The gourmet food shops that sell kumquat jam and jalapeno potato chips are a far cry from the familiar farmers markets that peddle produce from flatbed trucks or rickety booths in a crowded parking lot. And the customers at the two kinds of markets are decidedly different. Yet the upscale gourmet stores that call themselves farmers markets are cashing in on the same appetite for fresh vegetables, just-picked fruit, local nuts and grains.
The upscale markets also are feeding the public's hunger for unusual delicacies, fine-grade meats and novelty produce. Smoked albacore, artichoke-heart pate, guavas, Japanese eggplant and baby yellow tomatoes are being scarfed up by shoppers who are finicky about their fruit as well as their vegetables.
While nobody believes they are bargain hunting, gourmet food shoppers seem satisfied that they are buying "top of the line" foods and the freshest edibles, including U.S. Choice beef.
The president of the county Chamber of Commerce estimates that there are at least a dozen large fancy farmers markets here. The two largest chains are Irvine Ranch Farmers Market and Christian's Farmers Market. But the lineup is shifting.
After Costa Mesa-based Irvine Ranch Farmers Market chain filed for reorganization in July under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy law, L.A.-based Chalet Gourmet assumed control of 6 of the county's 7 Irvine Ranch markets. However, the inventory and the stores seem to have changed little. Even the Irvine Ranch Market in Atrium Court of Fashion Island, a store that is now being operated by Pacific Ranch, has changed only its name since new ownership, according to Robert P. Dornin, general manager of the Newport Beach shopping center. The store is now called simply, Farmers Market Atrium Court.
A county newcomer, Christian's Farmers Market, made a splashy entrance at MainPlace/Santa Ana two weeks ago with a grand opening buffet and ribbon cutting. The new 14,000-square-foot store has something the other three Christian's stores (in Fullerton, San Juan Capistrano and Laguna Hills) do not: Mike's Seafood Grill, which sells sushi, oysters, shrimp, mesquite-grilled fresh fish, beer and wine.
For a glimpse at the county's toniest markets, we shopped four of the largest: Farmers Market Atrium Court, Christian's Farmers Markets in MainPlace and Laguna Hills, and Irvine Ranch Market on Culver Drive in Irvine.
Of the four, Christian's MainPlace is the most glamorous. Designed in the same exuberant style as the MainPlace MarketPlace, the gourmet shop has a dizzying array of fresh fruit, vegetables, deli dishes, baked goods, meats and seafoods. Last week we counted 40 different cakes, a dozen prepared deli meals such as California macadamia chicken ($7.50 a pound) and artichoke shrimp with hearts of palm ($5.95), and a wide variety of meats, seafood and produce. Beluga caviar ($40 a pound), ahi, calamary and smoked wahoo are all available. The store also has a Green Burrito food concession, a salad bar ($3.98 a pound), a yogurt shop and a small dining area attached to Mike's Grill. A peek at the salad bar provides a clue to this shop's variety: 86 items including three kinds of lettuce, 27 vegetables, cheese, nuts, condiments, crunchy toppings, meat and seafood (small shrimp), fresh fruit, and eight homemade dressings.
A close contender in terms of elegance and variety is Farmers Market Atrium Court. With giant stone porticoes, huge clay planters and gigantic aisles of meat and produce, Farmers Market has the same open and elegant look as Atrium Court. The 51,000-square-foot first level of Atrium Court also houses a sushi bar, wine bar, bakery, yogurt shop, sandwich bar, candy counter and other food booths, all operated by concessionaires but considered part of the market. There are aisles of grocery staples as well.
Like Christian's MainPlace, Farmers Market has a huge variety of items, including lots of unusual delicacies: chicken liver truffles, duck mousse pate, teriyaki pork roast, shrimp with linguine, soft-shell crabs and guavas. The deli counter displays 17 prepared dishes, and an assortment of pates, cheeses and prepared appetizers.
While smaller than its MainPlace operation, the Christian's market in Laguna Hills is still among the biggest fancy farmers markets in the county. With a European espresso bar motif similar to the MainPlace facility, the Laguna Hills shop offers beer and wine, a deli counter, a bakery, a large wine selection, meat, produce, seafood and several aisles of canned goods, laundry detergent, noodles, potato chips and toilet tissue. The market offers prepared meals such as salads, beef stew and teriyaki chicken.