Cheap Eats: The Bistro at Kroger

The grocery store goes highbrow. Or something.

The Kroger in the Edgewood Retail District is the jewel in the supermarket chain's intown crown. If not the crown jewel, it's at least the only one in a couple-mile radius that hasn't earned a disparaging-if-accurate nickname, such as "Murder Kroger" on Ponce de Leon Avenue or "Ghetto Kroger" further down Moreland Avenue. (The worst I've heard this one called colloquially is "Hipster Kroger," which seems more insulting to hipsters than Kroger.) Less, well, dingy than the chain's other nearby stores, the Edgewood Kroger also features a sushi bar — if you don't get diarrhea at the mere thought of grocery store sushi, which I do — a soup bar, a salad bar and, the piece de resistance, the recently opened Bistro at Kroger (1225 Caroline St., 404-880-4105).

A cafeteria-style slop line replete with balcony seating that offers spectacular views of the aisles and checkout counters below, the Bistro is like Kroger's less-expensive answer to Whole Foods' hot bars. No scales, thankfully — a main dish, two sides and bread of choice is a flat $6.99. There's only one person ahead of me in line at around 1:30 on a recent weekday afternoon, an adorable old lady whose age has diminished her voice to whisper tones. "Do you have the salmon," she croaks at the hairnet-clad woman behind the buffet.

"Samples?" the woman replies gruffly, misunderstanding the little wrinkled creature. "We don't really do samples, but I can give you a couple of things."

After an excruciating back and forth, they finally establish that, no, there isn't any baked salmon that day, and the woman ends up walking away with the "samples" she was initially offered; a potato wedge and a couple of fried chicken drummettes.

Poultry parts — fried chicken, chicken wings, chicken fingers, baked turkey wings — are the centerpiece of the Bistro's offerings. There are also lunch-line classics like meatloaf (although theirs is the more sophisticated "Mandarin meatloaf"), beef stroganoff (which, unfortunately, they were out of) and a rotation of daily specials. That said, it's probably unfair that I chose the ribs because, really, how good could grocery store ribs be? The answer: not that good at all.

I take my partitioned dish up the stairs to the second-floor seating area where a group of manager-types are holding court, the beeps and blips of commerce ringing through the air. The man seated behind me, who appears to be "between homes," has exercised the a la carte option, and is hunkered down with a loaf of white bread and a jar of peanut butter. There are a slew of condiments lined up on a counter, but not a single napkin dispenser to be found on the second floor, a shame considering what I ordered.

My order of ribs — two slabs of four bones each — is generous. Coated in a modest amount of honey-heavy, sticky-sweet sauce, the ribs are poorly trimmed so the thick membrane on the underside makes them a real bitch to pull apart. In flavor, they're reminiscent of those creepy "riblet" things they serve at Applebee's. So, basically, the effort of pulling them apart isn't really worth it. The steamed Brussels sprouts are cooked to mush, exactly the state you'd expect they'd be in after sitting under a heat lamp in a puddle of vaguely green-colored water for God knows how long. The meal's saving grace was my side of mashed potatoes.

I'm a connoisseur of instant mashies — the gastronomically stunted 7-year-old in me likes them just as much as the real deal — and these were truly great — stiff, salty and rib-sticking.

The salmon croquette I ordered on the side for $1.19 wasn't bad, either. About equal parts shredded salmon and breadcrumbs, the patty was nicely browned on the outside and packed with crunchy bits of onion, carrot and celery. I would have finished the whole thing if it hadn't been for the piece of bone I bit down on.

Really, it's a decently cheap and decently healthy lunchtime option for people who work in the area — at least you're getting some veggies in — but maybe in the future I'll just ask for "samples."

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