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NEW YORK CORNER: Il Monello by John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR: PORTUGUESE WINES FOR THE 21ST CENTURY by Mort Hochstein
2005 Tarnished Halo Awards
THE BEST NEW RESTAURANTS IN LOS ANGELES
by John Mariani
Los Angeles is tricky when it comes to new restaurants, because a new place gets a shot right out of the chute with everyone desperate to be the first to eat there and to be seen doing so. And then, unless a person really loves the place for the food, the effusive greeting, or the alll around schmoozing, it can easily become passé within months. Even restaurants with exceptional food can have a tough time weathering the trendiness of the city's roving foodies, celebrities, and visitors who have little intention of returning for another good meal. But when the commitment of the owners and the chef are strong, and there is a style of cuisine not able to be found elsewhere in town, then there's a good bet that a restaurant will have a good, long run. Here are two I believe will go the distance.ORTOLAN
8338 West 3rd Street
An ortolan is a rare, endangered species of tiny bird eaten on the sly by French gourmands who put a napkin over their head while swallowing the thing whole. There is nothing so silly as that at Ortolan (nor are there any ortolans served); instead you have a serious French restaurant without the obvious pretensions. Even the tufted banquettes, wall draperies, and a parade of crystal chandeliers (left) has a kind of old Hollywood pizzazz, which owner-chef Christophe Emé and actress Jeri Ryan, (below) his partner both professionally and socially, keeps bubbling throughout an evening here.
Ryan is a marvelously ebullient and radiant hostess, always beautifully dressed, and she has enough friends in the entertainment industry to ensure a few famous faces most nights of the week at Ortolan. Mr. Emé, last at L’Orangerie, cooks with intense precision but is not above showing off, having fun with an amuse of three test tubes of tarragon-scented lobster oil, balsamic vinegar, and parsley oil sipped through a straw. But he is chameleon, rendering all the goodness of the Mediterranean out of roast dorade with ricotta gnocchi, fennel, orange sauce and a beef jus, while his seared, rare filet mignon with a huge marrow bone, oxtail ravioli, pommes soufflé, and wild mushrooms would be a meal fit for a country wedding right out of Flaubert. There's also a lusty Mediterranean spiced lamb pastilla, for two, with white beans, tomato confit, and minted salad.
There is always a little surprise in every one of his dishes: a wild mushroom tart with scrambled eggs in their shell comes with a mushroom cappuccino; lobster comes two ways on one dish--with an artichoke emulsion, baby fennel, and crispy pumpkin, and tucked into delicate ravioli. Fat, crispy langoustines are served with a shot of minestrone; and roast duck breast comes with figs, Comté cheese, and, for added texture, prosciutto chips.
There is an element of fun in the food, without ever straying into oddness, and Mr. Emé offers wonderful tasting menus at $120 per person, while his specials are always changing with the season and the market. The food is at once luxurious and deceptively simple, as in his salmon ceviche with sevruga caviar with a "milkshake" of lime and lemongrass; John Dory is first roasted, then finished on a hot stone, served with clams, gnocchi, and a lovely parsley purée, while pink-fleshed roast squab is done in a citrus crust with a date purée and red bell pepper confit.
There are ripe cheeses available and an array of fabulous desserts, ranging from panna cotta with mango coulis and coconut emulsion to citron cheesecake with a verbena milkshake, and a classic baba au rhum with vanilla cream and and berries. The wine list at Ortolan is immediately one of the best in town, and reasonably priced too.
Flanking the main dining room and up a couple of steps is a charming long table for communal dining, and to the rear, with its own semi-private dining area, a very sexy bar-lounge whose wall teems with potted herbs (left) used by Mr. Emé in his cooking at Ortolan. The whole concept comes together with real panache, the greeting by Jeri Ryan will be a joy indeed, and the swirl of people who dine here can be entertainment in itself. Putting your head under a napkin here would be to miss all the fun.
Appetizers run $17-$19, main courses $29-$38.
5955 Melrose Avenue
For six years at downtown L.A.'s Water Grill, Michael Cimarusti (below) was one of my very favorite chefs, a cook so deft at treating seafood with a refined nuance that few in the city could match his talent for it. In 2005 he, together with his wife Christina and partner/maître d' Donato Poto (also in the photo below), formerly at Bastide, has fashioned his own fine seafood restaurant on the premises of what used to be the old Patina space (Patina is now adjacent to the Disney Music Center). It is a much warmer atmosphere now, with better lighting, though the colors are fairly monotone, with separate dining areas that still include the covered patio and a private chef's dining table.NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
Cimarusti has a strong résumé, from stints at An American Place and Le Cirque (where he was saucier) in NYC to Spago in L.A., and he puts it all to good use in dishes that can at time read a bit fussy (“squid and sea urchin tomato gelée, coastal organics heirloom tomatoes, mint”), but in which there is an enormous amount of flavor on every plate, from a dleicious “chowda’” with Manila clams and smoky bacon to monkfish cooked with ginger, lemongrass, candied kumquats, and mussels. Sweet spot prawns are splashed with a shallot vinaigrette and pistachios, with ripe tomatoes and green beans.
He begins, of course, with the very finest seafood available, and that makes all the difference in dishes like his blue crab with English peas, lemon, a little olive oil and sesame, and Korean chili "threads" that just give the crab a little spark. His lobster may come with artichokes, baby spinach, "pee-wee potatoes," and a touch of bacon, while Pacific ayu (sweetfish) comes with wild mushrooms, a sweet carrot purée, pumpkin seed oil, and a splash of balsamic vinegar. And for those who prefer meat or poultry, there are always at least two dishes on the menu, such as delectable Muscovy duck with cherries, sherry, green tea salt, and morels.
For dessert you will be tantalized to choose among a chocolate chibouste with tarragon ice cream and "maiden" sea salt (whatever that is, it works), a white peach with honey parfait and Sauternes sabayon, and a rhubarb "Melba," with a yogurt mousse and granite made from tea, and other fine ideas. The flavors in such sweets, by Tim Butler, are often subtle, never too frontal, and a very apt way to end a meal of such stunning creativity.
The winelist is 400 labels strong, with 30 wines by the glass.
Like Ortolan, Providence gives L.A. the kind of sophisticated dining it deserves. You may preen all you like at both restaurants, but the excellence is on the plate and in service that never falls over into the kind of chirpiness too many of the city's restaurants manifest with droning predictability.
There is a "market menu" of nine courses for an astoundingly reasonable $90 ($135 with wine pairings). Otherwise, a la carte, appetizers run $15-$21 and entrees $32-$38.
NEW YORK CORNER
by John Mariani
1460 Second Avenue
Two decades ago, there developed in New York a form of Italian restaurant that moved away from the entrenched clichés of Italian-American cooking--the so-called "red sauce" restaurants--that had been an adaption of the traditional foods of the immigrant regions of Campania, Abruzzo, Calabria, Puglia, and Sicily. The new style purported to be more "northern," but the restaurateurs wisely kept many of the dishes that had become classics of a new genre I call "Italo-New York Cuisine," which, twenty years ago restaurants like Il Monello set the bar for. Now, in 2006, Il Monello not only thrives but gets better each year while always retaining those elements of cooking and service that have always distinguished it from the scores of so-so Italian restaurants on the upper east side.
Il Monello was bought from its original Tuscan owner five years ago by Sherif Neza, Steve Haxhias, and Nicola Jovic, proud Albanians who had worked for years at the restaurant and whose attention to every customer's wishes, regulars or not, is both even-handed and genteel. The long, L-shaped dining room looks much the way it always has, with a small bar up front, a wall of banquettes, and a marvelous and quite beautiful wine room for private dining. Service is provided via the gracious benediction of the owners, so you won't want for anything, from the service of morsels of complementary parmigiano and good bread to begin to the last sip of a cordial to end. Mr. Jovic is now cooking at their new sister restaurant in Astoria, so the kitchen is now in the hands of Il Monello's original chef, Giorgio Bottazzi, who hails from Piacenza.
I applaud the extensive winelist, mostly Italian but with a significant collection of first-rate labels from the U.S. and France, including an impressive Bordeaux collection of first growths. This list has has been building for decades and thus includes several older bottles from the ‘70s and ‘80s you won’t find anywhere else in town, along with the big names like Tignanello, Gaja, and Sassicaia. There is a 1964 Biondi-Santi here, as well as 4 vintages of Château Latour and six of Lafite. But there are also plenty of reasonably priced young whites and medium-bodied reds that go well with the food here. The white wine list could use some bolstering.
On my most recent visit, I began with slices of creamy, fresh mozzarella and some thinly sliced prosciutto and sausage, along with grilled calamari with baby greens and balsamic vinegar (items not readily available in the market when Il Monello opened), and a salad of pristine seafood, lightly dressed with olive oil and lemon.
The pastas here are all sumptuous and well-proportioned, even as appetizers, from the superb spaghetti alla carbonara, with silky egg and crisp bacon, to the pappardelle "Monte de Villa," with wild mushrooms and herbs. Hearty indeed is the rigatoni "contadina" with tomatoes, white beans, and a touch of sage.
For main courses I highly recommend the grilled Dover sole or sea bass, preferable to some of the seafood that can be too elaborate here (also in the Italo-NY style). But mussels in broth and herbs are wonderfully wrought, and one of my favorites here is the red snapper in a pignoli crust with spinach and a reduction of balsamic vinegar (above). You can't go wrong with the simply prepared meat dishes either, from a perfect, huge, tender veal chop (another Italo-NY invention!), which you may also get with mushrooms and beets, the scaloppine of veal "Il Monello," with roasted peppers, fontina cheese, and asparagus in a light white wine sauce, or any of the chicken dishes, like the lusty pollo del fattore, with sausage, potatoes, and peppers marvelously incorporated. They also do a fine rack of lamb with red wine sauce. On the side, have the lightly crisp, fried zucchini or the Tuscan beans. You won't find a better version of bistecca alla fiorentina in New York (left), correctly dressed with a splash of olive oil and lemon and served rare to medium rare, then sliced and arrayed on a hot plate with white beans and arugula.
Desserts are the long-standing standards of the Italo-New York genre--tiramisù, cheesecake, semi-freddo, and so on, but they are all very fresh, and if there are good berries in seasons, by all means have them, perhaps with a few drops of balsamico.
Il Monello is not only a survivor of another era but a testament to the enduring high quality and precision that twenty years of serving this kind of food guarantees. And the owners guarantee everything else to make your evening a warm one.
Il Monello’s antipasti run $9-$16, pastas $9-$24 (half portions available), and entrées $24-$38.
PORTUGUESE WINES FOR THE 21ST CENTURY
by Mort Hochstein
On my first wine trip to
To visit the wineries, I traveled on narrow, twisting roads, looking up at forbiddingly high mountains on either side along the
Today those roads still twist and wind, but most are paved and have guard rails. Laborers still stomp grapes by foot, I am told, in the Douro and in other regions of Portugal, but what I saw on a recent trip was closer to what you might find in Bordeaux or Napa--modern wineries where the computer console rules over dazzlingly high-tech facilities.
While port remains the prime export, producers in the
Globalization, which in wine words means an effort to find success with international varieties such as chardonnay and cabernet, along with the idea of making them and other wines in the punchy style that draws 90 and 95 point ratings from the wine gurus seems to have caught hold, for good or bad. A group known as the Douro boys, most of whom also produce port, are leading the modernization drive to attract attention to Portugal's "other" wines. The Douro boys-Quinta Do Vallado, Niepoort, embracing Napoles and Carril, Crasto, Vale Dona Maria and Vale Meão, have created their own rigid standards, similar to the way producers in Germany and Italy set levels beyond state mandates as they work together to promote prestige wines and gain market acceptance.
My visit demonstrated to me how things have changed in the region, and I tasted a lot more than ports this time around. Standouts included a Vale Meão '03, still quite tannic, with deep red color, and hearty plum, cherry and spice flavors. Quinta Do Crasto Red '03, based on the native grape touriga naçional, was a nicely balanced red, with lush cherry flavors. Niepoort Redoma Tinto '03, dark red in color, had an extremely fruit-forward aroma with oaky vanilla overtones, full and powerful on the palate and, overall, quite elegant. Niepoort produces fewer than 4,000 bottles of Batuta, a dense amalgam of old vine tinta toriz, tourigaQuinta De Ventozelo, with two centuries of wine producing history, is one of the largest producers in the
David Baverstock, an Australian who consults for several
Producers in all regions of
THE AWARD INCLUDES A FREE COUPON TO EAT AT BURGER KING FOR A YEAR
The Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies, and consumers, working together to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices, has released its 2005 Tarnished Halo Awards. Among the “honored” recipients of this year’s awards, given annually to
The "Talk Out of One Side, Eat with the Other" Award
Given to California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, for spreading needless fears about a food that he eats. Lockyer has made it a goal to push warning labels frightening Californians out of eating foods containing trace amounts of a chemical called acrylamide. Science suggests that people can eat their weight in an acrylamide-containing food (such as bread, olives, or French fries) -- every day, for life -- without putting their health at risk. Still, Lockyer has bravely vowed to go on eating fries, regardless of his own fear mongering.
"Lawyers Gorging on Pop
Given to the Public Health Advocacy Institute's Richard Daynard for his defense of greed. A lawyer and academic, Daynard appeared on MSNBC in December to defend the lawsuit he is readying against soft drink companies. When host Tucker Carlson asked him why he was seeking massive payments for his legal services -- if this is really "all about the kids" -- Daynard replied: "Lawyers have to eat, too." Daynard made more than $1 million from tobacco settlements, and actually sued his former law partners for $150 million more.
Given to University of Texas-El
Paso philosophy professor Steven Best (in
jacket at left), the
animal-rights evangelist who was banned from entering Great Britain and
from the chairmanship of his department this year. Best openly supports
domestic-terrorist Animal Liberation Front and co-founded the North
Animal Liberation Press Office along with animal-rights assassination
cheerleader Jerry Vlasak (another Tarnished Halo recipient this year).
"Take with Many Grains of
Given to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), headed by exec director Dr. Michael Jacobson (right), for proposing a new federal bureaucracy in the form of a "Division of Salt Reduction." CSPI's plan includes extra taxes on salty foods, warning labels on salt canisters, and (perhaps most in-saltingly of all) government limits on how much salt certain foods may contain.
Yale's Kelly Brownell for advocating a Twinkie Tax that even he is not
sure would work. Brownell has advocated a $1.5 billion "Nutrition
Superfund" fueled by extra sin taxes on certain foods, but he admitted
CNN in May that when it comes to a fat tax's effectiveness: "We don't
know, because we're not sure how taxes would work ... We don't have
know whether a tax like this would affect the American diet or not."
The "If an Old Dog Won't Learn New
Tricks, Inject It with Lethal Drugs"
AND THE COOK SHARES A NAME COMMON TO GAP-TOOTHED, FLOP-EARED, CROSS-EYED REDNECKS FROM ALABAMA
"Though it shares a name common to many a fat, hairy trash collector from the Bronx, this small charming restaurant looks like a Junior League satellite office."--A review of Guido's in Mobile, Alabama, by Morgan Murphy in Southern Living (December 2005).
To all media publicity agents: Owing to the large volume of announcements received regarding holiday events, I will only have room in this newsletter for those that have a unique distinction to them. It would be impossible to list all Valentine's Day dinners unless they are part of a much larger, more extensive format like those below.--John Mariani
* Louisville, KY’s Brown Hotel is offering a special Valentine’s “Ultimate Night at the Brown” package incl. limo service to the hotel (Louisville Metro Area) where Dom Perignon will be waiting in the Muhammad Ali Suite; Chef Joe Castro’s 5-course dinner with premium wines; a 1.10 carat brilliant-cut Hearts on Fire Diamond, known as “The World’s Most Perfectly Cut Diamond”; champagne breakfast in bed, two Riedel champagne flutes to keep, one dozen long-stemmed roses and limo service home. $12,500. . . “The Valentine Memories Package” features a king-sized room; champagne; dinner at The English Grill; roses, breakfast for two in the Café or Room Service, turndown service and valet parking. From $379-$245. . . . As a special addition to any of The Brown Hotel’s Valentine’s packages, a plane will fly around
* From Feb. 10-26 The Valentine's Day Package at Paris’s Hôtel de Crillon is priced from €570 per couple per night, incl. accommodations in a Superior Room, breakfast in the room or at the restaurant Les Ambassadeurs, and special romantic touches incl. a heart-shaped cake from Pastry Chef Jérôme Chaucesse, and two Pommery Champagne Pops. On Feb. 14 the hotel will also feature: a 4-course dinner at Les Ambassadeurs for €350 pp.; a 4-course dinner at L'Obélisque for €100 pp, with a selection of wines; a 4-course dinner in the Salon for €315 pp, with a selection of wines; “Pink Night” at the Bar with special champagne chart from €22, plus a secret Valentine's Day cocktail; The Winter Garden will also be feature a “Tea for Lovers” from Feb. 14-28. Call 011 33 (0) 1 44 71 15 01; www.crillon.com.
* From Feb. 9-14 The Palais de la Méditerranée in Nice offers “The Riviera Valentine Package” with accommodations for one evening; berries and Taittinger Champagne upon arrival; Valentine's Dinner at the Padouk Restaurant;, and a buffet breakfast. From €350-€400. Call 011-33-(0)4- 92-14-7700 or 800-223-6800, or visit www.lepalaisdelamediterranee.com
* Nearly 200 NYC restaurants will feature 3-course $24.07 lunches and $35 dinners from Jan. 23-27 and Jan. 30-Feb. 3. This year’s promotion celebrates NYC as the “City That Never Sleeps.” The list of Restaurant Week participants is available on NYC’s Official Visitor web site, www.nycvisit.com and reservations for participating restaurants are available online at www.opentable.com.
* From now until Feb. 26 Executive Chef
* On Jan. 31 Tomasso Trattoria and Enoteca in
* On Feb 4 “Sun & Stars Presents Shanghai Nights” annual fundraiser for The Montessori Family Center in
* On Feb 8 NYC’s Bayard's is hosting an evening with Joel Aiken, winemaker for Beaulieu Vineyards and Chef Eberhard Müller’s 4-course dinner menu with selected wines from the great BV portfolio. $185 pp. Call 212-514-9454 or visit www.bayards.com
* On Feb. 6 Chefs Collaborative and Ecotrust will host the first annual "Seattle Farmer-Chef Connection" at the U. of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture, designed to foster collaboration and direct market opportunities for Seattle-area farmers, ranchers, chefs and retailers committed to strengthening local and seasonal food networks. Cookbook author and keynote speaker Deborah Madison will address participants, followed by workshops and networking. Participation is free. Visit www.farmerchefconnection.org or contact Debra Sohm Lawson at firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
* From March 16-20 Dublin’s Merrion Hotel features a St. Patrick's Day Shamrock Package, incl. 2 nights in a double or twin room in the Garden Wing, from €655 per couple, full Irish breakfast, “Black Velvet” cocktail upon arrival, grandstand tickets for the St. Patrick's Day Festival Parade, and a special picnic box. Also, the St. Patrick's Day Festival Special Offer features all but the tickets from €270 per night based upon double occupancy. Call 011 353-1-603-0600 or visit www.merrionhotel.com.~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly. Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani, Naomi Kooker, Kirsten Skogerson, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Lucy Gordan, Suzanne Wright. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery, Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.
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