Taste test: Williams Sonoma clearance finds

July 9, 2019

I am baffled by Williams Sonoma.

I like kitchen gadgets as much as the next person, and I enjoy browsing through specialty food stores.  But the thing about Williams Sonoma is that it feels more like conspicuous consumption than a genuine enjoyment of food or cooking.  Are there really people who spend $20 on a cake mix and $650 on a toaster?  The peppermint bark that they sell every holiday season is tasty, but it's not $30 per pound worth of tasty, especially when you can get basically the same thing at the Trader Joe's around the corner for $10. 

(If you're of a similar mindset and don't mind a hefty dose of profanity, I highly recommend Drew Magary's annual Hater's Guide To The Williams Sonoma Catalog.  Here's the 2018 edition.)

Williams Sonoma haul pasta sauce, vinegar, chocolate bar

But I still go to Williams Sonoma at least once a month, partly for the entertainment value of gawking at the overpriced merchandise and mostly because they have really good samples.  Peppermint bark, freshly baked madeleine cookies, bite-sized strawberry waffles with tiny dollops of whipped cream—apparently, if you're charging $650 for a toaster, you can afford to give away some impressive nibbles.

On a visit in early May, in addition to the aforementioned waffle, I came across some food items in the clearance section that were actually within my price range.  They were all past their best-by dates, but my experiences at Mike's Discount Foods have pretty much erased any credence I give to such things.  This was my chance to find out if Williams Sonoma products actually are worth the steep price tags, and here are my opinionated and subjective findings.

Williams-Sonoma Balsamic Roasted Garlic Pasta Sauce

Williams Sonoma Balsamic & Roasted Garlic Pasta Sauce
Original price: $12.95
Clearance price: $3.23
The verdict: This pasta sauce reminded me why I make a big batch of homemade pasta sauce every year to stash in my freezer: store bought sauces have SO MUCH SUGAR.  Sweetness was the predominant flavor note, and I couldn't really taste the garlic.  It reminded me of Prego—okay if you're using it to make a lasagna, but not worth eating over noodles.  If Williams Sonoma wants me to spend $12.95 on a jar of tomato sauce, there had better be some truffle oil or nuance or some flavor other than sugar.    

This pasta sauce did have a best-by date of February 2019, and we ate it in May 2019, but I don't think that made much of a difference.

What I think it's worth: $2.00, which is the going rate for a jar of Prego.  This wasn't even worth the clearance price.

Williams Sonoma D'Anjou Pear Flavored Balsamic Vinegar

Williams Sonoma D'Anjou Pear Flavored Balsamic Vinegar
Original price: $18.95
Clearance price: $4.73
The verdict: I like to use flavored balsamic vinegars to make shrubs: I mix 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar with 8 ounces of sparkling water for a non-alcoholic cocktail.  I source my balsamic vinegars from specialty oil and vinegar shops (they seem to be popping up everywhere, from small towns to suburban strip malls).  Usually I pay about $10 for an approximately 7-ounce bottle, so the clearance price of $4.73 was a significant savings.

While this is a bold, fruity balsamic vinegar, I couldn't detect any specific pear notes.  The best by date was March 2019, and I started using it in June 2019, so possibly that explains the muddled flavor.

What I think it's worth: $10.00, since that's what a similar product would cost at a local specialty shop.

K + M Extravirgin Dark Chocolate

K + M Extravirgin Dark Chocolate
Original price: $14.95
Clearance price: $3.73
The verdict: Chocolate is one of the few foods I'm willing to splurge on, because there is a huge difference in quality between mass market and artisan products.  That said, most single-origin chocolate bars are in the $7-$10 range, so this K + M Extravirgin Dark Chocolate bar is on the higher end of the price scale even within the artisan segment. 

Despite an "Enjoy by" date of 12/20/2018, in May 2019 it still tasted like a well-crafted bar of chocolate.  Most brands (even upscale ones like Godiva and Lindt) add vanilla to their dark chocolate to mask the harsh bitterness of subpar beans.  K + M doesn't, and you get the smooth, intense bitterness that I love in an artisan chocolate.  What didn't work for me was the olive oil.  It's added to boost antioxidants and create a better texture, and while it didn't detract from the chocolate, it didn't add much either.

What I think it's worth: $7.00-$8.00, since this is a pretty middle-of-the-road artisan chocolate.  It's not worth as much as Williams Sonoma is charging, although in their defense, $14.95 is the list price on the K + M website. 

The takeaway:

Unsurprisingly, the Williams Sonoma food products I sampled were not worth their exorbitant original prices.  The balsamic vinegar and chocolate bar I bought on clearance weren't a bad deal compared to similar products, but  they weren't all that distinctive either.

I think I'll stick to the free samples.

Go figure, but this post isn't sponsored by Williams Sonoma—I paid for my items out-of-pocket.

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