Thursday nights are for lazy dinners: the work week is almost over, and the glory of the weekend looms just out of reach. I often cannot be bothered to cook, which is why in my household we have takeout Thursdays (it’s an incredible way to support the local economy). Takeout is really just code for Thai, and we almost always get Thai takeout. Thai Thursday was getting a little tired, and I was in need of a change of flavor for my lazy Thursday dinner. Each Thursday Art Mart offers Dinner for Two for $18.99. It’s an affordable and sophisticated take on take out.
Dinner for Two is exactly that: enough food for two people to eat, but not overindulge. These brown sacks include an appetizer, an entrée, and a dessert, all intended to be shared. The bags are ready to be picked up around the noon hour, and you can reserve a bag by calling Art Mart. Each week is a different dinner.
Last Thursday’s dinner theme was the Cheesemonger’s Choice and included a Caesar salad, pancetta and four cheese macaroni and cheese, and two chocolate chip cookies. I called in the morning to reserve a meal and picked it up later in the afternoon.
When I got home and unpacked everything, I was pleasantly surprised by the cuteness of it all. Each component was individually packaged: lettuce, croutons, mac and cheese, and cookies. I felt like I was having a Mrs. Doubtfire moment. You know, the one in which Mrs. Doubtfire orders some amazing dinner to impress his estranged family? The dinner was only a few baby carrots and candelabras shy of fancy.
When it came to heating and eating, it couldn’t have been simpler. I dumped the mac and cheese into a glass pan, put it into a 375-degree oven for a few minutes, and got to prepping the salad. I chose a bowl with a lid and dumped the lettuce and both small containers of salad dressing into it. On went the lid and shake, shake, shake, I did. Each sliver of romaine lettuce was perfectly coated with the dressing. I then put the croutons on top. After about ten minutes, I pulled the mac and cheese out of the oven, and dinner was served.
The mac and cheese had large chunks of crispy pancetta mixed in, but I was a little disappointed that there weren’t more. The pancetta seemed to be sitting on the top of the mac and cheese and not completed integrated into the casserole. Curly cavatappi wrapped around the pancetta, and the cheese sauce was a generous, thick coating in, on, and around the pasta and pancetta. The cheese was a little on the sweet side, but with the salty and peppery pancetta, it all balanced out. Even with the addition of the pancetta, the mac and cheese wasn’t too salty. The pasta was perfectly cooked and even remained al dente. This mac and cheese was a massive improvement from my last foray into the dish.
Although the Caesar salad was missing the requisite shaved Parmesan cheese, the dressing and croutons made up for it. The romaine lettuce was cut into strips with plenty of leaf surface area. There weren’t any sad romaine stem chunks clogging up the salad — Art Mart is no Panera, thank you very much. (Although Panera is all well and fine for some circumstances, and it does make a mean Greek salad, getting a salad full of lettuce stems is the worst.) The dressing was creamy and really, really, lovely. It was tangy and sweet, and even though it was creamy, it was rather light. The only flavor missing was that of anchovies. I understand why the dressing maker chose to either omit or go easy on the little fishes — some people just don’t like that taste. And when used improperly, anchovies can totally overpower the dressing. Talk about leaving a bad taste in the mouth. The croutons were glorious. They were buttery, peppery, and garlicky, crunchy on the outside without shredding the roof of your mouth or breaking your teeth, and chewy on the inside. The combination of the crisp lettuce, tangy and bright dressing, and garlicky-pepper croutons was simply delicious. The textures were well balanced, too. I usually don’t get excited about salads, but this was really, really good. In fact, it completely upstaged the mac and cheese.
The chocolate chip cookies were quite large. And perfect. They were just a little crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside, and delightfully sweet. The inside was practically a layer of creamy milk chocolate chunk pleasure, making it a chocolate chunk cookie, not a chocolate chip cookie. Although the meal was the ‘cheesemonger’s choice’, ending with more cheese would have been just a little too much. The cookie was the just enough sweet to subdue that Thursday night crankiness.
Dinner for two was a pretty good deal. You’d be hard-pressed to find a place in town where you can get a yummy, well prepared, mostly well-balanced meal with dessert for $10 a person. While there wasn’t enough food for us to eat ourselves sick, there was more than enough food for us to meet our caloric needs and feel satisfied. However, there is a bit of a bait and switch happening with this dinner for two deal. When you go into Art Mart to pick up the packaged dinner, you will be tempted by all the other treats and indulgences available: gelato, olives, cheese, slices of cake, San Marzano tomatoes, fancy sodas, gourmet chocolates, Intelligentsia coffee, beer, and wine. If you’re strong willed you could prevail. You could make it through without succumbing to the temptation. In fact, you could even browse the wall of wine to select the best accompaniment to your dinner. If you’re weak willed, on the other hand, you will leave there with fewer dollars in your wallet and more calories to consume. I was a victim of the weak will, and in addition to the dinner for two, I also left with a cookie dough frosted brownie. And yes, I pretended like I bought it for someone else. And yes, I went to my car and ate the brownie like a shamed fat kid. And yes, it was awesome. (No, I don't have any photographic evidence.)
Art Mart is located in Lincoln Square Mall in Urbana, and is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, 12–5 p.m. Dinner for Two menus are shared through Art Mart’s newsletter, and sometimes on Facebook. To reserve your own Dinner for Two, call (217) 344-7979.