Claremont: Welcome to Norman Rockwell Country : The spirit of village living appears to be vanishing from Southern California as fast as its orange groves, but 32 miles east of L.A., the kind of friendliness we associate with an earlier America still flourishes : Croissants Are Creeping In

Times Restaurant Editor

If you're looking for the virtues of small-town America, you can find them all in Claremont. It's the sort of place where people smile and nod on the street, talk over back fences, know everybody's business. Claremont may not be the only town in California that still has an old-time grocery store, but it probably is the only town that has two of them--both looking as if they were created by Norman Rockwell.

But even in Claremont, nothing stands still. One of the particular charms of this little town is that you can almost see the changes taking place before your eyes. And nothing is changing more radically--or more visibly--than the way that Claremont eats. Claremont, in fact, offers a sort of condensed food history of modern America, and if you look very closely it is possible to trace the croissantization of Claremont.

No Exotica

Until a few years ago, Claremont was a town with a couple of good coffee shops where almost everybody ate breakfast, a charming Greek restaurant, the ubiquitous Italian places. They were good, but they were not particularly sophisticated; they were certainly not the sort of places destined to put Claremont on California's culinary map. The town had a bakery, but it did not stock exotica such as croissants. Longtime resident Dorothy Demke decided to change all that. Four years ago, Demke, who describes herself as "a person of strong creative urges," bought the local bakery. "Everybody had always told me what a great pie crust I made," the former secretary said, and armed only with that, she plunged fearlessly into the baking business.

"I would be ashamed to serve anything I didn't want to eat myself," Demke said, explaining her success. Her Some Crust Bakery smells so delicious that it is almost impossible to pass by without going in the door. She uses whole eggs, tons of butter, real chocolate, heavy cream. A couple of tables plunked down in the middle of the bakery make the place even more appealing, a perfect spot to spend your mornings happily breathing in the wonderful aroma and eating crunchy cheese Danish or very sticky buns.

The cheese Danish were a great favorite of actor Sam Jaffe, who wrote a little testimonial to them that hangs on the wall. The sticky buns, covered with honey and brown sugar and nuts, are positively addictive. Demke also makes spectacular dark mocha cookies that are not too sweet and sort of melt deliciously away in your mouth. This is wonderful home cooking, a bakery you're glad to find, but it still has a vaguely amateur air, and although the croissants are made with pure butter, they are not quite up to French standards.

Slightly Arty Air

The professional touch came a year later with the opening of the First Street Bar & Grill. A group of Claremont people wanted to give the town a restaurant it could be proud of. They hired the sous-chef from Ma Maison, designed a restaurant with a stripped-down, modern, slightly arty air, put in a good wine list and quickly became the town's class act. The menu is sort of a dictionary of California cuisine; at lunch there is a different pizza every day, a lot of salads, and dishes like fricasse of veal sweetbreads with leek marmalade. They have good soups and a daily steak salad. At night the menu becomes more adventurous, with dishes like radicchio and spinach salad with raspberry vinaigrette, or sauteed scallops with black bean, jalapeno and ginger sauce. The food is good, if occasionally over-exuberant, and there is something about the sheer gusto of the place that lets you know that the people in the kitchen are very young.

By Los Angeles standards the prices are very reasonable, and the portions are so generous that all the plates look overpopulated. And despite the size of the menu, an enormous amount of energy goes into dessert. Two pastry chefs, day and night, keep the restaurant supplied with astonishing productions. You find tortes, tarts, sorbets--and sophisticated concoctions like round puffs of flaky pastry filled with strawberries and bananas and surrounded by a pool of blueberry puree. At night the restaurant does a brisk business serving people who come in just for coffee and desert.

The First Street Bar & Grill changed the way the whole town thought about food. Says Tom Wolfe, who is the fourth generation to run Wolfe's, his family's old-fashioned grocery store: "Before First Street, nobody cared about basil, fresh tarragon, shallots, leeks. . . . Since they've opened, everything's changed, and now you have to have fresh herbs. Belgian endive's really taken off. Snow peas too." But there was still another step to go.

"Epicurious was another new concept for Claremont," Wolfe says, "and since it opened people have wanted to do their own catering. There has been a real change in the types of things people will buy for their parties."

Epicurious is the creation of Joseph Rapport, First Street's first chef. After he had been at the restaurant a while, he began to want a place of his own. What he didn't want was to leave Claremont; as his wife, Ginger, says, "This town really grows on you, and it's a nice place to raise a baby." And so instead of moving, they simply moved to another location. Next door, in fact, where they opened not a restaurant, but a shop that specializes in gourmet foods to go.

A Little Bit of Everything

Their baby spends the day in the shop with them, playing happily while his father prepares the two different entrees that are available for take out each day and his mother advises customers on appropriate wines to go with the meal. The entrees may be a spectacular, mildly smoked salmon with a home-made tartar sauce, or meatless lasagna, or duck of some kind, or. . . . There is usually a selection of salads, chili and soup stocks. To supplement these offerings there are pastries, wine and a little bit of everything--good olive oil, cheese, jams, fine spices, candies and cookies.

This is a casual, happy place, but there is nothing amateur about the operation. In addition to the shop and the catering business, Epicurious puts out a newsletter and offers classes in everything from quick mealtime breads to sushi, pizza and wild mushrooms. Guest chefs from Los Angeles--people such as Mark Peel of Spago or Susan Feniger of the City Cafe--offer periodic classes. "It took about a year for people to get used to us," Ginger Proffitt-Rapport says, "people had to adjust to prices and portions and the fact that they didn't get a salad bar." Clearly the town has adjusted. Epicurious is humming along, and the croissantization of Claremont is just about complete.

Still, Claremont maintains its small-town character. One evening at 6:05, Ginger Proffitt-Rapport locked the door, looked out at the deserted sidewalk and said, "We're one of the few businesses that stay open until 6."

Some Crust Bakery, 119 Yale Ave., Claremont, (714) 621-9772.

First Street Bar & Grill, 102 N. Harvard Ave., Claremont, (714) 625-3991.

Epicurious, 110 N. Harvard Ave., Claremont, (714) 624-8081.

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