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The Armchair Santa

December 12, 1996|BEV BENNETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Bennett is author of "Dinner for Two" (Barrons, 1994)

Well, what are you going to give for Christmas this year to all those foodies on your list?

Not more fruit cake.

Say that you just had chef David Burke's butter-tender, spicy salmon pastrami at his renowned Park Avenue Cafe in New York, and it's now the food you dream of. Or maybe you're a plane ride away, wishing you could have one more forkful of the salsa de chile guajillo from the Frontera Grill restaurant in Chicago.

You can. Really.

Savvy restaurateurs know that you're not going to come in as often as they'd like, so rather than bring you to the food, they're taking the food--smoked salmon, salsa, seasonings, soup mixes, chocolates and even root beer--to you. You can have a splurge at your dinner table or send a care package that reflects your good taste.

"It's a way to get your food into customers' homes without their having to come to you," says Gale Gand. She and her husband, Rick Tramonto, own and operate Brasserie T in Northfield, a Chicago suburb.

For example, Brasserie T has a sophisticated, spicy root beer on tap. Gand began brewing root beer after she was deprived of her favorite beverage during a cooking stint in England several years ago.

"I decided to make my own so I'd never be without it. I started making small batches for the restaurant, and when people wanted it to take home, I started bottling it as well," she says.

Aureole, the stellar New York restaurant, beckons from the pages of glossy food magazines. But you needn't book a reservation to indulge in the velvety rich sauces that chef Charlie Palmer and his dessert chef, Dan Rundell, put together. Order chewy espresso chocolate glaze with cocoa bean cracklings and you can even stick your fingers in the jar without risking a server's scorn.

A restaurant provides some quality assurance, according to Palmer. "It makes so much sense to do the things we're able to do," Palmer says. "Chefs have a better idea of what tastes good. If you use a product from a restaurant, it's almost always handmade and a great product. Our dessert sauces are a good example. They're derived from what we serve in the restaurant. People can use the sauces at home and be assured of a fine dessert and the cachet of having an Aureole product."

Many fine-dining restaurants offer a sweet at the end of a meal, and Le Francais in Wheeling, a suburb northwest of Chicago, is no exception. But Mary Beth Liccione, pastry chef and co-owner with her husband, Roland, didn't want a mere truffle for her guests. She had great chocolate ambitions.

"Chocolates with the level of sophistication we wanted required a special space and equipment. When we invested in it for the restaurant, we decided to start a mail-order chocolate business as well," says Jim Graham, chocolatier for Chocolats Le Francais. The sideline attracts customers who have never heard of the restaurant or who dined there in the past.

"People who were at the restaurant years ago [when Jean Banchet, the original chef-owner reigned] order a box of chocolates for an anniversary. It's nostalgia," Graham says.

Cafe Beaujolais in Mendocino built a solid reputation on lavish home-style breakfasts, but now the restaurant now serves only lunch and dinner. That's why co-owners Margaret Fox and her husband, Christopher Kump, offer breakfast by mail, with fixings for waffles and pancakes, hot chocolate and jam.

Most mail-order products stand on their own. You don't need a culinary degree to open a package of David Burke's excellent salmon and arrange it on a plate. But will your steak be as good as the one Stephen Pyles serves at Star Canyon restaurant in Dallas if you use his Cowboy Steak Rub?

That's not the point, says Emeril Lagasse, chef-owner of Emeril's and Nola in New Orleans and marketer of a spice line. "When people buy a product, they're not trying to duplicate tastes. They're buying a little memory, like baseball caps at a baseball game or a program at the theater."

If you give a chef-made food gift to friends or loved ones during this holiday season and it isn't a "memory" for you, relax. We won't tell.

Here is only a small mouthful of food products that chefs and restaurants are offering through mail order. Prices do not include shipping and handling.

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Margaret Fox and Christopher Kump at Cafe Beaujolais in Mendocino, Calif.

All the fixings for a delicious breakfast: 1 (16-ounce) jar Wild Mendocino Blackberry Jam; a 1-pound bag of hot chocolate mix, and a 1-pound package of waffle and pancake mix, guaranteed to make the lightest pancakes; for $25.

Write: Cafe Beaujolais Bakery, Box 730, Mendocino, CA 95460, or call (707) 937-0443.

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Gale Gand and Rick Tramonto at Brasserie T in Northfield, Ill.

Gale's Root Beer, a cinnamon, vanilla and ginger blend with perfumed aroma and flavor that becomes more appealing as you drink it. A 30-ounce bottle costs $3. Chef Gale Gand's Truffles, firm, dense truffles with a crisp chocolate shell; 18 truffles for $12.

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