(of Joe’s Real BBQ and Joe’s Farm Grill, both in Gilbert), we couldn’t wait to see what Liberty had to offer. The original market was built in 1935 and, after a catastrophic fire, was rebuilt in 1938. Then a grocery store, it served a tiny, dusty farming community. (These couple of blocks of historic downtown Gilbert still look like something out of The Last Picture Show.) The vintage neon-on-green marquee has been wisely retained. While the interior has been modernized, it retains a traditional flavor with rustic brick walls, polished concrete floors and exposed rafters. Glossy black wood and chrome furnishings and contemporary lighting help pull together the various La Grand Orange-esque components, but not completely. Unlike the very urban/slightly claustrophobic La Grande,
this place is big – really big. Entering at the back through the patio puts you in a small specialty grocery area where the takeout, pizza pick-up and cold case are located. As you head toward the front of the store, more display cases feature side dishes and baked goods. Th en there’s the service counter where the line of customers tends to move slowly. Across the room is an espresso bar; self-service cold beverages are toward the rear. Scattered tables try hard to fill up the space in between. The crew is young and chirpy. So young, that when we ordered glasses of wine, we were asked for our IDs. At one time, I would have been flattered. Now? Well, had I not fully embraced maturity, it would have seemed like a snide joke. The crew is often confused about other things, serving food out of sequence and forgetting beverage orders. One of the tricks of running a cost-effective restaurant is cross-utilization, making sure ingredients have a variety of uses so they rotate regularly and stay fresh. Liberty takes this to the limit. Virtually everything in the larder shows up over and over again, stretching the boundaries of diminishing returns. Too many of the salads, sandwiches,
pizzas, plates and sides are simply permutations of one another. For instance, four of the salads show up again as sandwiches, while Italian salami and cheeses also starring in a pizza and antipasto platter, as well as a sandwich and salad. Th at doesn’t offer much enticement for multiple customer visits – something a moderately priced establishment relies on to stay afloat. And, given the uncomplicated template the kitchen is working from, there are far too many goof-ups. Th e Picnic Salad ($8) showed up without croutons and, worse, the main ingredient, turkey. Gorgonzola was represented by one small chunk. A steak sandwich ($12) was missing the promised blue cheese. How did these mishaps get out
of the kitchen? That childhood favorite, a Sloppy Joe, dubbed “Liberty Joe” here ($7), was a plop of mildly seasoned, loose meat on a gummysoft roll that immediately turned to mush. Please, put a crisp pickle on that stark, monochromatic plate, even if it means bumping up the price a little. Though most of the sandwiches were dressed with interesting aiolis – poblano, horseradish and red pepper – they were applied with a lamentably timid hand. There are portion issues for some of the offerings.
Low prices may entice diners, but not at the expense of sending them home hungry. Salads aren’t pricey, but they aren’t meal-sized, either. And it’s a mistake to put a pizza that averages about 9 inches in a 12- inch takeout box. You feel gypped even before you realize it will barely feed one. Nor do the pizzas get their fair share of toppings. The Margherita ($8.50) had widely spaced tomato slices and a few half basil leaves. If the pizza maker had generously overlapped the tomatoes and chiffonaded the basil so it is well distributed, the size wouldn’t matter quite so much. I was quite taken with the Sicilian pizza, however, served by the slice ($5 to $6). Just like my grandma used to make, it is breadlike and sturdily crusted, but when the menu reads “market vegetables,” granddaughter expects more than four slices of grilled zucchini. Even if you add an à la carte side salad, the House Feature (four smallish meatballs in watery tomato sauce with a couple thin slices of toast) doesn’t add up to a meal. For $8, Liberty should throw in some pasta or at least gild the toast with garlic and cheese. Those sides (served with sandwiches, or à la carte at $2) are uneven. They range from a delicious roasted sweet potato with cranberries and nuts (which also shows up in the chicken salad) to tough, flavorless roasted green beans that appear sometimes with nuts and sometimes without. The very standard potato salad is akin to Costco’s ina-tub variety. By far the most successful way I’ve found to dine here is simply to order a glassof wine and graze on either the antipasto or cheese plates. Hospitably enough, all wines by the glass are only $5 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays. Those cold cuts and cheeses are primo; more on the less-than-satisfactory “crisps” later.
Based on decent baked goods like moist pumpkin bread and a pleasantly crumbly blueberry scone, I had high hopes for breakfast – but it was not to be. A croissant was soft and flabby ($2.50), and a biscuit was raw in the center. (Oddly, the croissant, which when made correctly is organically buttery, came with butter, but the biscuit did not.) Leathery scrambled eggs formed the base of both the Western Scramble ($10) and quesadilla ($8). For starters, a quesadilla is not a tortilla folded in half around a mound of eggs, but that wasn’t really the issue. The carelessly assembled concoction was utterly bland, and the watery tomato-heavy salsa that accompanied it didn’t help. The menu claims it contains chicken, and while it did, it was nothing to cluck about: We found only three small pieces nested on one side. Nor were there any of the promised “Liberty” potatoes. The unremarkable spuds did show up with the under-seasoned Scramble, which contained tough, fibrous chunks of flank steak and bits of red peppers. The salmon plate ($9) was simply inexplicable, served with six tiny slices of rock-hard, cold, left over toast, which are, perhaps ironically, referred to as “crisps” rather than the more appropriate “slabs.” The accompaniments? Not cream cheese or capers (in fact, our server told us she had never heard of capers) but a small lettuceand-
grape-tomato salad. Try instead the warm, fluff y, whippedcream-drenched bread pudding ($8) and hope yours includes the espresso-maple syrup like ours did not. As is, this potentially welcome addition to Gilbert is a real head-scratcher. So much well-directed effort went into the buildout and concept development, it’s difficult to understand why the dishes are so sadly lacking in finesse and execution, or why the ordering process is so slow and the service so erratic. The road to Liberty Market is paved with good intentions, but to date, it’s a trip – if not to hell, certainly to a not-so-hot dining destination.
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