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Daily Pilot

The Gossiping Gourmet: Whole Foods gives wholly good experience

By Elle Harrow and Terry Markowitz

12:07 PM PDT, October 31, 2012

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The new, long-awaited Whole Foods Market in Fashion Island has opened with a bang, and patrons are flocking to this mega-food emporium like sports fans to the Super Bowl. Traffic is so intense at the moment and a parking spot so precious that there are traffic police controlling the flow as well as complimentary valet parkers running to and fro and even a gentleman with a golf cart who will chauffeur you and your purchases back to your car.

Even if you are familiar with the Whole Food Markets, this is a brand new experience. Unique to Southern California is a tea bar called the Tea Hive, which features hot and cold tea lattes, tea sorbets and other tea beverages. The cold tea drinks are made in cocktail shakers and prepared by "teatenders." At breakfast they serve chai oatmeal and an acai crunch cup. After 10:30 a.m., you can get bowls and wraps.

Although there are taquerias in other Whole Foods, here the meats are all house-smoked. Many Whole Foods have a large selection of cheese and charcuterie but here, there is also a fromagerie with cheese from Neal's Yard and other exclusive selections. There is pizza being freshly baked, a hot Chinese food area, a huge case of assorted sushi, a made-to-order sandwich bar, a prepared food case, as well as fresh-baked breads and an extensive selection of desserts. Then, of course there are three aisles with self-service counters laden with endless different kinds of salads, soups and hot entrées.

Most unique is the bar and restaurant in the rear of the store called the Back Bay Tavern. Bar seating, two low couches and a few tables are augmented by an extensive covered outdoor eating area. The daily menu is served from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and a special After Dark menu with dinner entrées is served from 5 p.m. to closing.

We sat at the 100-year-old bar, which was resurrected from a Harlem speakeasy. We started with wings and tofu sticks dressed with a choice of sauce: Buffalo, inferno, ginger soy or dry spiced. We chose the ginger soy. The wings were actually drumettes, very lightly coated, fried and glazed with the thin, delicate sauce. They were juicy and tender. The tofu sticks were mostly crust, as the tofu itself was sliced very thin, so there was no contrast in texture — great for lovers of fried things, not so great for lovers of tofu.

Tavern favorites include: fish and chips, a burger with bacon jam, a veggie burger and a BLAT, which includes avocado as well as your choice of real or "fakin" bacon.

A menu section called Asian Flare features a platter of wontons, potstickers and shu mai. There is Hawaiian poke with shrimp guacamole, a sashimi plate, four types of sushi rolls and a nigiri sampler.

From 5 p.m. until closing, Executive Chef Dennis Horton presents a number of dinner specials each night. We had the pleasure of sampling two excellent ones.

The cabernet-braised short ribs had been cooked for five hours, rendering them as succulent and tender as butter. The pan jus was very flavorful and complex. You'd be hard pressed to find better ones. Gilding the lily was creamy golden polenta with a slightly crisp exterior and a rich, creamy, cheese-y center studded with a few fresh corn kernels. Rounding out the plate were string beans, carrots and roasted potatoes.

Panko-crusted eggplant Parmesan fondue describes a very attractive plate with big chunks of eggplant that were heavily crusted and deep-fried until the eggplant was soft as mashed potatoes, while the exterior was toothsomely crunchy. The chunks rested on roasted tomato slices with lots of finely chopped garlic. A long skinny snake of basil pesto crossed the plate. On top of each one of these delicious vegan delights was a superfluous, tasteless blob called cashew "parmesan cheese."

The very concept of a restaurant and full service bar in a grocery store is a bold move and it's happening right here in Newport Beach.

ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at m_markowitz@cox.net.

Whole Foods Market and Back Bay Tavern

Information: (949) 999-8572

Where: 415 Newport Center Drive, Fashion Island, Newport Beach

When: Market: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily; Back Bay Tavern: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Prices:

Appetizers: $4 to $12

Asian Flare: $5 to $13

Sandwiches and salads: $9 to $11

Entrées: $18 to $30

Desserts: $8 to $10

Wine:

Glass: $8 to $19

Corkage Fee: Can buy a bottle at Whole Foods Market and bring to Back Bay Tavern. Express Bar also available.