This is the Bristol, Madame…

“This is the Bristol, Madame, not the Crystal.” I couldn’t get that line from “What’s Up, Doc?” out of my head as I made my way to the new Bristol Farms, located on the underground level of the Westfield Centre. The Centre not the Center. I had been to the Westfield twice before but, being a native Californian and, therefore, unaccustomed to the idea of basements, I remained unaware of this “extraordinary food store’s” existence until my friend Bill mentioned it to me.

Though I had never set foot in one of their stores until yesterday, I am very familiar with their take-out menu– for a number of years, every funeral my family endured was catered by Bristol Farms, thanks to a cousin affiliated with the company. Armed with the superstition that I might kill a member of my family by getting too close to the sandwich counter, I made my way to the store.

I was greeted at the entrance to the Westfield Centre by a nice man with a picket sign. He explained that this particular Bristol Farms market was a non-union store. Being as unfamiliar with the pros and cons of union membership as anyone can be, I was non-committal, but I wished him luck anyway and went on my way into the store.

The store is broken into two distinct sections, separated by a walkway that spills into a food court. On one side, a place for groceries and whatnot. On the other, a place made up almost exclusively of whatnot. A lifestyle store of sorts. So many Bristol life decisions to be made here. Where to start? I might purchase something to nibble on at the Bristol Chocolatier counter or create something more substantial to eat with a purchase from Bristol Kitchens (see below).

I might also choose something interesting to read at the Bristol News Stand while I void the previously consumed Bristol chocolates with the help of an embarrassingly wide array of cleansing aids found in Bristol’s Natural Living section.

Need ideas for holiday gift wrapping? Choose from a wide array of gift paper and bags…

I think you get the idea.

Feeling I had lived out at least one Bristol lifespan, I moved across the way to the hopefully-more-substantial side of the Farms.

What I found inside the actual grocery store was a wide array of prepared foods– a sushi bar, pizza counter, deli, etc. Feeling hungry as I wandered the aisles, I decided to see how much of my appetite I could satisfy by eating every free sample I came across.

The offerings were primarily dairy in nature– the cubes of cave-aged gruyere, Boorenkass Gouda and Mammoth cheddar were pleasant; the Fiscalini Farmstead Bandage-Wrapped Aged Cheddar did, in fact, taste like an old Ace bandage, as promised.

Over at the meat counter, I enjoyed a piece of Teriyaki-marinated Hibachi beef stick while listening to the man behind the counter explain to a female customer the joy of cooking. “All you’re really doing is reheating this. Turn the oven on to 350F, pop it in and go watch Dr. Phil or whatever. Just don’t forget it’s in the oven.” The woman looked unconvinced.

The most enjoyable course of my free lunch was had at the crepe counter. Behind it were two very young-looking men discussing their handiwork. On top of the counter was one piece of crepe. I took it before anyone else could do so and asked what it was I was about to eat. “It’s a s’more crepe. It’s experimental.” Experimental, but very good, graham cracker crunch and all. I expressed my enthusiasm over their tinkering, hoping they might finish with the caramel apple crepe they were creating, but I was afraid to stay any longer for fear of looking needy or worse, creepy.

My next stop was the charcuterie counter– home of a wonderful selection of cured meats, which was the original purpose of my trip to Bristol Farms. I ordered half a pound the of meat I intend to discuss in a future blog from a very friendly woman who could barely reach over the counter to hand me my purchase.

At the seafood counter, I was not so much impressed by the variety of fish on display as I was by the quality and size of what was available. Grouper and bass big enough to feed a large family, one bass was, infact, as large as some family members. The expression of disbelief I read in his clear eye told me he was not yet convinced he was dead and sitting on a bed of crushed ice, so fresh was the kill.

The produce section contained a variety of beautiful fruits and vegetables. I decided that this will be my go-to place if I should ever need brussel sprouts on-the-stalk or New Zealand red tamarillos, but for everyday shopping? No.

The pastry department was fun, if faintly troubling. The patissieres have created what looks like a cupcake drag parade. Garish frostings, cakes that look like very fake breasts. It gave me a new appreciation for confectionery camp.

What I found troubling were the fresh flower cakes. At first, they just seemed silly. A rose on a layer cake is pointless, if benign. Gerber daisies, when eaten in quantity, can cause liver failure.

Appetite curbed, I headed to the check-out counter. The only person in line, I was able to rush by the selection impulse purchases made so easily available by Bristol Farms’ merchandising team. Though tempted by a king-sized Snickers bar and a Spanish language version of People magazine, I managed to get through with just my cured meat.

A young woman waved me over to the number ten counter. She smiled as she scanned my purchase and asked how I enjoyed my visit to Bristol Farms. I wanted to tell her everything. I should have told her how refreshing it was to encounter such a pleasant, helpful staff; how much I loved looking at the fish and the pastries. It was probably wise of me not to mention the fact that I felt as though I walked into the supermarket equivalent of a Red Light District– one where the pimps and madames were congenial, to be sure, but the overly-merchandised whores aggressive.

Instead, I just said. “It was fine. Thanks.”

I’m not saying I won’t be back. I’ll run out of meat soon enough. Besides, I like to be horrified from time to time. And who doesn’t enjoy an occasional trip to a brothel? I know I do.

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