We spent a semester living in the Gourmet Ghetto in Berkeley, inside the charmed circle bounded by Cheeseboard Pizza, Gregoire’s, and Chez Panisse. While we lived there, the foodie mini-mall Epicurious Garden opened for business, featuring Taste, a wine bar with the appealing gimmick that you could taste wines by the milliliter at reasonable per-sip prices. And just a short drive away was our nation’s greatest grocery store, Berkeley Bowl, where you can, and I did, buy four kinds of avocados, three kinds of mangoes, and an almost unimaginable variety of granola.
Madison’s not Berkeley, but people in the business of trading fancy food for yuppie dollars are setting up shop everywhere you look. When we moved here, the only good cheese counter in town was at Whole Foods. Now there’s Fromagination downtown (yes, they really called it that. It could be worse! It could be Fromajesty or Fromagnificence or What a Friend We Have in Cheeses. Count your blessings.) And Steve’s Wine Market, already beloved by me for selling all kinds of Unibroue and Ommegang, has just started selling imported olive oils and cheeses, including Brillat-Savarin.
The newest entry is Vom Fass, the first US outpost of a German chain, which sells olive oil, aged and flavored vinegars, seed oils, brightly colored liqueurs, and single-malt scotch out of casks with spigots. Does that sound like a strange store? It is; especially when you’re the only one there and a determinedly friendly salesman is following you around reiterating his insistence that you fill a spoon from the spigot of all the olive oils in turn. There are eight. I obeyed. Eight spoonfuls of olive oil is actually kind of a lot.
The shtick worked on me — I bought little bottles of avocado oil, stupidly expensive (but pretty delicious) balsamic vinegar, and a strangely nutty olive oil. But I’m not sure the appeal goes beyond novelty. To taste the oil that results from pressing cumin seeds is interesting, but I don’t need to taste it again, let alone bring it home.
The most dramatic gourmet-ghettoization is happening at Midvale and University, where an all-out grocery war is on in preparation for the new double-size Whole Foods opening at Hilldale. The present groceries, Sentry Metcalfe and the formerly unassuming Copps Food Market, have both gutted and renovated to prepare for the intruder. Both have olive bars. Copps has a sushi bar, but Sentry has a sit-down coffee shop while Copps only has an espresso stand. Sentry has a stir-fry steam-table. Sentry’s open all night, Copps closes at midnight.
Can there really be enough high-end grocery money on the West Side of Madison to support all three stores? Especially when they have to contend with the other 800-pound newcomer, Trader Joe’s? And when the condo units at Hilldale aren’t selling through?