The new way to dine out is to eat in, as many Whole Foods Market take-out aficionados are discovering. You brave Sarasota's downtown construction traffic, negotiate the market's parking garage (or opt for valet), wind your way through the food-and-healthful-living-related aisles in this 36,000-square-foot store and brace yourself for a crush at the checkout counters. It's worth all that to shop this self-service restaurant that offers international dining adventures galore. The best part is you get to take it all home and dine in barefoot comfort on your high-rise condo terrace or on the coffee table in front of the TV while watching the nightly news or a rented film. No one is saying this is eating chic or even eating cheap, but it's a way of eating well that's working for a lot of Sarasotans these days.
Whole Foods is smart about how it organizes the take-home dining experience and how it charges for the different courses. At the cold salad bar, where I counted 44 options for composing a regal salad indeed, you're charged $6.99 a pound. Use several different small clear plastic containers or mix as you go in one big one. Management has figured out what we know-these containers usually pop their lids-so there's an ample supply of rubber bands in a cup near the containers. Things to delight and confound you at this station include Mississippi caviar (black-eyed peas with seasonings), Pritikin black beans, green lentils, wheatberries with chilies and Moroccan carrot salad spiced with cumin, as well as the usual components for a tossed field greens salad.
Nearby is the hot international station of specialties at $6.99 a pound. A lot of these selections contain tofu, various legumes, cilantro and cumin. A vegetarian can roam happily here; I even found a vegan sag panneer, which is spinach, tofu and garam masala. More familiar are the double dumpling stew, baked macaroni and cheese, pork vindaloo, turkey meatloaf, Israeli couscous (the beads of grain are bigger), and a turkey hash that's like a sharp sloppy Joe mixture. The hot soup bar is here, too, with about 10 selections to take home in three different-sized containers. The smallest is $2.49. The menu changes daily; but you're likely to discover roasted carrot, Creole bean, New England clam chowder, chicken noodle and some that are really spicy.
The salad and international stations are self-serve. But when you move to the deli and pizza counter, you are waited on and can ask for a sample taste of anything you consider buying. There are about 20 sandwiches (about $7) as well as hot entrées such as Thai beef steak ($14.99), honey-mustard wild salmon, jambalaya, roast beef, chicken satay, stuffed potatoes and various rice dishes, all of which are individually priced. Additionally, there are whole pizzas (large and petite) sold already cooked as well as those you take home and pop into the oven.
Desserts include fancy whole cakes and pies, cream and custard fantasies, fruit tarts and the more traditional cupcakes, muffins ($1.29), brownies, gourmet chocolates, scones and a nice assortment of breakfast pastries. Best deal is a small butter raisin Danish, flaky and flavorful at just 39 cents. It's just enough for a cup of coffee without a crumb to spare. But actually, there are no bad deals at the take-out sections of Whole Foods. When you factor in the quality, freshness and variety of what this market offers, a stroll through the take-out aisles will end in a satisfying meal, especially if you're up for trying something you'd never cook at home.
Whole Foods Market
1451 First St., Sarasota
Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.