I stood with the crowd of office workers in the front room at Cellars' Market waiting to pick up my brown bag with a carryout order. As I stared at the elegant wood bar in front of me, I could almost imagine that I was lounging at a cafe in Rome instead of standing in line at a sandwich shop on the edge of the Warehouse District. The bar was fully stocked and surrounding it were refrigerated cases of beer, soda and bottles of white wine. A sign promised 62 different kinds of beer. Surely I wasn't the only person who considered ordering a drink.
When I first read the carryout menu at Cellars' Market, I expected to find a standard sandwich shop catering to office workers. A half-dozen salads were offered with twice as many options for dressings. Sandwiches were served both grilled and wrapped. Daily specials of home-cooked favorites such as gumbo, meatloaf and red beans and rice added some variety. After seeing the bar, however, I knew that I wanted to come back even before tasting the food. It looked like an inviting place to sip a glass of wine after work.
When I returned to Cellars' Market and headed to the back dining room, I felt like I had been transported to the Italian countryside. Wooden racks full of wine line the sides of the room. Classical music plays softly in the background. Against the far wall, a silver warehouse door has been pulled back to reveal an Italian village. A working fountain juts out from the mural. It was like a European vacation in the middle of the day.
The salads were fresh with well-chosen greens. Don't expect to be dazzled by a plate of exotic leaves and odd ingredients. Cellars' Market sticks to the classics, like Caesar and Cobb. The baby spinach salad, for example, was full of tomatoes, red onions, feta cheese, toasted pecans and red bell peppers. It was large enough for a meal.
In keeping with the Italian ambience, Cellars' Market serves paninis with Italian names. The Grilled Italiano was an excellent combination of Genoa salami, pepperoni, provolone cheese, roasted red peppers and balsamic vinaigrette. Even better was the vegetarian Milano with chunks of roasted eggplant, provolone, roasted red pepper and a pesto mayonnaise. When these sandwiches arrived, a friend immediately noted that our paninis were not on an long, flat panino. Instead they were served on slices of grilled bread that had been cut from a loaf. My friend dislikes panino bread and would have ordered one had she known. I prefer the long, crusty loaves and was disappointed to find less exotic slices of bread on the panini sandwiches.
Among the specialty sandwiches, the Tchoupitoulas club was a solid rendition of the classic double-decker; Cellars' Market adds a layer of sun-dried tomatoes for a unique twist. They even offer a muffuletta piled with extra thick layers of ham, mortadella and Genoa salami topped with a chunky olive salad. I would, however, avoid the French dip next time. There is too much good roast beef in New Orleans to settle for something that had the texture and taste of a pressed meat product.
The pleasant idling away the day often ended when I had to track down a server to order a dessert. Most of the time, it wasn't worth the effort. On the spumoni cheesecake, each neon-hued layer tasted like a different variety of artificial flavor. The gummy red gel atop another cheesecake could have been stolen from the filling of a cherry Pop-Tart. The dessert that was worth the effort, however, was the homemade chocolate cupcake with fluffy peaks of chocolate icing.
Getting the final bill also sometimes involved a search of the premises. The faux-courtyard and the possibility of a glass of wine might encourage people to linger. Most of the customers eating lunch at Cellars' Market, however, were dressed in suits and business attire. They may want to have a leisurely lunch, but that decision probably belongs to their boss. Cellars' Market should consider a better system for getting people back to work when their lunch hour ends.
Cellars' Market sits on a block of Tchoupitoulas Street that still doesn't get a lot of traffic. As more bars and restaurants open in the area, Cellars' Market's unusual mix of a full bar, sandwich shop and wine store will probably fill several needs for those who live or work in the Warehouse District. After 5 pm., you can share a few drinks at the bar or try a flight of wines at the tasting held every Friday. It is the only wine store in the area, and the selection of 200 wines and late hours make it a great place to buy a bottle so that you don't arrive at a party empty handed. The best feature of Cellars' Market, though, is that little backroom oasis that offers an escape from the heat on a hot New Orleans afternoon.