Keeping tabs on Careme's Market in Lutz

Can you get restaurant-quality meals at a business devoted to takeout?

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click to enlarge STICK TO THE RIB: Careme's best offering is the house-smoked prime rib. - Brian Ries
Brian Ries
STICK TO THE RIB: Careme's best offering is the house-smoked prime rib.

Running a take-out market is a heck of a lot easier than running a restaurant. The hours are better, the food — mostly refrigerated — lasts longer, and it's easier to control costs. But, almost inevitably, that's where the benefits end.

Creating a tasty meal that is "restaurant quality" but sits around for just the right person to pick it from a display case is not easy. You're not cooking to order, so you have to consider each dish's longevity, re-heating potential and simplicity of consumption. That may be why the entire genre of prepared meals has never taken off as much as predicted during the gourmet take-out boom of the 1990s. A good meal — that you don't cook for yourself — is difficult to find outside of a restaurant.

That also explains why places like Careme's Market — a new take-out spot just south of the Lutz border — is more miss than hit when it comes to assembling a credible restaurant-quality meal to eat at home.

Careme's marketing sets the bar high. The shop is named after Marie-Antoine Careme, a vaunted French chef from the early 1800s who revolutionized the way dishes are served in restaurants by choosing to serve in courses instead of just loading the table with everything ordered by the patron all, at once. A fine role model, maybe, but the quality and range of the food offered here strikes a different note entirely.

Meatballs and chicken-fried steak are more homey than fancy, with flavors and textures that reflect a home cook's sensibilities more than those of a restaurant chef. Those meatballs are giant balls of incredibly dense meat, difficult to eat without serious effort with knife and fork. Slicing them into bite-sized chunks for Careme's tomato meatball soup works better, and the hearty soup has enough spice and veggies to add character to that bland meat. Same with the market's white chicken chili — more a stew than a soup — where the meat is paired with tender sliced peppers and a thick, heavily seasoned sauce.

In Tampa, you need to nail Cuban staples like picadillo, black beans or arroz con pollo. Here at Careme's, though, all are unconscionably bland, more like display food than anything meant to be eaten. The market does a better job with more Americanized standards, like mac and cheese with a crisp cheddar crust above pasta coated in gooey cheese sauce, or simple fried fish that revives admirably in a hot oven.

Vegetables are rare in the display case, just a bare few salads and a plate of steamed asparagus eclipsed by the comparably wide array of proteins and starches. Sounds like home cooking in most American families, doesn't it?.

Noshing through it all, it's difficult to see where Careme's "restaurant quality" claim is represented in the food. At best, the food struggles to outdo even a workaday home cook or your typical grocery store cold case. Order a sandwich — all made from Hormel sliced meat — and the grocery-store/deli comparison is even stronger, with the exception of a surprisingly terrific pressed Cuban laced with the market's house-smoked pork.

When it comes to buzz about the place — and there's been a surprising amount of that — most of the praise centers on Careme's take-out smoked prime rib, and for good reason. The meat has a rich, salty crust and just enough hardwood flavor to penetrate into the rosy interior of the thick-cut slices. It's damn tasty, and the kind of thing that's daunting for home cooks, which makes it perfect for a take-out spot like Careme's. It's also where the market should focus its efforts, with a variety of meats cooked fresh daily, leaving the rest of the offerings more as convenient sides. And, if the market goes that far, why not take that meat and layer it on bread? That would transform the sandwiches from humdrum to a major draw.

Careme's consumes a big space in a strip mall, most of it devoted to a dining area and some packaged foods. There are some practical ingredients — like Sri Racha and specialty pastas — but much of the grocery shelves are laden with the kinds of jarred and boxed items you find in impractical "gourmet" gift baskets. The cheese and sausage selection is decidedly plebian, looking much like the fancy cheese aisle at a nice Publix.

Can you stop at Careme's after a hard day's work and pick up a family meal that will require less time and effort in the kitchen once you finally hit home? Sure. But you'll likely find prepared food just as good at the local supermarket.

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