Thursday, October 28, 2010
Many people on the Peninsula don’t get to Carmel enough. Perhaps the parking and traffic seem daunting. But by not spending more time in this quaint-slash-fascinating town, we don’t enjoy the sense of community that flows among the locals and the beyond-the-border frequenters. We don’t have the same number of encounters with our neighbors.
One reason for that: so many of the residents walk to where they want to go. An important locus for many of them is Nielsen Brothers Market on San Carlos at Seventh, now celebrating its 80th year.
Think about it. Eighty years ago, in 1930, Herbert Hoover was president, Babe Ruth was passing his prime, and only 10 percent of homes in America had a refrigerator.
The fact that Nielsen Brothers is still thriving in Carmel speaks to its considerable value. The fact that it sells everything a resident would need – from every kind of edible to cleaning supplies, from wine you’d have trouble finding at a top-shelf liquor store to gift baskets worthy of historic occasions – is the first clue to its longevity.
But the market/deli/wine shop has always been more than a supply hub. Just ask the folks who sit outside at the front tables, sipping various coffees and nibbling pastries in the morning – or enjoying wine, cheese and paté later in the day.
Tigran and Azniv Amirkhanian bought the market 14 months ago and the transition has been nothing if not smooth. They are wisely playing on the strengths they inherited from Merv and Nanci Sutton – its established presence and high standards for fresh and packaged goods – while moving to enhance service by honoring more individual requests and launching events like wine tastings and book signings.
The Amirkhanians are both Armenian (she grew up in Beirut) but when they met 38 years ago it was in Richmond, Virginia. A few years ago, traveling from San Francisco to L.A., they overnighted in Carmel and fell in love with the town. Shortly thereafter Tigran saw that Nielsen Brothers might be on the market, so to speak.
Tigran and Azniv have done well in maintaining the customer base by maintaining their admirable inventory, including a boatload of meat and pasta and vegetarian entrees and side dishes ready for home heat-up. The most popular among them include the twice-baked potatoes with roasted turkey or chuck roast, spaghetti with meatballs, taco casserole, and shepherd’s pie. All of these dishes are made at the market and sell for $6.99 a pound.
Their list of personal charge accounts speaks to an enviable continuity with locals. Azniv says that more than a year later, both the buyers and the sellers – who were by almost every day – are happy with where the store is today. Their guest book comments, meanwhile, verify popularity with the world’s visitors.
But the appeal is not only broad, it is specific. Gourmands go crazy over Creekstone Farms beef from Arkansas City, Kansas, Diestel turkey from Sonoma, and California grass-fed beef. You may smell your next meal being cooked on a grill out front, which serves up bacon and sausage among other items in the morning, and “everything you want” throughout the day and into dinnertime. We had the Zinfandel-marinated tri-tip ($9.99/pound). Both texture and flavor were appealing.
Actually, “everything you want” applies to every shelf in the store. If you don’t see what you’re looking for, however exotic, ask for it. They’ll order it.
If you haven’t been to Nielsen Brothers recently, you’re missing a treat. Don’t worry about parking… they have a garage beneath their market. Check out the fresh fruit and vegetables; deliveries come several times a day. Go to the counter for deli-cious sandwiches; e.g., turkey, cole slaw, lettuce and tomato on seeded rye. Other favorites are the fresh-ground hamburgers ($3.99), ground meatball sandwiches ($5.49), tri-tip sandwiches ($5.99) and the vegetarian salads. All are prepared on the premises, and all can be made to order.
For their part, oenophiles will be oiling up their corkscrews at first peek at one of the most impressive selections of fine wines, exotic liqueurs and other libational treats a town market can brag.
Patrick Schrady, who’s in charge of an emporium that features more than 7,500 bottles at prices ranging from $5 to (gulp) $995, is there to guide non-oenophiles like me. He’s stocked with prime Monterey County Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, but also sells a lot of well-curated foreign products including Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz, Cote du Rhone and Burgundy wines.
Schrady takes plenty of customer orders, and of course selects himself… by taste. With their reputation, he is pleasantly deluged by “dozens and dozens” of brokers and wineries. His motto is to pay attention to the world, because there are marvelous wines being produced in Chile and Australia and other New World spots, in addition to “the usual suspects in Europe.”
Nielsen also carries a surprisingly large number of household and pantry items. It’s much more than you’d expect. And they must be using the supplies well themselves: Everything is neat and clean.
I leave you with this. I mentioned the store and its new owners to a fellow I just met; he had been an attorney involved with the negotiations between past and present, and he told me an unsolicited story about the Amirkhanians. When they moved to Carmel, they discovered that their new home was too small for their piano, so they gave it to the Carmel Youth Center. So goes the spirit they have brought to their new community… and give every day.