Long before people were conspicuously consuming diamonds, furs and automobiles, they were offering each other gifts of good things to eat. Food does make the perfect present: It won't be the wrong size, you can't break it, it doesn't hang around the house collecting dust and it can't possibly come back to you the following year.
But if you've a mind to give an edible gift, you can do a lot better than simply picking up a box of chocolates or sending off for fruit. At this time of year L.A. turns into a true movable feast, as restaurateurs and purveyors get the holiday spirit and attempt to outdo each other in Christmas creativity. The following gifts are all local treasures--and most of them are only available during the next few weeks.
L'Ermitage was famous for its home-smoked salmon long before the orange fish became a food fad. This special salmon is usually available only to diners at the restaurant, but for the holiday season chef Michel Blanchet is making extra and selling it by the pound. Blanchet marinates Norwegian salmon in fresh herbs and sea salt and then smokes it in the restaurant's custom-designed cold smoker, using his own special mixture of fragrant woods. The result is soft, buttery and not at all salty; at $18 a pound this has to be the best deal on smoked salmon in town.
L'Ermitage, 730 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 652-5840.
The extravagant '80s are over; welcome to the frugal '90s. If spending a lot of money on a big bouquet seems sort of frivolous, you might want to consider a practical substitute. Stanford's fruit and vegetable baskets are as beautiful as flowers--but considerably more tasteful. Made by Northern Produce, purveyors to such ritzy restaurants as Chasens, the Bistro and Spago, Stanford gift baskets come in four sizes. Each holds an assortment of the best seasonal produce from that morning's market. The blend might include baby carrots, colorful peppers, radicchio, tiny eggplant, endive, perfect pears, French melons or golden raspberries, at prices that range from $40 to $150. Delivery charges are $10 within a 25-mile radius of downtown and $15 within a 50-mile radius. There is a 20% charge for rush orders.
Stanford Gift Baskets, 1000 S. Wall St., Los Angeles, (213) 626-GIFT.
It looks like just an ordinary box of cookies. It isn't. The box itself, which is about the size of a wall plaque, is entirely edible; it has been crafted out of four pounds of fresh chocolate. The lid is white chocolate painted with a dark chocolate design. Even that beautiful fresh orchid on the top turns out to be edible--it's made out of sugar. Lift up the lid--carefully-- and you discover that the box is packed with an array of extraordinarily pretty Christmas cookies--Spritz, checkerboard, gingerbread, macaroons, perhaps some double chocolate chip. The Century Plaza has been making this trompe l'oeil confection for years, but this year, in honor of its 25th anniversary, it is actually selling the boxes to the public. Each box costs $90, and orders must be placed at least five days in advance by phone or at the Cafe Plaza, located on the Plaza Level of the hotel. It's hard to imagine a splashier gift.
The Century Plaza Hotel, 2025 Avenue of the Stars, Century City. (213) 277-2000, ext. 2436.
You can't eat this box--but there's plenty inside to eat. City Restaurant, which is famous for its international cuisine--Indian tandoori breads, Thai salads, Korean ribs, Japanese sashimi and Italian gnocchi --makes all-American desserts. For the holiday season the restaurant has created a gift box filled with four dozen cookies: Crisp sugar cookies, rich double-chocolate scooters, Florentines, butter cookie wreaths and ginger snaps. There's also an adorable spicy gingerbread man, decorated and ready to hang on your tree, provided you can resist the urge to nibble. The decorative drum box, which is pictured on the cover, top left, costs $22.50.
City Restaurant, 180 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 938-2155.
There are more than a dozen reasons to shop at the La Brea Bakery, including the whole-wheat sandwich loaf, the chocolate-cherry loaf, the rustic six-grain loaf, the pumpkin loaf and the buttery raisin loaf. A new one has just been added to the list. The bakery is introducing custom gift baskets for the holidays, each filled with an assortment of Nancy Silverton's delicious breads, panforte (Italy's answer to fruitcake), jars of jam and apple butter; candied almonds and gingerbread tree ornaments (one is pictured on the cover). The French bread baskets are available in three sizes (12 inches $28.50; 16 inches $48.50; 20 inches $75) and are decorated with hand-dyed ribbons, lady apple pomanders, cinnamon and pine cones. Orders must be placed at least three days before pick up.
La Brea Bakery, 624 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 939-6813.