A couple weeks ago I got the privilege of meeting up with one of my oldest friends for dinner. I always look forward to our (few and far between) meets because Monica, like me, is a health nut. This is the friend that, in college, joined me in becoming a vegan. The friend that appreciated Iowa City’s organic, raw and always-fresh New Pioneer Co-op just as much as I did. The friend that, even as a broke college kid, would splurge with me on one of the best meals in town. And the friend that is pursuing her dream to be a health guru by working her way to the top at one of my favorite places in the whole world – Whole Foods. When Monica mentioned that she was dying to scope out the Northbrook location to see what the upscale grocer looked like in the most upscale of neighborhoods – I couldn’t resist.
You see, the Northbrook Whole Foods is more than just an organic grocer; it’s also a café, a coffee shop and a bar (in some areas). While grocery shopping can be expensive, a meal is surprisingly reasonable. Without the added cost of a server to tip, it can be a fantastically inexpensive dining experience.
Being the health geeks that we are, we started our excursion by roaming the aisles of the store. This was an exercise in discipline. For a frugal spender like myself, many times, a Whole Foods trip is mostly window-shopping. Items such as Paromi Coconut Almond tea, made of hand-picked leaves from the Nahorhabi tea estate in North India (cost: $10 for 15 tea bags) or Blue Print 100% natural, raw, cold pressed juice, ensuring all nutrients stay intact (cost: $9.99 for one 16 oz bottle). As much as I appreciate the worth of good health, even I realize the ridiculousness of a $10 bottle of juice.
Finally, we ventured over to the open-floored prepared foods area where the bakery, gelato display, salad bar, pizza stand, Panini maker and sushi station live. It was sensation overload. Exotic flavored cookies from a local bakery, decadent pastries that resemble modern art, sushi and various stir-fry dishes made-to-order, and mounds of pre-made veggie sides and entrees that include dishes like sweet potato patties and colorful quinoa creations. For me, it was food heaven.
We settled on the stir-fry station and promised ourselves to come back for dessert after we finished our meals. Monica went with the veggie and tofu bowl, served atop noodles.
I went for the ginger shrimp noodles, swimming in veggie broth.
As soon as the short stocky smiling lady behind the counter served us our food, we didn’t hesitate to venture outside to escape the freezing air conditioning and enjoy what’s left of the warm summer days.
Wicker furniture lines the outside of the store which, yes, faces the parking lot, but also looks out onto the expansive, brick-walled Willow Festival shopping mall that only the North Shore could produce.
My ginormous bowl of soup was steaming hot and not too salty – just the way I like it. Filled with savory shrimp, fine noodles, spicy ginger, and fresh parsley, thyme and various other herbs that I couldn’t identify, it was the perfect solution to a long day spent in a freezing-cold-air-conditioned office.
We talked about life dreams and goals, as we always do. And Monica filled me in on the wonderful perks of working at Whole Foods. From the generous discounts and health workshops to the opportunities to volunteer in places like Latin America, Africa and Asia to assist women entrepreneurs (I looked into this Whole Planet foundation and it’s a pretty incredible). Coming off of a 6-year stint working under high-powered attorneys, this place was just the fresh air she needed.
As soon as we both realized we were done with our food, we looked at each other in silent agreement – it was time for dessert. We ventured back in, bee-lining towards the bakery. First stop, fresh-baked cookies. With more than 30 kinds to choose from, it was not an easy decision: Lemon Rosemary, Gooey Oatmeal, Peanut Butter & Jelly Thumbprints, Bacon Chocolate, the list went on.
We landed on four each – thank God they were small. Then Monica made her way to the mounds of colorfully decorated gelato, while I went straight for the cupcakes – if only just look to at them. I was this close to buying a vegan cupcake that Monica already confirmed was delicious, but I decided to be “strict” and just stick with my four cookies.
Back outside to the wicker chairs – this time skipping the tables for the more comfortable “couches” complete with matching ottoman. We laid every cookie out in front of us, creating our own little dessert buffet. The sun began to set as we sampled cookie after cookie, taking one small bite of each, and then placing it back down…
First bite was the bacon cookie – Salty, smoky crunchy chocolaty goodness
Second bite, the lemon rosemary – Refreshing, yet earthy and delicate
Third bite,the oatmeal – oatey and a surprising, yet slight toffee crunch
And finally, the shortbread – crispy and flaky with a hint of pistachio
It was awesomely decadent and worth every bite.
Soon enough, the time came when I had to catch my train. Monica and I slowly made our way towards the car. A little sad the night was over, but utterly satisfied at its success. I couldn’t help but think that I just experienced pure indulgence, yet I didn’t feel a pang of guilt for it.