New store brings gourmet frozen cuisine to the neighborhood
It's 9:30 p.m. on a Thursday, after a late day at the office, and I'm sitting down to a three-course dinner that begins with a hot bowl of velouté and a crusty roll, and will end just 30 minutes later with airy chocolate soufflé.
No cab ride home from a restaurant, no expensive check. No plastic takeout containers. No prep, food processing, or dirty dishes.
Instead, this impromptu weeknight meal came courtesy of Babeth's Feast, a gourmet frozen food shop on Third Avenue, between 80th and 81st Streets that opened on August 6, where busy Upper East Siders can grab a full, multi-course meal in a pinch, or enough flash-frozen mini quiches, crab cakes and pigs in a blanket for a no-fuss cocktail party.
Dreamed up by Elisabeth de Kergorlay, a Paris transplant and investor in Le Pain Quotidian, Babeth's Feast sells frozen food, and only frozen food-save a small selection of crackers and other dry goods for accompaniment with frozen meats or dips-from appetizer to entrée to dessert.
I visited Babeth's Feast in the late morning eight days after it opened to meet de Kergorlay. A very tall and elegant woman with blonde hair knotted in a bun, de Kergorlay is both thin and athletic-looking, hardly the image of a woman who enjoys eating frozen dinners packaged in plastic trays. Echoing the concept of French chain Picard, a frozen food grocery popular in Paris, de Kergorlay hopes to redefine frozen cuisine in New York.
"Over here, you don't shop for frozen food out of choice," said de Kergorlay, who leaned on frozen food when she hosted weekly Sunday brunches while living in Paris. "You shop out of necessity, and that's what we want to change."
Babeth's Feast carries around 360 different flash-frozen products, many French-inspired, and over half are Babeth's Feast's original creations, developed by American chef Susie Cover. The pristine store is neat and almost sparse, with the aesthetic of a frozen yogurt shop and the organization of an office supply store. Strolling from case to case, de Kergorlay pointed out breakfast foods, including a variety of croissants sold in quantities appropriate for brunch entertaining, French-leaning entrees such as chicken Provencal, and individual chocolate lava cakes, mini éclairs and petits fours.
I asked her to help me select a few dinner items and listed my dietary restrictions (a shellfish allergy and a desire for something healthy). Cover recommended the chicken Provencal, and de Kergorlay picked out a spinach soup with little cream. I also walked away with a bag of assorted dinner rolls, chocolate soufflés and a tomato crumble, a French-inspired side similar to a savory cobbler, all of which were packed into a silver, space-age cooler bag for easy commuting. "Happy cooking!" de Kergorlay said as I walked out the door.
Babeth's Feast is not alone in providing a service that lets home cooks present composed dishes without much preparation. Services like Blue Apron-which delivers a step-by-step recipe and all ingredients to customers' doors-and Fresh Direct allow us to maintain the illusion that we're cooking, but without much mess or a trip to the neighborhood grocery.
I arrived home with my frozen goods at 8:30 p.m., having told my fiancé that dinner was "taken care of." Up to that point, frozen dinner was a last resort for me, occupying a lower rung on the food ladder than boxed macaroni and cheese. I saw frozen food as a convenience, an answer to an empty belly rather than eager taste buds. But this evening, frozen food was a choice, not a solution, and not much of a quick fix: the chicken Provencal and tomato crumble required at least 45 minutes in a 350 degree oven.
As my main course 'cooked,' I microwaved the spinach and fava bean velouté, which, frozen, resembled a green brick, though once ladled into bowls took on the color of cut grass and the consistency of condensed tomato soup. Though the portions barely came to the halfway mark in my bowls, served with earthy thyme and olive dinner rolls, it could pass as a light meal.
As I scooped up the last of the surprisingly spicy soup, the timer on my oven went off and I retrieved the chicken and tomato crumble from the oven and let them cool on top of the stove. The chicken could easily pass as homemade cacciatore, but would benefit from some white rice or spaghetti. The hearty crumble tasted like a meeting of tomato soup and baked macaroni and cheese with a Ritz cracker topping, which is not to say bad at all. The crumble was intensely rich and I could only manage a few bites, which was just as well: one serving contains 440 calories and 32 grams of fat-nearly half the recommended daily intake.
At $19.99, the chicken Provencal was comparable in cost to the ingredients I'd need to cook a similar dish from scratch, and at an hour in the oven, didn't save much time, but life's a trade-off. Instead of laboring over a hot stove in the middle of August, I watched a re-run of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" while my dinner heated.
I was full after the main course, and should have stopped there, but I was most curious about the soufflés. After twenty minutes on 375 degrees, they delightfully puffed up like the timer on a Thanksgiving turkey. Served in dainty ceramic ramekins, the soufflés might work well at a dinner party.
The meal was over in half an hour, but the cooking time wasn't much shorter than my typical weeknight meal from scratch, though it did give me three courses.
But the star of the evening was the cleanup. Aside from the utensils, soup bowls and dinner plates, all other trays and prep gear went into the trash, not the sink, and I went back to my re-runs instead of facing a stack of dirty dishes.