Saturday, March 12, 2011

In Search of a Dish

I found a long crack in the bottom of my favorite oval baking dish, one of those Polish Bunzlauer sponge-painted numbers. That 12" dish had been a workhorse for years, used constantly for veggies au gratin, macaroni and cheese, casseroles, and roasted chicken. I'm convinced that anything tastes better when it's served in a pretty oval dish, so losing mine would instantly downgrade my cooking skill. I needed a replacement, pronto.

I rejected the current crop of Bunzlauers that I found online as too gaudy:

The best of the lot but still a little too dotty for me.

I went to Williams-Sonoma and toyed with the idea of a cast-iron Le Creuset open baker; they are practically indestructible, so it would be a lifetime investment. My round Dutch oven is a wonderful soup pot. But not only are their baking dishes a whopping $150, they are the wrong size, either too big or too small for my needs. I already have a big, beautiful oval copper gratin, which I use when I'm cooking for guests, or I'm upset, or both — when I'm distracted, I tend to make far too much food.
"Too big, or too small," says the Goldilocks of gratins.

I went to Kitchen Wares, and they didn't have an oval baking dish for me, nor could they order one any time soon. I went to Williams-Sonoma, where they had this Emile Henry dish:
Too feminine and giddy.

I like the color combination, but that ruffle bothers me. It's a baking dish, not a throw pillow. W-S also had Le Creuset stoneware gratins, also the wrong size. And I realize that I want a bright-white dish this time, not one with a drab ecru interior:
I went to Marshall's, where you can often get a bargain on decent cookware. They had a white Portuguese pottery dish that I liked, but it was too big and felt like it might chip if I looked at it too hard. It was only $9.99, but I suspected it was worth it.

Online, I saw that a French company, Pillivuyt (pronounced Pee-yi-vweet, I think), makes several attractive porcelain oval bakers in the size I want. I decided to buy one in Boston. While I tend to be a price-conscious online shopper, it's important to patronize local stores, and I particularly want to support our independent shops selling books, cookware, and antiques.  

There were three styles I liked:
Option A: Classic and simple.

Option B: Classic, but a bit more elegant.

Option C: A charming "brasserie menu" design.

Of course, I could not make up my mind. I wanted to see them in person.

When I discovered that the usual suspects — Kitchen Wares, Williams-Sonoma, Lekker — don't carry the brand, I walked to Thayer Street in the South End, gritted my teeth, and entered the dreaded Tour de France. This shop is the attractive lair of a Frenchman notorious for offending customers, including me. Two or three years ago, my husband and I went there and admired a set of art-deco dining chairs. We wanted them badly, but he was so rude that we gave up. Yesterday, I was not surprised to see that those chairs are still unsold. 

Well, I had another hair-raising encounter — he had no oval dishes among his white porcelain stock and took out his frustration on me. He finally turned on his heel and pretended I no longer existed. C'est normal. At least I learned that he only sells the Revol brand, and I believe Kitchen Wares does, too. You will be treated humanely there.

I staggered into Mohr & McPherson, where they noticed I was a bit stunned. They told me I was hardly the first customer to arrive wounded from Thayer Street. How I enjoy wandering in M&M, a treasure trove of international items you won't find anywhere else in New England, at prices that make sense. I always fall in love with some unique, beautiful thing that won't fit in our apartment. It's too bad they don't sell French porcelain.

On Union Park Street, I decided to take a chance on Michelle Willey, a small shop that has always struck me as one of those precious, Manhattan-style boutiques with a slim selection of expensive things offered with excessive hauteur. I had never gone inside; such shops make me too uncomfortable. But at that point, I felt ready to suffer even the second-meanest shopkeeper in Boston in pursuit of an oval dish.

Boy, was I mistaken. I have got to learn to keep an open mind. It's a lovely store with a cheery, relaxed atmosphere. It may seem minimalist-chic if you're just peering in the window, but you'll find a good selection of merchandise, carefully edited but neither overpriced nor overwrought. The shopkeeper was friendly and helpful. And they have Pillivuyt! While they didn't have oval dishes, I could see other pieces in all three patterns.

As I was making up my mind and he was looking up prices, I tried on a some shirts in a Liberty-style print. These were less than half the price of a similar J. Crew shirt I've been coveting. Before I could mention this, he told me that customers kept coming in to buy the shirt after seeing it in the window and making the very same comparison. I kept sensing that we were on the exact-same retail wavelength...

With his advice and approval, I chose the "Brasserie" design, realizing that I want a dish that's simple but amusing, that I'll enjoy using often. It cost $62, the price I'd seen online. I hope it lasts at least a decade, as my Polish one did. It will arrive in the next couple of weeks; I look forward to picking it up and seeing what's new at the store. And I will always remember the pleasant experience of choosing it.


  1. Next time you are searching for something like that, give me a poke. I would have sent you to China Fair in Porter Square.

    But, they would not have had the exact one you choose. So your journey was a total success.

    They would, however, have simple white oval bakers in lots of sizes.

    Happy cooking in your new dish!

  2. Ah, China Fair! I forgot all about it. The last time we went there, the guy at the counter was kind of a downer. When we told him we were buying glass cat dishes, and he told us that, even if we were using glass instead of plastic, our cats would die because of chemicals in the food and water we'd be putting in them!

    "You're not too interested in selling dishes, are you?" I asked.

  3. Wonderful post...even made me hungry...and the shopkeepers! You had me in stitches. I love wandering round the Ace Hardware store near me and while I'd hate to do inventory there, I have found so many things unavailable in the 'big' home stores.

    Ps: the cat dish story made me slap my forehead, too!


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