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MARKETS : A Foie Gras Store for the Rest of Us

December 15, 1991|LINDA BURUM

Van Rex Gourmet Foods, 5850 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (213) 965-1320. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday. Also: 77570 Springfield Lane, Palm Desert, (619) 360-5190.

Until a few weeks ago, Van Rex Gourmet Foods (whose clients include Drago, Bikini, Pazzia, Champagne and the La Brea Bakery) was the secret resource of a handful of savvy home cooks and caterers. But at the beginning of December this luxury restaurant purveyor opened retail outlets in Culver City and Palm Desert, and word of its extraordinary inventory is spreading fast.

The Van Rex product list reads like a menu from "Living Well Is the Best Revenge": silken-textured Scotch smoked salmon, a selection of foie gras that includes imported French mi-cuit goose liver studded with truffles and fresh domestic foie gras ; fresh and frozen truffles and dozens of fresh caviars, from the classic Russian beluga malossol to a less expensive but tasty malossol from China. Van Rex also sells the superior-quality baking chocolates preferred by the world's top pastry chefs.

When Sue and David Darwish bought Van Rex in 1977, it was a small mail-order company selling hard-to-find gourmet ingredients to home cooks. A few years later the couple acquired a tiny salmon-smoking business owned by a French chef whose impressive product attracted a clientele of the city's best chefs. New items were added to the line as chefs began to request unusual ingredients. Soon the Darwishes found themselves rounding up such things as Swiss bundnerfleisch and English double Gloucester cheese, which were nearly unheard of in Los Angeles back then.

Already equipped to handle retail sales via its mail-order operation, Van Rex could accommodate customers of the restaurants it served (or their cooks and caterers). As word got around, the walk-in luxury food business began to boom, even though customers had to "shop" at a warehouse--making selections sight unseen from a list and then wait for a forklift to deliver the goods to their cars.

It became clear that this fast-growing but unexpected end of the business needed to operate more efficiently. A portion of the Culver City warehouse was sectioned off to create a functional but pleasant retail area. The room is fairly stark, but all that wonderful food displayed on plain wire shelves is decorative enough. Gourmands can now peruse the stock before making their selection.

Looking over this bounty, a cook is instantly inspired. I found scores of things I suddenly couldn't do without. My box-load of purchases included sculpted chocolate sea shells to use as edible dessert dishes, a quart of sun-dried tomato sauce and some of Jody Maroni's Yucatan chicken and duck sausage. I took home fried trompettes de la mort mushrooms, a bag of baby lentils and a package of hickory-smoked Virginia bacon to fry with onions as filling for tiny hors d'oeuvre butter pastry shells that Van Rex imports from Holland.

SHOPPING LIST

CHOCOLATES AND OTHER DESSERT INGREDIENTS

Finicky bakers have long expressed dissatisfaction with the limitations of supermarket baking chocolate. Although excellent semisweet and bittersweet chocolates have been available for quite some time, high-quality unsweetened chocolate was difficult to find in retail outlets. The following chocolate companies, whose products are distributed by Van Rex, make excellent unsweetened chocolate.

Valrhona Chocolates: Considered by some to be the best in the world, this chocolate manufactured in France's Rhone Valley (thus the name Valrhona) comes semisweet or bittersweet in a broad range of intensities and styles, most of which have a lower sugar content than other brands. Guanaja (with 70% cocoa solids) or Extra-Amer (67%) will give truffle fillings and butter creams a deep chocolate flavor, even though cream and/or butter is blended with the chocolate to create them. Valrhona costs nearly twice as much as other good brands, but clearly, many feel it is worth it. Van Rex sells 6.6-pound bars of the bittersweet and semisweet, as well as several varieties of chocolate packaged for eating. One--Equinox--is hazelnuts enrobed in the most intense dark chocolate imaginable.

Cacao Barry: Though only about half as costly as Valrhona, Cacao Barry is also a highly respected brand in France. It too offers a wide range of chocolate styles. The Ultime contains 70% cocoa solids--as compared to the 50% to 58% in supermarket chocolate--and the Grand Caraque is unsweetened chocolate liquor (pure cocoa solids with cocoa butter). Cacao Barry's line also includes light and dark Kosher chocolates, chocolate "vermicelli" for decorations, chocolate chips, several styles of dark and white chocolate coating and two styles of Dutch process cocoa powder. For chocoholics, the Extra Brute cocoa is particularly noteworthy.

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