I am standing at the cheese case of Nicole‘s Gourmet Imports and cradling a wedge of hard aged chevre when a man behind me says, ”This is a very dangerous shop.“
He’s right. I came in for lunch, but while waiting for my sandwich, I‘ve been shopping. Well, it started out as browsing, but one thing led to another, and soon enough I had to get one of those little wooden baskets to accommodate the must-haves. Which include: a small jar of purple French mustard (made with grape must, it’s sweet and hot like chutney) and a wedge of mimolette, that intensely orange cheese which, when whole and round, looks very much like a cantaloupe, and whose preternatural color comes from carrots. I also have aged Gruyere from Switzerland, gelatin sheets from Germany (sheets are clearer than granular gelatin and preferred by chefs), Gorgonzola from Italy (to stuff some squash blossoms) and various French sea salts, which here are about half the cost of what I‘ve paid on the Westside. Yes, there’s nothing I can‘t live without. And nothing that doesn’t make life just a wee bit better. My rationale is this: The prices are excellent. Cheeses that routinely run $15 to $24 a half-pound at certain gourmet shops are $7 to $17 a pound here. That mimolette, for example: $8.95. Beautiful, grainy parmigiano reggiano: $10.95.
I exclaim to owner Nicole Grandjean, a French woman from the Salogne, ”Your prices are so reasonable!“
”I want people to learn and know about this food,“ she says. ”They won‘t ever try it if the prices are high.“
If these prices seem high for experimentation, then know that on Thursdays and Saturdays, Grandjean sets out a great board of cheeses, free for the tasting. If you want to go a little deeper without full commitment, the cafe menu offers a cheese plate (designed to feed two people) that offers four types of cheese along with a baguette and grapes.
Grandjean and her son Steven have been supplying restaurants with imported goods for 13 years. In 1996, they opened a small retail store on Allen Avenue in Pasadena — ”It wasn’t a good location,“ says Grandjean. So six months ago, they moved to this pretty yellow-walled, spacious shop in South Pasadena, on the corner of Meridian and El Centro, where they share the building with Barrister‘s Tea Shop &Antique store.
A visit to Nicole’s Gourmet Imports is like a miniature shopping tour of France. You can buy beautiful enameled cast-iron or ceramic poeles (pots), beautiful Lagioule knives (the kind with the decorative metal flies on their handles), colorful Provencal tablecloths, woven dishtowels and napkins. A cold case holds salamis and pates, and fresh foie gras by the pound. Grocery shelves hold a well-chosen selection of often hard-to-find gourmet groceries, from harissa in a tube ($2.50) to 5-kilo bricks of Valrhona chocolate ($50–$55). There‘s a good section of olive oils — if you can’t decide on one to buy, there‘s a tasting table; if a bottle you’re interested in isn‘t open, Grandjean will happily open one.
All this can happen in that brief span of time while you’re waiting for a sandwich. Sandwiches are made to order, although there are also pre-made, grab-and-run sandwiches for those who can‘t wait, or who have learned that, well, 10 minutes at Nicole’s is deliciously dangerous to the pocketbook — even at her prices.
So far, Nicole‘s is a secret little lunch spot — only half a dozen tables, which, since the weather has turned warm and sunny, are all outside on the sidewalk under green umbrellas. I suspect these tables will multiply — there’s plenty of room. Students from the nearby cooking school, bedecked in their standard chef‘s jackets and houndstooth pants, duck in and out. Other lunch customers seem, like me, delighted to eat French-style lunches without having to spend 10 hours in economy class.
The menu includes sandwiches on fresh baguettes, half a dozen salads, a couple of daily specials. The croque monsieur — melted Gruyere, French ham and a cushioning of bechamel on a baguette — is the Eastside’s best ham and cheese. The tuna salad is made without mayo; it‘s a juicy, lively mixture of albacore, celery, scallions, olive oil, vinegar and whole-grain mustard. Country pate (or mousse creole pate) is also served in a sandwich, with romaine lettuce and cornichons — you can’t get much more French, not in South Pasadena, anyway.
Meal-size salads include one made with smoked, meaty Muscovy duck breast, dried cherries and greens, all dressed in an excellent fruity olive oil (Critelli, a blend made in California). There‘s also an authentic Greek salad — feta, cukes, tomatoes, red onion and kalamata olives topped with rosemary, olive oil and some of that crunchy fleur-de-sel — and a nicoise salad with albacore, haricots verts, nicoise olives and potatoes. An assortment of beverages is in a cold case along with little cartons of fromage frais (a fresh cheese that the French eat like yogurt).
Grandjean is a great resource for those of us Francophile gastronomes who don’t have the wherewithal to keep a pied-a-terre in Paris or pay $24 a half-pound for brin d‘amour (herb-encrusted goat cheese). To my mind, her will to educate and her public-friendly prices constitute a public service: She’s taking great foodstuffs out of the realm of sheer luxury and adding a few simple, tangible pleasures to daily life.
921 Meridian Ave., Unit B, South Pasadena; (626) 441-9600. Open Tues.–Fri. 9 a.m.–6 p.m., Sat. till 5:30 p.m. Sandwiches $4.95. No alcohol. Takeout. Street parking. AE, D, MC, V.