Food Feature: Starlight, star bright

Star Provisions shines with gourmet goodies to fatten you up for the winter

Cheap eats is all well and good; I would be the last person to turn down a $3 bowl of pho or a $5 meat and three. But there comes a time when the soul, not to mention the stomach, craves luxury. Now, for instance, when autumn begins to nudge itself into our consciousness and the winter holidays seem improbably close. For such times, there is Star Provisions, A Cook's Marketplace.

Physically, Star Provisions is Bacchanalia's lobby. Spiritually, it is the luxury restaurant's foundation. Happily, this hall of shops offers for sale many of the very ingredients that make Bacchanalia's dishes special: the cheeses, the desserts, the fragrant herbs, the crusty bread, the well-chosen wines, even the chic modern-industrial aesthetic expressed in the restaurant's decor and table settings.

As if more proof were needed that Bacchanalia owners Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison know what they are doing. To the right as one enters, is loaded with breads and desserts, an array of goodies that cannot be passed up. Just as conveniently, black wire shopping baskets are stacked up inside the door, ready to be filled.

One basket is never enough to hold all the tantalizing breads so poetically described in the bakery's brochure. Like rye ("This rustic, lightly sour rye bread with a crisp crust and light interior has a touch of caraway seeds to make your ham and mustard sandwiches happy"; or chocolate walnut ("This nice combination of flavors includes chocolate barley flour, honey, orange zest, walnuts and raisins, an excellent bread to cleanse our palette before the next course of cheese"). Sourdough is made with a house starter; the olive bread with fresh black olives that turn the interior purple.

Treats will be packaged with baking or reheating directions in square, white bakery boxes sealed with a blue and yellow star sticker. Inside the boxes can be anything from a cupcake ($1.25) to Bacchanalia's signature 3-inch diameter Valrhona chocolate cake ($4) to the hazelnut tart ($9), which is not sweet at all except for the natural sweetness of the hazelnuts.

Next comes the wine shop, a spacious alcove where the edited selections are displayed on a canted, waist-high shelf running around the room's perimeter. The stock of each is stacked in vertical shelves beneath. Sample and compare at wine tastings each Friday 7-8 p.m.

To the left as one enters Star Provisions is a shop of cookbooks — including such classics as The Escoffier Cookbook — pots and pans, and gadgets large and small (on the large size is the nifty looking Sharp Half-Pint microwave in tangerine or translucent white, $99).

Next comes the longest shop, which houses meat, fowl and fish, and various rices and condiments from the uncommon Indian curry dish vindaloo to better-looking whole nutmegs than one typically encounters. Here, too, is the olive oil-tasting bar, a section of one shelf a little more than a foot wide. This, to accommodate more than a dozen oils to try. And not only Italian, but also French olive oil.

Off to the side is white truffle oil ($15 for 100 milliliters); other shelves hold pasta sauce ($14) and Modeno balsamic vinegar (aged five years, $30; aged eight years, $42).

It is the contents of the cases, though, that get my attention: luscious marbled prosciutto and Serrano ham, pancetta and Genoa salami; Andouille sausage and smoked chorzo; lean duck breasts and Bell & Evans chickens; tubs of lamb stock and duck fat; Chesapeake Bay scallops ($19.99 on my last trip); fresh pulled Maine lobster (a bargain at $25 a pound, considering the quality); Maine organic salmon ($8); both Russian and Iranian caviar; and black truffles the diameter of a quarter, displayed on a bed of pearly arborio rice.

After this comes my favorite place: the cheese shop. And what a cheese shop! The large display case holds more than a hundred cheeses, many of them so rustically beautiful that one wants to weep for joy. Huge rounds, some of them, presented on bamboo mats to keep the cool air circulating.

Whatever you want will be cut especially for you, then carefully wrapped in lined cheese paper that crinkles cheerfully while keeping the cheese moist. A slightly creamy, slightly salty brie, for example ($25 a pound), or those heavenly, pungent blues — cheddar-colored Shropshire blue ($18 a pound) and the traditional Colston Basset Stilton ($19 a pound). Star Provisions also stocks a raw-milk Camembert from Normandy offered in $10 rounds. A note affixed to the top of one container warns: strong. Well, strong for cheese rookies, maybe. Otherwise, the word I would use is "tangy."

But that's not all. Opposite the main cheese case is a small case filled with delights: creme fraiche from California, French butter ($5 for 8 ounces), Danish organic butter ($4) and mascarpone ($6), the Italian cream cheese that is the essential ingredient in tiramisu (you thought it was the liqueur, didn't you?).

A small coffee bar — featuring Batdorf Bronson coffees, Dancing Goats among the choices — wedges itself between the cheese shop and Bacchanalia's cozy waiting area.

And filling Star Provision's central hall is a profusion of giftware, for oneself as well as for deserving friends and relatives. The cache on a recent visit comprised paper goods; placemats; bakery note cards; invitations; books (lifestyle books and more cookbooks); square, monotone cream dinner plates ($40); Rosenthal china plates — pale pink and blue and green with irregularly scalloped edges; cool, translucent milk glass place settings ($26 for the dinner plate); and amber and clear hobnail glass from the esteemed L.E. Smith Glass Company of Mt. Pleasant, Penn.

Luxuries, all, but affordable nonetheless. After all, it takes very little of any of these choice comestibles to make a lavish meal.

Star Provisions, 1198 Howell Mill Road, 404-365-0410 ext. 134

Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-8 p.m.

Credit cards, checks

Smoke-free environment

Wheelchair accessible

Parking plentiful in shopping center lot??

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