchased two strip sirloins and a bottle of Avio black-pepper sauce. Then voilá! Steak au poivre for two; this tender and flavorful main course cost me about $15.
If you opt for prepared foods, take note of what's coming out of the kitchen. During the hour I spent in the store, I observed platters of roasted Cornish hens and grilled vegetables brought out still steaming from the oven. Bob Mantell roams around the stations of the store, making recommendations -- in my case, he was pretty insistent about supplying some Marsala sauce on the side for the half-pound of smooth herb-flecked mashed potatoes I'd just had boxed -- and he's happy to answer questions about what could be brought out next.
I also appreciate the Mantells' thoughtfulness. At checkout, they packed my purchases, which included a delicious seafood salad from the deli and wonderful cheese-parsley sausages from the meat counter, under ice so they wouldn't spoil. At the soup station, where four varieties including pasta fagioli and classic chicken noodle simmer, tasting cups are provided (blister warning in effect: Blow first, sip later). If you like one, pour it into a container and take it with you. That's how we were sold on the mushroom barley, one of my all-time favorites; here, it's redolent with fried onions and black pepper, and the chunks of beef are succulent cuts, not chewy scraps.
Next to the soup stand, a refrigerated section offers a hint of the Mantells' combined Middle-Eastern/Eastern European backgrounds; most of the perishables, like the perfectly blended hummus with a pleasing garnish of pine nuts or the "vegetarian liver" (eggplant prepared like chopped chicken liver), stem from the proverbial breadbasket. Some of the wines are kosher. And the Danish, ruggelach, and challah are particularly good. Harvest also caters events, and fliers advertising meals for the Jewish High Holidays are available all over the store.
Still, cans of olives, jars of chutneys, and bottles of vinegars and oils come from all over the world. And dry goods run the gamut from unusually shaped Italian pastas to authentic Irish oatmeal. The interior of the market is filled with bins of fresh produce. You can even buy live herbs to replant in your home garden. And temptations continue all the way to the cash register, where bars of Italian chocolate await.
Not everything was perfect. Salmon stuffed with crabmeat turned out to be (apparently) filled with breadcrumbs only, and the bottle of harissa I bought leaked all over the bag. But the detail that truly disturbed me was the lack of attention to expiration date. The Torre Saracena harlequinade of peppers that I bought for $4.99, for instance, had a "best before" date of July 31, 2003, a fact that I didn't notice until I got home with it. These should be de-shelved pronto. And some of the meat and fish might also be a tad old. I was steered away from the marinated beef kabobs, which had been hanging around for a few days, because the counterperson was "just being honest," a fact that I deeply appreciated. Less reputable salespeople would have wanted to just get rid of them. So you might want to check dates and ask questions before making purchases. But in general, the market certainly cuts the gourmet mustard.