Around the World on the Upper West Side
Gastronomie 491's curated shelves are a labor of love By all rights, Nicole Ahronee should weigh 400 pounds. Walking through the aisles of Gastronomie 491 (491 Columbus Ave., betw. 83rd & 84th Sts., www.gastronomie491.com), the marketplace she recently opened on the Upper West Side, she has something to say about every single product on the shelves-she's tasted every one, as well as countless similar that didn't make the cut. French chocolates? Baguettes from Soho? Italian bucatini? She's tried it and decided it was good enough to provide for her customers. The amount of thought and effort that went into assembling the Upper West Side shop's inventory is staggering-and the process hasn't come to an end just because they've opened for business. The refrain you hear most frequently from Ahronee is "People seem to like it." She's watching how shoppers respond to every item, and if something doesn't inspire the same excitement in her customers, it can be replaced. "This is a new company I just brought in, but I think when we're finished with this supply we won't bring it back," she said, pointing to one of a number of varieties of honey on offer. "It's part of a being new store-there's a lot of tweaking." That attention to detail doesn't end with the marketplace's well-stocked shelves. It filters down into absolutely everything, including the coffee they serve. While Italian import Illy is by now a well-known name, Gastronomie's version may not be as familiar. "I'm not fussy about a lot of things, but I'm fussy about coffee," Ahronee said. "[Illy] got me to their showroom and had their barista there from Trieste, where they roast the beans, who said he would personally make me a coffee. I felt like a princess, but when I tasted it, it just wasn't right." That not-right coffee was the Normale roast, which is served in most cafés around the city. "He said, 'Just a minute,' and went into the back and came back and made me another one, and a smile just came over my face." That special roast, the darker Scuro, is now the coffee of choice at Gastronomie. For the items she doesn't know intimately, Ahronee has hired disciples to fill the gaps. In the shop's small, open kitchen, Steven Gutterman is developing Mediterranean-tinged meals for a quick bite at the bar or one of the back tables or to take out by the pound. While most chefs watch the seasons to alter their menus, he watches peoples' faces as they shop and eat. In the back of the shop, Martin Johnson has built a charcuterie empire. "I knew he was the right guy when he showed up for the interview and said, 'Would you like some cheese?'" Ahronee said. "Out of his knapsack, he pulled a little board and a knife and started cutting me some cheese right there." Johnson's wraparound counter houses salumi and cheese from around the world, a strikingly sophisticated selection where Humboldt Fog, a smoke-tinged California goat cheese coated in ash, is the most well-known variety. But there's no time to be intimidated, as Johnson is unwrapping blocks, cutting samples and telling stories for patrons the moment they show signs of confusion. It's impossible to walk away from the counter without a parcel or two of a new favorite, sold on the strength of his enthusiasm. The selection on the shelves is most striking when you realize the breadth of the coverage. Almonds from a family farm in California sit alongside Spanish potato chips fried in olive oil, above Antidote chocolate bars made in Long Island City. Ahronee's attention to detail has her literally scouring the world. "Either you go to the little artisanal producer in Brooklyn or upstate, or you have to go through these big distributors that bring in the international products. I try to maintain a balance, but it can be frustrating to deal with so many different suppliers." Gastronomie 491 aims to be the neighborhood's go-to hub for any point in the day, from your coffee first thing in the morning to on your way to a friend's house for dinner. "If you need a lemon, we've got it. Most people you see in the shop are only carrying one or two items, but they'll come back two or three times during the day," Ahronee said. "I'll see someone in the shop and say, 'Oh, you're still here!' And they'll tell me, 'No, I just came back!'"
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