Virtual Gourmet

May 28, 2006                                                                NEWSLETTER

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In This Issue


Top Ten Reasons to Be a Wine Critic by Dan Friedman

NEW YORK CORNER: Dona by John Mariani


by  John Mariani

              lo You used to hear the word "sleepy" with reference to Charleston, and for as long as I've been visiting, there has been a virtue in that.  It is quiet, there's next to no traffic, and there hasn't been much to do at night.  The stately manses and fine Georgian and ante-bellum townhouses have never been in better shape, and tourists seem to come to town intent on doing little more than sightsee and shop for Low Country souvenirs.
       Little by little, however, this languorous image has been changing so that today, without losing its southern soul or sense of hospitality, Charleston has eased into the 21st century with agreeable finesse, nowhere better evidenced than in the many new restaurants that have opened here over the past two years.   Some have strong connections to old culinary traditions while others have brought those traditions into modern perspective.

"Spring on Cannon" by William McCullough

     To get a good sense of just how strong the food culture is in Charleston right now, I attended the First Annual Charleston Food & Wine Festival in March, a tremendous success for a first effort, including a "Culinary Village" set up in a tented area with more than 75 vendors, from wineries to restaurants, and book signings by visiting authors, food seminars, a dine-around, and gala dinner under the stars.  In all its diversity and gaiety, its sophistication and respect for Low Country traditions, the Festival showed that Charleston is now the most vibrant food community in the South--not as big as Atlanta's or Miami's and not as distinctive as New Orleans, but in that wonderful throes of being renewed and gaining momentum, carried along on a dynamic, youthful surge of good feelings. It's interesting to note, therefore, that there is still  no Zagat Guide to Charleston  or anywhere else in South Carolina, while many other cities with far less indigenous  gastronomic pleasures  get coverage in other parts of the South.

      ey4ityuiFamiliar as I am with many of the city's best restaurants, which would include The Peninsula Grill, Cypress, Sienna, Hank's, Hominy Grill, Circa 1886, Charleston Grill (for review, click), and Blossom, I regretted not being able to return to them all this time around. (For the record, the estimable McCrady's and Woodlands Inn both lost their star chefs this year, and I haven't gotten back to check out the new guys.)  I did, however, discover some new places of real merit, and a return to an old favorite panned out better than ever. Slightly North of Broad (192 East Bay Street; 843-723-3424), affectionately known as SNOB, was one of the very first restaurants in Charleston to push the envelope beyond fried shrimp and chicken in town. Set in a 19th-century brick warehouse, with an open kitchen, airy dining room (left), and engaging waitstaff, SNOB resists all temptation to change too much, relying instead on Chef-partner Frank Lee's steady focus on showing Low Country food at its best.  His training has been classic, with  Jovan Trboyevic at Chicago's Le Perroquet and Yannick Camn at Le Pavillon in DC, but he's been around Charleston long enough to bring considerable understanding to the city's food culture, evidenced in a bowl of red bean soup, pepper, onions, celery, garlic, and jalapeños cooled with sour cream, and a grilled barbecued tuna with "mustard Q sauce," fried oysters, country ham and green onions.  His jumbo lump crabcakes sit atop a sauté of okra, corn, yellow squash, and grape tomatoes, and his oyster stew teems with sweet leeks, Yukon Gold potatoes, bacon, and scallop cream. "Maverick grits" are stone ground, with shrimp, scallops, sausage, and country ham. Lee (right) shows his classic side with equal heft, as shown in his wonderfully generous platter of housemade charcuterie.
       Desserts could use a bit more finesse. A devil chocolate mousse cake was gummy and a Key lime tart with pecan crust need more bite. The winelist of about 100 selections matches up with Lee's menu flavors admirable.
      Appetizers  at dinner run $3.95-$9.75, "Small Plates" $9.95-$14.50, and main courses $16.50-$34.

      uOne thing Charleston has long lacked is a first-rate steakhouse, although the four-year-old Grill 225 (for a review, click) is admirable and soon to be joined by at least one national chain steakhouse.  So the opening of the year-old  Oak (17 Broad Street; 843-722-4220) is cause of rejoicing, not just because it goes head-to-head with the best in the nation but because Chef-owner Brett McKee (below) invests every aspect of the place with his own vibrant personality--something chain steakhouses can never do. Oak has emerged as one of the best and most distinctive steakhouses in America.
      McKee started cooking around Charleston back in the '80s, then opened his own seafood restaurant, Hugo's ( named after the 1989 hurricane that hit Charleston) on the Isle of Palms. Next came
the Italian-themed Union Hall, then Brett’s on
James Island, and The Wycliff House.
Oak's premises were once an 1850 bank (left), and the 18-foot ceilings, mahogany paneling, pine floors, and a vault-- now used to store wine--are all still here.  There are three separate dining areas--the bar, the mezzanine,  and a more elegant--and quieter--dining room with fireplaces upstairs, overlooking the street (below, left).-kj
      Menu variety has come to distinguish modern steakhouses like BLT Steak in NYC and Custom House in Chicago. Thus, at Oak you might start off with classics like steak tartare, broiled Canadian bacon, or jumbo shrimp cocktail, but you also have the option of tender grilled calamari with shaved Parmigiano on bruschetta, or pan-seared foie gras on a truffled potato cake and spiced poached pear. Sashimi-grade yellowfin tuna comes with a spicy ginger soy sauce with chopped scallions, shaved cucumbers, and a fried wonton. Roasted beets and Bibb lettuce are combined with raspberry vinaigrette with golden raisins, crumbled goat cheese and candied pecans.
     Before I get to the main event, let me mention that the side dishes are sumptuous and impeccably prepared, from  creamy whipped potatoes and hash browns to Gorgonzola-enriched cottage fries, asparagus with a properly rich hollandaise, and roasted butternut squash purée. There are some terrific pastas too, including macaroni and cheese with a generous amount of lobster meat, and since people asked for it, McKee added Southern fried chicken, and it is better than any I've had elsewhere in town.
     ruIf, for some reason, you are starving for seafood, Oak serves four options, from salmon to swordfish steak, and McKee's Italian experience allows him to put veal osso buco with Parmigiano polenta and chicken Marsala on the menu.  But let's face it: You come here for meat, and in that Oak stands head-and-shoulders above most.  The beef is either USDA Prime or Certified Angus, from a 7-ounce filet mignon to a 36-ounce ribeye.  The Prime porterhouse is 28 ounces and a bargain at $54. There are also fine pork chops, encrusted with fennel and garlic, and a mint pesto-crusted rack of lamb. Following the lead of other modern steakhouses like Prime in Las Vegas, Oak offers six accompanying sauces, ranging from foie gras with truffle butter to Gorgonzola cream sauce.
    If you're still up for dessert, by all means have it, especially the chocolate ganache layer cake.
    The winelist at Oak has more than 250 labels, with big guns like Altagracia Araujo Estate '02 ($175), Frias Private Reserve '94 ($130), and Heitz cellars Martha's Vineyard '99 ($300). There are plenty of bottles under $40 too that offer good value.
    Oak is a big leaguer in a city that is fast becoming one itself. Add to that Charleston's natural and historic beauty, and there's a lot more reason to visit now than ever before.
 Dinner prices for starters run $7-$18, main courses, $17-$54.

Part Two of this article will appear shortly.

 Top Ten Reasons To Be A Wine Critic

by Dan Friedman

1. Who’s to say you’re not?
2. Podiatry was soooo borringg!!
3. Your mother always said “you sure know how to pick ‘em.”
4. The chicken processing plant isn’t hiring right now.
5. You don’t have to spit out the cheese at wine events.
6. You’ve been curious about that “wine, women and song” stuff.
7. Much nicer people than your last job as a prison guard.
8. Microsoft Word just added a French spellchecker.
9. Very unlikely you’ll be replaced by a call center in Bangalore.
10. In NYC you're the toast of the town.

(This article originally  appeared in NYC Wine Report and is reproduced here with permission of the author.)


208 East 52nd Street

            The world of NYC restaurants is full of people who left one profession to go into the hurly-burly of running a restaurant, either as an owner or chef.  In the case of Donatella Arpaia,  daughter of veteran restaurateur Lello Arpaia, she dutifully studied law, was hired by a prestigious NYC law firm, but, against her father's wishes, gave it all up to attend the French Culinary Institute in SoHo and to return to the kitchen, the pots and pans, the frenzy of service, and the delirious joy and frustrations of being a restaurateur.
       With Lello lending her the start-up money, Donatella, then 25,  opened her first restaurant, Bellini, in 1997, which had a pretty good run serving New York-style, Neapolitan-accented Italian food.  Then, two years ago, she partnered with Chef David Burke to open burke & donatella on East 61st Street, which struck an immediate chord with the kind of east side clientele any restaurateur would kill to have.  She also opened Ama in Greenwich Village, featuring the cooking of her mother's native Puglia. Now she has turned the premises of Bellini into Dona.
      Meanwhile Chef Michael Psilakis was following a different path. As a boy his favorite TV show was Julia Child's, but in college, under pressure from his father, pursued courses in business administration. But he took a job as a waiter at TGI Friday’s to make money, and restaurants got into his blood; eventually he opened a Mediterranean restaurant, Ecco,  where one night his chef and line cook failed to show up, forcing him into the kitchen, which he found he loved.  Last year he opened Onera (for a review click), a superb, modern Greek restaurant that won rave reviews;  he was one of my choices in Esquire as a “Chef to Keep Your Eye On.”  He still owns and cooks at Onera, but now, as exec chef at Dona, he has expanded his vision to what he calls “First Generation Cuisine” as a reflection of both his and Donatella’s backgrounds.rrrrr
       Meanwhile an idealistic young woman named Heather Branch pursued her goal of economic development in the Third World at the University of Pennsylvania, but somehow ended up as a waitress in San Francisco, where she developed a real passion for wine, eventually working as wine director at the Fifth Floor there, then at Craftsteak in Las Vegas, from which Donatella snatched her to become wine director of Dona.
     So there you have it: Typical New York stories that have coalesced in a terrific new restaurant that very much depends on the backgrounds of the principals.  For the time being at least, Donatella is in residence, charming every one of her guests in a way that seems effortless, and on the night I visited, her dad, Lello, put in a welcome appearance too.
      There are plenty of new design elements in the dining room here (above), most striking a zebra-striped carpet and yellow-orange, though  the rather monotone beige and off-white color scheme and flat lighting is less enticing than it might have been. Mirrors help expand the room's visible size, and the tablesettings are impeccable--fine linens, glassware, and silverware.
        "First Generation Cuisine" seems an awkward title for some of the most scintillating, modern ideas on Italian and Mediterranean food I've ever sampled. There are some truly stunning concepts beautifully realized but without a whit of pretension. Plates are prettily set, not decorated, with the food, and a simplicity underlies everything
Psilakis does, starting with a series of "Uncooked/Crudo" items that includes a ceviche of razor clams with fennel, green apple, and mint, and a sea scallop with salt-cured olives and preserved lemons. His meze selection may feature ahi tuna with preserved orange and Greek olives, or Botan shrimp with blood orange, red onion and the delightful surprise of feta cheese. Then there are tartares of yellowtail with sun-dried tomato, artichokes, and crispy capers, and a rarely-seen species, orange marlin, topped, again suprisingly, with mozzarella and basil.  Notice how every little dish has so few elements of contrasting flavors, along with the missing element of so much haute cuisine--textures.
     There is also a selection of "Cooked" appetizers that begins with octopus and peaches--an unusual but very successfully pairing, with guanciale bacon, charred onion, and a red wine reduction (below). 
Psilakis dusts prawns with spiced almonds and accompanies them with sea urchin tzatziki and salmon roe taramasalata. Wonderfully crisp baccala comes with buffalo ricotta, skordalia, and tomato and basil.  The number and variety of such appetizers makes coming to Dona solely to feast on them a very tempting prospect.w23t
     But then you'd miss
Psilakis' marvelous pastas, which include a lush duck and chestnut mezzaluna with duck confit, chanterelles, and caramelized onions topped with duck jus and goat's cheese; butternut squash tortelli comes with spiced walnuts, aged asiago, and tart dried cherries; gnudi--"nudes"--are ricotta dumpling un-encased in pasta dough, dressed with truffle butter, crispy Speck, and sage.  I applaud his way with risotto verde, lavished with spring vegetables, blue prawns, and pecorino.
       As main courses meats fared better than fish.  A baby chicken, well browned and with crisp skin, came with a poached pear "carpaccio," wild baby chicory, Medjool dates, almonds and lentils--a fine Mediterranean marriage.  There is also a delicious grilled loin of lamb with a ragù of braised lamb, farro grain, baby dandelions, and fava beans that exemplify the best traditions of Greek cookery. 
       I am puzzled as to why
Psilakis' seafood did not show as well as everything else on the menu. Fennel-dusted long-bill marlin with baby fennel, capers, Sicilian olives, and an orange vinaigrette was somehow bland, as was pan-seared wild sea bass with a leek confit, sweet and sour endive, fingerling potatoes, and sherry vinegar.  Neither showed the kick of other dishes.
       But Patîssier Nancy Olson, a North Dakota girl, shows plenty of spunk and beauty in her desserts, from a bittersweet chocolate mousse with sea salt caramel to a torrone semifreddo with raspberry-rose sorbet.
       hThe winelist at Dona is first-rate, broad but intelligently  focused on the wines of the Mediterranean, with reasonable prices in most categories. Heather Branch has stocked the cellar with about 500 labels, and carefully searches out good value in wines under $40.
     Dona is a remarkably well-realized restaurant, both as concept and as a place people truly wish to dine and to preen a little. After all, one basks in the glamour of Donatella herself, and a little dressiness is part of the fun of this otherwise unpretentious, warm-hearted new restaurant.

Heather Branch, sommelier, Chef Michael  Psilakis, and pâtissier Nancy Olson

      Dona is open for lunch Mon.-Fri., dinner Mon-Thurs. Appetizers run $10-$16, pastas $13-$24, and main courses $22-$45.


David Chu, president and general manager of Cathay Cathay, a Chinese restaurant at the
Providence Place food court in Providence RI, is suing another eatery, and the mall, over its exclusivity agreement to sell “white rice (boiled and steamed)" and about a dozen other specific menu items. Chu accused Japan Café of infringing on that agreement by selling similar food.  Chu's lawyer, John J. DeSimone, told the judge over 10 days of testimony, "Mr. Chu has been violated with the rice!"  Harris K. Weiner, lawyer for Japan Café, argued that his client sold “par-boiled” rice, while Cathay Cathay sold steamed and boiled. Chu also complained that Japan Café sold a “Chinese Orange Chicken” dish  very similar to its own “General Gao” chicken. Weiner brought that dish into court to “show it is not orange." "I feel the late Craig Claiborne should be sitting here instead of me," said  Judge Stephen J. Fortunato Jr. as he heard closing arguments.

FOOD WRITING 101: Fawning is Not Writing3wo

"Glancing at chef English's biography page you'd hardly know what he does for a living.  There is Todd, clad in a black shirt, black jacket, black slacks, and black shoes (curiously sans socks), gazing at the camera.  He projects a self-assured, come-hither expression that is more fitting for a Bergdorf Goodman ad than a food Olympian.  Next is Todd in kitchen whites, potraying the intense and driven chef; in another he sports spiky black hair and is reclining on a chrome-framed chair.  There is more: Smirking Todd holding a platter of olives; pensive Todd; and finally, Todd in a tight black shirt striking an Armani pose."--Bryan Miller, "Todd English: Hail to the Chef,"  Mohegan Sun Legends (Summer 2006).


* From May 24-June 4 the Hilton Buenos Aires  exhibits the spirit of Argentina with a cultural extravaganza “Mi Buenos Aires Querido,” featuring a traditional Argentinean feast accompanied by the famous 2 x 4 rhythm of the tango.  . . . From June 21-July 16, the hotel presents  “Sevillana Nights” celebrating  flamenco dance, at El Faro Restaurant, with Spanish dishes by  Chef Guillaume Bianchi. Call 1-800-HILTONS.

* This Memorial Day weekend, Charlie Palmer Steak in Washington DC is making a special offer to members of the armed services:  any current or former member of the military who dines at the restaurant  May 27-29 will receive a 15% discount off their entire check by showing proof of military service. Call 202-547-8100.

*  Tavern on the Green in NYC is now offering “7 Nights 7 Sounds” of music,  - from Latin to swing to rock n’ roll, every night at 7 pm starting May 31 through Sept.  for a $10 cover charge; for  $65, a VIP Garden Pass is available that confers unlimited admissions throughout the season to holders. Call 212-873-3200 ext. 241 or online reservations system at

* On June 3 Penn Brewery, the first craft brewer in Pennsylvania, will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a “Brewery Birthday Bash” in its beer hall restaurant and adjoining outdoor Biergarten from noon to midnight, with 12 hours of live music, tours,  samples of the Anniversary Commemorative Brew and German foods, and competition in “Wacky Games” from 1 to 5 p.m., winning prizes in Yodeling, Beer Coaster Flipping and Bottle Cap Toss contests.  There are no tickets to buy, no cover charge and no reservations.  For more info visit

* Portuguese Independence Day, will be celebrated by José Meireilles, owner of Tíntol Tapas Bar in NYC, by offering special tasting menus with wine flights during the week of June 4-11.  Tíntol will also create traditional celebratory menu items, featuring dishes prepared by renowned Portuguese chefs; Francisco Meirelles of Sessenta Setenta Restaurant, and Pedro Nunes of Sao Geao Restaurant. Call  212-354-3838.
* From June 7-18 the  Hilton Cartagena “German Festival celebrates the arrival of the 2006 FIFA World Cup.  El Tinajero Restaurant will feature an array of German-inspired cuisine.  El Cangrejo Bar, transformed to resemble a soccer field and providing large screen projection of the games, uniformed bar employees representing this year’s favorites, and a local cocktail served in a souvenir replica of the FIFA World Cup trophy.   Call 1-800-HILTONS.
* On June 13 Joseph Phelps Winery will be showcased at a C&L Restaurant in San Francisco 4-course Winemaker Dinner. A representative of Joseph Phelps, as well as Sommelier Sean Crowley, will be on hand to discuss the wines. $85 pp. Call 415-771-5400.

* On June 15 Bistro 110 in Chicago invites guests to “Sommelier For a Day,” guided to the Garden Room, where more than 20 wines will be available for sampling and interaction with the staff. Guests will rank the selections in order of their favorites, and the Bistro 110 team will tally the scores, and guests' highest-rated wines in each category will land a coveted spot on the restaurant's summer wine list.  In addition to the tasty assortment of wines, guests will enjoy heavy hors d'oeuvres prepared by Executive Chef Dominique Tougne.  $19.95 pp.  Call  312-266-3110. Visit

* This September  NYC Executive Chef Carol Frazzeta along with Sicily's Chef Donna Antonia will hold an 11-day series of cooking classes at the Villa Lionti,  an 18th century villa farmhouse  set on the slopes of Mt. Etna, which will be visited, along with a visit to an Artisan Cheese Maker, excursion to Caltagirone, the town known for its pottery makers, vineyard visits, a trip to Villa Romana del Casale, with accommodations in Palermo at Villa Franca; visit to Cefalu; full day in Palermo and Monreale with a final stop at Sicily's famous village of Mondello.  $2,850 pp. Air fare is not included.    Call 011-39-339-60429-33.

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.


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 from by clicking on the cover image.

6y6My newest book, written with my brother Robert Mariani, is a memoir of our years growing up in the North Bronx. It's called Almost Golden because it re-visits an idyllic place and time in our lives when so many wonderful things seemed possible.
    For those of you who don't think of the Bronx as “idyllic,” this book will be a revelation. It’s about a place called the Country Club area, on the shores of Pelham Bay. A beautiful neighborhood filled with great friends and wonderful adventures that helped shape our lives. It's about a culture, still vibrant, and a place that is still almost the same as when we grew up there.
Robert and I think you'll enjoy this very personal look at our
Bronx childhood. It is not yet available in bookstores, so to purchase a copy, go to or click on  Almost Golden.
--John Mariani

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copyright John Mariani 2006