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For instance, when I was an employee, I was permitted to open any bottle or jar to give customers free samples (and thus encourage them to make a purchase). That's how I discovered Cherchie's champagne mustard, simply the best sharp-sweet version there is. Everyone who tasted it -- on bagel chips, which were then a new product -- became a convert, and my paycheck was always less ten bucks for the two jars I would eat a week.
I thought Cherchie's was a find then, and oddly enough, I still consider it a coup when I come across it in a store. Gourmet supermarkets and health food stores have walls of every kind of mustard conceivable, but Cherchie's is hardly ever among them. And if Cherchie's isn't there, I leave quickly.
I don't know why the mustard is so rarely stocked -- sure, it's a boutique item, but these places specialize in the output of small producers. So when I do locate a supply, usually when I'm traveling, I buy out the store. I just can't find it in South Florida.
Until now, that is. I was so excited when I turned up the stuff recently at Harvest Gourmet Market, an eight-month-old Boca Raton establishment, that I announced my delight to the cashier. "This is the mark of a true gourmet market," I told her, holding up the jar.
Turns out the cashier was also one of the proprietors: Eva Mantell, who launched the market with her husband, Bob. She wasn't even familiar with Cherchie's. "Oh really?" she asked. "If it's that good, I'll have to try it."
Normally, I would prefer that shop owners be on intimate terms with every single product in the store. But in the case of Harvest Gourmet, I doubt that's possible. The market stocks thousands of items produced everywhere from Israel to India. In fact, it took me two visits -- with a break for brunch at neighboring BagelWorks -- and a couple of hours to make just one fairly complete pass through the place. And while the size of my purchase made the owners' day -- it's been a difficult eight months, they confessed -- it's not even close to what I plan to spend there in the future.
To ensure such a profitable future for all of us, it's necessary to get the word out. The space that Harvest Gourmet occupies has been home to a bunch of mediocre culinary businesses. The spot has a rep for being lousy. My in-laws, who are my South Palm research team and representative of Boca Raton's typical culinary clientele, had formerly dismissed the market without even going in. Yet it took only one look at the black-and-white cookies at the bakery counter and a single sample of beef-mushroom barley soup in the deli section to change their minds.
For those who have frequented the Festival Flea Market, Eva and Bob Mantell, who worked a stand in the food court there, should be familiar figures. For those Palm Beachers intimate with Miami, the market will churn up visions of the famous Epicure market on Miami Beach. The evocation of the Epicure may be deliberate -- Eva Mantell declares it her favorite place -- but yee Alton Road pioneers, forgive me, but Harvest has a leg up. For one thing, it seems a tad bigger and more than a bit brighter. It's easier to maneuver around the shelves and aisles, which are loosely organized according to country, and Harvest has better prices. In fact, for slightly more familiar Italian products such as the Flora's line, Harvest's prices are more in line with, or even beat, those at Publix.
Most significant of all, Harvest's products, from jarred sauces and salad dressings to prepared foods such as sushi, cut and rolled in front of you as you wait, are singularly impressive in terms of both variety and quality. For instance, it's extremely atypical to be able to find, in any American store, such a wide assortment of international goodies. There are Roland organic lo mein noodles (China); Cuisine de Campagne sea salt with herbs de Provence (France); Sabra Salads harissa (Tunisia); Avio citrus-chili sauce (Israel); and Chesapeake Bay peanuts in seafood seasoning (Maryland).
Convenience too can't be matched. You can put together a meal-in-minutes in a number of creative ways here. For a set price, you can assemble a complete dinner plate with starch and vegetables -- skirt steak, say, accompanied by orzo-mushroom pilaf and pencil asparagus salad with hearts of palm. Then you can eat it at one of the few tables just outside the doors. Or you can buy the prepared foods, perhaps a thick juicy breast of chicken française, a neatly rolled piece of stuffed cabbage in tomato sauce, or a wealth of sweet-and-sour bite-size meatballs, to take home and reheat. I was impressed by how much the chicken, for example, retained its integrity even after its rite of passage through my microwave.
A third option is to buy raw product, such as jumbo shrimp, marinate it in a jarred sauce, then grill or sautée it. On the advice of the counterperson, who told me which steaks had been butchered that morning, I purchased two strip sirloins and a bottle of Avio black-pepper sauce. Then voilá! Steak au poivre for two; this tender and flavorful main course cost me about $15.
If you opt for prepared foods, take note of what's coming out of the kitchen. During the hour I spent in the store, I observed platters of roasted Cornish hens and grilled vegetables brought out still steaming from the oven. Bob Mantell roams around the stations of the store, making recommendations -- in my case, he was pretty insistent about supplying some Marsala sauce on the side for the half-pound of smooth herb-flecked mashed potatoes I'd just had boxed -- and he's happy to answer questions about what could be brought out next.
I also appreciate the Mantells' thoughtfulness. At checkout, they packed my purchases, which included a delicious seafood salad from the deli and wonderful cheese-parsley sausages from the meat counter, under ice so they wouldn't spoil. At the soup station, where four varieties including pasta fagioli and classic chicken noodle simmer, tasting cups are provided (blister warning in effect: Blow first, sip later). If you like one, pour it into a container and take it with you. That's how we were sold on the mushroom barley, one of my all-time favorites; here, it's redolent with fried onions and black pepper, and the chunks of beef are succulent cuts, not chewy scraps.
Next to the soup stand, a refrigerated section offers a hint of the Mantells' combined Middle-Eastern/Eastern European backgrounds; most of the perishables, like the perfectly blended hummus with a pleasing garnish of pine nuts or the "vegetarian liver" (eggplant prepared like chopped chicken liver), stem from the proverbial breadbasket. Some of the wines are kosher. And the Danish, ruggelach, and challah are particularly good. Harvest also caters events, and fliers advertising meals for the Jewish High Holidays are available all over the store.
Still, cans of olives, jars of chutneys, and bottles of vinegars and oils come from all over the world. And dry goods run the gamut from unusually shaped Italian pastas to authentic Irish oatmeal. The interior of the market is filled with bins of fresh produce. You can even buy live herbs to replant in your home garden. And temptations continue all the way to the cash register, where bars of Italian chocolate await.
Not everything was perfect. Salmon stuffed with crabmeat turned out to be (apparently) filled with breadcrumbs only, and the bottle of harissa I bought leaked all over the bag. But the detail that truly disturbed me was the lack of attention to expiration date. The Torre Saracena harlequinade of peppers that I bought for $4.99, for instance, had a "best before" date of July 31, 2003, a fact that I didn't notice until I got home with it. These should be de-shelved pronto. And some of the meat and fish might also be a tad old. I was steered away from the marinated beef kabobs, which had been hanging around for a few days, because the counterperson was "just being honest," a fact that I deeply appreciated. Less reputable salespeople would have wanted to just get rid of them. So you might want to check dates and ask questions before making purchases. But in general, the market certainly cuts the gourmet mustard.