Virtual Gourmet

  April 9, 2006                                                         NEWSLETTER


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In This Issue

Stupid Restaurants' Tricks by John Mariani





Stupid Restaurants' Tricks
by John Mariani
    yu The way to a man's heart is actually through his pet peeves. Eliminate his personal discomforts and you'll make him deliriously happy. I've got plenty of pet peeves about dining out--loud restaurants, tables to close together, inept waiters, cheap wineglasses and a lot more--some obvious, some subjective.
   But then there are other practices of chefs and restaurateurs I believe show a complete misunderstanding of the fine dining experience. They are what I call "Stupid Restaurant Tricks"--some actually assumed to be the height of crème de la crème dining when in fact they are misguided, pretentious attempts to appear "classy." I can't imagine where they get some of these ridiculous ideas from, but I wish they'd disappear for good. Here are some of those I find--objectively--barbaric.

As any Russian will tell you, caviar should be eaten in its pristine, untouched, right-out-of-the-tin glory and
sipped off a mother of pearl spoon without being sullied by egg or onion or anything else. And when you cook with it, or simply plop it on top of a warm dish or in a sauce, it not only decomposes the caviar's textural virtues but makes everything it touches turn fishy. And fishy, especially on fish, is not a good thing.

Who in his right mind craves an icy, sweet sorbet before his main course? This relic of an era in France when a dinner could contain twelve or fifty courses was actually a replacement for a shot of spirits, called le trou normande, once served in the middle of dinner to somehow make room for what was to follow. In this century the idea is not just archaic but ridiculous: By what contorted argument is a sweet sorbet laced with liqueur considered a "palate cleanser" before the main course? It does nothing of the sort; instead, it tends to shut down the palate,  and it's sheer pretension to keep this silly ritual going.


Have you noticed recently more and more restaurants in this country not serving bread or rolls before you order an appetizer? And why do you think that is? Could it be because the restaurateur doesn't want you to cut your appetite and not order an appetizer? Not very hospitable. How cheap can you get?



Whoever it was who first told his waiters to assemble around a table and simultaneously lift those silver domes and clang them in guests' ears should be condemned to a new circle of hell inside a tolling silver bell for all eternity.


The kind of restaurant that would decant every bottle of wine probably also brandishes the biggest pepper mill obtainable. In some restaurants this is called the "Rubirosa," named after a 1950s playboy named Porfirio Rubirosa (right) known for more than just the size of his ego. To bring these logs to the table is intrusive and absurd.


No one I have ever met enjoys the recitation of numerous specials by a waiter who runs through them with the enthusiasm of a clerk at the Motor Vehicles Bureau. You can't remember everything he says, you have no time to digest his spiel, and it would be so much easier if the specials were printed on a card.



The fashion for sprinkling the edges of plates with some kind of spice, sugar or chocolate is as messy and unappealing a conceit as I can imagine. In good restaurants there is a person called an "expediter"--very often the chef himself--who inspects every dish about to be sent out to make sure the plate's edge is clean as a whistle. But in dopey restaurants they have a guy who sprinkles this soot on the very place you don't want it to be--proximate to one's cuffs and clothes. Bam!


France I would never expect a menu to have English translations for English-speaking customers, though it's a nice touch. But in the USA it is the height of haughtiness not to translate dishes into English, whether it's in a French, Italian, Spanish or Brazilian restaurant. No Chinese or Thai or Japanese restaurant in American would dare offer a menu only in the native language, so why must an American go to a French restaurant and try to figure out what the hell "morilles blondes et brunes dans in bouillon mousseux graines de courges grillées" is?
One thing the French do very, very well is to present and serve a cheese course with efficient grace. A cart of maybe 20 cheeses in perfect, room temperature condition is wheeled to your table, you choose which ones you want, and the waiter slices off a generous wedge for you to eat. In this country, however, if there is a cheese cart, one must listen to a description of every cheese ad nauseam ("This is a ewe's milk cheese from a town south of Lyons where all the sheep are fed dandelion leaves three times a week and hazelnuts every other Sunday, giving it a tangy, nutty flavor, blah, blah, blah."), then try to decide among them, at which point the waiter gives you the skimpiest of slivers and a bunch of unnecessary grapes. Or if there is no cheese cart, the cheese course is a plate of two or three teeny-weeny morsels of cheese that could all fit on a single Ritz Cracker and still leave room for Cheez Wiz.


I well realize that table-turning is requisite to running a profitable restaurant in America, but the odious practice of informing a prospective guest that "We shall need the table by 9 P.M." strikes me as arrogant at its greediest. A civilized diner does not linger hour after hour (American restaurateurs use a formula that a party of two needs two hours to finish their meal, a party of four two-and-a-half), and good manners suggests that you should vacate a table in a reasonable amount of time. But to have one's evening at a restaurant feel like a doctor's appointment is to destroy any concept of gracious dining.


"Would you like still or sparkling water for the table?" asks the waiter. You opt for one or the other. Your party drinks the water. The bottle is replaced. The bill comes. You have been dunked in that water to the tune of $18. Even if you did expect to pay for the first bottle, the replenishing the table with a second, un-asked for bottle is a royal gouge.  I shudder in anticipation of the day when they offer me "iodized, kosher or sea salt?"


"Ninety-five percent of romance is good lighting," Noel Coward once said, and he meant light by which you can see the person you're dining with, read the menu you're ordering from, and appreciate the lovely food preparations placed in front of you.  Dark restaurants are not romantic; they are merely dark and funereal. Light adds gaiety, buoyancy, and the ability to see who's next through the door.


by John Mariani

455 Madison Ave.

     tttHoteliers are not usually risk takers when it comes to their dining rooms. Conservative rather than daring is the rule, with the occasional leap of faith that a high profile chef can command enough attention to draw the hotel guests, the tourists, and the locals. So The New York Palace's hiring (with two London investors) of controversial young chef Paul Liebrandt, 29, has tremendous risks, especially after the dining room space had been vacated 16 months ago by the famous Le Cirque 2000 (now set to re-open uptown in May).
     The sacrosanct landmark interiors of the magnificent premises, known as the Villard Mansion, dating to 1852, prevented both Le Cirque and current management from putting so much as a single carpet tack in the room, so its basic lineaments of glorious wood-paneling, marble fireplace (below) and parquet floors have merely been appended with rolled-in decor, which now includes 52 seats, a purple hood over the bar (right), and very odd burnt orange  banquettes.
There is still an open kitchen peeking from beyond a staircase, but a former second dining room is now used for breakfast and is not part of Gilt. But to get to these rooms you must enter an angst-inducing entrance way, a room with the low gray light of a mausoleum and the tenor of a secret cell where Skull and Bones might meet for inductions and hazings.-0
     Liebrandt (who has his own official website, click) is nothing if not highly creative, which is a far better thing than when, a few years ago, he was hyper-creative, falling in with those young chefs who believe others' cuisine is outdated and boring and that food and dining must be transformed to, in his words, "
evoke emotional responses" in people. (Funny, I always thought "Ooh!" "Ah!" and "Yech!" were emotional responses to what people ate.)  Liebrandt flared brightly at Atlas on Central Park South after working with far more traditional chefs in like Marco Pierre White in London and  Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat Saisans in Milton, then with the highly inventive Pierre Gagnaire in Paris and the artfully intense David Bouley in NYC. 
      Atlas set critics at odds--with some, including then NY Times reviewer William Grimes, raving about Liebrandt's  fantastic forays into dishes designed to stir controversy,  like
eel with crystallized violets, while other food writers, including myself, thought the food ranged from interesting to inedible.  Atlas didn't last long, and Liebrandt showed up months later for a very brief stint at Papillon, where he served up scallops and squab with sea urchin sauce and chocolate crisp, and, on at least one evening, did so in a completely dark dining room.   I  missed that one.
     So the announcement of Liebrandt's return to the spotlight at Gilt has been greeted with both hurrahs and skepticism, even though press releases suggested he had matured and calmed his feverish imagination down a good deal.  And indeed he has, though I'm glad he has not stifled his ardent creativity entirely. He has in fact split his menu into two parts, Classical and Modern,  and, in addition to a $92 three-course menu, the $145 eight-ten course tasting menu (paired with wines for $75 and up) shows a far greater range.  But everyone will get an amuse or two among other items brought to the table by a very finely tuned staff.
     45iThings were not off to a good start with the first amuse we received: a marshmallow dusted with paprika and brown butter powder and flavored with passion fruit, which obliterated the palate with its heat and sweetness. It might have been a nice finish to the evening, but not an opener.  A tiny cupcake with arugula was much better, gone in one savory pop in the mouth.  No bread of any kind was placed on the table during the first half hour we were seated.
       There were also delightful dishes of artichoke "spuma," hedgehog mushrooms with brown butter foam, a bowl of black truffled artichokes, and then a truly awful idea: saffron ice cream with black olive cream.wwef
        Having chosen four modern dishes and four classic, we were served appetizers of foie gras with black olive crumble, avocado marble, and a basil sabayon, all of which worked, if not gloriously, at least harmoniously, while a tian of Dungeness crab with green apple, crispy leek, and smoked tomato jelly was light and quite lovely.
      Liebrandt (right) showed his Classical side with a delicious butternut squash soup with Parmesan tortellini (not enough of them), and a black trumpet mushroom crumble with winter cabbage and lemongrass nage.
      Now along came an apple-wasabi-olive oil palate cleanser in an abalone shell that did nothing to cleanse the palate. Modern main courses included roasted lobster, including cold knuckles, with cauliflower cream and pistachios--a nice idea  gummed up by the addition of  huckleberries. Normandy duck came with a "papillotte" [sic] of beets, pinenuts, and "jus rouge," whatever that is. Classic mains were fine, including a juicy poularde with grilled hazelnuts and black truffle with a foie gras jus, and grilled Dover sole with brown butter, capers, and tarragon (a $12 supplement).
     One expects desserts to have some flights of fancy, and patîssier Oscar Palacios' certainly do, including a tangerine chocolate tart with a spicy ancho chile parfait (Ooh!), and a plate of warm "passion fruit cloud," which tasted very eggy  with a guava sorbet, coconut, and the ruinous olive oil crème (Yech!). Quince and apple gelée came with a hibiscus sorbet compromised by a discernible smokiness in Lapsong Souchang tea sabayon. Tamer was white chocolate cinnamon biscuit, and a plate of chestnut ice cream, grilled pine nuts, pistachio nougat glace, and cassis sorbet.  There was also a stunningly beautiful lacquered box of chocolates and candy to finish with.
      The wine list at Gilt, overseen by
Jason Ferris, is a nearly a thousand labels strong, with several, including a  priced above $10,000!  It's a spectacular list for very wealthy people, though for the rest of us there are some good selections under $60. The problem is, how do you justify spending $16,000 for a Château Pétrus '45 that is going to wiped out by flavors like chile and huckleberries? This is always going to be the dilemma for wines at any price when food has so many conflicting seasonings that are hot and sweet.
       Having tasted Liebrandt's cooking when he was high on the culinary trapeze and now when he seems on a tightrope closer to earth, I hope that he continues to come up with good tricks that show off his personality and precision without resorting to gimmickry.  To fall off that tightrope now and then may well be part of his artfulness, but most people don't go to restaurants for that kind of emotional thrill. Gilt is a trip, even a little psychedelic, and certainly not one you'd want to take often.   I'll check back in a couple of years with Liebrandt.

Fine Kosher Wines in Time for Passover
by John Mariani

   uuk                                  Kosher wines are not what they used to be.
At least not if you think of them as cloyingly sweet viscous wines made from
Concord grapes. (Does the name Manischewitz leap to mind?)  Such wines are still made and happily consumed by Jews, especially at the Passover seder, but increasingly there are kosher wines in the market that are every bit as good—and made the same way—as non-kosher wines from France, Italy, Morocco, Australia, and California.
      Indeed, Israel now has more than 120 wineries producing wines made from cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sauvignon blanc, semillon, grenache and other varietals. Nor do all of these wines produce only kosher wine.
Noah tending vines

“The reason people think of kosher wines as sweet is due to the Jewish immigrants in
America who only found native American labrusca grapes like Concord here,” explains Jeff Morgan, owner and winemaker at the kosher Covenant winery in California’s Napa Valley. “The wine simply wasn’t very good, so they sweetened it, and it became a tradition here. But that has never been the case in Israel or other countries.”
       Wine, usually watered down, was the common beverage among Mediterranean people, and in the Psalms (104:15) it is called a gift of God “to gladden the heart of man.”  The bible also considered wine preferable to drugs as a medicine, and “strong wine” was given only to the dying and “those in bitter distress.” (Proverbs 31:4-7). So highly regarded was wine that the Hebrew word for “banquet” means “drinking," and Noah was the first planter of grapevines.
      When the tee-totaling Muslims conquered Jerusalem in 636, they destroyed the vineyards.  The Crusaders restored them in the 12th Century, but vine growing ceased during the Diaspora.  Upon Jews’ return to the Holy Land in the 19th century, Baron Edmond de Rothschild of France (right) replanted vineyards in 1882 with European varietals, and Jewish vintners have continued to make wine, both kosher and non-kosher, ever since.erretg
      Because wine is considered to be holy, kosher rules regarding wine are strict: 1. No wine may be made before the vine is four years old; 2. a vineyard within biblical lands must be left fallow every seven years; 3. only vines may be planted in the vineyard land; 4. the grapes, after arrival at the winery, may only be handled by certified “Sabbath-observant Jews” using approved materials.
      Only this last rule is strictly applied at kosher wineries outside of Israel.  In some cases the wine may be heated to 180˚-190 F (a process called mevushal) or flash pasteurized, after which non-Jews may handle the wines. Those that are not heated come under the fourth rule, which stipulates that the oak barrels must be new (or already used for kosher wines), and that containers must be “kashered,” meaning washed with hot, then cold, water to open the pores. Though still strictly enforced, this is an outdated idea when using stainless steel tanks, which of course have no pores.
      Wines may be made in non-kosher wineries if the barrels are kept separate or the wine is made in a separate section, always overseen by workers who are certified by a rabbinical council to be Sabbath-observant Jews, who themselves must heed 613 rules for daily life.
      The distinctions, therefore, between non-pasteurized wines and pasteurized wines are merely in who makes and handles them. “I don’t make my wines just for Orthodox Jews,” says Morgan. “I make them for anyone who likes good wine.”
      This claim was bolstered when Morgan showed his Covenant wines at a tasting I attended for wine media and consumers, many of them orthodox Jews, at NYC’s Stony Brook Manhattan Center. Upon arrival, we were all ushered into a side room, lest we touch any of the bottles being overseen by Eitan Segal, director of public relations for the Royal Wine Corporation and a Sabbath-observant Jew. While snacking on canapés and drinking a refreshing Nicolas Feuillatte non-vintage Champagne from France ($47.99), we were led into a conventional tasting room of tables and chairs set with eight unidentified wines, already poured.
      As I tasted my way blind through the series, I was struck first by the wines’ total consistency with those non-kosher varietals I enjoy every day—chardonnay, pinot noir, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, and Semillon.
      The first was clearly a well-made, vanilla-rich chardonnay closer to a mellow white burgundy than a big California style. It turned out to be a 2003 vintage from the Castel winery ($40), by winemaker Eli Ben-Zaken, in Israel’s Judean Hills. Next was a vibrant pinot noir, whose tannins were somewhat pronounced and whose nose had a strong pull of alcohol. I would never have guessed it was a Château de la Tour Clos de Vougeot 2002 ($119), a renowned estate with the largest holdings in the Clos de Vougeot region of Burgundy.
     gjtyuI did not much care for a piney, resinous, vegetal syrah, which was Herzog Special Reserve Syrah 2002 ($35) from California, but the next wine, also a syrah, though inky, had a fine, briary dryness to it. It was a Yarden Syrah 2001 ($24).
      Next up were three cabernet sauvignons.  The first, Covenant’s 2003 ($95), was boldly Californian, tannic, with good vegetal flavors along with spices like cinnamon and red currant fruits, which gave it just a faint underpinning of sweetness to balanced the tannins.  There was also a pleasant, well-structured layering of minerals and vegetal flavors in the Herzog Special Edition Warnecke Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($60).
      I was really impressed with the next wine, a cabernet that had all the marvelous virtues of a classy bordeaux. And so it was: Chateau Léoville-Poyferré 2001 ($90), a wine from Bordeaux’s St. Julien region. It had lush fruit and refined, soft tannins that make this sure to age beautifully over the next five years.

Label of Covenant Wines Cabernet Sauvignon

My biggest surprise of the tasting was a wine I ranked with the best Sauternes I’ve ever had, with all the elements of rich viscosity and sweetness buoyed by an acid-and-mineral backbone that keeps it from being cloying. The full flavor of Semillon came through in the first whiff and down to the last sip on the back of the palate. It turned out to be
France’s Château Piada Sauternes 2001 ($60).
      Such a tasting blew away any preconceptions I may have had for kosher wines, so that if I were to be invited to a seder this Passover, I know exactly the kinds of wines I would bring gladden the heart of my friends. And I would share in the last blessing of Passover, which goes, “Blessed are You, Lord Our God, king of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.”

5hyuThe nation’s top competitive eaters gathered in Venice Beach, CA, for the World Grilled Cheese Eating Championship ($10,000 first prize) in honor of the 10-year-old Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich, which many believe has the Virgin's image miraculously burned into the bread.  The former owner of the Sandwich, Diana Duyser, was on hand to tell the story of the sandwich.  “We are thrilled to highlight the tour of the Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese with the World Grilled Cheese Eating Championship,” said Richard Rowe, CEO of “Diana Duyser believes that it is special and has brought her tremendous luck over the last ten years. She auctioned it off on eBay hoping that the buyer would share it with the world and we intend to do just that.”

     "I adore manzanilla, the slightly salty and bone-dry fino sherry from Sanlúcar de Barrameda, a satellite of Jerez. I love it so much that my first act, on my latest visit to Spain, was to order, in a carefully rehearsed phonetic phrase, `manthaneea, por fabore'. I got a cup of chamomille tea."--Tom Doorley in a review of Havana Restaurant in Dublin in The Irish Times Magazine (Feb. 9. 2006).

qrqrThis fall, from Sept. 29-Oct. 6 John Mariani (left), publisher of Mariani's Virtual Gourmet and food & travel columnist for Esquire Magazine,  will host and lead a 7-day cruise called "The Sweet Life," aboard  Silverseas' Millennium Class Silver Whisper, with days visiting Barcelona, Tunis, Naples, Milazzo (Sicily), Rome, Livorno, and Villefranche.  There will be a welcoming cocktail party, gourmet dinners with wines,9999 cooking demos by John and Galina Mariani co-authors of The Italian-American Cookbook), optional shore excursions will include a tour of the Amalfi Coast, dinner at the great Don Alfonso 1890 (2 Michelin stars), a private tour of the Vatican, dinner at La Pergola (3 Michelin stars) in Rome, a Night Cruise to Hotel de Paris and dinner at Louis XV (3 Michelin stars) in Monaco, and much more.  Rates (a 20% savings) range from $4,411 to $5,771. For complete information click.


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 Passover and Easter dinners unless they are part of a larger, more extensive format.--John Mariani

* On April 21, 23,  28-30 follow the "Wine & Wildflower Trail" through the Texas Wine Country with vineyard visits and picnics. All the trails are self-guided driving tours to be enjoyed at leisure.  Some wineries charge to taste, consult individual websites for charges. For more info visit or phone 1-866-621-9463.

* On April 22 at Estiatorio MILOS in Montreal, NYC, Chef/owner Costas Spiliadis will serve  a 6-hour Easter lamb roast right outside the restaurant, with 16 lambs paraded through the dining room where special guests and parishioners from the nearby Greek Orthodox Church’s midnight mass will greet them.  The meal begins just after midnight.  Six additional lambs will be roasted on Greek Easter Sunday a la carte for $35.  In NYC call 212-245-7400.

* On April 22 Turning Stone Resort and Casino will hold “The Taste of Turning Stone” featuring 8 cooking demos, 15 food booths, ice carvings, and the art of vegetable garnish. Music will be provided by Rick Montalbano and friends. Admission to the all-day event is free. Guests can purchase tickets to sample food. Visit

* April 24-28 will be Monégasque Culinary Week in NYC, offering special prix fixe Mediterranean- and Monégasque-inspired lunch menus highlighting the flavors of the Principality at the following restaurants:  Alto, Arabelle, BLT Steak, The Four Seasons, Frederick’s Madison, Le Bernardin, L’Impero, Osteria del Circo, Morrell Wine Bar & Café, Payard Bistro, Peacock Alley and Riingo. For more info about “Monaco Takes New York,” visit

* On April 27 Palisade Conference Center in Palisades NY debuts its new series of 4-course wine tasting dinners with “April in Paris,” a pairing of fine French wines with a menu prepared by Chef Patrick J. Augustyn. $75 pp. Call 845-732-6799.


MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly.  Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani,  Naomi  Kooker, Kirsten Skogerson,  Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Suzanne Wright. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery,  Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.

 John Mariani is a columnist for Esquire, Wine Spectator, Bloomberg News and Radio, and Diversion.  He is author of The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink (Lebhar-Friedman), The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink (Broadway), and, with his wife Galina, the award-winning new Italian-American Cookbook (Harvard Common Press).

 Any of John Mariani's books below may be ordered  by clicking on the cover image.

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copyright John Mariani 2006