Virtual Gourmet

June 18, 2006                                                       NEWSLETTER

Billy Gray, Lauren Chapin, Robert Young, Jane Wyatt, and Elinor Donahue in
"Father Knows Best" (1954-67


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In This Issue

Dining Out in Charleston, Part Two by John Mariani

NEW YORK CORNER: Le Périgord by John Mariani


by John Mariani

                   This beautiful antique city has long needed a restaurant like Fig (232 Meeting Street; 843-805-5900;, now two years old, for it is a place that cannily melds the old traditions of Low Country cooking with complete modernity and a great deal of personal taste under Chef-partner Mike Lata and partner-manager Adam Nemirow. It's a pretty place (below), not "no-frills" but without pomp, simply decorated, and very warmhearted.
     A few years back Louis Osteen tried to do much the same thing on this same street, but Charleston apparently wasn't ready for it, and Osteen moved on successfully to Pawley's Island.   Now, it appears, the city is proud to have a place like Fig (which is decidedly no relation to Todd English's chain restaurants named Figs), which is not only smart but has a buzz no other place in town has been able to match.  It's unquestionably a foodie destination, but a wholly unpretentious one.dw
      In so many ways, despite numerous international flourishes, Fig's menu is quintessentially modern American, starting with the idea that good food begins with good ingredients treated simply.  Thus, you take one sip of Lata's lovely butternut squash soup with a touch of nutmeg and a lacing of crème fraîche and you taste the squash first and foremost, fresh and sweet all on its own.  His caramelized onion tart with Niçoise olives and white anchovies might go by the name pissaladiére in France, but it seems right at home in the Low Country. Even moreso, the warm shrimp with pancetta and radicchio hits just the right notes of taste and texture, and ricotta cavatelli with broccoli, pecorino cheese, and a little olive oil is perfect.
     Move on to entrees and you'll be delighted by his rendering of roast suckling pig with red Russian kale, roasted beets, and tangy grain mustard, and you won't find a better roast chicken, served with broccoli and hakuri turnips, in town, even if this bird ain't fried.  Swordfish can so easily be a few days older than it should be at a restaurant, but Lata's was pristinely fresh, crusted with mustard and served with a little veal jus and roasted spring onions, while skate wing was sautéed just past translucence and served with French beans, the crunch of hazelnuts, shallots and the traditional brown butter.
      eeeeSo few ingredients buoy so much flavor at Fig, evidenced in the Fuji apple tarte Tatin with good vanilla ice cream; outstanding was the vanilla crème brûlée unencumbered by scads of garnishes; a half-baked, that is, soft centered, chocolate cake was as good as any I've tasted, but there was an odd, almost medicinal flavor in some Carolina Gold rice pudding with cherries and black walnuts.  Artisanal cheeses are also available, and there is a bar menu of deviled eggs, steak tartare, chicken liver pâté, and other items.
      Fig's winelist is admirable for its internationalism, judicious size, and decent pricing, with very few bottlings that will be overly familiar to wine lovers.
     Fig does what it does so well because it lacks all pretension, substituting instead devotion to the proposition that you shouldn't mess with the best ingredients and that most people will get the message. And with
starters between  $6-$10 and entrees $19-$23, this may be the best priced restaurant in Charleston.

Fig is open Mon.-Sat. for dinner only.

       Tristan  (55 South Market Street; 843-534-2155; ropened three years ago  to no great applause and little business.  The owners, Jerry and Anita Zucker, wisely decided that a creative but well-grounded chef was needed and for a while had one--the redoubtable Jimmy Sneed, who left soon afterwards to go to Vegas (which he soon afterwards also left).
     Fortunately Tristan has acquired Ciarán Duffy, an Irishman with real gusto and a generous heart.  No one leaves Tristan hungry, and while I found too many dishes had too many sweet components, he is doing a fine job of bringing a personalized cuisine to the city in a handsome, wide-open 144-seat dining room, with open kitchen, glass artwork, white linens,  and very comfortable banquettes.

     Duffy is a Dubliner, a graduate of the Arts Institute who was founding chef of Rainwater in Atlanta before making the leap to the smaller pond of Charleston.  He is a chef devoted to the sumptuous and the big flavors: right from the start of the menu, every plate is freighted with ingredients, as in his hickory-smoked lamb ribs with a chocolate BBQ sauce.  Very rich indeed was fine, fat pork belly, also smoked, with a Tellicherry caramel glaze, and mascarpone-riddled grits.  Veal sweetbreads come with a Shoyu glaze and fava beans, and for the ultimate in decadence, have his foie gras crème brûlée with a Parmesan crisp and shiitake bacon.
      kAny of these appetizers might make a hefty lunch entree, but main courses are every bit as generous, as is his scallops and halibut cheeks accompanied by lobster risotto, Granny Smith apple, leek and arugula.  Duck breast comes with a cherry-vanilla gastrique and cherry-sage clafoutis, and escolar comes with "ham and egg risotto" made from Serrano ham and choupique caviar, broccoli di rabe, and a silly foie gras foam.  But there's no faulting the man's magnanimous culinary style, and if you're up for dessert, follow with banana fritters with fried plantains (left), or a delicious black berry cobbler with Port Neufchatel cheese.  A beet and cinnamon cheesecake with pomegranate reduction and crème anglaise didn't jibe for me.
      I believe Duffy has given Tristan its footing, and it's now a place for a special meal, unlike any you'll now find in town.

Tristan is open for lunch and dinner daily. Dinner appetizers run $6-$15, main courses $24-$38.

  If Fig is just right for Charleston, and Tristan is a special occasion, Cordavi (14 Market Street; 843-343-4449;, opened last January, is, at this juncture, just what Charleston needs--a thoroughly 21st century, very personalized  restaurant with the bravery to do something quite different in an attempt to bring a very cutting-edge style to the city's gastronomy.g
     It is a two-level restaurant (formerly Vintage), casual but serious about its purpose, which is to bring up the refinement of Charleston fine cuisine without becoming haute in the snootier sense. There is daring and dash here, maybe a tad too much showing off, but there's no arguing with the flavors and concepts here.  The owner-chefs, Corey Elliott and David Szlam, have impeccable credentials behind them: Elliott is a native, trained at the Trident Culinary School in town, and worked with Szlam at the wonderful Hank's Seafood. Szlam came via San Francisco, the California Culinary Academy, and training at Charles Nob Hill, Campton Place, and La Folie.  So they bring some high-minded ideas to Low Country tradition.
      You may order à la carte, but I recommend going for the three-course $45 menu, four for $55, or five  at $65, with a $30 wine pairing option. Portions are appropriately smaller, giving you bites in intense flavors. Only then will you get the breadth and depth of the chefs' cooking style, starting with an amuse of crab cappuccino.  They infuse salsify with porcini and place it in delicate ravioli, served with crispy sweetbreads, crayfish tails, and a lobster froth. Beef tartare, fresh as can be, is suffused with truffle vinaigrette, and fingerling potato salad is riddled with lobster, laced with crème fraîche, edamame beans, and fresh herbs. Here fresh foie gras is seared and served on French toast with a blackberry compote and fruit sorbet--a dish with at least one too many ingredients on it.jtj
     Cordavi is a place where fish and meats come out equally well: Butter-poached lobster with pork belly and cauliflower risotto gets added piquancy from an onion jus, while barramundi (below) is served over a ragoût of roasted peppers, braised shortribs, and a lovely spiced purée of carrots.  Things get a bit frothy around here, but the flavors are alive in pan-seared trout with French beans over an almond purée with vanilla froth, and I have not had better salmon--this from Canada--than the lustrous fish I enjoyed here, slowly cooked and encrusted with Parmesan and a tian of fennel, artichoke, and tomato.
        If you're in a more carnivorous mood, try the guinea hen, cooked in the Sous-Vide process and served with wild mushrooms risotto and poultry jus. Just as good is the pan-roasted Kurobuta pork with smoked mushrooms and apple, with a turnip purée.  With all their attention to fine ingredients, the service of Australian lamb over American lamb is puzzling indeed; the meat had little flavor, despite being crusted with pistachios and served with delightful ricotta gnocchi and glazed pearl onions.
        yThis is one restaurant where what precedes dessert looks every bit as beautiful as dessert (though you might want to try the scrumptious grilled cheese sandwich as a cheese course first).  Apple is served three ways, as a Tarte Tatin, spiced with ginger, and as ice cream. And "inside out" carrot cake is cunning--a crust of moist carrot cake around vanilla cheesecake, with candied carrots, sublimating all those cloying carrot cakes of the '70s into the culinary sublime.  Key lime panna cotta with blood orange jelly and Graham cracker crisps was almost homey in this company, but lavish and wonderful indeed are the warm banana crêpes with chocolate ice cream and a blueberry compote.  The winelist is eclectic and exciting with this kind of food.
          When Cordavi opened last winter, many locals expressed concern  that its highly evolved cuisine would be a tough sell in Charleston, despite the success of the haute cuisine style of  Chef Robert Waggoner at The Charleston Grill for many years now and the bravado of the food at McCrady's.  The plate presentation at Condavi  may strike the meat-and-taters crowd as a bit prettified, but it is high time that such prejudices yield to the refinement a place like Cordavi brings to this, one of the South's most refined towns.

Cordavi is open for dinner Mon.-Sat.

For Part One of this article on Charleston, click.


Le Périgord
405 East 52nd Street

by John Mariani

  For 42 years--42 years!--Georges Briguet has maintained the quality and sophistication of his beloved restaurant Le Périgord against all the onslaughts of trendiness that have waxed and waned and disappeared. Le Périgord sails on, and its clientele comes back, generation after generation, for  classic French cuisine that not only survives but reminds us all of its elegant excellence.
    Indeed, Mr. Briguet's bonhomie is one of the consistent virtues of Le Périgord, where you will be welcomed effusively, seated at a lovely table (there are no lesser ones here) in a room lighted and designed to be gracious and smart without ever being trendy.

    Chef Joël Benjamin keeps the flame bright at Le Périgord, and I think he's the best Briguet has had over the past 25 years I've dined here,  which seems to have as much to do with his training as with his precision.  "Textbook perfect" is a description that may well be a cliché, but it also has enormous value at a time when slap-dash is more the rule.
    You will be handed a winelist with an amazing number of old vintages of Bordeaux and Burgundy at prices you  might have paid 20 years ago--a tradition Briguet has kept of not hiking prices on bottles he bought  years ago. Some are well below replacement costs.  Then you might wish to go to the cold appetizer display, once a fixture at French restaurants, now rare.  The  freshness of those at Le Périgord make you wonder why it ever disappeared, for here are sparkling plates of  gravlax with dill and fennel salad, house-smoked salmon, asparagus, and much more.4
      But there is the menu, at lunch $32 (ten years ago French restaurants of this caliber were selling lunch for $40 and up!) and dinner at a remarkably fair $62 (with a few supplements).  I will be the first to say that much of classic French cuisine has become stultified, and 20 years ago such menus were riddled with dated banalities.  But the timelessness of the best of French cuisine is still showcased beautifully and impeccably at Le Périgord, so that you might begin with house-smoked salmon with a little corn muffin, sour cream, and salmon roe. Or the good old "soupe du jour," on my most recent visit a superb, richly flavorful vegetable soup as fresh as early summer itself. Fresh foie gras was seared to split-second perfection, accompanied by black Mission figs, and the cold foie gras with Sauternes aspic is a showpiece of classic style.
      What more could wonderful red snapper need than a light Champagne sauce and dots of caviar? How could one improve on fat Dover sole with rich lemon butter? And for a touch of novelty, how about wrapping turbot in a robe of Comté cheese and enriching it further with Champagne sauce (below)?  Le Périgord even proudly serves beef Wellington, a dish once prepared in mediocre continental restaurants with poor beef and both foie gras and truffles from a can.  With the finest ingredients now available to chefs, the idea of superb, rare filet mignon with a slice of silky fresh foie gras and chopped truffles in a richly reduced sauce becomes as up-to-date and savory as any dish in a nouvelle repertoire.  yyyyyykHow long has it been since you've had good calf's liver, lavished with soft, sweet shallots (not onions)? Here you'll have it and love it and be reminded of how precision in cooking is still driven by a French spirit hovering in the dining room.
       There is an old-fashioned cart of wonderful old-fashioned desserts at Le Périgord, including my guilty pleasure, ouefs à la neige, white and light soft meringues floating in a sea of crème anglaise.  But not to order a soufflé here is to miss the quintessence of Le Périgord: They are absolutely the best in New York, textbook examples of why such dishes can never date, fluffy, very light, slightly eggy, sauced beautifully.  I wish I could come just for dessert to Le Périgord; in fact, I'm sure Monsieur Briguet would not mind at all.

Le Périgord is open for lunch and dinner daily. There is a charming private dining room in the rear.


Milford Township, MI, where FBI agents failed to find the body of Jimmy Hoffa, the Milford Baking Company has been selling hundreds of 95-cent Jimmy Hoffa cupcakes, with frosting to resemble dirt and a plastic green hand emerging from it.  Also, at Lu & Ruby's Bar & Grill, the $12.95 Hoffa Steak Salad "buried under field greens with mushrooms and edible flowers” has become a big seller.


In its Food column, Ramin Setoodeh of Newsweek did a tasting of jellybeans, writing, "Life Savers jelly beans arrive in classic and pastel flavors, like cotton candy and banana.  But our tasters sensed a hint of toothpaste."


* Throughout the month of July every bottle on every wine list at each of the The Lark Creek Restaurant Group  restaurants will be offered at half price, incl. The Lark Creek Inn (415-924-7766), One Market Restaurant (415-777-5577), Lark Creek Walnut Creek (925-256-1234), Yankee Pier in Larkspur (415-924-7676), Yankee Pier at Santana Row in San Jose (408-244-1244) and Parcel 104 at the Santa Clara Marriott (408-970-6104).

* On June 30 Le Titi De Paris in Arlington Heights, ILL, will hold a Bordeaux Right Bank dinner hosted by sommelier Marcel Flori, as part of its 2006 “Tour de France Gastronomique Regional Dinner Series.” Call 847-506-0222.

* On July 4 Circa 1886 at the Wentworth Mansion in Charleston, SC, will celebrate in true Southern fashion on the lawn with delicacies, incl. field pea salad, beer-braised corn, American all-blue potato salad, suckling pig with citrus BBQ sauce, peel ‘n’ eat shrimp, grilled Carolina quail, peach cobbler, apple pie,  Moon Pie ice cream, and more. Afterwards guests will head to the cupola  to witness the city's fireworks display.  $49.50 pp. Call 843- 853-7828.  Additionally, diners can celebrate the entire month of July with Circa 1886's popular "Four for $44" dinners, which allow guests to choose 4 courses for only $44.

* From July 7-9 Zinfandel Advocates & Producers will present its 2nd “Zinposium” at The Meritage Resort at Napa, which incl.  a walk-around format with wines by appellation; A panel led by  Karen MacNeil, author and educator, on  The State of Zinfandel Today” with Dr. James Wolpert, UC Davis Viticulture and Enology Department; Doug Frost, M.S., M.W., of WineSight Technologies; and Wine Educator, Christian Miller, Full Glass Research;  “Zin Takes the Heat:  Debunking the Myths,” moderated by MacNeil, with Paul Draper of  Ridge Vineyards) and Joel Peterson of Ravenswood. $295 pp. for members of the trade (Sat. dinner is $85 extra) and $375 for ZAP Advocates (dinner $85 extra). Visit or call 530-274-4900.
* New OrleansWindsor Court Hotel has added a new package for groups of 10 or more who want to provide a service to the city—the “Culinary Volun-tourism Package” provides accommodations for 2 nights, and a hands-onCooking Class at Savvy Gourmet. At the conclusion of the cooking session, participants will have the opportunity to continue on to a Katrina-affected rebuild site where the volunteer workers will be treated to a lunch of foods prepared in class.  A portion of the package price will be donated to the Slow Food New Orleans Relief Fund.  Additional information can be found at or by calling 1-800-262-2662.
* The Palais de la Méditerranée in Nice offers a “Romantic Escape” package, available through July 31, incl. accommodations in a deluxe sea view room;  breakfast buffet in Le Padouk or in the room; Taittinger champagne on arrival; dinner at Le Padouk;swimming pool, fitness room, and sauna. €325 per room (2-night minimum). Call  011 33 (0) 4 92 14 77 00; or 1-800-223-6800.

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