I have an unfailing attraction to prepared food stores; the idea of picking and choosing a whole bunch of small bites of whatever I want has led me to the trays of too many sad deli buffets, piling General Tso's chicken next to tortellini salad and soggy green beans. Sure there are upscale markets that have high quality fare, but they carry prices to match.
The Family Store, a small family-run grocery in Bay Ridge, is among the few that offer expertly prepared dishes at relatively friendly prices (everything falls between $8 and $15 per pound.)
You can tell that the Family Store is special just from looking at their display case. The fresh herbs are brighter and the vegetables are noticeably crisper, as you can see in the salad of snappy Persian cucumbers, tomatoes, and Kalamata olives, or the roasted beets marinated in lemony yogurt. Neither dish is particularly novel, but both are exceptionally well prepared. They can't possibly make everything fresh daily, but you'd never guess that from tasting.
The sign out front advertising Mediterranean cuisine is perhaps too finite of a description for what they actually offer. Sure there are the ubiquitous stuffed grape leaves and bowls of hummus and tabouleh, but there are also dishes that are purely influenced by chef/owner Sam Dabas' creativity, like a pilaf of cracked wheat, vermicelli, and chickpeas with a surprising mellow licorice aroma of toasted caraway.
Mr. Dabas has a strong and quiet presence behind the counter. He's not exactly a pitchman for his food, but he's more than willing to recommend what's good on the day. He sold me on a pound of his turkey "london broil" by sliding me a small slice of tender, slow-roasted turkey breast smothered in sweet caramelized onions. The dish doesn't exactly recall a beef london broil but is better off for it.
Individual chicken pot pies are encased in layers of phyllo that are shattering crisp on the outside but more pliant as you reach the center, where the dough mixes with the buttery filling of pulled chicken, potatoes, carrots, onions, and celery. As tempting as it may be to scarf one of these hand-sized pies on the go, it's definitely more sensible to approach one of these with a knife and fork.
As Sam is ringing you up, it's impossible not to notice the giant platter next to the register, a housemade ricotta cheese enveloped by a dark, syrup soaked semolina crust. The cheesecake is incredibly easy to eat by the spoonful given its soft and airy texture; not at all cloyingly sweet as you may expect from a syrup-soaked cake.
There's no seating in the Family Store, so unless you live in Bay Ridge, your food is going to have to travel. The dishes all hold up well after an hour on the subway and in some cases a day or two in the refrigerator.
Many prepared food stores, at any price point, value quantity over quality, so there is not much pride behind the dishes that they put out. Not so with the Family Store, where you can see and taste the care in everything they do. While the name 'The Family Store' may be comically generic, it is entirely appropriate.