I have been yard-saling all day, a giant step in the ascension of the inner gypsy's takeover. "Priced to sell... everything must go." Sadly, I am surrendering my beloved fondue set, but the possibility of my coming back from Italy and other European sites, after three months, without something very special to replace it with is slim to none. Ok, none.
The fondue set sparked a really fun memory of a cheese fetish gone awry, a New Years' Day celebration with 14 guests and no recipe... no resource for shopping... and no idea how to handle the ill-conceived fondue for 14. Since my life has become about packing, storing, moving, hauling, tossing, and Craigslisting, there has been little time for cheese. After the yard sale today, allison and I bolted for Pizza Shack for a mozzarella fix. That's how desperate I'm getting. But again, the payoff is Tuscany, a mere four weeks from this moment.
In leiu of an account of something fabulous I have discovered or tasted today, I will share with you something fabulous I discovered two years ago, and rediscovered again today as I pressed a masking-tape price tag on my fondue.
Joie de Vivre in the Heart of Los Angeles
My own self-taught and ever-evolving savoir faire was about to rap me across the knuckles like a Catholic school nun with the intent to shame. I had been caught at my own game, and I was about to pay handsomely for the sin of having champagne taste on a beer budget, and always carrying a crisp United States Passport sans stamps (the most recent one having been inked in 1996's jaunt to Milan and nothing since.) I had tremendous pride in my taste, sense of style, and extensive impressive library. There is neither such thing as a frozen dinner in my kitchen, nor a bottled salad dressing to be found. Day in and day out, I prepare my lunches and set them carefully in office-bound Tupperware using only the finest of herbes de Provence, truffle oils drizzled over farmers' market-bought roasted purple fingerlings, and other such fare, secretly gloating deeply within as I shun the various heinously-consumed microwave (dare-I-say) food found deep in the bowels of the company lunchroom.
I am a New York-come-Los Angles-based food snob. And I have no desire to recover from this oft-misunderstood affliction. A true gastronome is something I must wait for another to dub me, for it is only with a level of tried-and-true expertise that one should even initiate such self-praise. Besides, the dilemma I confronted on New Years' Eve is one that would surely have slid me back to amateur status. That is, until I found Monsieur Marcel.
I, a newlywed with a gorgeous and worldly foreigner for a husband, had set out to make Lucien feel right at home here in Los Angeles by offering to have a fondue party on New Years' Day. The stainless steel fondue we received as a "re-gifted" wedding gift from a friend's fast, furious, and failed marriage was perched high atop our Spanish olivewood cabinet in the kitchen, flashing a glint that begged to be anointed with purposeful intention. Hence, its day had come. And then we bought a little white porcelain one for backup. So far, there was nothing authentic French about our paraphernalia, nor the poor excuse for a fondue cookbook I had stumbled upon at a fundraiser book sale.
And so the usual presumptuous questioning and reasoning arose: "Who should we invite?" "Who's actually going to understand the food... I mean... cornichons and Kirshwasser?" "I guess we can show people how to really live by just going for it!" And he DID, in fact, for by the time I got home from work on Judgment Eve, Lucien had confirmed 14 people for fondue, which is precisely when the moment of Truth arrived: Neither of us had the first clue how to prepare fondue, and stores were closing early for the holiday. Suffice it to say, panic was setting in. Time to shop and make it all better.
Need I say that we hit a dead end at nearly every grocery, gourmet cheese shop, and specialty market? Even our fondue cookbook suggested hybrid recipes that sounded delightful, but didn't quite pique our interest. We wanted a real, authentic, ski chalet, fondue Savoyard. But that was literally all we knew. Not a thing more. And naturally, we bickered over whose fault it was that tomorrow would be a disaster and all these people are coming over and all of them have hosted us in one way or another and they all will "get" the food and now we are @*&%^#!!!
For the sake of my marriage, I "Googled." To avoid re-enacting an episode of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, I "Googled." At nearly 5pm the night before the party for 14, I "Googled." In support of modern Internet culture's rewarding ingenuity by allowing it to become an actual verb, I "Googled." And so I found our beacon of light, Monsieur Marcel.
Racing through the Farmers' Market on Fairfax and Third Street, we dodged strollers, ice cream patrons, and falafel-inhaling masses of people who were clearly NOT having 14 people over for an overly-ambitious and cumbersome meal, and thus seemed to be actually enjoying themselves. Then suddenly the seas parted. A light from above cast its heavenly glow upon a table overflowing with folded toile table covers and various styles of pottery olive trays on sale. It only took a split second of pattern recognition to know that we had arrived at our saveur savior!
Once inside, we strolled into the wine section (I mean, why not start at the very top!) where we were greeted by the manager, Stephane. His generosity of spirit and passion for food and wine was intoxicating, and he and Lucien engaged in a French-only journey into a wine-lovers' alternate reality. I was so happy to just 'allow," and wandered the aisles aimlessly gawking at row upon row of gorgeous import. Truffle oils, lavender salts of all different grades, Far East spices, teas, and every blend of balsamic vinegar imaginable penetrated my spirit with the precision of an acupuncturist's needle. Entranced, I ventured into the sweets section to gaze in lust at chocolate-covered anise, truffles, and deep bittersweet bars encrusted with lavender, wrapped to perfection. Lucien's radar sent swooping over to reel me back into the task at hand: the fondue. Placing a gorgeous box of chocolate truffles into the cart, I was delivered back to the present and gently shaken from the trance with the promise of a soft delicate truffle oozing gently over my tongue.
With Stephane at his side each moment, my husband had clearly risen to the occasion, taking over the entire shopping event. Believe me, I had no problem with this whatsoever. There was much browsing to do here in this gastronomic wonderland. The shelf beneath the shopping cart was now occupied by a full case of wine. On cue, Stephane explained: "It is our house white, our own brand that we make in France and import. Light and dry. Perfect with the fondue." I picked up one of the bottles and label was simply gorgeous, a white Bordeaux in their own name, with a pen and ink impressionistic illustration of a rooster on an off-white almost parchment watercolor paper that only promised goodness on the inside.
Stephane ushered us to the cheese counter where we gazed in wonder. Instantly we were handed a piece of paper with the simplest of instructions for our Savoyard. As we skimmed the page, Stephane loaded our cart with eight quart-sized see-through containers of mixed grated cheeses, in pre-measured portions. Some shreds were white, some beige, some were speckled with green a la Louis Pasteur's laboratory. He explained that each quart was a complete ration of Savoyard mix that would suffice for two guests and that if we follow the instructions, we would have a wonderful feast. It was that simple. Now, on to the accoutrements.
The olive selection was to die for, with barrels of olives beckoning for samplers to indulge. Above the vast assortment of house-made olives stuffed with garlic, gorgonzola, and various herbs and spices, the shelves were lined with jarred specimens from every coordinate on the globe. And cornichons. And cocktail onions that Stephane insisted we grill before serving. We obliged and were not disappointed. In fact, Stephane made our party happen for us in every way possible, leaving nothing out of the equation.
With a full cart and complete fluency, we proceeded to the checkout. Then Katie joined us, wrapped in a full-length apron and smiling. She was Stephane's wife who obviously shared the same passion for food and wine. We chatted for a few moments and I learned that Katie was a refugee from the fashion business, having owned a modeling agency for many years, but later fell in love with French food and wine and joined Stephane on this life's journey. As we moved toward the register, it like saying goodbye to the hosts of the most wonderful and intimate party we'd ever attended. In fact, it was just that, for the gracious Stephane remembered one more thing: did we have enough fondue pots to serve 14 people? Before we could do the math, a staff member was sailing across the floor to retrieve a brand-new fondue, which he loaned us for our party, enabling us to have three fondues going and for all our guests to sit at a comfortable length from the bubbling opiate in endless supply.
The party, to say the very least, was a smashing success. Our guests arrived in staggered shifts, first sampling the Monsieur Marcel white Bordeaux as well as some others we had collected from Stephane's lair. Lucien obeyed his own law of "no glass left behind" and assumed sommelier duties while intermittently slicing bread into spearable chunks. I carefully stirred a softly-bubbling pot on the stove. Side dishes of Kirshwasser sat on the corner of each placemat and all the beautiful accoutrements gently released their marinating perfume in the candlelight. Everything was perfect, right down to the deep brown crispy cheese at the bottom of all three pots. To this day we are receiving comments on our Facebook pages and reminiscence at social gatherings. Two people who were on their second date that afternoon are still together today. Although we can't take credit, it's certainly nice to have been the swanky party he took her to when they first met!
I have since brought several friends to dine outdoors at Monsieur Marcel, with each luncheon unveiling a salade niscoise or pommes frittes with truffle infusion to perfection. This morning my neighbor Joanne thanked me for the suggestion. She had spent most of last Sunday sipping wine and cheese, and was still musing over it days later at the crack of dawn. The Sunday brunch is amongst the finest I have seen on either coast. Impeccable service and a true passion for food as life are qualities of each of the staff I have met. I recently learned that a second location is in the works for Pasadena. They already have a fan club in my friends, since several of our fondue guests live in there. Upon accepting their most recent dinner invitation, we had a special request for Monsieur Marcel white Bordeaux and country olives. Naturally, we ran to the shop... Any excuse to feast and to fantasize over the next elaborate dinner party! Today I saw Stephane standing in front of the shop, tenderly poking at the awning so the tree debris would come down, in the manner that a gentle farmer attends to his crop. The man's joie d' vivre is present in the air, on the shelves, and in the flavor. Perhaps a lost art in some circles, but Monsieur Marcel is an authentic treasure to behold, born of devout reverence, and a welcome addition to Los Angeles that is growing into a hub for the like-minded and the like-impassioned.