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Food heaven? 

Fresh Market comes close.

FRESH LOOK: Meat on display at West Little Rock's Fresh Market.
  • FRESH LOOK: Meat on display at West Little Rock's Fresh Market.

Yes, Fresh Market is a grocery store, and yes, this is a restaurant review section.

We could make the argument that Fresh Market’s extensive take-out offerings — the size of its menu rivals any sit-down place in town — is sufficient justification for including it.

But the thing is, pretty as their ready-made food might be, Fresh Market is a store that makes you want to cook. There may be bourbon-coated salmon fillets and Szechuan green beans waiting at the deli counter, but they can’t begin to compete with the store’s gleaming displays of bright, beautiful produce and its all but endless meat and seafood case.

Fresh Market is a department store disguised as a boutique: enormous attention has been paid to presentation, with exposed wood beams and stacked crates and barrels designed to create the illusion that you’re shopping in some dockside outdoor market for food fresh off the boat.

Fresh Market is a national chain that’s often lumped with stores like Wild Oats, but this is a place that caters to foodies, not organic-only hippies: the chicken isn’t free range, and the coffee’s not fair-trade. Most of the produce is conventionally grown. The Little Rock store opened in mid-May in the Pleasant Ridge Town Center on Cantrell Road just west of I-430.

There’s plenty here you won’t find at Kroger (although there’s also plenty you will; the two stores carry the same brand of strawberries and blackberries, for instance): Seven varieties of pear, white asparagus, broccoli rabe, neatly packaged fresh French green beans, seven cuts of veal, all manner of wild fish and shellfish, a wide selection of organic salad mixes and unusual dried pastas, like foglie d’autunno (“autumn leaves”). The meat and seafood case includes plain old raw animal flesh, but also plenty of pinwheeled, stuffed and breaded options, ready to cook. There’s also a good range of specialty beers, and the selection of Arkansas wines includes a few from the higher end of the state’s vineyards, like Chateau Aux Arc’s zinfandel and its cabernet sauvignon.

And about that huge selection of take-out.

Close to half the store seems to be devoted to ready-to-eat food: soups and sandwiches at lunch, hot entrees at dinner and a long list of salads and other side dishes all day long. There’s an olive bar with about half a dozen varieties. What seems to be an endless number of bulk bins containing all sorts of nuts, snack mixes, dried fruit, candy, chocolate-covered you-name-it. The separate dessert counter will make you weep.

We made two sweeps through, once for dinner and once for lunch. The overall impression: It’s all fine, but nothing earth-shattering or worth going too out of your way for.

For dinner, we took home a rotisserie chicken breast, a bourbon salmon fillet, a twice-baked potato and small containers of edamame succotash, szechuan green beans and Waldorf chicken salad. It was more than enough to feed two people, for about $20.

We liked the salmon fillet, but for the same reason our dinner companion wasn’t impressed: You couldn’t really taste the salmon itself. The bourbon glaze was delicious, though — smokey and sweet. The rotisserie chicken breast was fine — it would be perfect for using in a recipe, but on its own didn’t have a whole lot of flavor. The potato and green beans were the best of the side dishes, although the beans were a little heavy on the sesame oil.

Considering that we could have cut at least a quarter off our tab and still had plenty to eat, we’d keep Fresh Market in mind on nights when we want a cheap but non-fast-food dinner and don’t want to cook.

With office mates to help, we cast a wider net on our return visit at lunch. The deli’s offerings include 13 pre-made sandwich choices, all $5-$6, or you can custom-design your own for $5. We picked up a muffaletta, a turkey sandwich with Havarti cheese and cranberry relish, the Cuban wrap and the salmon wrap. From the sushi case, we chose a spicy tuna roll plate. And for dessert, we limited ourselves to a piece of caramel fudge pecan cake, a chocolate dream bar and something called a Strawberry Pillow.

The sandwiches got generally good reviews; we liked the turkey, although the cranberry relish tasted more strongly of lemons than cranberries. The resident muffaletta aficionado said that the tapenade on Fresh Market’s version tasted more of tomatoes than olives, but that he didn’t find that unpleasant. He also liked the salmon wrap, which is made with the same bourbon-glazed salmon served in entrée form at dinner.

As for the sushi, reaction was mixed. One colleague pronounced it better than what you’d get from Kroger, while another said it was about the same.

We said earlier that the dessert counter would make you weep, and we meant it. We loved all three of our choices, although our personal favorite was the Strawberry Pillow: a sandwich-like concoction with sliced strawberries, cream cheese and whipped cream on a croissant-ish kind of pastry, with chocolate drizzled on top. It was pure heaven, although we wouldn’t have minded a few more strawberries. We’ll confess to sneaking it away from our co-workers and snarfing it all by our lonesome.

The Fresh Market

HHHn

11525 Cantrell Road

225-7700

Quick Bite

Beautiful food, presented beautifully. Seafood, meat and produce that are hard to find elsewhere in Little Rock, plus a large selection of carry-out entrees, sandwiches, sides and desserts.

Hours

9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun.

Other info

Inexpensive to moderate prices. Credit cards accepted.

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