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NEW YORK CORNER: 7SQUARE by John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR: Gattinara by John Mariani
by John Mariani
One doesn't exactly drive down the Southern California Coast any longer: You crawl. Highway 101 creeps at a snail's pace, so the best thing you can do is to pull off, have a meal, and visit the towns along the way as you head for
Gastronomically, this is not a bad idea, for the coast is now lined with good restaurants, starting with the delightful Sage on the Coast (Crystal Cove Promenade,
I dropped by for lunch, chatted with the very amiable Chef Rich (the name by which he seems to go), and complied with his invitation to send out some of his best, most of which were very good indeed. We began with a bracing, sweet chilled melon shooter with bits of prosciutto and basil, one of those bright ideas you wonder why no one ever thought of before--a witty take an Italian classic antipasto dish turned into a colorful drink with the same ingredients without changing the intensity. A great idea, well realized without gimmickry.
Spicy ahi tuna spring rolls with Asian slaw and a sweet and spicy sauce were more predictable but no less savory for that, and I raved about the grilled Asian barbecued beef short ribs, again with slaw and dipping sauce.
Mead offers small plates and dinner plates on the menu, the former including hamachi sashimi with a green papaya salad, avocado, ginger and soy rice vinaigrette, and a Kurobuta pork loin saltimbocca, another fine take on an old Italian favorite, here served with green beans, baby artichokes, smoked mozzarella, and a lemon-caper sauce. Of the dinner plates I sampled a fine California white sea bass with coconut rice, baby bok choy, shiitakes, cipollini, roasted carrots, and a sweet-spicy sauce that, like all else here, was a bright, cheery marriage of Asian ideas and ingredients with a California riff.
Desserts are simple and delicious, from a double lemon bundt cake with warm blackberry compote, lemon cream and housemade blackberry ice cream to a strawberry shortcake that should help bring this wonderful American dessert back to the eminence it has for some reason lost.
The winelist is solid, mostly Californian, and reasonably priced.
Sage on the Coast represents the kind of place Southern Cal chefs are so good at--applaudable fresh ideas mixed with imagination and an attitude that is serious about food but overly so.
Open for Lunch and dinner; Dinner appetizers $7-$14, entrees $20-$32.
At another lunch, when I was hungry but not in the mood for anything unusual, I happened upon Buon Appetito (1609 India Street; 619-238-9880) in San Diego's Little Italy section (which is indeed little). Checking out the menus posted outside several other similar trattorias, I thought this was the most interesting, so I entered the rustic, cheery little place, was greeted very cordially by all the staff, and sat down to some convincingly authentic Italian food, including orrechiette alla barese with broccoli di rabe, Italian sausage, and chopped tomatoes, and fusilli al ragù d'anitra, with lusty duck sauce and parmigiano. Try the marinated, grilled shrimp on Tuscan beans with good golden olive oil or the sliced eggplant all'amalfitana, slicked with tomato over melting eggplant and mozzarella. The cappellini with shellfish (right) gets both the pasta al dente and the shellfish all at the right texture.
This really was indicative of some of the best Italian food I've had in Southern Cal, and I am hungry to return for a full-scale dinner. The winelist, by the way, is rife with excellent regional Italian bottlings at very good prices, with many under $30. There is also a changing exhibition of local artists on the walls of the restaurant.
I was somewhat disappointed by a much-ballyhooed place called Jack's La Jolla (7863 Girard Avenue; 858-456-8111) in a town now teeming with too many restaurants, too many nightclubs, too many boutiques, and too much traffic. Jack's is actually three completely separate restaurants in one space, and four distinctly different bars, so you can imagine how unwieldy such a proposition is. Nonetheless, as long as the various venues remain quite separate--Jack's Ocean Room, with a sushi bar; Jack's Grille, a casual eatery with something-for-everyone; the Wall Street Bar; The Beach Bar; The Wine Bar; and the Sidewalk Café--it could all run smoothly. But too much weight has been put on Chef Tony Di Salvo's shoulders to run it all, and the strain shows at the signature deluxe restaurant, Jack's Dining Room (left), which has a certain subdued glitz, comfortable banquettes, and excellent tablesetting. It was, however, stiflingly warm and open to the night air when I was there, and the decibel level from everything around and outside of it was not easy on the ears.
Di Salvo has a fine pedigree, having worked for a long while at the esteemed Jean-Georges in New York, but while many of the culinary concepts here are intriguing, many were lacking in refinement. Some ideas didn't hang together, and others lacked any real depth of flavor. So I left wondering why a chef of this caliber seemed incapable of turning out the best food on the coast. I suspect the answer lies in his having to do too much at this gargantuan gastro-restaurant, when he should be devoting all his talents and real focus to making sure the food at this dining room is flawless, especially when prices are high, with entrees rising to $40. A simple dish of cubes of bluefin tuna should be scintillating, but the example I tried were bland. The only dish of at least a dozen I tasted that I really enjoyed was crispy Jidori chicken. Many others just fell flat.
Presentations were pretentious, service slow and inept, and cocktails took forever to arrive. Somewhere at Jack's Dining Room there is the potential for a great restaurant to emerge. When management gives Di Salvo less to do and more to focus on, it should be.
Jack's Dining Room is open for dinner nightly. Appetizers run $10-$22, main courses, $28-$40. A 5-course tasting menu, is $65 per person, 7 courses $85; 9 courses $110.
On the other hand, Blanca (
Blanca has style to burn--with a beautiful lighted bar with wines racked and backlighted against the wall (below), very cushy banquettes, and fine tablesettings of first-class silver and stemware. Proprietors Debbie Hugonin and Seth Baas obviously poured a lot of money into this operation, and despite its being lodged in yet another strip mall setting-- this one very unattractive--once you go through Blanca's doors, you are immediately in one of the most sophisticated rooms in Southern Cal, and it gets a pretty swank crowd. The music, however, turns invasive and obnoxious after 9 PM.
You might begin here, in season, with a tasting of local heirloom tomatoes served three ways, fresh, fried, and with foam, or with a fabulous Kurobuta pork belly, cooked "en sous vide" till tender and served with a baby fennel salad and a delightful Manila clam chowder. Though they arrived tepid the evening I dined there, the merlot-braised shortribs osso buco-style were terrific, meltingly tender, with a tangy-sweet onion marmalade and potatoes spiked with horseradish, just about a perfect way to treat short ribs.
Day boat scallops were lush and translucent, with a zucchini-potato gratin and a black truffle beurre blanc that certainly didn't need the insipid summer truffles shaved over it. Hageman uses sweet Colorado lamb and serves it two ways on one plate, roasted with a whole grain mustard persillade, and wilted mustard greens, and with a navarin pot pie. It's a very, very hearty dish and very, very good.
I tried three desserts, delectable butterscotch pot de creme with bittersweet chocolate streusel, scrumptious huckleberry blondies, and light chantilly cream laced with Scotch; along with a parfait of chocolate with caramelized bananas and peanut butter caramel. This time strawberry shortcake did not show well, made with lemon chiffon and lavender-macerated strawberries that made too fussy a dessert that should be starkly simple.
Demerits are taken for the management of Blanca, whose staff all but disappeared after 9:30, with our waiter coming back to the table after ten minutes reeking of cigarette smoke, and a kind of chumminess on the part of Mr. Baas that extends to the prettier girls in and outside the restaurant when he should be attending to his guests at the tables. Such things are easily fixed and focused, and if so, Blanca may turn out to be one of the all-around finest restaurants along the Pacific Coast. Wade Hagemen certainly delivers the goods from the his side of the kitchen door.
Blanca is open daily for dinner only. Appetizers run $11-$22, entrees $29-$50.
NEW YORK CORNER
7SQUARE by John Mariani
224 West 49 Street
The Theater District is a two-edged sword for restaurants. On the one hand, even the most meretricious of places--some that should have gone out of business decades ago--still thrive from five o'clock till 7:30, when everybody barrels out the door to attend a play or musical within the area. Then a few regulars might trickle in, and there might even be some after-theater revelers. Some restaurants are famous--Barbetta, Sardi's, Gallagher's, Joe Allen--while others get by purely on nostalgia, like the old bistros Tout Va Bien and Chez Napoleon. But the number of restaurants with serious, modern cuisine in the Theater District is very, very low indeed, and many have struggled to attract a clientele that wants to eat well after the eight o'clock curtain.
One such is 7Square, whose young chef Shane McBride (right) is a very bright addition to the neighborhood, as he would be to any, for he has both the experience (Lespinasse and Aureole) and a feel for the Theater District, having worked on these premises when it was the estimable Oçeo. He's got energy, his talent for rendering fine food from fine ingredients is evident in just about every dish, and he's got the backing of the owner, Alvaro Perez, who has himself been involved in 50 restaurants in Japan.
The name 7SQUARE comes from a play on 7 times 7 = 49, which is the number of the street the restaurant is on; it is also a lucky number, and I hope it works for them.
I'm not sure why the owner calls this a "modern American chophouse," for although it is modern, and it is American, and it does have chops, it has so much more on the menu that distinguishes it from nouveau steakhouses like Craftsteak and Kobe Club. I cannot say I am in any way taken by the decor, which is plum boring. Upstairs is the Time Hotel, complete with lounge and bar music, reached by an interesting elevator; fortunately that nightlife doesn't intrude on the dining area downstairs. Unfortunately, there is not a single element of decor that draws the eye. It is a dull dining room if there ever was one, resembling more a hotel coffee shop than a serious restaurant. Basically it's a long room with a semi-open kitchen and an overall cast of silver and aluminum, which is rather cold and uninviting. The tables are cheap laminate, bare of any covering (ugh!), the lighting is gray and unflattering, the chairs diner-class, and the piped-in music and lack of any soft surfaces doesn't help the decibel level one bit. Alexander Kaletski's cardboard collages help brighten the space, though.
Fortunately, McBride takes up the slack, starting with appetizers like his Caesar salad, which is unlike any other you'll run across: shredded lettuce on crusty sourdough croutons with a poached egg and bacon strips. Ham2 (left) is another wonderful piece of artifice--a tasting of four artisanal hams, jamon de Bayonne, wild boar ham, house-cured duck ham, and applewood smoked ham with deviled eggs. The hits keep on coming: “Dirty rice” risotto is dotted with duck confit, smoked duck ham, andouille, and green onion. Marvelously fresh steak tartare comes with pickled vegetables and hot, crisp house potato chips. The hearty New England clam chowder screams of sweet, tender clams and cream--one of the best I've ever had.
Main courses maintain the heat, with excellent Colorado rack of lamb, and a New York veal chop with roasted mushrooms. Shortribs are braised in root beer--not a bad idea when you think about the flavor and sweetness of that soda pop--and the side dishes are every bit as good, like the spicy broccoli di rabe, the terrific, gooey macaroni-and-cheese, and hand-cut crisp french fries.
The two winning desserts are "Dougie’s Chocolate Square Ding," (below) a take on the classic Hostess Ring Ding, and a plate of warm, tender cookies. Apple tart was nothing special, despite a molasses sauce and pecan streusel; topping.
The winelist is well conceived with sufficient bottles at fair prices under $50.
So I'm obviously very high on Shane McBride as a young chef to keep your eye on. I wish, though, that the premises of 7SQUARE had something to draw me here again and again. 7SQUARE doesn't look much like a winner, but McBride is doing some of the best food in the Theater District right now and this is well worth a visit for a full post-8 PM meal rather than a fly-by pre-theater nosh.
Open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Dinner starters run $9-$15, main courses $15-$34.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
GATTINARA: A Fine Wine from
by John Mariani
Those who can afford the big $150 barolos and $300 barbarescos of Piedmont may not give much thought to Gattinaras, despite their being made from the same grape—nebbiolo--in the same region of Italy. Ironically, gattinaras of a century ago were considered superior wines to barbarescos and barolos but lapsed into decline as those other two rose in eminence via innovative winemakers like Angelo Gaja and Fontanafredda. Gattinara became lumped with other, lesser, Nebbiolo-based wines like Carema, Ghemme, and Spanna—this last the name used in northern
Gattinara got a boost in 1990 when it was awarded the prestigious DOCG appellation, which guarantees a wine of superior quality made according to strict regulations. Production has been cut back to keep quality high and traditional methods of growing, pressing, and aging are now balanced by modern viniculture.
Gattinara’s current reputation rests on a few forward-thinking producers who are making wines that approach in body and flavor those of barbaresco and barolo. The region of
One of the leaders in Gattinara’s resuscitation is the producer Travaglini (www.travaglinigattinara.it), which has been making the wine since 1958 and is still a family business with plantings on 39 hectares in and around the town of
One can easily find older riservas of Travaglini wines, like the magnificent 1997 ($40), a great vintage in northern Italy that gives this Gattinara both opulence and elegance, along with complexity from spending three years in barrel (right) and one in bottle. Almost as good is the non-riserva from the same year ($28), a little lighter in body but a paragon of what Gattinara should taste like, with all the attendant spicy minerals and burst of bouquet.
Travaglini’s Tre Vigne (“three vineyards”) from 1997 ($45) promises to be superb even after a few more years in bottle. It’s very big and still quite tannic, but will be extraordinary in two or three years and a match for some of the best barolos. The Association of Italian Sommeliers awarded the 1999 vintage of this wine its top award of five grappoli (grape clusters).
Antoniolo is another respected Piemontese producer in Gattinara, best known for its crus, which spend some time in small oak barrels. The regular bottle from 2001 ($35) begins light in the nose and on the palate, then comes tingly spice and fruit, but it all fades fast and didn’t amount to much more than a medium-bodied red Italian wine. Their 2001 San Francesco ($45) had little color and needed some time exposed to the air to bring up its fruit and spice. Still, I did not find it rose to the stature of a wine I’d spend $45 on, and its medium body seems atypical of Gattinara. This is doubly puzzling because 2001 was a vintage of considerable power in
Other widely distributed gattinara producers to consider would be Dessilani and Nervi.
As I’ve indicated, few Gattinaras can match the well-deserved reputation of the finest barolos and barbarescos, but they are much more approachable wines at much more reasonable prices and will go well with the same kinds of food, which includes risotto with white truffles and roast lamb scented with rosemary.
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.
DEPARTMENT OF WRETCHED EXCESS
In Mumbai, India, more than 500 people have signed up for the Home-Care Dog Food service that caters to wealthy families' canines, which costs from 30 rupees to 120 rupees ($0.66 to $2.60) per day. "They tell us about their dog's likes, dislikes, allergies, and we come up with a meal plan for the month," says the owner of the business, Wasiff Khan. On Hindu holidays when meat is prohibited for religious reasons, the dogs go vegan too. Those who can afford the service, are attracted by the convenience, said Khan.
RESTAURANT REVIEWS WE NEVER FINISHED READING
"Great ideas don't always work out as planned; it's all about the execution. Think of ice-cube trays or do-it-yourself bikini waxes."
--Victoria Pesce Elliott, "Blue Oyster Grill: Just another fish in the sea," Miami Herald (Dec.. 28, 2006).
NEW FEATURE: I am happy to report that the Virtual Gourmet is linking up with Everett Potter's Travel Report, which I consider the best and savviest blog of its kind on the web. Potter is a columnist for USA Weekend, Diversion, Laptop and Luxury Spa Finder, a contributing editor for Ski and a frequent contributor to National Geographic Traveler, ForbesTraveler.com and Elle Decor. "I’ve designed this site is for people who take their travel seriously," says Potter. "For travelers who want to learn about special places but don’t necessarily want to pay through the nose for the privilege of staying there. Because at the end of the day, it’s not so much about five-star places as five-star experiences."
To go to his blog click on the logo below:
Owing to the huge number of press releases on holidays dinners like St. Valentine's Day, it is only possible to list a very few extraordinary events and packages.
* On Jan. 31 in
* From Jan 22-25 more than 75
* On Jan. 30 Unwind Wine™, a new wine tasting and networking club in NYC, will host a "Seduced by Bacon" wine tasting celebrating the new cookbook, Seduced by Bacon, written by Joanna Pruess with her husband, Bob Lape, featuring 6 wines paired with finger foods prepared by Chef Pnina Peled of Ristorante Cinque Terre at the Jolly Hotel Madison Towers. $75. Visit www.unwindwithwine.com/events
* On Feb. 5 in
* From Feb. 12-14 José Andrés' and Rob Wilder's THINKfoodGROUP will open Oyamel in DC with a fundraising campaign to support Aid to Artisans, Children's Research Institute at Children's National Medical Center, and Many Hats Institute. Unlimited feasting from the menu available for $75 pp. Call (202) 628-1005.
* In addition to offering a $75 prix fixe menu during the week leading up to Valentine’s Day (Feb. 8 - 14), restaurateur Bruno Serato of the Anaheim Whitehouse in Anaheim, CA, will giving away a one-of-a-kind $10,000 diamond/sapphire encrusted necklace and 6 diamond/sapphire necklaces worth more than $1,000 each, selecting one guest from each evening's reservation list who will be presented with a complimentary necklace, custom designed by jeweler John Machiaverna of J. Mac Jewelers of Anaheim. Call (714) 772-1381; visit www.anaheimwhitehouse.com.
* From Feb. 22-25 the "Masters of Food and Wine" will be held at the Park Hyatt Mendoza and the Highlands Inn, Park Hyatt Carmel. Events in Mendoza incl.: 4-course lunch by Ken Oringer at Andeluna Winery, with vintner Rodrigo Reina Rutini; Traditional parrilla with Luis Acuna at Zuccardi Winery, with Argentine musician Jaime Torres; Wine Spectator Gala Dinner with Chefs Todd English, Floyd Cardoz, Emmaunel Bassoleil, Ken Ooe, Fernando Trocca, and Jean François Foucher and wines from founding wineries; lunch hosted by winemaker Nicolas Catena at Catena Winery, prepared by chefs from the Park Hyatt Chicago and Park Hyatt Paris-Vendôme, plus a Tango show. Packages start at $990 pp; visit www.mfandw.com.ar ; at Highlands Inn, Park Hyatt Carmel’s events incl.: Two 5-course lunches and two 6-course dinners with a different celebrity chef preparing each course and paired with fine wines from around the world; 6 featured vertical wine tastings from prominentworld wineries. 6 cooking demos. $2,498, pp. Visit www.mfandw.com or call (800) 401-1009.
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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