When the slow-moving days of summer merge into the frantic, activity-filled days of fall, takeout for dinner becomes a precious gift from the restaurant gods. I get tired of pizza and Chinese, though, and if I have to get in my car to go get my food, I want something worth bringing home.
I don't work downtown, but lots of other people do, and for them, my fantasy of walking to a takeout place and getting dinner before I hit the car can be a reality. Italian loafers and high heels click nicely up the concrete steps of the extravagantly stocked Relish, just behind La Différence. Michael King -- who made vegetarian food tempting to diehard meat lovers with Grace Place and ramped up the takeout offerings at Ellwood Thompson's has pulled together soothing, understated neutrals, well-burnished stainless steel and Jim Black's excellent abstract paintings. He's perfectly meshed his sophisticated interior with the cuisine.
A big salad bar with unexpected things like roasted yellow peppers, ultraripe tomatoes and shaved Parmesan flanks a hot bar with themed international choices that change daily.
Best are the dinners to go, which can be ordered by fax (see the Web site for a form) and are just $9.99 for a main dish and two sides. The wild coho salmon, sprinkled with white sesame seeds, topped with a tiny pineapple slice and lacquered with a sweet teriyaki glaze, is miraculously moist. The antibiotic-free farmed salmon, although slightly less flavorful, gets a jolt from a garlicky Italian relish of capers, tomatoes and basil. Roasted red potatoes are hard to get wrong and these are good, but the slender green beans with shallots and herbs bang out the flavor and almost make you forget about the spicy, oregano-laced roasted tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, onions and squash that came out of the gate as a favorite.
Less interesting is the chicken Parmesan, but children love it, and who can argue with that? The only drawback is that everything has to be heated at home, but careful verbal instructions accompany each dish when you pick up dinner. Best of all is the ethereal lemon ginger cheesecake one of the most amazing things I've put in my mouth all year.
Around the corner, the Southern Railway Deli attempts the same kind of thing with a choose-your-own-pasta bar with, among other choices, boring pesto sauce and tinny-tasting marinara, washed-out looking fresh tomatoes and sliced mushrooms straight from a can. Most of the pasta and salad bar options looked like those at an average grocery store, with egregious shortcuts from the pantry that give everything an overall blandness. The pizza is better than, say, Domino's, and the chicken parmigiana panini, although dry, is worth eating, although I wasn't sure why it came with a chipotle dipping sauce. The food comes hot but isn't worth the energy it takes to get the bag to your car.
If the Fan is closer for you, Sticky ToGoGo, a takeout shop, is across the street from its mother restaurant, Sticky Rice. Everything over there is available in this little paper-lantern-hung branch too, with the added bonus that you don't have to wait endlessly for a table, and the food is ready when you arrive.
It's not the best sushi in the world, but it's not bad, and it wins lots of bonus points for imagination with such standouts as a crunchy tempura octopus roll called 2000 Leagues and the delicately seared yellowtail and goat cheese of the Billy Goat's Gruff. Mashed edamame is mixed with wasabi and deep-fried for the Jolly Green Wontons, and if you're in the mood for a sandwich, the mildly sweet umeboshi BBQ pork sandwich is transformed by the addition of a sharp, spicy carrot-based Asian slaw.
Szechuan shrimp blasts the flavor with plenty of rice to soak up the sauce, and Tater Tots on the menu long before "Napoleon Dynamite" made them a pop cultural touchstone are an addictive necessity with their unobtrusive dipping sauce. Add in a kids' menu with all the old favorites on it, and you have takeout for the entire family.
Whether you work downtown or are just willing to drive there, the burgeoning takeout scene leaves you no excuse to cook. S
101 S. 15th St.
Monday-Friday, 7 a.m.-6 p.m.
Southern Railway Deli
111 Virginia St.
Monday-Wednesday, 7 a.m.-5 p.m.
Thursday-Friday, 7 a.m.-midnight
Saturday, 9 a.m.-midnight
2227 W. Main St.
Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
Saturday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.