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IN THE PAN: Fine Deli Dining

Bringing Back a Home-Cooked Meal

Takeout, already rather fancy in the Bay Area, has become even more elite with a wave of new delicatessens that offer up more than the usual fare. These aren't the typical corner delis with the sliced meat sandwiches and rainbow fusilli pasta salads, nor do they feign elegance by inundating patrons with sundried tomatoes and marinated artichoke hearts. These delis offer an array of gourmet dishes that carry the essence of honest, home-cooked meals.

Whether you're planning the perfect picnic for two, a full-scale dinner party, or you're admittedly cooking-challenged, these gourmet shops can guide you in the kitchen to making a tasty meal or simply do all the work for you.

The newest of the bunch is caper. The concept here is ultimately to assist home chefs of all skill levels in preparing elegant, satisfying meals without the fuss of shopping or chopping. Think of the staff as your sous chefs. With the growing list of menus you pick from, caper simplifies the actual cooking process by setting you up with all the necessary ingredients prepped for you. Even the proportions are doled out for the size of your party. This is also known as 'mise-en-place' in proper cooking terms, in which all the ingredients are prepared and ready to combine for cooking. You still do the actual cooking, so really, you're not cheating, but merely taking a shortcut. Choose from such menus as citrus chicken tagine or red snapper Vera Cruz with black bean and scallion rice. Menus are priced at $13.95-15.95 per person. Of course, caper also gives the option of effortless dining with their pre- prepared meals. Try the popular lobster pot pie or the citrus salmon with a side of creamy, mascarpone mashed potatoes. Prepared meals range in price from $5.69 to $12.99 per pound. For that extra personal touch, caper even sells table settings, flower arrangements, and pre-dinner cocktail sets to complement the occasion.

Look for another mise-en-place style deli, Boulette's Larder, set to open in summer of 2004 at the Ferry Building.

At Aimee, Andrew & Co, the attraction is simply delectable, prepared fare. They also provide customized catering services to parties up to a few hundred. Custom menus can be designed to match a specific occasion, theme, and budget. With influences from around the globe, Chef Andrew Rosti creates an interesting range of rotating prepared dishes for the takeout clientele. Choose from Thai coconut milk chicken, Italian meatballs, and poached salmon with spinach en papillote. Side dishes also rotate with several mouth-watering options like ratatouille and Dijon roasted potatoes. Entrees and sides are charged by weight ($3.50-$15 per pound), or you may opt for the individual take-away meal ranging from $10.95 to $12.95 for one entrée and two side dishes.

Delica rf-1 provides takeout meals with a Japanese flair. Using fresh, seasonal ingredients and rice bran oil (light on bad cholesterol), this sleek deli is an offshoot of its big sister in Japan. Owner Kozo Iwata brought his bento style deli concept here, merging authentic Japanese dishes with seasonal, local Californian ingredients into the likes of broccoli rabe and snap pea salad, creamy salmon croquette, and tofu and chicken patties. Selections are charged by weight, or by bento boxes containing up to five items ranging from $9.50 to $12.50. Delica rf-1 also offers party platters and sample menus for large parties.

Finally, more a rustic French rotisserie than a deli, Mistral Rotisserie Provencale, is another great takeout option just the same. Visions of the perfect golden roast chicken are not disappointed when you spot Mistral's version slowly roasting over gas-fired, French-made rotisseries. Herbes de Provence (a medley of fresh herbs usually including lavender, rosemary, thyme, tarragon and savory) flavors the crispy skin and soaks through into the moist, tender flesh. Other roasted meats include rosemary-studded lamb, beef, and pork. Soups and stews are also a draw here. One day the special might be a rabbit stew with white beans and tomatoes. On another, it might be Bouillabaisse. Items are charged by weight ($5-$17). For a delectable appetizer, try the stuffed escargots ($5.99/lb or $11.99/dozen). Dinner for two can be arranged with the Dinner Box, a great option that includes one chicken, two pints of sides, and one quart of soup, all for $26.99. Quite a deal for a feast.

With these outstanding options for takeout and semi-prepared meals, it's tempting to leave some if not all the work to the chef at the deli. After all, you can always do the cooking tomorrow night…