October 21, 2008

It Made Me Laugh, Cry, Want to Make Fondue... IMPORTANT Butter Update

10/26: Please see the "dairy section" comments for a vitally important update...

I don't know how common grocery store reviews are. Perhaps I'm breaking some type of new terra firma here -- I doubt it, but I got to use "terra firma" in a sentence, which is always a literary thrill.

But given 1) that I work out of my home and am fairly captive in the northern 'burbs of the city, and 2) my bordering-on-disorder obsession with food, it's probably not so terribly unusual to review the new McGinnis Sisters grocery store.

Located on Rt. 228, the store sits somewhat uncomfortably in the middle of a new plaza, surrounded by a mishmash of businesses, including a Pizza Hut, a Gilded Lily gift shop, and the unfortunately named Cribs to Teens (which I at first mistook as a place to donate your gently-used baby gear for purchase by expectant 16-year-olds). It also sits directly across the street from a Giant Eagle.

Around the Rim

With a nicely apportioned produce section to greet you upon arrival, this third store in the growing McGinnis Sisters' empire cannot help but evoke comparisons with Whole Foods. A good bit of the produce is either local or organic. The selection, not as extensive as Whole Foods by any measure, is nevertheless respectable.

I've already purchased baby artichokes (from which I sadly did not peel enough of the outer leaves before using in what would have otherwise been a really good pasta dish) and organic black mission figs, among other hard-to-find items. From what I can tell, very little of the produce comes from outside the United States.

The seafood department resides immediately to the right of the produce section, a brave move considering the potential for off odors to put off suburban soccer moms buying organic baby carrots. Much of the seafood comes from along the eastern U.S. coastline, and appears to be quite fresh. I don't believe I've seen any "previously frozen" labels on anything. We had an excellent piece of salmon one evening, but also had a mostly whole trout that bordered on "fishy." In the trout's defense, though, because of a change in plans the weekend we bought it, it had to spend two weeks in the freezer, which obviously doesn't do favors for any piece of fish.

Given that there are few other options in this neck of the woods for what can even remotely be considered "fresh" fish, the seafood counter at McGinnis Sisters is indispensable.

Just around the corner from the produce/seafood area is the meat department. Here you can choose from a wide variety of chicken cuts, all from chickens raised on Amish farms in Pennsylvania. We used (bone-in) chicken thighs from McGinnis for the fantastic braised chicken dish I mentioned in a previous post.

We have yet to purchase any beef or pork (except for some apple sausages I bought but have yet to make). Considering that I have most of a Wil-Den Farms' quarter-pig in the freezer and a decent-sized parcel of grass-fed goodness arriving from So'Journey Farm later this month, I suspect I will only occasionally need to procure any non-poultry items from McGinnis Sisters. Beyond these basic meats, there is a nice-looking assortment of lamb and buffalo available in the meat department, as well as processed pork products in the cheese/bakery area.

The dairy section has some unique surprises. The yogurt selection, disappointing at first, is getting better. Among the surprises are the half-gallon glass bottles from Brunton's Dairy in Aliquippa. When they're empty, you bring 'em on back to the store and get 50-cents back per bottle (actually, just taken off of your grocery bill at check-out). I really like that option and, according to one of the checkers, it's quite popular.

UPDATE: And, now, for the vitally important butter update... Geez. I totally forgot about another important surprise in the dairy section: Amish butter. Big, round hunks of bright yellow, tasty butter, pictured to the right, next to some milk, in a glass bottle. This has been a service of the emergency dairy service.

Around to the far side of the store now and you arrive at the bakery/deli/cheese section/prepared foods counter. The bakery has a nice selection of breads made in-house (the "Portuguese bread" is quite tasty), as well as from other local bakeries like Mancini and BreadWorkS. Nice to have a fresh ciabatta that has nothing more than flour, yeast, salt, water, olive oil, etc. and not a long, unwieldy list of preservatives like the allegedly "artisan" breads offered at certain grocery chains and big-box stores.

The cheese section is particularly noteworthy. Fairly substantial in size, the quality is slowing approaching exceptional. In addition to an excellent selection of cheeses produced in or around western Pa., it also has quality parmesan and romano, and a growing selection of top-notch cheeses, including several Beemster varieties and Maytag and Point Reyes blue cheeses. For the true cheese addict, this is dangerous territory.

I'll skip any significant discussion of the center of the store or the deli counter. This is not the kind of place where you're going to buy a lot of processed foods or typical, everyday groceries (e.g., juice boxes or snack crackers or household cleaners), although there is an acceptable selection of such items, including environmentally friendly cleaning items. The deli meats appear to be a notch above what's available at most grocery stores.

Watcha' Got Cookin'?

Where the grocery store succeeds on freshness, quality, and selection, the prepared foods section fails on culinary acumen. To be fair, I've only had a few items, including a pizza and an (Amish) rotisserie chicken. Both were disappointing.

Before this review turns decidedly negative, though, I have to mention the nice little cafe in the front of the store, complete with a flat-screen TV running Evil Food Channel programming. The paninis on offer look good. I'm looking forward to trying one.

However, one of the cafe's main attractions, the pizzas, need some help.

The pizza I ordered was supposed to be a margherita. It was not, at least by the classic definition, which is fresh mozzarella (in some cases, buffalo), a modest application of sauce, and some fresh basil. Mine was loaded with sauce and cheese and... pesto.

Yes, pesto (often) has basil in it. But that does not mean you can rightfully call the pizza a margherita. Call it something else, but don't call it a margherita.

Beyond what some might say are pure semantics, though, was the pizza's texture and flavor. First, if you're going to invest in a wood-burning oven, learn how produce a crisp crust. I want to feel the crust with my teeth. I don't want it to disintegrate the moment it hits my mouth. The bready part of the pizza is important. It should taste good and not just be a delivery vehicle for toppings, the equivalent of a paper plate. Of course, this is something nearly every restaurant or store or pizza joint in this country fails to understand -- or, rather, may very well understand, but has come to realize that, sadly, most people don't really seem to care. Just make something resembling a pizza and sell it for $10, with a chance to maybe get some lousy bread sticks or every tenth pizza free, and, voila, you've got a successful business.

Second, they obviously used corn meal to slide the dough in and out of the oven. Why? A little flour is sufficient. I don't want my pizza to taste of corn meal. If I want corn meal, I'll make some freakin' grits (well, not really, but it sounds far more dramatic that way, no?). So in every bite, competing witih the sauce and cheese and pesto (which, to be honest, wasn't too bad) and crust are little crunchy bits of corn meal. Ugh!

As for the rotisserie chicken. It was of a good size and was tender. But I can only assume that not one speck of salt, pepper, yet alone any other herb or spice, was applied to this otherwise fine bird. Now, I'm not expecting a Peruvian chicken, but a little strategic use of some flavoring elements would make a world of difference.

The Final Word

Overall, this is a really nice grocery store. For meat, produce, and cheese, it seems to compare favorably on price with its larger competitor across the way. But particularly in these hard economic times, that discount on gas consumers get for buying their groceries across the street may prove even more attractive, drawing away potential customers.

The prepared foods are -- at this point at least -- lacking. But I already find myself making at least two trips a week here: one for produce, milk, bread, etc. to supplement the trip to Big Chain Store across the street, and typically a second to pick up whatever else we might need for dinners during the latter half of the week.

In short, I hope this new McGinnis Sisters thrives. It has already raised the bar for other grocery stores, and is an extremely welcome addition to the Burgh's northern 'burbs.

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