With more stores and restaurants evaporating around me every day, I live in fear of the Organic Market closing its doors. Not that there are any known plans or rumors of this, but I would have to pick up and move to Berkeley… or beg and plead with Maggie – the owner and food genius, as far as I’m concerned – to come home and cook for me. She could name her price. And I would just as soon give up my car, a limb, or possibly one of my children before living without her irresistible fare.
I have been frequenting the Organic Market ever since I first came through Westport over fifteen years ago. I think my then boyfriend (now husband) took me there for my first experience. Walking into this seemingly simple market, with a wall of vitamins and racks of your standard health food items, I had no idea that looming in the back was a tiny lunch counter and even smaller kitchen that produces some of the most delectable bites in Fairfield County. And little did my boyfriend at the time know how much it would cost him later when he married me and dared to move us in spitting distance of the place.
Although I’ve often wondered why they couldn’t come up with a more inventive name, the food at the Organic Market is anything but ordinary. I was enchanted from the first visit, sort of like falling in love. I’m not sure if it was the Middle Eastern flavors that resonated with my Israeli senses…. or the fact that it is the only place I have found within a many mile radius where there is consistent, homemade, fresh, healthy, and profoundly flavorful food. Whatever the case, I was hooked and this marked the beginning of a long, enduring love affair.
In the early years, I was partial to the hummus sandwich “with all the vegetables.” This is a distinctively delicious (extremely messy) combination of their own perfectly flavored and smooth-textured homemade hummus on sprouted seven grain bread, with freshly sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, and sprouts. I’ve tried duplicating this at home using the same brand of bread and all the same ingredients, but it just isn’t the same.
Then one day I was standing in line waiting to order my sandwich when Maggie asked the man in front of me if he wanted his “usual” wrap…. which turned out to be chicken salad rolled in a whole grain wrap with avocado and tomato. I was feeling unusually frisky so I deviated from my usual hummus sandwich, took a leap of faith, and ordered the wrap. I’m almost embarrassed to say I have now been eating this same chicken salad wrap 3-4 times a week for the last ten plus years. I only need to make eye contact with Natalya or Haygush behind the counter, and they make my wrap on cue. (Make sure you ask for plenty of salt – an herb salt seasoning that melds the flavors together and makes all the difference – it’s not the same without it!)
I don’t know what the magical ingredient is, but this is not your standard chicken salad, comprised of large chunks of chicken and mayonnaise. It is finely shredded organic chicken, sautéed chopped onions, and an unknown spice that gives the salad a reddish hue. For years, I have been meaning to ask Maggie to reveal the mystery spice, but I am afraid it might take away from the allure.
Although I don’t often venture beyond the wrap, I have a friend who swears by the green juice… kale, celery, spinach, parsley, and cucumber stuffed into an industrial juicer, with a bit of apple or pear thrown in for a touch of natural sweetness. As far as I know, she drinks this large, green, vitamin-rich liquid lunch each and every day. I must admit, I was on my own mid-afternoon green juice kick for a while and it is unexpectedly delicious, but if you do not prefer your juice green, the industrious women behind the counter can juice any combination of fruits, vegetables, and/or wheatgrass.
In addition to the simple menu of sandwiches and fresh juices on the dry-erase boards that hang precariously above the lunch counter, there are always stacks of small containers with luscious salads of bulgar, tabbouleh, and lentils, piled on the counter, which are never disappointing. You can take these to go or order a combination plate with three salads of your choice to eat in. I have yet to nail down the elaborate rotating schedule of which salads are offered on any particular day, but it really doesn’t matter because everything is outstanding… as are the daily selection of homemade soups in the front of the store.
Beyond grabbing a quick bite, the Organic Market has a fantabulous hot bar with a good selection of items to take home for dinner. The chicken or sirloin kabobs are succulent and flavorful, and the individual turkey meat loaves are excellent. Oven roasted chicken legs and thighs with sweet peppers and onions are a favorite in our household, and if you’re looking for sides or vegetarian fare, there’s always a selection of sautéed mixed greens, couscous with roasted pine nuts and vegetables, or vegetable paella. Be sure to get there early though as they seem to make just the right amount as to run out by 2 or 3pm in order to keep the daily selections consistently fresh.
Maggie and Charles Vosguerichian have owned and run the Organic Market together for over twenty years. Charles holds a degree in engineering from Columbia and Maggie worked on Wall Street before opening the market. They got into the business because Maggie’s brother ran a number of successful health food stores in New York City called Health Nuts. Six days a week, you will find Maggie running around the back of the market, replenishing the hot bar with steaming trays of delicacies, and Charles up front, manning the register—always with a friendly smile and ever willing to break open one of the latest healthy snack bars that sit in front of his register to give you a taste.
Over the years, I have witnessed the Organic Market grow in popularity as people have caught on to its unparalleled quality and its reputation has quietly spread. Wherever possible, the market has squeezed in another table at the end of a grocery aisle and added counter stools, in addition to a couple of outdoor dining tables, weather permitting. At best, the place seats twenty people and you have to hover over other diners to get a seat during prime lunch hours.
The Organic Market is situated in an unassuming shopping plaza called Playhouse Square, just outside of downtown Westport. Each time I have watched one or another store on either side of it close, I have wondered why they don’t expand to create a more “proper” restaurant that would allow for more adequate seating and greater production capacity. And when I once asked Charles whether they ever considered expanding, he told me that this was as much as Maggie thought she could handle. She was afraid of giving up control if the place were to get any bigger.
And I have to say, I commend Maggie and Charles for resisting the all-American mantra of “bigger is better” and holding fast to: “if it aint broke, don’t fix it!” Part of the place’s charm is the unexpected lunch counter squeezed into the back of a health food store and I wonder how much of that would be lost in a more traditional restaurant setting. I do wonder how they will continue to keep up with the ever-expanding demand for their impossibly delicious food, but nevertheless, I will continue to brave the crowds and fight for a seat in order to get my Organic Market fix.
Organic Market 285 Post Rd East, Westport. 203.227.9007