I don't eat fast food, and I typically eschew pre-made foods, including those at Costco and Trader Joe's that I wish were more than just convenient. This means I spend a lot of time in the kitchen preparing dinner. Or breakfast. Or lunch, for that matter. When I buy salad mix, I sort through it to weed out the wilted leaves and wash it twice--I'm that finicky. Next, I wash and slice the red onion, cucumbers, carrots, and tomatoes. I often add toasted nuts and freshly grated cheese. Meanwhile, the potatoes I scrubbed are being zapped in the microwave (I'm into quality ingredients, but I appreciate some shortcuts in cooking) and I still have to chop the fresh dill and grate ginger for the wild salmon. Damn--I realize I haven't made the vinaigrette--what I wouldn't give for a sous chef.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
# Of course, cooking the entree is usually a snap, once the initial preparations are done. My simple meal takes an hour to prepare and then only five minutes to grill or saute the entree. On busy days, I've often wished for a simpler solution, like most professional couples who work all day but still want to enjoy a high-quality dinner at home. Little did I know the answer was in SLO at the new Cena (say-nah), which--the shop's brochure explains--means dinner or supper in Italian and Spanish.
Owner and manager Kim Colvin explained the concept: "We've taken all the work out of cooking but given our customers a chance to expand their horizons." Everything here is prepped so it's easy to put together an entree or side dish and take it home to bake. Colvin and her staff only cook their dishes when they're conducting special tastings--usually accompanied by wine tastings--to introduce their services to people. Recently I spoke with guests creating recipes at Cena. Helen Rehm admitted that when she first heard about the shop, the idea was difficult to grasp: "I would have never understood the concept until I came here and tried it. I'm pleased by the quality."
I first interviewed Colvin by phone when I heard that Cena offered traditional dinners for Thanksgiving (a new menu is available for Christmas). Colvin explained that the prep work--washing, slicing, chopping, grating--is all done by her staff. Customers stop in to gather all of the ingredients necessary to prepare the recipe they've chosen. Then it only requires some brief baking time when they get home. Nothing quite works up your appetite like the aroma of a fresh calzone or seared tilapia with lemon butter dill sauce filling your kitchen. If you don't have time to prepare your orders, the staff at Cena will do that for you, too. Then you need only pick up your order that's ready to pop in the oven.
Colvin invited me to a tasting at Cena that she had scheduled for nine guests, which I eagerly accepted. That's when Colvin told me how she joined Cena, a franchise store. Formerly in banking, Colvin said that after 16 years she was fed up with that business, although she added it was where she met her husband, Tracy Colvin. He's still in banking but also helps her manage Cena. She said she had always wanted to do something involving food, but was afraid to strike out on her own. This business allows her to dabble in cooking while providing an array of high-quality foods with recipes created and tested by Cena's chef.
"Doing something without a franchise was too scary for me," Colvin said candidly. "And the California Culinary Academy wasn't realistic for me. I love doing the prep work and helping people create delicious home-cooked meals without the fuss."
While we talked, I was enticed by aromas of fresh scones baking in the oven. The pastries come with the recipe for holiday morning quiche with bacon, Swiss cheese, herbs, mushrooms, and peppers. It was the first dish we tasted, and I loved its perfect, fluffy texture and flaky crust.
If you want the perfect wine to complement Cena's crock-pot Texan beef, or artichoke and goat cheese stuffed chicken, the menu features recommendations from the experts at Monterey Street Wine Co. (MSWC). With only 24 hours advance notice, MSWC will have the wine ready with your food order when you pick it up at Cena. Each month, Colvin sends the new menu to Jon Stipicevich, co-owner of MSWC, who selects a complementary wine for each dish. According to Stipicevich, if you don't like the selected varietal or the price, he can suggest another wine that fits your taste and your budget.
"Obviously there is more than one choice with any dish, and some people don't want to spend a lot on wine for an everyday meal," Stipicevich said. "If Cena customers want something different, they can call me and tell me if they want to spend $10 or $30, and I can recommend something they'll like."
He surprised me when he said he doesn't add a fee for transporting the wine to Cena, which makes it an incredible deal. But it's worth stopping by MSWC occasionally for their excellent selection of local and international wines and artisanal cheeses.
During my visit, Colvin had Toni Detz, a wine consultant from The Traveling Vineyard, provide the wines. Detz poured samples of five wines she'd chosen for that night's menu. She offered a good array of wines priced $11.99 to $17.99, from California, Chile, and France. She did an excellent job of helping people understand each wine and its aromas and flavors. Afterward, the guests ordered their favorite wines to go with the dishes they made to take home. Detz said she also provides her service for home parties. I was impressed by the Yelcho 2006 Carmenere from Chile's Colchagua Valley at only $11.99.
Cena doesn't provide off-site catering services, but they are available for private parties, such as the one I attended. The entrees start at $25, but each recipe will serve four to six people. Another nice option: They don't charge an assembly fee if you have them make it. But most customers enjoy creating the recipes, which come with easy-to-follow instructions for cooking them at home. Among the dishes we tried, I didn't care for the scones because I have a better recipe. But Colvin's guests loved the assortment of fruit and white chocolate pastries.
I am finicky, but I left impressed by the convenience, cleanliness, and friendly, professional service at Cena. But the treats--like that quiche, or chicken breasts stuffed with herbed cream cheese and cranberry salsa--will bring me back for more.
INFOBOX: Take care of dinner
Cena in the Marigold Center is located at 3940-2 Broad St. in SLO. For more information, call 547-2060 or visit www.cenatogo.com.
Monterey Street Wine Co. is located at 1255-A Monterey St. in SLO. For more information, call 541-1255 or visit www.montereystreetwines.com.
Contact The Traveling Vineyard's wine consultant, Toni Detz, at 748-7677 or visit www.myttv.com/toni12171.
You can reach New Times' Cuisine columnist at email@example.com.