Despite recent layoffs and the drama that ensued, the Downtown Project has been busy on the food front, opening a pair of spots in the Fremont East district. The Market is a café and grocery store—something desperately needed in the area, especially in the wake of Resnicks’ closure in Soho Lofts. The Perch is most notable for bringing more sophisticated dining to the otherwise casual Container Park. Both are overseen by chef Sonia El-Nawal, with Dillon Wheeler managing the Market’s kitchen and Jennifer Borowitz (formerly of Downtown Grand) serving as the Perch’s executive chef. Curious, I dropped by for a first look at each before Life Is Beautiful overtook Downtown.
Eddie Murphy once said (in a very raunchy comedy routine) that if you’re starving, and somebody throws you a cracker, you’re going to think it’s the best cracker you’ve ever eaten in your life. I couldn’t help thinking about that as I walked through the Market. In the weeks and months leading up to its opening, I repeatedly heard talk of a “gourmet” grocery store. I believe comparisons to Trader Joe’s were tossed around. That, I’m sorry to report, was something of an exaggeration.
The Market is a relatively small grocery, just a bit larger than a typical corner bodega in other big cities. Like those, it has a little of everything, so you can stock up on all the staples: meat, produce, frozen foods, laundry detergent, etc. But there’s not much of a selection. And while there are some organic and other high-end products, they sit alongside Kraft Lunchables and Hostess Twinkies. The inventory at the Market is a fraction of what you’ll find at a suburban Fresh & Easy, and the overall quality of the products isn’t as good. But the people in this neighborhood were starving for a grocer, and these guys offer more than just a cracker. Hopefully, as they figure out the needs of their customers, the offerings will evolve.
The Market café, on the other hand, needs serious, immediate improvements. I tried three sandwiches and was disappointed by each of them. The meat on my bresaola sandwich was applied so sparingly that I was basically just eating goat cheese spread on thick focaccia and sprinkled with arugula. Whoever slow-cooked the pork in my collard-green wrap clearly forgot to season it; even the addition of bacon, avocado, cucumber and scallions failed to give it any real personality. And the bread on my Monkey Fluff-n-Stuff (made with a delicious amalgam of marshmallow fluff, chocolate ganache, bananas, pretzels and nuts) was a bit past its prime and literally falling apart. I’ve yet to try the salad bar or any of the cold prepared salads, however, so I can’t weigh in on them.
A block away, on the second floor toward the back of Container Park, the Perch offers considerably more ambitious cuisine. There are salads and flatbreads, shareable plates such as tuna and beef tartare, and entrées such as pasta, salmon and steak frites, and most of what I’ve tried has been good. The flatbreads, for example, have a thin, slightly chewy crust still firm enough that you can pick it up without it collapsing. Both the Lucia (sausage and peppers) and the Bianca (mozzarella, ricotta, Parmesan, a touch of truffle oil and a mountain of arugula) are delicious. The seafood pasta with spicy red sauce is loaded with fresh mussels, calamari and shrimp. And the salmon tiradito (carpaccio topped with cucumber and mango salsa) has just the right amount of heat to complement, but not overpower, the delicate fish. I did, however, find a scale in my salmon and some grit in my mussels, so they may want to take a bit more care while prepping the seafood. But since I ate there while the staff was packing up the bar to turn the space over to the Life Is Beautiful chefs, I’m willing to cut them a little slack.
As to the décor, there’s not much to it: It’s bright and cheery, with huge windows and a great deck for people-watching. (How much can you expect to accomplish in those containers anyway?) Overall, I was much more impressed with the Perch than the Market. But then, I’m not the audience the latter is there to serve.
611 Fremont Street, 702-586-3401. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun-Thu, 7 a.m.-midnight Fri-Sat. Lunch for two $15-$25.
Downtown Container Park, 702-854-1418. Open for lunch and dinner 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sun-Thu, 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Fri-Sat. Dinner for two $20-$50.