Gourmet and More: A Little Paris in SF

May 03, 2012 at 12am
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Don’t get me wrong, I love it, but at times it can feel a little romanticized, and dare I say cliché. But, as of a few months ago, the neighborhood just upped its street cred.

Gourmet and More, a new French specialty food store on Gough, is the real deal. It’s like being in a Parisian grocery store. There’s nothing precious about it. I lived in France for almost 10 years, and the first time I walked into this shop, I felt like I had been teleported back. For anyone who’s been in France the products are recognizable classics, and for anyone who hasn’t, this is your chance to get the goods without flying 10 hours across the world.

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It can be easy to overlook Gourmet and More. I almost walked right past it, but a small blue sign, just like a French street sign, caught my eye. It read “Impasse du Gourmand.” I was instantly intrigued and peered in. To my surprise, right in front of me was a display of my favorite French cookies. Pepito, Granola, Prince, La Barquette! All the delicious treats I used to bring home from my neighborhood store. My mouth was watering. As I looked into the long, skinny store, I noticed the space was mapped out by big vintage shop signs hanging on the walls, each with chipped paint and distinctive typography. Just behind the cash register on the left, was a sign in sharp, slanted lettering that read Confiserie, or candy store. Colorful, all-natural macarons from L’Artisan Macarons filled a display case and candies lined the counter, including Petit Ourson (chocolate-covered, marshmallow bear cubs) and Suchard (dense praline chocolates). Definitely stuff I’ve never seen on this side of the globe.

I ventured deeper into the store and feasted my eyes on an extensive variety of French products. Under the sign Alimentation, which means food, was a collection of dry and canned goods, including a selection of mustards and sauces, sardines, and even snails! Next, in the freezer case I found sausages, scallops on the half-shell, duck confit, mini-raviolis, delicious-looking frozen pastries, and more snails. Yogurts, drinks, and butter were in a cold case on the other side. Metal dispensers offer fresh olive oil and big containers hold specialty teas.

I was already in awe, but nothing prepared me for what I would find nestled in the back of the store. I looked up at a bright red sign that read La Fromagerie, and through the window in the wooden chalet-like façade, I saw hundreds of cheeses. With delighted disbelief, I stood in front of a charmingly realistic replica of a French cheese shop – a store within a store.

I must have looked stunned. Or, maybe I was drooling. A deep voice with a thick accent interrupted my reverie. “Do you like cheese?” It turns out the man asking was Laurent, one half of the couple that owns Gourmet and More. A few weeks later, I returned to this little slice of France in San Francisco to talk with him about his store. And, of course, pick up a few treats to bring home.

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ImportLaurent and Josiane Recollon aren’t new to the business of bringing French food to the Bay Area. They started a wholesale business, also called Gourmet and More, seven years ago and continue to deliver to restaurants and hotels all over the Bay Area. A few years ago they started opening their East Bay warehouse to the public once every two months. It was so popular, they figured why not do it every day.

Laurent has a round face and hardy built. He’s direct, but friendly. When I ask him how it’s been running a retail shop, he says he loves it and being face-to-face with customers is what he likes best. It’s convivial and keeps him busy.

Because of the import business, he and Josiane get a shipment directly from France every two weeks. This gives them the flexibility to switch up their offering and provide customers with new products to discover. They’ll even take special requests, a service they enjoy doing for their customers. Someone recently asked for La Fermière yogurts, the kind that come in clay ramekins; Laurent had them shipped right over, par avion!

Of late, the couple have been trying out different ways to give their customers more. They now have a blackboard by the front door announcing the arrivals of new products. They also do very affordable brown paper bag lunches with an authentic French-style sandwich. Typically: baguette, butter, cheese. Or the meat option: baguette, butter, meat. It also includes a bag of chips, a mini yogurt, an orange, a square of chocolate, and real French lemonade. With a sizable assortment of cheeses and meats to choose from, the daily sandwich is always a surprise. “Tomorrow is Roquefort!” Laurent declares to me. Of course, they’ll also make you whatever your heart desires.

Recently, Gourmet and More opened a tasting area in the back terrace, where you can sit at wood tables and savor a custom-made cheese plate, a lunch bag, or anything else from the store that strikes your fancy. For a wine pairing, you’ll have to bring your own bottle, but there’s no corkage fee.

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As we chat, Laurent reveals some of his philosophy for the store. He wants the atmosphere to be “à la bonne franquette.” It’s a traditional French expression, one you might hear in a countryside bar, to describe a simple, no-fuss approach to food and entertaining. It’s about being welcoming, friendly, and informal.

The customer’s experience is important to Laurent. He describes the scene: “This place is relaxed. No stress. Back in the cheese room, we cut pieces of cheese for customers to try. We do a pirouette. We laugh.” The image is lovely.

Cold air blasts my face as we walk into La Fromagerie for some cheese tasting. “Try this! It’s a Comté 2009,” Laurent says naturally, without pretension. I’m surprised to hear the cheese has a vintage, but as he hands me a slice, Laurent explains that most are only aged for six months to a year, making this one well aged. The taste is divine, creamy with a subtle tang and nutty notes.

With a collection of more than 300 cheeses, the discoveries could be endless. Most of the cheese is imported from France and other European countries, but the store also carries a few special local ones.

Anyone who’s ever wanted to put together a killer cheese plate to accompany an evening of wine, look no further.

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With perfect French hospitality, Laurent asks if I'd like a coffee. We go back to talking about the philosophy of the store. In fact, there have been a few minor cultural clashes since it opened. While Laurent admits he and Josiane are still working some things out, he is also adamant about one of the guiding principles in experiencing the store: Don’t rush!

Laurent explains, for example, when it’s busy, there can be a wait to get into the cheese room. It’s true La Fromagerie is small, and with the generous tastings offered to each customer, I can only imagine the backups. One day, a customer got huffy and just couldn’t understand why they don’t pre-slice the cheese and put it in to-go containers. For Laurent, it’s obvious. He tells me proudly, “If people want to go fast, they can go to Trader Joe's.”

It’s not that the staff doesn’t respect people’s time. If there’s a long line for cheese, they’ll gladly offer you a coffee while you wait. The store is also considering a number system so you can browse the store in the meantime. Laurent explains, “It's for the pleasure. When you come in to buy some cheese, it's not pre-cut. It's cut for you. It's takes a little more time, but it’s worth it.”

To me, this is truly French. Laurent wears a company sweatshirt that reads, “Gourmet and More: Where food means more than business.” If Americans have always admired the French for their savoir-vivre, this is the place to find all the right ingredients.

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Gourmet and More is open every day of the week. Grab a brown paper bag lunch to take to Patricia’s Green for a picnic or enjoy in the store's covered patio. Or, stop by the cheese shop and hone your palate with some tastings, then impress your friends with a gourmet cheese plate. You can also pick up fresh bread and sweets. For a French dinner party, pick up a party pack of duck confit from the refrigerated area and pair it with the perfect mustard. Finally, if you’re into escargots, this is your spot. Bon appétit!

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