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ChrisZ

Simon Johnson – what's worth the price? Alternatives?

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So I work between two different offices in Sydney, and by coincidence both are almost next-door to a Simon Johnson. While I enjoy browsing the shelves occasionally, the prices are extraordinarily high. So the question is - what's good? Are the prices worth it?

For curious overseas readers, Simon Johnson is an Australian importer of fine produce - they are the Australian distributor for Valhrona, for example. They also have a few shops around the country where they sell high end products, some of which are branded with their own label. I'm not sure, but they may have been the first foodie store to introduce a "cheese room" to Australians.

Simon Johnson seems to be held in very high esteem by the local media and chefs, but the prices have always been breathtaking. One newspaper columnist calculated that for a certain brand of copper saucepans they stock it would be cheaper to fly overseas and buy them there, and fly back with them.

So when I look at things like truffle oils and vanilla pastes, I have to wonder if the price is worth it. There are a few local importers and delis that sell the same sort of stuff at much lower prices.

Any insight? What's worth it?

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Like the David Jones fine-food hall, Simon Johnston used to fill a unique niche in the providore space in Australia. Because of their unique niche, they were able to charge premium prices. Now, however, knowing the availability of similar or better products from alternative sources one must wonder why anyone would shop there.

Agreed that they are the sole agents for certain lines but, for example, if the Valhrona is too expensive buy some Amadei elsewhere. They are also the distributor for the Texturas range and if you want to get a real shock to the system, compare the Australian prices with those available for exactly the same product overseas. Yes there are shipping prices and possibly duties (but these are charged on landed price, not retail) but if I can buy the same item overseas with individual parcel postage significantly cheaper than I can buy it here, there is something wrong with their pricing model.

I think Australians have been price gouged so much for so long that there is now an anti high-end sentiment arising even amongst the people who can afford it.

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Forget truffle/vanilla/Texturas. Look at the prices for products like dried beans! My God. It is like they have been hand-packed and then hand-delivered by virgins that bathe only in the finest grade milk. The Essential Ingredient is no better. The products are very expensive. There are huge gaps in a line dominated by packaged biscuits, jarred curry pastes and the like. And quite often, as in the case of modernist ingredients, you can only buy an almost industrial amount.

Some products they import exclusive are still cheaper elsewhere. The red and yellow tin of Ortiz, for instance, costs $10 at Spring Street Grocer in Melbourne. You pay, what--$15?--in a Simon Johnson store for the same product. The product that they import. I sometimes come away with the impression that these stores aren’t for people that like food or take cooking seriously but are for people that want to spend a lot of money on things. Don’t get me wrong--I like the cheese rooms at Simon Johnson--but the shop is more a sinkhole for money without really earning that privilege.

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I go in the store when we're at Chadstone. Browse, mostly. Free coffee, when they're making them, are nice. Prices are quite outrageous. I only buy the stuff when I really need something right now and don't have time to look elsewhere. The cheese room is nice, but the one at Spring Street is much nicer.

I went to the warehouse sale last year. Had to queue to get in. Some prices were quite good, like the Valrhona (they were expiring within a month or so), and others, weren't great. As Chris mentioned, the price for Ortiz as Spring Street is $10, which is the same price they were selling them at the warehouse sale.

I got a couple of jars of mayo and aioli, Simon Johnson brand. They were before the best by date. Frankly, they weren't very good. Not any better than Best Foods....

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ps. I bought kilo of transglutaminase from Modernist Pantry for a deal less than I can get 500g in Australia, including postage. So what if customs snip a little corner and test it for illicit substances (as happened to my instacure no 1 a few years ago)?

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Wow, Chris states to stay clear of the truffle / vanilla / texturas stuff. I find that I buy some of that stuff thinking that I was getting a good deal, maybe not. Where is the spring Street store?

I'm in Melbourne and would love to start a conversation / information sharing discussion. I'm not trying to hijack the thread but think it's relevant. Often for me as I'm not a rich man it's a balance between quality and value.

I get my high end products mainly from SJ's or Essential Ingredient - it looks like they're are better options. Would love some feedback on these products I stock regularly;

From SJ 's I get ;

SJ brand white truffle oil - ~$25 for 250 ml - I really like this oil it's good and it has real truffle.

SJ brand truffle honey - ~$23 for 100 g - I really like this on "roaring forties blue cheese" by King island dairy(bought at the supermarket). I noticed that it has 'truffle aroma' as the truffle ingredient. Isn't that the artificial flavouring?

SJ brand Chardonnay vinegar - can't remember the price - it's ok.

Vanilla beans - can't remember the price but I know they are cheaper than the supermarket variety. These are good they are from the PNG I believe

La Chinita paprika - ~$25 for 200g - this is good too, I've also bought the Spanish paprika from essential ingredient but I can't remember the name. They are both much better than the supermarket stuff, much, much better.

From essential ingredient I got the balsamic vinegar which I really like too.

Essential Ingredient duck fat - this is good stuff.

Has anyone tried the Nielsen Massey Vanilla Bean Paste or the extract are they any good. Or has anyone tried the Essential Ingredient brand paste and extract. Maybe someone else could recommend something ?

Where do people think in australia/melbourne is the best place for herbs and spices ? Is the Graeme Watson stuff any good ?

Really need to triangle test these products!

Can I recommend to all Australians and especially melbournians looking for modernist ingredients a store on Lygon st called Melbourne food depot. They have nearly everything and not in industrial sizes. Good website as well for online orders. Probably better for kiwis too.

Anyone else recommend some great products worth getting? Love to start a providore in Melbourne thread perhaps.

Await your responses with anticipation.

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Oh, I'm not dismissing the quality of the truffle, etc products. To be honest, I find the appeal of truffle oil/salt/et al to be limited. There's a real fake taste and smell, all palate-dominating and preserved, about truffle paraphenalia--whether it comes from Simon Johnson or someone else. I don't think it's a case of artificial flavourings so much as it is a case of truffle being something that isn't well-suited to being preserved. My point was that the perfectly ordinary stuff, the things you can buy for a few dollars per kilo elsewhere--beans, spices--are insanely priced for no reason other than they are packaged in a jar that says 'Simon Johnson' on the label. I buy most of my spices, beans, etc from Oasis Bakery, which is all of five minutes drive from my home. The quality seems to be a step up from the local Indian grocers but the prices don't quite hit the heights of SJ's. I'm always a sucker for the lamb shawarma, too.

Spring Street Grocer is on Spring Street in the CBD. It is next door--and tied into--The European. As annachan says, the downstairs cheese room is very nice. The vac-packed wagyu steaks are reasonably priced, too, if that's your idea of a good time. Unsure if they sell any/many truffle-related products but I wouldn't be surprised. I mean, I'm sure I've seen miniature bottles of truffle-infused olive oil at my local Coles. And put it this way: I'm not exactly living in an area that would give Simon Johnson a lot of business. I've ordered some foie gras-related goods from Franckfood but I probably wouldn't bother again. The stuff is okay but ... well, it tastes like foie gras that is canned and, if you read the fine print on the label carefully, it's made a whole lot closer to Stellenbosch than it is Toulouse.

MFD is a good store. I have purchased from there before but also from The Red Spoon Company. The RSC's 'complete creation pack' is decent value.


Edited by ChrisTaylor (log)

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So what if customs snip a little corner and test it for illicit substances (as happened to my instacure no 1 a few years ago)?

Ha! I ordered some N-zobit from Willpowder, and customs checked it - which I don't blame them for. But they didn't put the lid back on properly. That stuff is so superfine… I went to the post office to collect my parcel and noticed that there was white powder everywhere- walls and carpet. I handed them my slip and when the lady came back with the box, little puffs of white powder blew out the corners with every step. They looked at me very suspiciously. By the time I got home I was also covered in white powder.

Anyway back to the topic.

Volition - I'm surprised you mentioned vanilla beans because they're one of the things I thought was more outrageous at Simon Johnson. Perhaps I was confused but I'm pretty sure they were selling them for $18 each, which is way beyond the $6 each in the supermarket, and even that's expensive when you look at bulk packs or bundles available from other delis. I bought a pack of 10 or 20 vanilla beans once (maybe off eBay?) and it was really nice to have them in the cupboard and not worry about the cost or if it was worth using one for… If I had one $18 vanilla bean in the pantry I'd probably never use it, just thinking "I'm not worthy" every time I made something.

I'm not sure where you're located, but I always had a great time shopping at the Mediterranean Supermarket (482 Sydney Rd Brunswick) for great stuff at low prices, lots of little things I've never seen anywhere else. I bought some porcini mushroom stock cubes there for about $2 that make the best mushroom risotto.

Culina (in Ashburton) is another Melbourne gem. Apart from being the Australian distributors for Felchlin, they sell 100g jars of dried porcini mushrooms for $5. Compare that to $12 for 20g at Simon Johnson…

I have to say I've never had a big problem with the prices at the Essential Ingredient, but then I haven't shopped there much for a long time. When they first opened in Prahran the shop was such a breathe of fresh air. I guess it's like Nickrey says, when you have a niche in the market you can charge what you like.

In regards to herbs and spices, I've never paid much attention to them until I was given a gift box from Herbies (which is next to the the Essential Ingredient in Sydney). Although I don't cook much with herbs and spices, the few bits and pieces in the gift set were so obviously better and had so much more flavour that the supermarket equivalents that I could see there was obviously a high-end market for them too.

When I look at the shelves of Simon Johnson, I'm most curious about the stuff with their own label on it. Things like their green / red curry pastes, pasta sauces, oils etc etc. Any specific brand they stock can be price-checked or researched on the internet, but their own stuff intrigues me. Perhaps I'll buy one of their smaller bottles of truffle oil and see how it compares.

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La Chinita paprika - ~$25 for 200g - this is good too, I've also bought the Spanish paprika from essential ingredient but I can't remember the name. They are both much better than the supermarket stuff, much, much better.

I suspect that this one would be much better than your supermarket one: at $3.95 for 75g, it works out at $10.53 for the amount you bought at essential ingredient for $25. Must be those vestal virgins picking the stuff that Chris Taylor was talking about up thread.

By far the best place for herbs and spices is Herbies, as ChrisZ has said. Hands down.

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La Chinita paprika - ~$25 for 200g - this is good too, I've also bought the Spanish paprika from essential ingredient but I can't remember the name. They are both much better than the supermarket stuff, much, much better.

I suspect that this one would be much better than your supermarket one: at $3.95 for 75g, it works out at $10.53 for the amount you bought at essential ingredient for $25. Must be those vestal virgins picking the stuff that Chris Taylor was talking about up thread.

By far the best place for herbs and spices is Herbies, as ChrisZ has said. Hands down.

I think I pay about five, maybe six, dollars for a 100g tub--so close enough to the $3.95/75g one you buy--at Oasis Bakery. I used to buy the stuff in the cute little painted tin but I'm not convinced it's any better--or different at all, really--from the Oasis stuff. I've even wondered if it's the exact same product just purchased in bulk and repackaged. Either way we're avoiding The Essential Ingredient prices (aka Prahran tax) for what is probably the same product. EI is a little out of the way for me but the prices seem very similar to those at SJ. The whole vibe of the store is similar, even if they've a much larger sideline in books and pans.

I mean, maybe I'm just a lowly public servant, but at $25 I'd be reluctant to use the stuff care-free in spice rubs and barbecue. At a price that is the same or or only slightly more expensive than what I'd pay for most other spices, though, I'm happy to rub the stuff all over a pork shoulder I'm going to smoke. I cook a lot of barbecue. I use a lot of spices. Tubs of things like chilli powder and paprika don't last for very long. An ingredient like that shouldn't be so costly that you're reluctant to just use it as the need arises.


Edited by ChrisTaylor (log)

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Spring Street has a few truffle things, as I recall. I'll look next time I'm there. They had truffle cheese (brie) before. I might have seen truffle honey of sort. The waygu rump is under $40/kg, which is cheaper than just about anywhere I've seen. Though I haven't seen them there for a little while. With some of the best gelato around and Melbourne Supper Club right there (fried cheese curds - the real curds!), I'm at Spring Cheese about once a month.

I have mixed feelings about Essential Ingredients. there are some stuff that I found to be reasonable. I like the porcini powder there - $32 for 200g is not a bad price. Their bulk chocolate prices are reasonable, as I recall. But I was in need of some butcher strings the other day and had to pay $8 for it there.

Vanilla beans and paprika - Costco is where I go. They had Tahitian beans a while back that was about $1/bean (10 or 20 in a pack, I think). They also have vanilla paste sometimes. I got Hungarian paprika from there - 400g for ~$4. Or yeah, you can get a large jar of dried mix mushrooms (300g) for under $20. I could be wrong, but I think I remember seeing duck fat there....

Oh, if anyone is interested in the best cured meats you can find in Melbourne, give Skinner & Hackett a try.

Williams-Sonoma is supposed to open a store at the new shopping centre in the CBD (by Melbourne Central). I can't wait to see what they will carry there.

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I'm sure I've seen duck fat at Costco too.

I mean, you can buy duck fat at the supermarket, anyway. I'm not offended by Pepe's or Luv-a-Duck.

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Looks like I'm of to costco and spring street this weekend to have a look.

Thanks for all the feedback. Yes I've looked at the Herbies website and they look good. But whenever I need spices I haven't got I need them that day so I never am organised enough to order them online.

Just to clarify the vanilla bean question at SJ's . I'm sure I only pay about $7 for about 4 or 5 beans. So I'm not sure about the $18 ones in question.

Purely out of interest I'd be really interested to triangle test a lot of these so called luxury products. Do they really provide value?

To test paprika I could cook a goulash of course.

Vanilla an ice cream or custard

Hmmm, truffle products. Probably as they are.

Also really interested in people's opinions on;

Balsamic

White wine and red wine vinegars

Olive oils

I'm using the essential ingredient balsamic, the SJ's wine vinegars. And cobram estate olive oil.

Also does anyone have any "stand out" products they love.

Thanks for all the feedback so far.

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Costco also has some good quality Deli meats at good prices. You can get an entire leg of San Daniele prosciutto there for around $200.... Some fancy cheeses too....

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Looks like I'm of to costco and spring street this weekend to have a look.

Thanks for all the feedback. Yes I've looked at the Herbies website and they look good. But whenever I need spices I haven't got I need them that day so I never am organised enough to order them online.

Just to clarify the vanilla bean question at SJ's . I'm sure I only pay about $7 for about 4 or 5 beans. So I'm not sure about the $18 ones in question.

Purely out of interest I'd be really interested to triangle test a lot of these so called luxury products. Do they really provide value?

To test paprika I could cook a goulash of course.

Vanilla an ice cream or custard

Hmmm, truffle products. Probably as they are.

Also really interested in people's opinions on;

Balsamic

White wine and red wine vinegars

Olive oils

I'm using the essential ingredient balsamic, the SJ's wine vinegars. And cobram estate olive oil.

Also does anyone have any "stand out" products they love.

Thanks for all the feedback so far.

Balsamic really needs to be appropriate to use. I have various classes of balsamic ranging from ordinary for everyday use through to 20 year old for special use (you can go much older than this but it gets very thick and very expensive and is used in drops rather than splashes). My favourites for everyday use are fattorie giacobazzi or guiseppe giusti; slightly better is il caratello and my 20 year old is condiment mussini (bought on Amazon) . Never ever buy a balsamic that has caramel as one of its ingredients. You need to look for cooked grape must and wine vinegar, around 6% acidity as the minimum requirement for balsamic. Never buy anything with caramel in it (I'll avoid saying this again but I'm sure you get the picture).

Australia is somewhat spoilt for extra virgin olive oils. They are far better than most European oils that make it to our shores. CobramEstate is a good oil but try Coriole "Evo" or, better still, "1st" or the Diana Novello if you can find it. Lots swear by the little general but I've always found it a bit expensive for what it is.

ps. If balsamic has caramel in it, it is a colouring to imitate real balsamic -- run away.

pps. While you are in the Cheese room at Spring Street, please say hello to Anthony Femia if he is there. He is going to be one of Australia's best cheesemongers (if he isn't already).


Edited by nickrey (log)

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