It's Sunday at 1:00 p.m., and I'm having a mimosa at the grocery store. Maybe it's the strange context in conjunction with the fluorescent lighting, but the drink glows as if illuminated from within, and the strawberry lodged on its rim is as perfect and red as fairy-tale fruit. A woman liberates a couple of beers from a six-pack in the glass-front refrigerated case to my immediate left, putting them in her basket and smiling. My mimosa and I sit at a long table—with a pretty tablecloth, flowers every few feet, neighbors down at the other end—in the beer section at the back of the Phinney Market. It's time for brunch.
I love grocery stores. While other kinds of shopping induce a cold-sweat near-panic, the calm hum and the smooth aisles of the grocery store tranquilize. Phinney Market is small, quirky, and charming, with unexplained empty shelves and ceramic chickens watching from high perches. Everyone in the place seems to work here, and everyone seems entirely happy about it, from the puckish cutie behind the deli counter (who's somehow unaffectedly pulling off a flower behind his ear) to the fatherly co-owner—he's called Wally—who tends to give gentle, unannoying pats on the shoulder. They're clearly all on drugs or under a spell, and when you're here, so are you.
Brunch is Sundays only, 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. One item is served; you can phone a day or two before to find out what (and that "it's REALLY good"). It's $9.99, which includes a mimosa (or two—no one's a stickler about tabs here) and the love of the weird, wonderful quasi-family you didn't know you had. (And maybe also a present: When I, anonymous, admire a dusty Duvel beer gift box, it's immediately given to me for free, and I also witness Wally give a little old lady a tiny basket.)
On this particular Sunday, the food takes nearly literally forever. Wally offers mimosas and apologies; Flowerboy comes over to talk (urging "more booze" as well); a cardboard box on the dining table proves to be full of multicolored straw hats and sunglasses, which are tried on calmly. Brunch, at last, is three mammoth crepes per serving, with two choices for fillings. The savory ones, sprinkled madly with paprika, are fat with bright pink salmon, smoothed by mascarpone, with capers and red onion and tomato and a little fresh rosemary—classic, smart, tasty. The not-too-sweet option oozes mascarpone cream sauce, strawberries, and kiwi, all blanketed in tart purple blackberry jam. The anticipation and the mimosas and the spell may be a factor, but it's indisputably good.
The chef comes out wearing a newsboy cap and affably describes a recent wine-shelf disaster that resulted in a lot of smashed glass and lost inventory. ("She's crazy, but she's a great cook," Wally confides.) Her name is Stephanie Speer, and she's cooked at Carmelita and co-owned the Green Cat; she also runs the store's monthly wine club, which seems like something well worth getting in on.
Phinney Market's dinner is one entrée, Friday only, from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m., and usually costs $12.99, including hors d'oeuvres, coffee, and dessert. When I return, they're pouring Big House white wine (for $3 a glass) and offering tastes of Bugey Cerdon sparkling French rosé (dangerously drinkable). The appetizer platter includes Primrose Brie and big, vividly green Castelvetrano olives. Diners hang out, pass around babies, cackle, and get tipsy. I'm seated at a table near the cash register, affording a view of shoppers' purchases and the vegetable section.
Dinner is brought out shockingly quickly; it's a big piece of flawlessly cooked halibut with tarragon and an orange/grapefruit salsa, atop a layer of potato gratin, atop a bed of impudently fresh pea vines. The gratin emulates the taste of Gruyère via the magic of heavy cream. (Other recent dinners: beef tenderloin with celeriac gnocchi; chili-rubbed leg of lamb, green coconut-curried pearl couscous, fresh vegetables with fried sage.) Though my plate ends up hosting a wet, citrusy pool, it's all quite lovely. Dessert, though, kicks ass: smooth, beautiful lavender-colored and -flavored homemade ice cream with a chiffonade of basil, garnished with artistically cut orange and strawberry. Meanwhile, a woman is buying Ben & Jerry's a few feet away, which, in context, seems perversely sad.
Wally et al. will open Meridian Market at 56th St and Meridian Ave this July, where they will also host a recurrent restaurant within a grocery store.