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Site Seeing

Two food lovers divulge their favorite on-line sources for everything from heirloom seeds to restaurant reservations.

Ever since Matt wired the electric percolator to our family's Apple IIe computer back in 1984--with explosive results--we've taken the long view on computer innovation: some amazing technological advances are merely half steps, best left alone until the real miracles are engineered. The Internet, rife with great new ideas, is a good example of this phenomenon. One could spend hours searching for French-roast coffee beans on-line, for instance, when the store across the street stocks 10 different varieties.

Still, we're enthusiastic about some great new Web sites that cater to our passions for cooking and restaurants. But don't install the undercounter computer monitor in your kitchen yet; check out and bookmark these cool sites first.

When we're looking for new food products, we log on to ChefShop.com. Glitzier, better-known on-line shops like Tavolo and the Williams-Sonoma site ship many of the same delicacies, but ChefShop's precise, imaginative tasting notes set it apart. You can find rare, intensely flavored foods like Michel Cluizel's 72-percent-cocoa chocolate pastilles as well as varietal juices from White's Fruit Farm in Suffolk, England--without a hint of the dot-com copywriter's impersonal sell.

We know you got over your eBay addiction months ago. But it's time to log on again and take a look at the growing "miscellaneous: foodstuff" category, which is shaping up to be an excellent source for rare, easily shippable edibles, like musk-oxen jerky from Yellowknife, in Canada's Northwest Territories. And eBay's got great seed deals, like the heirlooms we found for our vegetable garden--Silvery Fir Tree tomato, Gotte Jaune d'Or lettuce and Maxatawny garlic, all around $2 per packet.

Inveterate coupon-clippers can eliminate paper cuts by visiting ValuPage, where inputting a zip code and clicking on the name of a grocery chain brings up a list of discounts available at the store nearest you. Just print the page and take it with you when you go shopping; the form's bar code is scanned at checkout for credit toward your next purchase. Though the novelty of our ValuPage caused a stir when we presented it at Piggly Wiggly, they didn't miss a beat when we cashed it in the next day. And we spent barely two minutes getting and printing our coupon page.

RestaurantRow.com has been busy signing up restaurants across the country to take reservations on-line, and its features--click here for a menu; click there for a photo of the interior--encourage you to do so. We were hot to test whether RestaurantRow could get us a table at Manhattan's ultrafashionable Daniel on a busy fall night. Our noon e-mail requesting a reservation for 8 p.m. that evening netted the reply that we were not confirmed, but it offered us a table at 9:30 p.m. We took it and were thrilled to see our reservation duly penciled in when we arrived.

In the new year, check in with the sites foodline.com and OpenTable.com to see if they've delivered on their promise to offer real-time restaurant reservations on the Internet, piped from your laptop to a computer built into the maître d' stand. We can't imagine the nation's best restaurants giving up tables to these systems, but then again, we predicted that waiters would never abandon their pencil and pad for the touch terminals now casting their ghostly glow in restaurants everywhere. And this just in: Zagat has announced that zagat.com will add 360-degree virtual restaurant tours and--you guessed it--an on-line reservation service. Dare we forecast the day when e-traffic bottlenecks make the telephone a secret weapon for scoring a table on Saturday night?

Attention, recipe swappers! At MyCookbook, you can showcase your best offerings without the time and expense of building a site. Save 100 recipes for free (more for a slight fee) in a password-protected account. We like giving our password to far-flung friends and relatives so they can access our recipe box (or send us their recipes) from anywhere in the world.

When our beloved first edition of novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's Cross Creek Cookery fell into a bowl of cane syrup, we logged on to BookFinder.com, a site that searches the inventories of new and used books at Bibliofind.com as well as at independent bookstores. We found more than 50 first editions of Cross Creek, ranging from $29.95 to $600, and also a new paperback reprint, which we scored for $9.60 plus shipping. This site is indispensable for anyone building or maintaining a cookbook library.

If you're looking for information on a key ingredient, including a substitute, go to the Cook's Thesaurus at switcheroo.com. It saved us a trip to the store when we learned that mixing equal parts of dry sherry and sugar makes a workable mirin. There are browsable categories; if you suffer through the primitive search system, you can occasionally find some gems, like great storing tips and recipes. The site's especially thorough on Asian foods.

Shopping for produce in person--goosing pears to find the ripest--is a pleasure we can't imagine sacrificing. Given the rocky time that first-mover Internet grocers are having ("first mover" is e-commerce lingo for companies that initiate on-line categories), most consumers seem to agree. But sometimes it's, well, convenient for someone else to deliver the goods. So we'll be watching San Francisco's Webvan as it expands its service in the new millennium, to see whether its West Coast savoir faire--and enthusiasm for farm-fresh produce and super-premium brands like Stags' Leap wines and Neal's Yard Dairy cheese--holds up in the 26 U.S. markets planned.

Matt Lee and Ted Lee have launched The Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts Catalogue into cyberspace with their Web site boiledpeanuts.com.

Published January 2000
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