Monday, December 15, 2008

Fancy Foodstuffs: Shop like a snob and get your groceries at these upscale shops.

Growing up in a small Michigan town, my options for artisan products and gourmet foodstuffs were limited, and by limited I mean non-existent. The closest thing to a Whole Foods was the corner market, where gourmet meant adding top-grade beef to a box of Kraft mac 'n' cheese. Sure, the produce in that town was always fresh, thanks to its plentiful pastures. But, honestly, what good are fresh fruits and veggies without the proper accoutrements? Needless to say, I haven't had a problem finding high-quality foods in Chicago, thanks to high-quality (and, ok, high-priced) grocery stores like these.

Southport Grocery and Cafe
I have a serious peanut butter addiction and this upscale shop is where I get my fix. We're not just talking about some ol' jar of Skippy or Jif, mind you—and like any good drug, this one doesn't come cheap. One jar of P.B. Loco costs about $8, but I promise you it's worth every last dime. It comes in a variety of flavors including dark chocolate, coco-banana, Asian curry spice and cookie dough. But the best, by far, is the white chocolate raspberry. Slather it on bread and skip the jam or lick it straight from the spoon to fully appreciate its sweet, fruity flavor. My shopping at Southport doesn't stop with peanut butter, either. The place always has a fully stocked pastry case with a bevy of made-from-scratch goodies like cookies, brownies and Southport's "infamous" chocolate and vanilla cupcakes. In addition to its market madness, the place also has a full functioning cafe, where guests can grab made-to-order salads, sandwiches and seasonal entrees. When the place is packed, grab your Intelligentsia coffee to go and do a little shopping in Southport's swanky boutiques. That is, assuming you haven't already dropped all your dough on chef-worthy foodstuffs.

Goddess and Grocer (Bucktown)
I stopped in here once hoping to grab a quick birthday gift for a friend. I thought it might be a challenge, considering said friend doesn't drink and a good portion of the shop is devoted to wine and imported brews. But it didn't take long to find a shelf stocked with handcrafted chocolate bars, homemade pastries and off-the-cuff greeting cards. Putting together the perfect gourmet gift basket here was far easier than picking a wine for myself. That's not to say that the selection is huge (the shop itself is teensy), but the offerings are top-notch. The Goddess and Grocer also has a case stocked with prepared salads, sandwiches and other culinary concoctions, making it a popular grab 'n' go lunch spot for locals and workers at nearby businesses.

I've never had a pleasant time shopping at Pastoral. But something about the place keeps me coming back. That would be the little black cans of Persian Feta from Yarra Valley Dairy, Australia. I know what you're thinking—really, cheese from a can? The last time my dairy came from metal was after losing the better part of my judgment in college. But this isn't the kind of canned stuff that you spray on a cracker. This one gets cracked open to reveal a creamy mess of cheese, herbs and oil—perfect for spreading on a watercress cracker, but just as delicious straight from the spoon. Wincing at the feta's hefty price (about $14) won't get you any points with the staff, either. So just suck it up, grab the cheese and buy your wine elsewhere.

Fox & Obel
This is the first time I've been to a market where valet parking was an option. It threw me off at first, but then I found out it was free, so long as I bought something from the place. Somehow that made it OK, or at least it made me feel like I was getting my money's worth. This isn't a shop that I frequent because I live as far north as geographically possible in this city. But, if I lived downtown and had Donald Trump's bank account, I'd be a regular here. In all seriousness, there are plenty of affordable options at Fox & Obel, just not if you're looking to buy something by the pound, like an entire duck, for example. Think of it as an upscale Whole Foods—the setup is quite similar, with separate patisserie, meat and seafood counters. Samples are abundant and a cafe for noshing on your purchased goods is located in the back corner.

This article was first published on Centerstage in a slightly different form.

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