Saturday, April 19, 2008

Tasting Macarons at the Farmers Market

When I saw Veronica's announcement that she'd be selling her delicacies at the 17th Street Farmers Market, I knew I had to get down there and meet the chef in person. Something about the change in seasons is making me want to meet a few bloggers outside of the internet. As the sun/son has come out, my social side is feeling loud and proud.

With a fridge full of veggies, my only reason to hit up the Farmers Market was to try a macaron (and to show of baby Jasper). This is a little odd for me, since I'm really not very keen on sweets or baked goods. That's Karen's department. I mostly just wanted to break this artificial barrier down and show some support for a fellow blogger. But honestly, I was prepared to not like the products of Veronica's Petites Bouches, because pastries just aren't my thing.

Before wading into the sparsely attended market, we popped into Cafe Gutenberg to grab our first cup of coffee of the day. It felt pretty urgent, considering our erratic sleep schedule. I ordered two large 16oz coffees (the only other size is a 12" small). "That'll be $6.55." I froze as soon as I heard the price. Standing there flipping through a few bills, I started gripping my money tightly and doing math in my head, not sure if she'd gotten my order mixed up. I looked at Karen with questioning eyes. "Just pay her," she said under her breath. I handed over a twenty and asked, how much is coffee here? The barista looked surprised at my question. "Um, $3 for a large. It's an Italian blend. It's good."

A little while back I decided to cut sugar from all of my coffee consumption. Not just discontinuing my usual three packets in each cup, but no more mochas or syrupy whatever-chino drinks that usually cost a fortune. I figured I'd be saving money by only purchasing black drip-coffee, the common-joe pick-me up. This has been my rationale as I often carry around the paper cups of brew: It's only a buck or two.

The "Italian blend," is Illy coffee, found at many fine dining establishments. And yes, it is good. Not great, but good. Is it seven dollars for two cups good? No. You could have at least a half-pound of the beans for that price. As soon as we walked out the door of Cafe Gutenburg, I turned to Karen and said, I'm never going to that place again. "I knew you were going to say that." Have I said it before when we've been in there? "Maybe."

I haven't been able to keep up with the changing status of that Cafe Gutenbert since they announced that it might be closing. However, one thing there hasn't changed: their target market. In my estimation, a coffee shop or cafe is a community hub; a common stopping point in the daily routine of nearly every kind of person. If the brew is good, the people will come and they'll add their own fixins and make the place a universally popular spot. There may be other offerings, from bagels to eggs Florentine, but it all starts with that cup of coffee that everybody buys and helps the business secure a foothold in the storefront marketplace.

Cafe Guttenberg is aiming at a different kind of subsistence. One that seems geared toward an elitist impact on downtown and a much less accessible corner of 17th and Main. Not inviting, at all. For to many restaurants, it isn't enough to be popular and successful, the goal seems to be glamor. It's a shame and I hope they change their approach (yes, I've gone off on this digression/rant all because they charge a dollar too much for coffee, 50% over comparable cups most anywhere else).

Veronica's Tiny Tasty Time-Machines
Okay, where was I? After a lap around the seriously underwhelming market (only 1/3 of the vendor stalls were populated), we stopped at Petite Bouchees. Although we'd never met, Veronica recognized me instantly. So I introduced myself, Karen, and baby Jaz. I told her up-front that we were here to buy stuff and support her business, but I had questions first. How do you pronounce "macaron"? She said it a couple times and I strained my ears (Karen too). Not like "macarOOn", right? "No, because then people think coconut and..." To be honest, I'm not sure what Veronica said. It wasn't "macarAWn," which was the only other option I imagined. It was more of a French kind of sound that my mouth doesn't make and my ears find confusing (how North American!).

She offered samples of the little treats. I had chocolate/coffee (my favorite flavor combo) and Karen had pistachio. As soon as I got the 1/4 macaron sample into my mouth, I was impressed by the delicate crispiness of the exterior and the sensuously chewy middle. This was a special creation, indeed. Then it hit me: waves of rich chocolatiness accented by the coffee and then something really different. Was it hot buttered toast? No. PB&J? No, but it felt like I was re-experiencing some distant flavor from my childhood. Karen and Veronica watched my reaction and asked for my thoughts. But, hot on the trail of this inexplicable flavor/memory, I couldn't talk. Karen covered for me, saying nice things about her pistachio macaron. My mind was racing. Okay, not quite toast or french toast, maybe french toast, not sure, I'm in my parents kitchen, eating... what am I eating? How old am I? Grilled cheese? No, not salty, but buttery. Yes. Butter...

And then it fades away and I've lost it. Karen and Veronica come back into focus and there's this guy. Oh, that's Hungry Hubby. Wow, am I making a good first impression, or what? I tell them that I tasted something that I couldn't put my finger on. I'm embarrassed, because I don't know what they've been talking about while I was searching inside myself chasing a childhood sensation. Then I ask for another sample, as unashamed as a junkie scrounging for his next hit. We buy a couple bags and leave Veronica with our well wishing for her fledgling business and my mind is already on getting back to the house to greedily work my way through these newly purchased macarons.

The Ethics of Carrying Coffee into a Restaurant

I'd never laid eyes on Lulu's and Karen had never heard of it. They're serving brunch. Let's go! We were both hungry, having only had Veronica's tempting amuse bouche. Karen agreed and as we made a few steps toward the restaurant, we started to argue.

"We can't go in there with these coffees," Karen informs me.

Why not? It's brunch.

"They sell coffee there, so we can't bring our own. How much do you have left?"

Mine's almost full and still hot.

"Well, we have to toss them."

Fuck that!

"It's just a cup of coffee. Don't be unreasonable."

Karen, after paying seven bucks? Hell no. I'm taking my coffee in there.

"Not with me, your not. Let's just go home."

Look, I really don't think that I'm physically capable of relinquishing this cup right now. I'm sorry. I'll make you some eggs."

(would any of you like to weigh in on this ethical dilemma?)
By the way, we love cursing. It's actually more fun right now, knowing that we won't be able to do it around the baby in about a year. So, we're getting our fill now.

Back at the house, I immediately get on the computer to write and Karen ends up making the eggs (doh!). Soon, I recruit her to help me figure out this coffee/chocolate mystery flavor. I sit on the couch next to her holding a macaron in my hand for the first time. It's like a little hamburger shaped play-dough creation, only it's both heavy and light and feels like something precious to be careful with. I take a bite and I'm transported again, following the flavor, listing sensations in my head. Butter rum, buttered raisin, butter pecan, etc. Karen's got it now. After a bite, she doesn't speak. I take another bite. "That's damn good," she says.

It feels like we're passing a joint back and forth, going into orbit briefly after each "hit." I'm no closer to identifying my memory, now enjoying the euphoria more than the noble cause of revisiting my youth. How much time has passed, I wonder. Where's the baby? (still latched on, nursing). Are we bad parents? Is Social Services coming for us?

Karen breaks the silence. "It's that coffee butter-cream. That's the flavor that hits me. It's really good." We agree on that, half satisfied, and decide to get on with our day.

19 comments:

  1. I wouldn't have taken the coffee in. The staff might not have said anything but restaurant staff tend to judge people very quickly on a few initial cues. Walk in with outside coffee and the waiter sees a lost sale and may peg you as cheap. That can have a very noticeable impact on your care and if it's busy and the server has to make choices on who to pay more attention to, you loose.

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  2. The farmers market was sparse because its so early in the season. The farmers just don't have much ready to bring to market in mid April. I was glad to meet you at Byrd House on Tuesday but I must've missed you all at 17th St on Thursday.

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  3. I am sooooo jealous - I would have loved to come down there for some Macarons - instead we had to drive to the east end to pick up cat traps. I agree $3 for plain coffee without the bells and whistles of froth and syrup is steep - even starbucks does not charge that much for their "regular" brew.

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  4. The coffee thing--one reason restaurants don't like the outside drink is that it falls into a grey area for ABC violation. ABC says outside drinks could be spiked and therefore are not allowed. I believe this is intended for younger people and am not sure if it is enforced.
    But, I would probably bring the coffee in and it would be no big deal, Lulus thinks differently than, say, Cracker Barrel, where I would not take the coffee in.
    What do you think about a Richmond food/wine blog meet-up potluck?

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  5. Piet: You and me must be the Siskle and Ebert of Richmond food writing, cuz we agree on much, but vociferously differ on a few key points. Interesting perspective, though. I think your posts/comments should include an "I used to be a maitre-d" disclaimer, cuz service is really your thing.

    So, chalk one up for "don't take the coffee in." However, I want to amend my argument by saying that a restaurant on the edge of a market, should expect people to tumble in with arms full of purchases, be they coffee, crafts, veggies, or small livestock. And haven't we gotten to the point where insulated paper cups are just viewed as an extension of the human form?

    Mary: I missed the Thursday market. This post is a Saturday thing. It was good to meet you to. As you asked me about tasting menus, see Piet's blog. He's written about many places that would have that kind of dining option.

    All: Karen and I have now eaten a vanilla macaron and it too was heavenly. These things probably make the perfect gift (Karen's sentiment).

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  6. RVA - I was thinking this afternoon we should go out to dinner together. You can complain about the price and I'll complain about the service and our wives will look at each other and roll their eyes.... :)

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  7. I haven't heard of a "food/wine blog meet-up potluck," but in my imagination, it sounds like trap set by underachieving restaurateurs. Maybe I'd go brown bag with my own grub and tell everyone how good/bad it is.

    Keep the coffee feedback coming. My aim is to either achieve consensus, or a statistically conclusive data set.

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  8. I'm so glad to meet you, Karen and little Jasper at the Farmer's market! Jasper is so precious! Thanks for the support and I am happy that you liked the macarons. Oh Gosh, you and the hungry hubby can probably spend the entire afternoon talking about coffee. He loves the one he gets from Rostov's and is very critical of coffee elsewhere. Oh...the coffee buttercream is made with brewed espresso ;).

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  9. Piet: I'm not sure upon which business we should inflict our combined effect. It could be too much. We'll have to email off blog about it.

    Genevelyn: I didn't realize that you were proposing a get together. I thought this was something that was already in motion. Since I did say that I've become social, it's hard to say no. I hear that there's a Richmond foodie Meet-up where people dine out en mass. At least then, everybody judges the restaurant and not each other (not nay-saying, mind you). If something gets going, please keep me in the loop.

    Veron: Congrats on your first day out. Anyone who tastes your cooking, will come back with money in hand. That's my prediction, but I'm also speaking for myself.

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  10. Goodness, you're making me queer for those cookies. I might have to hunt Veronica down at the Farmers Market.
    Speaking of which, it does get a little better as summer approaches, but I have to agree that even in peak season it's a somewhat underwhelming market. I found myself swinging by the one in Oregon Hill last season on Tuesday nights. It was small, but conveniently located for the ride home from work. I also love the roadside stands in Hanover County with the real junky hand painted signs and tomatoes for 99 cents a pound. Sigh.
    Glad I found your blog!

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  11. Hi RVA foodie-
    I saw a post on a wine blog I read based out of Philly for a wine bloggers meet-up and thought it seemed like a swell idea.
    Here is the link
    http://mcduffwine.blogspot.com/search?q=wine+meet+up
    I expect that some people with blogs are also in the biz. I am in wine sales myself, but in my blog I discuss wines that I don't carry as well as a few that I do. I hate being sold and would not want that to be the focus of the meet-up. I find myself getting ideas for places to go and things to try from blogger more often than I do from local food sections because I find bloggers less biased. After all, we aren't reliant on ad revenue and tend to discuss matters from the heart and not the wallet. I enjoy your blog and appreciate your frequent posts. If I get the potluck idea off of the ground, I'll let you know.
    Cheers,
    g

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  12. My vote is to not bring the coffee in. There's so much else I could say about this post but I'm gonna bite my tongue...

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  13. C'mon kc. Foodie is a big boy. If you've got something to say, as long as it is well thought out, let loose that tongue, don't leave us hanging!

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  14. Peit, KC is right. It's a bit premature to bestow the superlative "blog post of the year" at this point. I'll wait patiently for the nominations to be announced.

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  15. Bringing any outside beverages into a restaurant is a violation of ABC law. Most places I have worked enforce this. If not to risk having the restaurant pay a fine if an ABC officer pops in, leave the coffee outside so the poor waitstaff doesn't have to chide you for doing so. Unless your a baby, then it's carte blanche.

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  16. Well, I'm sticking by my ideological guns on this bringing coffee into the restaurant. Starbucks isn't an addiction. It's a disease. And those of us with the paper-cup stuck to hand affliction should not be descriminated against.

    Branch: Thanks for supplying me with my ace in the hole, "It's not my hot coffee. It's baby Jasper's sippy cup."

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  17. we actually had a conversation will bill foster aka zed's (yes, i know my favorite restaurant) re: getting the ric food kids together.

    take the damn coffee in. hell for the price you paid for it - someone should have been spoon feeding it to you and walked it in lulus themselves.

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  18. I vote for bringing the coffee in (I do it all the time) AND swearing in front of Jasper always.
    Builds good character - both actions.

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  19. Now you've really made me want to make a road trip to Richmond to catch Veronica's macarons! And as a mother of 6, enjoy the cursing while you can!

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