The Armchair Santa

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Bennett is author of "Dinner for Two" (Barrons, 1994)

Well, what are you going to give for Christmas this year to all those foodies on your list?

Not more fruit cake.

Say that you just had chef David Burke's butter-tender, spicy salmon pastrami at his renowned Park Avenue Cafe in New York, and it's now the food you dream of. Or maybe you're a plane ride away, wishing you could have one more forkful of the salsa de chile guajillo from the Frontera Grill restaurant in Chicago.

You can. Really.

Savvy restaurateurs know that you're not going to come in as often as they'd like, so rather than bring you to the food, they're taking the food--smoked salmon, salsa, seasonings, soup mixes, chocolates and even root beer--to you. You can have a splurge at your dinner table or send a care package that reflects your good taste.

"It's a way to get your food into customers' homes without their having to come to you," says Gale Gand. She and her husband, Rick Tramonto, own and operate Brasserie T in Northfield, a Chicago suburb.

For example, Brasserie T has a sophisticated, spicy root beer on tap. Gand began brewing root beer after she was deprived of her favorite beverage during a cooking stint in England several years ago.

"I decided to make my own so I'd never be without it. I started making small batches for the restaurant, and when people wanted it to take home, I started bottling it as well," she says.

Aureole, the stellar New York restaurant, beckons from the pages of glossy food magazines. But you needn't book a reservation to indulge in the velvety rich sauces that chef Charlie Palmer and his dessert chef, Dan Rundell, put together. Order chewy espresso chocolate glaze with cocoa bean cracklings and you can even stick your fingers in the jar without risking a server's scorn.

A restaurant provides some quality assurance, according to Palmer. "It makes so much sense to do the things we're able to do," Palmer says. "Chefs have a better idea of what tastes good. If you use a product from a restaurant, it's almost always handmade and a great product. Our dessert sauces are a good example. They're derived from what we serve in the restaurant. People can use the sauces at home and be assured of a fine dessert and the cachet of having an Aureole product."

Many fine-dining restaurants offer a sweet at the end of a meal, and Le Francais in Wheeling, a suburb northwest of Chicago, is no exception. But Mary Beth Liccione, pastry chef and co-owner with her husband, Roland, didn't want a mere truffle for her guests. She had great chocolate ambitions.

"Chocolates with the level of sophistication we wanted required a special space and equipment. When we invested in it for the restaurant, we decided to start a mail-order chocolate business as well," says Jim Graham, chocolatier for Chocolats Le Francais. The sideline attracts customers who have never heard of the restaurant or who dined there in the past.

"People who were at the restaurant years ago [when Jean Banchet, the original chef-owner reigned] order a box of chocolates for an anniversary. It's nostalgia," Graham says.

Cafe Beaujolais in Mendocino built a solid reputation on lavish home-style breakfasts, but now the restaurant now serves only lunch and dinner. That's why co-owners Margaret Fox and her husband, Christopher Kump, offer breakfast by mail, with fixings for waffles and pancakes, hot chocolate and jam.

Most mail-order products stand on their own. You don't need a culinary degree to open a package of David Burke's excellent salmon and arrange it on a plate. But will your steak be as good as the one Stephen Pyles serves at Star Canyon restaurant in Dallas if you use his Cowboy Steak Rub?

That's not the point, says Emeril Lagasse, chef-owner of Emeril's and Nola in New Orleans and marketer of a spice line. "When people buy a product, they're not trying to duplicate tastes. They're buying a little memory, like baseball caps at a baseball game or a program at the theater."

If you give a chef-made food gift to friends or loved ones during this holiday season and it isn't a "memory" for you, relax. We won't tell.

Here is only a small mouthful of food products that chefs and restaurants are offering through mail order. Prices do not include shipping and handling.

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Margaret Fox and Christopher Kump at Cafe Beaujolais in Mendocino, Calif.

All the fixings for a delicious breakfast: 1 (16-ounce) jar Wild Mendocino Blackberry Jam; a 1-pound bag of hot chocolate mix, and a 1-pound package of waffle and pancake mix, guaranteed to make the lightest pancakes; for $25.

Write: Cafe Beaujolais Bakery, Box 730, Mendocino, CA 95460, or call (707) 937-0443.

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Gale Gand and Rick Tramonto at Brasserie T in Northfield, Ill.

Gale's Root Beer, a cinnamon, vanilla and ginger blend with perfumed aroma and flavor that becomes more appealing as you drink it. A 30-ounce bottle costs $3. Chef Gale Gand's Truffles, firm, dense truffles with a crisp chocolate shell; 18 truffles for $12.

Write: Brasserie T, 305 S. Happ Road, Northfield, IL 60093, or call (847) 446-0444, Ext. 11 or 13.

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Mary Beth and Roland Liccione at Le Francais restaurant in Wheeling, Ill.

It may resemble a mint patty, but the coconut fleuron is a center of rich, smooth coconut cream and passion fruit jelly with a dark chocolate coating; 9 ounces for $18. For tastes you never thought could exist in chocolate, choose the assorted chocolate with Earl Grey tea, lemon grass and mint leaf centers. A 23-piece box sells for $18.

Write: Chocolats Le Francais, 269 S. Milwaukee Ave., Wheeling, IL 60090, or call (800) 452-4221.

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Charlie Palmer at Aureole in New York City.

Good Taste Dessert Sauces that live up to their name: Rundell's Double Caramel Sauce with Golden Raisins and Apples; Rundell's Espresso Chocolate Glaze with Cocoa Bean Cracklings; Rundell's Deep Chocolate Triple Roasted Cashew Sauce, and Bittersweet Chocolate and Hazelnut Praline Sauce. Each 10-ounce jar sells for $2.50.

Write: Aureole Restaurant, 34 E. 61st St., New York, NY 10021, or call (888) AUREOLE.

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Rick Bayless at Frontera Grill in Chicago.

Frontera Fire-Roasted Salsas with a mellow taste for dipping or cooking include Yucatan Habanero Chile Salsa (hot), Central Mexico Guajillo Salsa (medium), Veracruz Chipotle Salsa (medium), Mexico City Tomatillo Salsa (medium) and Mexico City Jalapeno Salsa (mild). All come in 16-ounce jars for $5.50 a jar.

Write: Frontera Grill, 445 N. Clark St. Chicago, Ill. 60610, or call (800) 509-4441.

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Stephan Pyles at Star Canyon in Dallas.

Customer favorites are Green Chile Salsa and Canyon Salsa Roja, both in 12-ounce jars for $6.50; Cowboy Steak Rub and Chile Powder Blend, both in 4-ounce jars for $5.50; Canyon Cowboy Beans and Canyon Black Fire (black bean soup), both in 14.2-ounce packages for $5; Blue Corn Star Muffin Mix in a 6-ounce bag for $6; Mango Habanero Vinegar in a 250-milliliter bottle for $11.50 and Red Chile Olive Oil in a 375-milliliter bottle for $17.

Write: Star Canyon, 3102 Oaklawn Ave., Suite 144, Dallas, TX 75219, or call (214) 520-7827.

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David Burke at the Park Avenue Cafe in New York City.

When Burke lived in Norway several years ago he developed a technique for gravlax (a cured salmon) with a New York twist; it tastes like pastrami. Order from Perona Farms in 1/4-pound packages for $6.25; 1-pound packages for $25. The company also makes a wonderful Moroccan-style salmon according to Burke's specifications at the same price. Perona also makes a variety of other products, including Smoked Salmon Dip, 8 ounces for $3, and several styles of smoked salmon.

Write: Perona Farms Food Specialties, 350 Andover-Sparta Road, Andover, NJ 07821, or call (201) 729-7878.

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Emeril Lagasse at Emeril's and Nola in New Orleans.

One secret to Emeril Lagasse's cooking is his seasonings, now bottled as Essence of Emeril. Spice blends designed for meat vegetables poultry and general cooking include Bayou Blast, Southwest Spice, Vegetable Dust and Rustic Rub, in 4- to 5-ounce jars. A package of 4 sells for $25.95.

Write: Homebase, 640 Camp St., New Orleans, LA 70130, or call (504) 558-3940.

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Specialty Sauces

If you want the best restaurant examples of a condiment, the Specialty Sauces company rounds them up in a gift package. Order a selection of barbecue sauces that includes a mild-tasting version from Roscoe's Root Beer & Ribs in Rochester, Minn.; medium from Mark's Feed Store in Middletown, Ky., and extra-hot from Gates BBQ in Kansas City, Mo. The package of 3 costs $19.95. For those who prefer salsa, a 3-pack with a mild tomato-rich salsa from Zak's Restaurant in Zanesville, Ohio; medium salsa from El Charro Cafe in Tucson, Ariz.; and an onion-chile pepper melange from Satay, an Asian restaurant in Austin, Texas, sells for $20.95.

Write: Specialty Sauces, 444 Lake Cook Road, Suite 2, Deerfield, IL 60015, or call (800) 728-2371.

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