Cover Story: Gourmet Takeaway

Options and quality expand for carryout connoiseurs

Matt Borgerding

Toni Davena and Mary McMabon, owners of What's for Dinner?

The typical American family has changed a lot over the past 30 years, and our eating habits have changed, too. Long gone are the days when the whole family sat at the dining table together every evening, enjoying a balanced meal lovingly prepared by their stay-at-home mom.

Today, parents' work schedules and kids' activities wreak havoc on our diets. Many take the easy way out and on the way home from a late meeting grab a sack of burgers, sides of fries and a few colas from the local fast food drive-through on their way to soccer matches, swimming lessons, dance classes, etc.

Of course, that kind of diet has been linked to the current obesity epidemic among adults and kids. Luckily, local entrepreneurs offer lots of alternatives.

When I was a kid, there were two kinds of "takeaway" food: Italian (especially pizza) and Chinese. Over the years, the options have increased dramatically.

Now you can take away virtually everything — Indian, Mexican, Japanese, BBQ, Cajun... As proof of this near-infinite variety, you can add two new categories: gourmet and (a subset) homemade gourmet.

These shops seem to be springing up all over town, catering to working parents and busy singles who might want to devote more time to careers, families and friends and less time to chores like shopping, cooking and cleaning.

As you might suspect, the area's local gourmet-takeaways can be fairly idiosyncratic.

What's for Dinner?, for example, offers a comprehensive list of interesting casseroles that can be easily reheated. These run the gamut from beef to turkey and chicken, pork to fish, and includes a wide selection of vegetarian options as well. Depending on your mood, you might want to try their Cod Leek Pie; Feta, Crouton and Sun-dried Tomato Stuffed Chicken Breasts; Pot Roast Beef Stew; or Artichoke and Black Olive Lasagna. (3009 O'Bryon St., O'Bryonville, 513-321-4404)

Tattie's Gourmet Deli, on the other hand, offers lots of interesting gourmet sandwiches that might strike your fancy. She also offers terrifically made, hearty fare like Pork and Fennel Stew or savory Cassoulet. (6006 Wooster Pike, Fairfax, 513-561-8646)

Aunty's Homemade Food in Findlay Market provides frozen entrees that appeal to those looking for "comfort food." Smoked chicken pesto, meat lasagna and vegetable alfredo are all on the menu, along with homey sides like mac and cheese and sweet potatoes. Finish your meal with a tempting dessert, like their berry blast bread pudding. It won't be low-cal, but it's sure to conjure up memories — real or imagined — of Sunday dinners at Grandma's. (1801 Race St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-226-1220)

Meals in a box
Now, to me at least, "cooking out" is what you do all summer long on that grill outside the backdoor. But the term has taken on a new meaning with the explosion of a franchise-friendly concept — "the pre-prepared home-cooked meal in a box."

These homemade gourmet meal prep shops all work pretty much the same: They test the recipes, do all the shopping, provide the ingredients, handle the chopping, dicing and slicing and even take care of clean-up.

Customers are free to assemble meals at various entrée preparation stations, customizing ingredients and proportions to suit their families' tastes. (For instance, if your loved ones love spicy food, throw in an additional 1/2 cup of jalapenos; if they don't, just leave them out.) Finished meals are boxed up for the family freezer and can be reheated when needed.

In addition to the convenience and relatively low cost, you're also getting peace of mind because you know exactly what went into your dinner. (Who knows, on the other hand, what chemicals and preservatives go into those frozen dinners at the local supermarket?)

And if you're even too busy to devote time to preparing these take-away meals yourself, they all offer convenient "grab-and-go" options. So all you have to do is preheat the oven and warm up dinner.

The big difference between these national franchise operations is what they're making each month, though each offers a variety of regional cooking styles on their menus: Italian, Mexican, Chinese.

For instance, this month My Girlfriend's Kitchen, which awkwardly bills itself as the "best idea since the invention of the wife" as well as the slightly more catchy "do-it-yourself dinner store," mixes things up with Shrimp Alfredo on the Bayou — adding andouille sausage and Cajun heat to an Italian classic. (Multiple area locations, including 6180 Tylersville Road, Mason, 513-770-3260)

Dream Dinners, which is tagged with the Disney-esque "where wonderful meals come true," takes a more straightforward approach, eschewing their rivals' humorous menu descriptions and kitschy design sensibility. Among this month's selections you'll find something called Chicken Mirabella — boneless chicken breasts baked with capers and dried plums. (Multiple area locations, including 7743 Cox Lane, West Chester, 513-779-3555)

Among the monthly offerings at Dinner's Ready, which bills itself with the generic tagline "the better choice," you'll find Cherry-Almond Glazed Pork Chops with roasted vegetable pilaf and Coconut Chicken with piña colada sauce. (7201 Wooster Pike, Mariemont, 513-272-MEAL)

Costs for all the meals listed above generally average between $3 and $6 per serving, depending on factors like whether you participate in the assembly, how many meals you purchase at one time and whether you're picking up or the food's being delivered to you.

In any case, compare those prices with the cost of a fast food "value meal" and you might start wondering why you're settling for a burger that's been sitting under a heat lamp since lunchtime. ©

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