On its rainy day debut October 27, fans of Brooklyn’s new Wegmans — known as Wegmaniacs — trekked to the store by the tens of thousands. The new complex, which supplanted a line of historic frame houses in the Navy Yard known as Admiral’s Row, is the Rochester grocery chain’s 101st — and its first in NYC.
Big even by Whole Food standards, the 74,000-square-foot store looked from the outside like a hulking black cube as a friend and I approached on a recent evening after the dust had settled to eat our away around the food court, which seems to be a feature of every new supermarket complex. It stands to reason that such an amenity would be provided, both to keep shoppers on the premises longer, and as a form of inventory control whereby older groceries can be recycled into burgers, salads, and hot casseroles.
The place was nearly empty as we walked through the automatic door labeled Market Café & Bar. Inside was like a hangar for a fleet of jumbo jets, with dizzyingly high ceilings and neatly arrayed groceries that seemed to extend to an indistinct horizon.
The conclusion: Wegmans is not good enough to be your destination food court, especially with DeKalb Market not so far away. But it is good enough to grab a bite while shopping for the doubtlessly fine quality groceries. For a quick but not particularly cheap bite, I’d recommend the chicken wings, sushi made to order, salads, and, yes, the “American classic burger.”
Take a look at what else to order — and what to avoid — if you decide to go check out the cult favorite.
The prepared foods and sushi
We were surprised at how the counters and reach-in cases of the food court were contiguous with the rest of the store, with no walls or other demarcation. Shoppers wander into the food court without even realizing it. One steam table labeled “Asian” held hot dishes like “spicy Hunan cauliflower,” Indian butter chicken, pork pot stickers, Thai crispy chicken, and green beans. At 7 p.m. in the evening, the food was tired looking, and it was depressing to see the cuisine of the world’s largest continent summed up in such a way.
There was a cold installation of five tubs garishly lit called “Vegetarian,” a hot island that specialized in different kinds of chicken wings, a soup kiosk, and a cold table featuring such composed salads as cucumber blueberry, as well as a chunky guac that didn’t look half bad. A very long counter in the rear displayed hot entrees sold with two sides (among them “signature mashed potatoes”) that ran to slabs of glistening meat loaf, jerk chicken breast, and mushroom risotto cakes.
A reach-in sushi fridge held dozens upon dozens of pre-made assortments in plastic trays, but behind the case was a display of several iced filets that could be cut to order as sashimi and sushi, and a pair of white-coated sushi chefs standing at attention. So skip the prepackaged assortments, because you can have your sushi freshly made at Wegmans.
It was pretty good, with not a trace of the iodine taint that can indicate an outdated specimen. We ordered two pieces of striped jack, two of medium fatty tuna, two of scallop, and a double-size yellowtail and scallion roll, for the bargain price of $18.99. Only the scallop disappointed; it was offered in pressed form, which appeared in the sushi case as a lumpy gray sheet.
The burger and pizza sections
While the sushi seemed like a comparative bargain, the vaunted Burger Bar was not. Yet this station caused the most excitement among customers, as seen by the line that formed before us even on a quiet evening. The foremost offering is the American classic burger, a reported six ounces of beef dressed with mustard, ketchup, pickles, and a single slice of American cheese, presented on a toasted brioche. It was good in a very franchise burger sort of way, the improvement being that it could be cooked to any level of doneness. Ordered medium rare, ours appeared pink and juicy in the middle
But in many ways, the burger resembles the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder, and with this idea in mind, my friend and I had smuggled in a QP ($5.50) for comparative purposes. Though the McDonald’s bun sported sesame seeds, and the Wegmans bun was a brioche, they proved eerily similar in configuration and taste. At $9 without fries, the Wegmans version seemed a tad too expensive by comparison. Indeed, the Burger Bar appeared to be a major profit center.
While the flagship burger at Wegmans was good, the fried chicken sandwich ($10) was a total bomb. Topped with lettuce, tomato, pickle, and ranch dressing, it flaunted a tough crust over-darkened by buttermilk. Moreover, it was made from chicken breast that had dried out in the frying process to the texture of old, oil-soaked rags. Sure, the filet was big, but who could plow through something so desiccated?
If the fried chicken sandwich was bad, the pizza was worse. While the broad, brightly lit counter specializes in pizzas made to order in three sizes, it also displays a dozen or so conventional round pies as if in a neighborhood pizzeria. For $3.50, you can pick any slice. The range of choices tends toward the greasy and conventional, where one might have hoped for more vegetable-driven choices. When reheated, the cheese on these slices develops an alarming sponginess.
We went for three small pies made to order: caramelized onion and bacon, cupping pepperoni and sausage, and a classic margherita. The first was drizzled with a cloying balsamic reduction in concentric circles, ruining the bacon flavor; the second was okay in its own way; while the third was really awful in the toughness of its crust. All the crusts were below par — hard and uniformly brown. At $8 or $9 apiece, these tiny pies were a crap deal. Once again, this counter seems like a profit center, posited on the idea that you’d have to walk a mile or so to get equally bad pizza.
The wings and salads
We tried four types of wings from the wing bar: Buffalo, plain, hot Nashville, and smoked. (On a subsequent visit, the selection was different and even bigger.) Eight wings tipped the scales at $9.59. These were good plump wings nicely cooked, though the Nashville were too sticky and sweet, and the smoked too dry. Go with the plain and Buffalo. Our Wegmans tragically lacks a deli hero counter, a popular feature of many stores in the Northeast. There is, however, a glass case containing pre-made sandwiches on soft hero rolls that look like they’d been inflated with a bicycle pump.
A salad bar with made to order salads at $9 isn’t a bad deal when compared to chains like Sweetgreen, Chopt, or Just Salad. The themed salads cover the territory from Caesar and cobb to inventions like “Asian” and “harvest,” all containing a vast range of ingredients that often include grains, dried fruits, snack chips, and nuts. The dressings enliven the salads by being aggressively sweet, as I found when my El Jefe arrived. One of the very few nods to Mexican gastronomy in the food court, it contained avocado, roasted corn, organic black beans, and salty crushed tortilla chips.
But I’ve saved the best for last. As you make your way upstairs to the labyrinthine suite of relentlessly brown and Formica clad dining rooms, you’ll no doubt notice a bar heavily stocked with bottles of booze in one room. For reasons known only to the management of Wegmans, a full bar upstairs serves strong mixed drinks for around $13 or $14, which is about average for Brooklyn. And even when the food court is nearly empty, a contemporary bar crowd assembles there, congenially nibbling and quaffing. So grab a slab of meatloaf with a double side of “signature mashed potatoes” and scramble upstairs. Plant your ass on a bar stool, and feel like you’re vacationing at a Holiday Inn in Rochester, New York.