Virtual Gourmet

November 12,  2006                                                       NEWSLETTER


                                             All-Purpose Restaurant, Barcelona, Spain (2006)   Photo by Gerry Dawes

UPDATE:  To go to my web site, in which I will update food & travel information and help link readers to other first-rate travel & food sites,  click on: home page

Readers may now access an Archive of all past newsletters--each annotated--dating back to July, 2003, by simply clicking on .

NEW FEATURE! You may now subscribe anyone you wish to this newsletter by clicking here.

In This Issue

SAILING THE QUEEN MARY 2 by Suzanne Wright

NEW YORK CORNER: L'Impero by John Mariani


By Suzanne Wright
   qwrAs we step aboard the Queen Mary 2, giddy with anticipation, my friend Cathy and I join the storied ranks of the rich and famous politicians, millionaires, actors and royalty who have for the last two years since its launch plied the Atlantic waters aboard her. With suitcases full of appropriately posh new clothes, we flew from Atlanta to London to join the QM2 in Southampton for the six-day transatlantic crossing to New York.
      The original Queen Mary was retired from service in 1967 and turned into a floating tourist attraction in Long Beach, California.  But, in January 2004, Cunard, builders of luxury ocean liners since 1840, unveiled their flagship and successor, Queen Mary 2,  the longest, tallest, widest, most expensive and grandest ocean liner in the world, and home  for nearly a week. It joins Cunard's Queen Elizabeth 2 that is still one of the grandest ships afloat.
    Cathy and I have been friends for two decades, yet neither of us had ever cruised before. We arrived at the terminal by mid-afternoon.  After presenting our passports and posing for our multipurpose onboard charge/ID card/room key at the terminal, we were shown to the QM2’s top accommodations, suites in the Queen’s Grill on Deck 10.  Noly, our personal butler, and his assistant Erwin, greeted us as we settled in (and handled all subsequent requests during our voyage). The spacious, butter-colored suite includes a marble bath, walk-in closet, flat screen TV, en-suite bar with Veuve Clicquot, fresh flowers, and an eight-foot long balcony.  We selected our pillows from a menu of eight. Canapés were  delivered to our room nightly, and  room service is available 24 hours a day.
     With our finery unpacked, we studied the daily program, a newsletter detailing the QM2’s many activities from sunup to sundown.  Cathy attacked the task with fearsome efficiency, mapping out her movements by the hour, determined to experience as much as possible during the voyage; I take a more languid approach.  The options are breathtakingly varied in scope, from time-honored shuffleboard to an au courant beading workshop; from Alcoholic Anonymous and Red Hat Society meetings to bridge lessons; from Oxford University lectures ("The Middle East and the West"  and "Urban Design") to near first-run movies ( "Capote" and "Pride & Prejudice"); from  bingo to computer classes to Pilates.ilu
     There are also five pools, a casino, gym, a disco, afternoon tea, wine tastings, art auctions and numerous treatments at the 20,000-square foot Canyon Ranch Spa, the only spa upon the ocean.  Entertainment options include a harpist; the largest ballroom at sea; jazz in the Chart Room and Commodore Club; a performance by the London Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts of Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels in the Royal Court Theatre; performers Mystérique, illusionists/dancers; and Imax-like films in Illuminations, the world’s only floating planetarium.  There is also tony shopping onboard (Chopard, Hermés, Harrod’s), and 10 restaurants to sample, including the Queens Grill, exclusively for its passenger guests, and the more intimate Todd English, the eponymous outpost of the Boston restaurateur. Cathy, whose teenage children were home in Nashville, noted the existence of the Play Zone, the children’s program supervised by British nannies.
      We poured ourselves a glass—and then another—of champagne while debating the relative merits of each possible experience.  I ordered complimentary personalized stationary with the sailing date and “bon voyage” and then we set out to discover the ship.

      The QM2 positively gleams, with not a surface sullied by a fingerprint or a stray bit of paper. The staff—nearly 1,300 of them (that’s a 1:2 staff/guest ratio) manages to be both attentive and friendly, greeting you without being pretentious or stiff, quite a feat in my book.  We walked down the seemingly endless corridors and memorized the staircase nearest our stateroom.  We discovered the library on Deck 8, which was to become my immediate favorite place, with its windows overlooking the bow and more than 8,000 books and magazines, two librarians, and multiple computer terminals for checking e-mail.
      And then, we set sail, as the Captain gave his first address, welcoming us aboard and detailing our route.  Cathy handed me a patch to place behind my ear to ward off seasickness and we hugged each other excitedly.  There are three formal, three informal, and two casual nights, but we enjoy dressing up each night for dinner (we did all that shopping, you see).  The cruise hostess, Amanda, informs us that citizens from more than 30 countries are onboard, though the majority of passengers are from the U.S. and England.  Looking around, most of the passengers are in their 50s or older, although we see some families, teens, and younger couples.
        Sleep came easily that first night as the waves provide a watery lullaby.
  Overnight, the formidable Atlantic waters had kicked up and by morning the steel gray sea was roiling with 25-foot waves that lashed the decks.  It’s windy and cold.  The promenade Deck 7 was closed for what will be several days.  Under these circumstances, the QM2 shows her mettle.  Unfortunately, many passengers were feeling ill; the infirmary was handing out pills and administering shots to the most seasick.  I was grateful for the patch, which is keeping both of us upright, relatively unscathed.  I perfected my “drunken boat walk": knees bent, a wide-legged stance to steady me, as I head to the spa for my aromatherapy massage.  Though the boat pitches, the therapist blithely carried on with what turned out to be a most relaxing session.  (By the end of the cruise, we learned this was the third roughest crossing since QM2’s launch.  Cathy and I have gained not only a great tale, but seafaring cred.)
       On our second day, we dined with the Captain, Christopher Rynd, in the Britannia Room (below), the most glamorous and largest dining venue onboard.  With a sweeping staircase, two levels, a soaring ceiling, white-gloved waiters and a grandeur that conjure another time, it is a very special room.  The room glows with candlelight.  The meal rose to a few culinary heights, several bottles of wine were drained, and the lean, white-bearded Rynd was gracious and entertaining. This evening evoked some of the ship’s glorious past. That night, we were instructed to “retard” our clocks one hour each night so that we would gain back our time upon arrival in New York.  I fell asleep to an occasional shudder and non-specific creaking, sounds that were already becoming comforting.
      ,The days at sea possessed a certain romantic rhythm.  Call it leisurely languor.  There were the Captain’s daily addresses at 9 a.m. and noon, followed by lunch, perhaps sunning by the pool, then afternoon tea with finger sandwiches and scones accompanied by an orchestra, a discussion with a professor about Turkey’s possible entrance into the EU, and a late afternoon nap.  I passed many pleasant hours perusing volumes both old and new at the library, light flooding into its windows, its woods and brass amidst lustrous woods and brass. I marveled that, though the ship is nearly at capacity, no single venue is overcrowded, owing to the plethora of venues. This was my life, for six days and I quickly became very used to it, although it bore no resemblance to my life at home.
          I joined a reunion of 15 former passengers sharing their memories and reviewing memorabilia from previous crossings.  Londoner Nigel Salts was onboard the original Queen Mary in 1951 as an 11-year old and remembers spending most of his time in the cinema. “It’s the greatest ship in the world,” he said, “even better than the original. I never thought they could reproduce it, but they have spared no expense.”  John Leach and his wife Mavis of Southampton were celebrating their sixty-second anniversary, the voyage a gift from their children who also joined them on the cruise.  Leach was a former officer’s steward,  enjoying “being looked after so well,” a much-deserved treat after doing the same so many years before for so many others himself.`
       Just as Cathy and I began to feel a bit hermetically sealed, the seas subsided, the sun finally came out and we circled the deck for some fresh air and exercise.  Good thing, too, because we splashed out on a superb meal at Todd English restaurant (below), which carries a $30 supplement for a four-course dinner, that evening.  The truffled potato love letters with Madeira glaze were astonishingly rich and musky, the fig and gorgonzola flatbread sweet and savory, the grilled beef tenderloin over garlic spinach, succulent, and the molten chocolate cake decadent.  I returned the next day for lunch (a steal at $20 for three courses).  Later in the afternoon, Cathy reported breathlessly that she had sighted a whale, the cause of a small and excited raucous at the pool.
          8lI’ve noticed that our sommelier, Angelo, discreetly shadowed us (and his other Queen’s Grill guests) as we dined throughout the ship, serving wines from different regions during the voyage.  We sampled wonderful Italian, Australian and French bottles paired with our various meals.  As a special treat, he even prepared us a simple, delicious tomato and basil spaghetti lunch.  It is these thoughtful touches that lend the QM2 its legendary civility and graciousness and inspire the easy, spirited sociability tat memories are made of.
       On the final, early morning of our crossing, as the skyline of New York rose ahead of us, Cathy and I realized, that on the QM2, the journey is the destination—and a heady, coveted destination it is.
Some Seaworthy Facts About Queen Mary 2

·        She is 1,132 feet in length—longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall
·        Her 17 decks are equal to the height of a 23-story building
·        She is three times the size of the Titanic
·        Her maximum speed is more than 30 knots per hour
·        She was built at a cost of $800 million
·        It took 1 million hours to design and 8 million hours to build her
·        More than one million corks are popped onboard annually
·        The QM2 brews its own beer onboard
·        Up to 14,000 meals are served per day for crew and guests
·        She employs 150 chefs working in 9 galleys
·        The ship maintains a butchery, fish mongery and bakery
·        The QM2 is the world’s single largest consumer of caviar
·        62,400 pounds of lobster are consumed annually
·        The QM2 staff hails from  40 countries

For information, schedules, and rates on the QM2, click here.

by John Mariani

45 Tudor City

    reggL'Impero has thrived long enough after five years to become one of those restaurants by which New York measures its mettle.  Located near the U.N. in the quiet Tudor City neighborhood, packed every night with both a regular clientele and those who have heard such good things about it, and never straying from its original intent to serve sumptuous Mediterranean food with a very personal slant, via chef-partner Scott Conant, L'Impero is of a kind you are unlikely to find in most American cities and one that has clearly been copied by others that have been guided by its consistency of vision.
   You enter through a Tudor-style foyer (left) with coppery ceiling, then come to a two-level space, with sheer white curtains and big windows; it is all stylish without being overbearing, although the lighting in the dining room (below) could certainly be brought up a few lumens to create an even more gregarious atmosphere.   The decibel level  can be high, but that seems to depend on the table to which you are shown and the people sitting at it.  
     The winelist is superb, crammed with unusual bottlings at every price range, and every bottle is picked to go with Conant's cooking.

    As I've written before, Conant (below) has an amazing talent for balancing the robust with the exquisite in every dish, and while Conant and his partner Chris Cannon also own Alto, a slicker, snazzier, less convincing restaurant that seems more conceptual than riveting, there is no evidence they have taken their eye off the ball at L'Impero.  The night I dined there, I was with a restaurateur and wine buyer from California, and, since I'd chosen the restaurant, I was as delighted by his effusive reaction to L'Impero as I was by my own comforting feeling that food rarely gets better than this in New York--despite the new Michelin Guide to NYC 2007's refusal to award a star while doling out one or two to yawn-inducing venues like États-Unis, Vong,  and La Goulue; Michelin also says that "tables can be cramped," which is nonsensical, given the crawl spaces at some other places it praises.]5gd
Since my last visit, Cannon seems to have smoothed over some of the service staff's rough spots, though I'm surprised to say that some of the waiters, for whom English is clearly not their first language, still lack the polish and sophistication this restaurant otherwise shows; also, given their outfits, it is not easy to distinguish the waiters and the busboys, whose principle charge seems to be to re-fill the waterglasses with bottled water within seconds of a guest taking sip, which has the effect of building up the bill.
      Sushi-style appetizers, here called "susci," include marinated Pacific yellowtail with sea salt, ginger oil, and red onion; yellowfin tuna with spicy citrus salad, maldon salt, and citrus oil; Thai snapper with pickled baby mushrooms, leeks and champagne grapes; and lobster with a concentration of  tomato and capers, all of them fresh and briny as you could wish for.
      More traditional antipasti include a lovely fricassée of autumn's mushrooms with
creamy polenta and a light truffle reduction, and a purée of curried butternut squash soup with herbed goat cheese and crispy shallots.  Pastas, the high point of most Italian restaurants, are no less so here, but they are far more unusual than those on most menus around town, starting with fresh farfalle with crispy sweetbreads, chanterelles and mustard greens whose balance of flavors and textures is spot on, lusty, and deeply satisfying, making it a hard dish to give up a morsel of.  So, too, with duck and foie gras agnolotti  with an imaginative reduction of slightly sweet moscato passito di sardegna. Pappardelle comes with a robust  rabbit ragù, parsnips, mint and pignoli, while linguine is lavished with pumpkin and slowly-braised, winey oxtail meat.
     2Unlike most Italian ristoranti, the main courses at L'Impero are every bit as wonderful as the pastas, starting with seared branzino with Brussels sprouts and mildly spicy smoked paprika and potato sauce with a bit of concentrated tomato to give a bright color. One of the long-time specialties here is roast capretto, very tender goat's meat served with artichokes, Speck bacon, and northern Italian potato groestle.  Conant also makes one of the finest veal chops in New York, served with a red wine reduction and ragù of autumn vegetables.
     Don't pass on cheeses, for there is an array of unusual choices on a nightly basis, perhaps Campanian buffalo ricotta with truffle honey, or Piemontese
Castelrosso with candied olives.
     Or you may opt for desserts like coconut panna cotta  with guava soup and coconut sorbet, or a chocolate caramel mousse with vanilla bavarese and blackberries stewed in grappa. Do try the olive oil cake, accompanied by goat's milk panna cotta and poached pears, and have a nice glass of dessert wine from a stellar list of them.
     L'Impero is a treasure right where it is, for the U.N. area is no hotbed of great restaurants, but were it set anywhere in New York, it would be among the city's most notable restaurants, principally for Conant's marvelous cuisine but also as a slice of Big Apple panache that never varies from year to year.

Appetizers at dinner run $12-$16, pastas (full portions) $22-$26, and main courses $26-$36. A 4-course dinner is set at $58. L'Impero is open for lunch Mon.-Fri., and dinner Mon.-Sat.


"Lineage, still new, has some rough spots.  The name, which refers to [chef] Sewall's ancestor who was one of the founders of Brookline, is intellectually interesting but rather hard to say and spell--not so handy in the Google age."--Alison Arnett, "A Refreshing Take on Food and Service," Boston Globe (May 4, 2006).


Ukranian Pastrymaker Valentyn Shtefano in the city of Uzhhorod made his fiancee's wedding dress out of 1,500 cream puffs weighing 20 pounds.
After the wedding reception, his new ride Viktoriya said, "At first, it was even a little embarrassing, [with all the] cameras, interviews, but after a couple of hours, I didn't even want to take it off."


* On Jan. 4, Feb. 8, and March 8,  California's TheVentana Inn’s  "Let's Go 'Shroomin" package incl,  a morning's immersion in the mushrooms of Big Sur with Park Ranger Chuck Bancroft; 2 nights' accommodation; A mushroom menu lunch at Cielo hosted by Ranger Bancroft;  Dinner for two at Cielo;  Two 50-minute spa treatments;  continental breakfast ; guided morning walk; Daily afternoon yoga session. Rates begin at $1340.  Call 800-628-6500 or visit

* From Jan. 6-Dec. 19 the Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa ( in South Africa is offering an “Es-Cape package” that  incl. 3 nights in a sea/mountain facing luxury room; special chef's tasting Fynbos Menu at Azure Restaurant; Spa treatment; a trip up Cape town's famous Table Mountain; a visit to District 6, now a museum. . .  Bouchard Finlayson in Hermanus  ( offers a package incl. day trip with chauffeur-driven car ;  Visit to the vineyard with tasting of Bouchard Finlayson wines; lunch at one of the town’s seafood restaurants. Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve and Retreat’s package incl. 3 nights in a deluxe room; 4 meals a day;  Dinner in a unique location each night; Rock Art excursions;  nature drive;  All lodge activities, canoeing, archery, hiking, etc.; spa treatment.


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

yyy u7o9o ee
rer rr ryh

copyright John Mariani 2006