Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Compartes in the Brentwood Country Mart


From 1979 through the early 1980s, when my family lived in Los Angeles and when I was between the ages of ten and fourteen, one of my favorite treats was to go to the Brentwood Country Mart, which had a quaint, carefully arranged rustic charm, a rather folksy feel to it at the time. We would often go for lunch, which we ordered at the Reddi Chick counter, a fabulous rotisserie and barbecue chicken place that would prepare a basket for you with a side of fries piled high in a red and white patterned paper food tray. (Side note: Reddi Chick opened in 1979, the year we arrived in L.A., and it is apparently still operated by the original owners, Steve and Carol Salita.) We would take our food and find a table at the Mart's open-air patio—preferably a seat near the central fire pit, which was enclosed with a black (or smoke-blackened) mesh. The chicken was fabulous, but the best part about a trip to the Country Mart was the promise of what might come after lunch: a visit to the tiny, mom-and-pop chocolate shop, Compartes. Walking into the shop from the patio, you'd see an older woman—I think she may have been the shop's originator, Myrna Comparte—busy behind an L-shaped configuration of display cases. I remember her as often wearing a pink smock of sorts, though perhaps this is my own bit of confection. She reminded me a little, for reasons having more to do with a general "European grandmother" aura than with any physical feature, of my own yiayia. Or maybe it was just that she was a source of sweets; that alone seems to merit a grandmotherly association. In the stainless steel and glass display cases, meticulous pyramids and rows of hand-dipped chocolates beckoned. There were many chocolate-robed fruits (whole dried fruits, glacĂ© slices, orange peel), plenty of dense caramels and nut clusters, but I always only wanted one thing: a log of English toffee. Compartes' English toffee was the freshest and best I have ever tasted. The coarsely ground nuts gave a toasted crunchy coating to the generous layer of rich, soft chocolate that in its turn surrounded the hard (yet somehow melt-in-your-mouth) buttery core of the candy. I would order a single piece, and it would be handed to me in a thin sheet of waxy paper. Something about that fact made it even more special; it was perhaps my first taste of candy that did not come pre-packaged, but that someone pulled lovingly from a case just for me. I would give anything to have a piece now. Of course, I had to do a quick Internet search to see if Compartes still exists. It does, but I don't recognize anything that conforms to the shop I knew when I was young. Like me, the shop is all grown up. It has moved from its old home in the Country Mart, and, looking at the shop's website, it's clear that it's become a very upscale boutique where the chocolate is displayed like fine artwork—and probably costs as much. Supposedly the new shop (with its new owner) has kept the old recipes, the famous fruits, the careful techniques of Myrna Comparte; but it must be said that the homey, comfortable feeling seems gone, and the product itself (though earning plenty of accolades), looks more to me like eye candy.


2 comments:

  1. Did you try the new product that they offer? Reading your post it seems that you say based on the "Look" of the website that the comfortable feeling seems gone and the products look like eye candy, but you don't say if you tasted them or not? How can you judge something like candy without having tasted it? If they say that they kept the same recipes then aren't you jumping to conclusions about the taste of the chocolate without having sampled it. I suggest you do some research and see what you come up with. I, for one, like it when brands grow up and evolve to fit the current climate, in this world, thats what needs to be done and just because this shop grew up a little in your words, doesn't necessarily mean that that great English Toffee you loved and treasured is not the same as it used to be or better, right?

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  2. Thanks for commenting. I agree: you cannot judge a product without tasting it first. I was really not making assumptions about the taste so much as the LOOK of the candies, the overall atmosphere of the store. What struck me, and what I commented on was ambiance, packaging, appearance. There are chocolates and candies photographed that look lovely, ravishing, every bit the pieces of art that their displays suggest that they are--I'm sure they're heavenly chocolates. But the experience would clearly never be the same: the feeling of walking into a cramped space full of simple, very unfussy-looking, familiar treats, and being served by a European woman of the "Old World" who looked at home in her surroundings and made you feel like she was your own grandmother. That is a very different experience. My choice of the term "eye candy" really was meant to focus on the "eye" part of it . . . not to suggest the product is inferior in any way. It's just not the same kind of place, and it's true that more and more there is a loss of the "mom and pop" places--not just in candy shops, but in bookstores, in other industries. This may claim a direct heritage from the original family, but it doesn't "feel" family anymore, really, in its looks.

    That said, I agree with you on some points. If the new, contemporary look means that more people will discover a great product, then I'm all for it, don't get me wrong. I also think that they deserve credit for adapting to today's market, and to expanding. We can't stagnate in business any more than we can stay children--that does not preclude the wish sometimes, though, for childhood comfort!

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