Thornton Wilder wrote a one-act play in which a young woman envisioned herself cooking Thanksgiving dinner more than 50 times during her life. Just think how many times you will cook dinner in your life. An exhausting vision--and certainly one good reason for takeout. (There are scores of other reasons: baby-sitter emergencies, couch potato weekends, refrigerators that contain equal parts Henry Weinhard, Fujicolor and elephant garlic that has started to sprout.) Sometimes, the bottom line is just wanting someone to take care of you.
So it was a pleasure to find the Joy of Saks in the Ashford Market on Montana Avenue. Montana is full of takeout places--from old-fashioned French menus to new-fashioned haut -yuppie delicacies. But chef and owner Ed Saks makes healthy, clean cuisine. Formerly chef at Pritikin in Pennsylvania and Santa Monica, Saks (who was trained in classic French and Italian cooking in New York) is focusing on simple and, for the most part, fat-free food.
Joy of Saks is one of four small stores clustered under the same roof. (One of them is Tanaka's, which has the most splendid produce on the West Side.) Although the business is equal parts catering and takeout, you can sit at a small white counter and watch the action while you have a meal.
You can breakfast on a juice-sweetened muffin made each morning ($1) or mueseli, a Swiss oat-fruit-and-nut cereal, and cappuccino or hazelnut coffee. I've got to say that even though the muffins are light and tasty and less than 160 calories, I'd rather walk four steps to the Il Fornaio Bakery counter and have one of their mega-brans.
Saks figures that about 75% of his food is made with Pritikin principles in mind: high in complex carbohydrates, no added salt or fat. He has listed the calories, percentages of fat and milligrams of cholesterol and sodium on little placards waving from the containers in the case. No such rude entries mar the candy case filled with wrapped chocolates and ravishing truffles hand-made locally and sold at $9.99 a pound. The shelves filled with oils, vinegars, jams, biscuits and coffees and the small selection of rich cheeses keep this from being a "diet" establishment. And then, anyway, most of the food has too much verve to be really considered austere.
What made me feel well taken care of? The skinless boned chicken breasts ($8.75 a pound)--remarkably juicy--are among the best things in the shop. I particularly enjoyed the natty Cajun chicken, grilled without fat in a cast-iron skillet (Saks says this dish does contain salt.) Thai garlic chicken and tarragon chicken were also wonderful. The sweetened chickens, with pineapple or cranberry chutney, were less exciting.
In addition to at least three kinds of grilled chicken each day, there are usually two chicken salads ($8.50 a pound). Best, I think, is the crunchy, smoky Chinese chicken with water chestnuts and sesame oil. Among the pasta salads, (mostly around $8 a pound but as much as $14.50 for the one loaded with shrimp), there's always something glossed with an excellent pesto and another with a pleasing oil-less tomato sauce. (The ziti in tomato sauce comes in a spillproof container that can go right into the microwave. Just average when cold, it was more complex--and comforting--when hot.)
Who would have thought that kasha varnishkes (buckwheat groats, bow-tie noodles, onions and, in this case, butter) could survive a reheating? They were incredibly light and incredibly, authentically good. Tabouli ($5.50 a pound) was also fine, chock-full of parsley and mint.
The made-every-day salsa ($3.25 a pound) is (I hate to say it, but it's true), garden-fresh. The new potato salad ($5.95 a pound) with yogurt and too much dill had grainy potatoes both times I tried it. The black bean chili ($5.50 a pound) with lots of red pepper and onions is too sweet. There are always several crunchy straightforward vegetable salads: Corn salad with lemons is particularly nice. And, if you're in the mood for something earthy, don't miss the simple lentil soup.
For dessert ($1 per portion,) there's generally a moist poppy seed banana bread pudding with pineapple that satisfies a yen for nursery food. There is also a scrumptious fudgey brownie, which isn't diminished in the least by being made with whole wheat flour.
And if you still don't feel adequately cared for, you might stop off at the flower stand and buy yourself a single perfect bloom.
The Joy of Saks, 1627 Montana Ave ., in the Ashford Market, Santa Monica; (213) 451-0557. Open Monday-Saturday 8 a.m.-7 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Cash and checks only. Street parking.