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Mystic Market's latest lure: pre-packaged meals

By Jill Blanchette

Publication: The Day

Published October 24. 2013 4:00AM

I have long been a devotee of Mystic Market, the Route 1 Mystic location, which opened in 2002.

I tell myself that I'm just getting a giant cup of their always delicious decaf or exploring their vast tea offerings, but I never stop there.

Homemade muffins, scones, cookies and cupcakes are displayed in a sparkling glass case like treasures in a jewel box. If I resist, I'm seduced by the next case, the fresh made salads and sides, particularly the Spicy Broccoli Salad and the Spicy Sesame Noodles. If I survive that gauntlet, the center aisles beckon, filled with a siren's song of imported cookies, interesting chips and, ultimately, the market's house-made snack mixes - the 19th Hole is addictive.

And now, after a recent thinning and reorganization of the stock, just when I think I've run out of irresistible ways to empty my wallet, I run smack into a new set of offerings, four refrigerators full of pre-packaged, heat-and-eat meals.

The market has always offered these take-home dinner options, but not in a pre-packaged, grab-and-go form. At the deli counter, you can choose from an array of prepared proteins - meatballs, grilled chicken, salmon, roasted turkey breast, crab cakes, flank steak and Cajun shrimp skewers on one recent visit. Add some salads and sides from the other case to create a custom-made dinner for two, four or six, whatever is needed.

With the new, pre-packaged selections, there's no need to take a number and navigate the line at the counter - which can be daunting at times. You can just grab a container of, say, macaroni and cheese, beef lasagna or Sweet Chili Tofu and Vegetables, see the cashier and be on your way to a nearly home-cooked meal.

On a recent Thursday night, we sampled four options - the macaroni and cheese, $8.99 for a portion that could serve three generously; the Cattleman's Pie, $10.99, plenty for four; the Sweet Chili Tofu, $7.99, plenty for two; and the Crab Cakes with rice pilaf, $9.99, a generous serving for one but enough for two to share.

We also took home small containers of the market's humus ($4.99) and guacamole ($8.99), plus a sack of their house-made tortilla chips.

The humus was delicious, with just the right amount of garlic and a lemony tang. The chips are decadent, crispy, greasy (in the best sense), salty and crumbly triangles. They're really one of a kind. The guacamole was disappointing, a little too smooth and shiny for my taste. Speaking of taste, it really didn't have much. It's difficult to make guacamole in advance because of the avocado's tendency to brown as it sits. I don't know what the market adds to keep it green, but the overall effect is not appetizing. In this battle, the humus is the clear winner.

The two generous crab cakes were bready but flavorful and perfectly accompanied by a spice chipotle aioli and a tasty, toothsome rice pilaf. Yum.

The Asian offering, slabs of soft tofu, perfect basmati rice, and a handful of julienned carrot, zucchini and yellow squash, all bathed in a spicy, sweet chili sauce, was delicious and tasted freshly made. A delightful surprise.

The macaroni and cheese was perfectly serviceable, but it was pushed over the top by a generous coating of butter-rich bread crumbs, which became brown and crunchy after a stint in the oven.

Lastly, the Cattleman's Pie, a layered, densely packed casserole of ground beef in a flavorful, rich brown gravy, corn, and buttery mashed potatoes on top, was beyond expectations. It was rich and filling, spectacular and comforting in a down-home, hot lunch kind of way.

Each entrée came packaged in a rectangular, aluminum foil tray topped with a clear plastic lid. And each label included the same cooking instructions: "Remove lid, heat in 350F oven for 20-30 minutes, or until 165F internal temperature."

Although the 165-degree internal temperature standard may satisfy food safety requirements, it's not really all that helpful when warming up a diverse group of foods, from the very light basmati rice to the very dense Cattleman's Pie. From refrigerator to oven, the macaroni and cheese and the Cattleman's Pie took 45 minutes to an hour to heat through. We removed the crab cakes from their package and heated them on a cookie sheet treated with an olive oil spray so they would be crispy. Our attempt to bring the mac and cheese to 165-degrees made the béchamel cheese sauce break, so although it was tasty, it lost any creaminess that may have been in the original dish.

But really, I'm nitpicking. Stay away from the guacamole and you won't be disappointed with one of Mystic Market's pre-packaged, heat-and-eat entrees.

j.blanchette@theday.com

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Mystic Market

63 Williams Ave. (Route 1), Mystic
(860) 572-7992
mysticmarket.com

Cuisine: Gourmet deli and market, eat-in and take-out

Atmosphere: Casual

Service: Usually friendly and efficient, sometimes chaotic

Prices: $5.99-$10.99 for pre-packaged, heat-and-eat meals

Hours: Monday-Saturday 7 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sunday 8 a.m.-5 p.m.

Credit cards: Yes

Reservations: No

Handicapped access: No steps to enter.

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