Restaurant Sign in Alsace (2005) Photo by Galina Stepanoff-Dargery
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NEW YORK CORNER: Mai House by John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR: STICK A CORK IN IT? by John Mariani
LOST IN TRANSLATION
ASPEN: The Fare Up There
by John Mariani
Hunter Thompson’s gonzo spirit may still linger at the Woody Creek Tavern off Highway 82, but dining out in Aspen has become serious sport, with more good restaurants than cities far larger than its three-and-a-half square miles.
The natives have mostly kept fast food restaurants at bay (there is a grotesque McDonald’s on Mill Street), although the city’s been inundated by branches of upscale chains, including a Nobu offshoot called Matsuhisa, a mediocre Todd English Olives at the St. Regis Hotel, and, next year, Il Mulino out of NYC. The historic Hotel Jerome opened in 1889, changed hands for a major overhaul but Chef George Mahaffey, brought in to modernize the menu, has already left the enterprise, so only time will tell what happens to this beautiful dining room.
Longtime local star chef Charles Dale sold his Rustique bistro and moved to Savannah to make meat stocks, and Chef Barclay Dodge shuttered Mogador and moved out of state. That subterranean restaurant (with 35 patio seats) has been replaced by the casual American eatery Dish Aspen (430 East Hyman Avenue; 970-925-7119), which serves many dishes—lobster corn dogs with an agave nectar and mustard dipping sauce, Jamaican jerk chicken, and beef short ribs with mac-and-cheese—family style. Chef Matthew Zubrod, formerly of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, and partner Mitchell Sher are devoted to the Slow Foods Movement and to securing as much local provender as possible (their "credits" are listed on the menu, e.g., Sunny Breeze Farm cheeses, Gates of Heaven honey, and lamb from the Rosen Lamb Farm). The menu is eclectic in the happiest American way, so you'll find mini-crabcake sandwiches with lettuce and tomato and chipotle tartar sauce right next to lobster-basil ravioli with a ginger broth. A New England-style smoked trout chowder co-exists with beef stroganoff and seafood paella. Wild salmon gets graced with maple syrup and smoked antelope comes with a sweet potato puree. There is always a well-priced--$21--dish of the day, which might be a lobster pot pie or Kobe beef bolognese. The winelist is solid, with a lot of spicy syrahs and zins that go well with Zubrod's flavors.
Appetizers run $7-$19 and entrees $21 to $59 (for Kobe beef); The owners also offer a kids' menu and a bar menu. The restaurant is open daily for dinner only.
Over at the Sky Hotel at the base of Aspen Mountain, at the sexy lounge named 39 Degrees (702 East Durant Avenue; 800-882-2582), you can enjoy a “Pimptini” fireside or poolside (right)--it’s 80 degrees year-round--along with sushi nachos, juicy strip steak and the chickpeas fries, and mussels cooked in Fat Tire beer. Most dishes run $10 or under; it's open daily for dinner only.
Chef Dena Marino (below) has settled into D19 (307 South Mill Street; 970-925-6019) on the mall, next to the town’s beloved Popcorn Wagon. She, and partners Jonathan Stoller, and Judith Craig had planned to open their new venture on December 19 of 2005, thus the name D19, though it took a week longer to debut.
Marino is doing the same big, gusty Italian food she gained a reputation for at Ajax Tavern, where she cooked for six years. Before that she honed her skills at Tra Vigne in California's Napa Valley, so her cooking still sparkles with similar lusty flavors in dishes like braised pork ossobuco with corn cooked three ways, and charred octopus with chilled vegetables atop smoky bruschetta lavished with chili salsa, ending off with caramel gelato drowned in espresso. Still, at least on the busy night I was there, some of the food lacked the seasoning and excitement I'd come to expect, and the waitstaff was harried. The winelist is good, but red wines need to be cooled down because they are stored in racks against the wall in a warm dining room. The premises (above), with the kitchen to the rear, are friendly if unexceptional in decor, basically a long room with a brick archway and a hopping patio section.
D19 is open daily for lunch and dinner, with pastas $12-$18 and entrees $25-$36.
The finest food in town right now is at Montagna at The Little Nell hotel (65 East Durant: 970-920-6330), which has had a succession of notable chefs. Now they have the best yet in Ryan Hardy, 30, whose stints at Rubicon in San Francisco and the Coyote Café in Santa Fe grounded him in a distinctive western style now crystallized as Colorado Rocky Mountain cuisine, drawing on game, wild mushrooms, and river trout for a menuteeming with great flavors, like spring lamb braised slowly in milk and served with a bright pea risotto; his hand-rolled noodles with wild boar; and grilled red deer loin with pancetta-wrapped fennel and salsa. You won't find a finer Prime rib in town, perfectly cooked, juicy, and full of good beefy flavors. Nevertheless, the menu is riddled with Italian dishes: I loved a dish of risotto with orange zucchini blossoms, and there's a selection of Italian salumi, grilled fresh prawns with avocado and pickled chile, and even a first-rate tripe Tuscan-style, with veal cheeks, tomato, and pepper. There are four housemade pastas, too, including goat's cheese ravioli with arugula and walnut pesto. Don't pass up the side dishes like mountain morels with rosemary or peas and prosciutto with chile and mint. It is all buoyed by a great 1,500-label winelist overseen by the ebullient sommelier Richard Betts, one of only 56 U.S.-based Master Sommeliers. (To download this extraordinary, award-winning winelist click here.)
The room itself casts a balance of elegance with casual chic (although some men show up dressed as if they were coming to check the gas meter), certainly not rustic but not overly posh either; the seating and tablesettings are first-rate, and service has always been the restaurant's forte here. The adjacent bar is probably the town's most sophisticated watering hole, and adjacent to that is the renovated Ajax Tavern, where I have not yet had a chance to eat.
Montagna is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. At dinner appetizers are $12-$17, main courses $32-$39.
NEW YORK CORNER: by John Mariani
186 Franklin Street
Mai House is one of their more casual efforts, set within a former warehouse that once housed Myriad's bakery, now an L-shaped, shadowy lay-out with 120 seats, hard-carved fixtures from Vietnam, walls textured with crushed sunflower seeds, banquettes with a zebra-patterned fabric, a butcher block made from mother-of-pearl and bamboo, and hanging lights in the shape of lotus flowers. It can get loud in there as the night progresses, and the bar is long and very convivial--a good place to try some of the tasty cocktail concoctions like the Saigon Sling and Delta Dream.
The chef onboard is Saigon-born
Almost everything has a tantalizing little surprise in the preparation. So lamb is given the tingle of lemongrass, put on skewers, quickly seared, then served with pickled vegetables and a light anchovy sauce. Barbecued quail, nice and fat, are sided with pickled lemongrass with sticky rice and crispy shallots, and there is even a wild boar sausage with a green papaya salad. You scoop this food up, pop it in your mouth, lick it off your fingers, and, reluctantly, share it with your friends. (Portions are not huge, however, so you might have a fight on your hands.)
Among the entrees are spicy beef cheek from wagyu beef, with lotus root and curried cauliflower puree. Tender pork belly is braised with pickled red cabbage and coconut juice, and it's wonderful how zesty these flavors are far more interesting than so many European preparations of the same ingredients. The claypot chicken with quail eggs and spices definitely begs to be shared.
I found the seafood somewhat less savory, like the cloyingly sweet-and-sour whole red snapper with tomatoes and Chinese celery that tasted too close to Chinese take-out. Other seafood items were fairly bland, including Dungeness crab with garlic and chives, although that's a dish where you want the delicacy of the crab to be eminent. Noodles are wonderful--try the crab fried rice with egg and Chinese sausage or the duck fried rice with smoked duck, duck confit, and duck egg.
Don't forget the very savory side dishes, including sticky rice with Chinese sausage and wonderful, refreshing steamed mustard greens that help cut the spices in the other food.
The winelist more than complements the difficult seasonings here, with plenty of aromatic whites and spicy reds, and many under $50 a bottle.
Of desserts I cannot rave, but stick with the sorbets and you'll have a fine ending to an exotic and deliciously different meal.
I have read some ill-informed reviews or comments in the blogs about the prices being high at Mai House when you can eat some of the same dishes for five bucks in a Chinatown eatery. Believe me, however enjoyable it is occasionally to nosh in some storefront Vietnamese restaurants with tacky decor and few amenities, there is no way their owners can buy the best ingredients and charge $5 for a dish. Mai House's ingredients are top notch and it shows in the texture and taste of dishes that elsewhere taste frozen or left over from the previous day. Cheap does not equate with good, and beside, with appetizers at Mai House $9-$13 and entrees $18-$28, you are getting plenty of value for your money and a helluva lot more atmosphere and service, not to mention good English.
Mai House serves dinner Mon.-Sat.
FROM THE WINE CELLAR
STICK A CORK IN IT?John Mariani's weekly wine column appears in Bloomberg Muse News, from which this story was adapted. Bloomberg News covers Culture from art, books, and theater to wine, travel, and food on a daily basis, and some of its articles play of the Saturday Bloomberg Radio and TV.
by John Mariani
Ah, the pleasure of splurging on a great wine at a great restaurant! A vested sommelier cuddles the bottle, deftly cuts away the foil wrapper, carefully extracts the cork, and pours the wine into your glass. You observe its ruby color, swirl its contents, then bring it to your nose, and—Agh! The damn thing smells like that corner of your garage you’ve been meaning to clean out. Bummer: the wine’s corked.
“Corkiness” is the halitosis of the wine world—a dank, musty smell—and there’s nothing you can do about it. The odor comes from mold within the cork or picked up from nearby surfaces. Ironically, after corks began to be sanitized in the 1980s with a chlorine solution, “corkiness” has increased, owing to chlorine’s tendency to produce the chemical compound trichlorophenol, detectable by the human nose if present in a only few parts per trillion.
Obviously, using a non-cork stopper eliminates any prospect of corkiness, but therein lies a delicate question of marketing: Will a sophisticated wine-lover accept anything but a cork in a $300 bottle of
Also, winemakers, who are nothing if not dogged traditionalists, regard anything but cork for wine bottles the way a luthier regards acrylic varnish for violins. After all, using corks as wine stoppers dates back to Ancient Greece and has been standard procedure since glass bottles became available in the 17th century.
Two alternatives have been in use for some time, but until now only with cheaper commercial wines. Synthetic, that is, plastic, stoppers work well, but no long-term tests have been done to see if oxidizing air might seep into the bottle while aging. Plastic stoppers have also been criticized for fitting too tightly, sometimes requiring major exertion to extract.
Then there’s the metal screwtop, long associated with cheap plonk and soda pop, even though the evidence suggests they are first-rate stoppers, particularly one called the Stelvin closure and another, newer one, called TOPP (Torqued on Pilfer Proof, made by Global Cap in England. Indeed, several premium wineries have boldly taken up the cause of screwcaps, including
Now, however, comes a stopper that might solve all problems—both chemical and esthetic—associated with cork. Alcoa Deutschland, in association with scientists and wine experts from the Geisenheim Institute for Applied Enological Sciences and the Oppenheim/Rheinhessen State Teaching and Testing Institute, have developed a glass stopper called Vino-Lok that forms a tight, completely sanitary fit that is “guaranteed to hold firmly in the bottle opening and can be resealed.” To prevent any possibility of the glass breaking or scraping into the wine, the stopper is invisibly coated with a plastic so that glass is never in contact with the bottle’s neck. It is also recyclable.
Introduced at the Dusseldorf Wine Fair in March 2003, Vino-Lok (left) roused enormous interest, both for its utility and for its good looks: It looks like a stopper you’d find in a fine crystal decanter. Plus, it has an aluminum cap, available in various colors, to give traditionalists something to love. Several wineries have been testing Vino-Lok, including German producers P.J. Valckenberg in
At the moment Vino-Lok is more expensive than other stoppers, needing a specially formed bottle to accept it, but Alcoa insists the price will be competitive as soon as mass production kicks.
Whether traditionalists will refuse to drink wine without a cork stopper remains to be seen, but it’s clear that the only way currently to prevent corkiness is not to use one. We have nothing to lose but the nostalgic sound of a cork being popped.
LOST IN TRANSLATION
The following signs and notices were collected from restaurant, hotels, and resorts around the world by alphadictionary.com.
Airline ticket office,
A laundry in
On the menu of a Swiss restaurant: OUR WINES LEAVE YOU NOTHING TO HOPE FOR.
On a highway sign in
In the lobby of a
In a hotel,
Included with the package of complimentary wares in a Chinese hotel was a pair of workout shorts marked: UNCOMPLIMENTARY PANTS.
Booklet about using a hotel air conditioner,
Car rental brochure,
In an East African newspaper: A NEW SWIMMING POOL IS RAPIDLY TAKING SHAPE SINCE THE CONTRACTORS HAVE THROWN IN THE BULK OF THEIR WORKERS.
* On Jan. 22 in NYC, Zachys Wines and Sports Club LA welcome Napa Valley Vintners to share their expertise and benefit Citymeals-on-Wheels. Asian-inspired cocktail fare by Pulse Restaurant chef Jake Klein will complement the wine tasting. Tix at $85 pp, with $25 to go to Citymeals-on-Wheels. Participating Vintners incl.: Burgess Cellars, Clos Du Val Wine Co., Ltd., Crauford Wine Company, Diamond Creek Vineyards, Dominari, Freemark Abbey, Frias Family Vineyard, Grgich Hills Estate, Hendry, Honig Vineyard & Winery, Judd's Hill, Juslyn Vineyards, Keenan Winery, Oakville Ranch Vineyards, Pine Ridge Winery, Raymond Vineyard & Cellar, Round Pond Estate, Schramsberg Vineyards, Spencer Roloson Winery, Swanson Vineyards & Winery, Tres Sabores, and Vineyard 29.
* On Jan. 22 in NYC, Tribeca Grill and the
* On Jan. 24 in
* On Jan. 29 in Southborough, MA, Tom Prince, Chef Tony Bettencourt and Wine Director Lorenzo Savona of Tomasso Trattoria & Enoteca have teamed up with Dole & Bailey, and Violette Wine Importers for a 4-course wine dinner with naturally raised, milk-fed Azuluna veal, with all proceeds for the $100 pp dinner to the nutrition and fitness programs at Tufts University. Call 508-481-8484.
* On Feb. 10 & 11, the 16th annual Boston Wine Expo at the
Visit www.wineexpoboston.com or call 877-946-3976. . . . The Boston Wine Expo is held in conjunction with the 22nd annual Anthony Spinazzola Foundation Gala Festival of Food and Wine, which takes place at the
* From Feb.14-18, The Island Hotel Newport Beach offers a romance packages with Chef Bill Bracken's 5-course "Menu Designed with Him and Her in Mind." After dinner, couples will be treated to a performance by singer, pianist and songwriter Kristina Pruitt in Gardens Lounge. $250 per couple with overnight accommodation package starting at $545. Call 888-321-4752; www.theislandhotel.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, Suzanne Wright. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery, Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.
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