To be perfectly frank, the fermented black garlic clove, shiny like a lump of polished charcoal, looked only marginally more appetising than it sounded. But pounded to a paste, loosened with a drizzling of oil and smeared on a corner of bread, its taste was a revelation: dense, meaty and earthy like a rich stew with none of the throat-catching rasp of the raw bulb.
The clove was prepared by Sami El Sawi who runs Millburn’s gourmet store Epicerie Fine (“E-peace-er-rie Fin”, French for delicatessen) with his wife Beatrice. They suggest a myriad of uses for this pungent speciality: serve a scraping with cheese, add to soup or stuffing or simply dice and cook with mushrooms.
There are other surprises in the store, which opened this summer. Beatrice splashes an inky blackcurrant balsamic vinegar into a ramekin, savoring the heady aroma like a fine Port. “This would be great as a winter dressing with walnuts,” she says. “The blackberry vinegar is livelier, it’d work well for a summer salad,” she advises.
You’d be right to assume Beatrice, from Toulouse, France and Sami, who is Egyptian, have fine food in their DNA. Sami, a chef, trained at the French Culinary Institute and worked with celebrity chef Tom Colicchio at 40 Main in Millburn. The couple have run restaurants in the USA and France and established the popular bistro Le Rendez- Vous in Kenilworth, NJ. Sami’s brother owns Cafe Monet in Millburn and Sami, always happy to “play” in the kitchen, occasionally pitches in as chef at both Café Monet and at Le Rendez-Vous while Beatrice works at the front of house.
Despite their impressive culinary heritage, the couple’s attitude to fine food is firmly down-to-earth. “Simplify,” reads a sign on the wall and the couple appear to have adopted it as their mantra. They want to remove the intimidation and mystique surrounding gourmet food, taking cooking back to basics and inspiring and exciting by communicating their love and enthusiasm for food.
“We always give little tips, we can always inspire by suggesting different methods or herbs and cooking tips” said Beatrice, who convinces a sceptical 11 year old visitor of the merits of blue cheese by serving her a slither of Bel Achelse sandwiched between slices of pear.
They stock a range of mainly French, Italian and American specialities, and Sami is keen to winkle out local New Jersey artisan produce. Their cheese selection is small but carefully chosen with offerings from France, Belgium, Italy and Vermont and they will shortly be stocking a New Jersey sheep milk cheese.
On the shelves are quality chocolates, rich butter cookies from France, tea, fine pasta, risotto, blended salts, condiments, preserves and chutneys. Many of the products, like the chocolate spread in a boot-polish style tin, are packaged with style and charm that could only be French.
They also sell a small range of cooking utensils by Günter Wilhelm that they love to use themselves: ingenious pans that can go straight from the stove top into the oven with detachable handles for easy cleaning and beautifully crafted knives, which slide effortlessly through tomatoes and a hefty cleaver that looks like the kind of thing Henry VIII was apt to introduce to his unlucky wives but in fact is perfectly designed to make light work of chopping parsley.
They make up gift baskets and hampers and will be producing home cooked specialities for the holidays, including Buche de Noel, a traditional chocolate dessert served in France at Christmas.
Sami regularly makes batches of cannele de Bordeaux, vanilla custard confections with a chewy, caramelized shell. With one of these and a little herbal tisane it might just be possible to imagine yourself transported, for one tiny minute, from downtown Millburn in rush hour to a shaded sidewalk café table deep in the French Midi.