Virtual Gourmet

March 18,  2007                                                       NEWSLETTER


                                                          New Recipes for Good Eating (1953)

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In This Issue

AROUND COGNAC by John Mariani

NEW YORK CORNER: Dennis Foy by John Mariani


NOTES FROM THE WINE  CELLARMatt Kramer Makes Italian Wine Easy by John Mariani


by John Mariani

      w33Cognac is either a small city or a large town (its sister city is Deniston, Texas), for it is easy enough to walk around it in an hour or two and need not spend much more time there unless you are a wine merchant.  For the city that gives its name to one of the world's greatest brandies is distilled and bottled and shipped, with many of the ancient names--Otard, Hennessey, Courvoisier, and many others--open to visit, which is well worth your while.
     Its location on the Charente River long made it ideal for shipping its products, and Cognac lies along one of Christendom's holy pilgrimage routes, Santiago de Campostella. The city's history is as quarrelsome as any in Charlemagne's realm, though Francis I (left), who reigned from 1515-1547, settled things down by encouraging Cognac to become a commercial center for wine and spirits, and his symbol, the salamander, is found carved and incorporated into scores of the buildings here, some dating back to the Renaissance.
      The Château de Cognac was Francis I's birthplace, and it contains rooms designed by Leonardo da Vinci;  it was taken over by Mayor Otard in 1795 and is now owned by the firm of Otard, which is itself now owned by Bacardi. The château is open to the public, and the tour includes visits throughout the huge structure, which includes including some hokey mannequins in period dress, and a stroll through the massive, endless cellars, whose walls are three meters thick.  The State Hall (below, right) is magnificent and is immaculately kept so that it looks the same as the day Francis was born. The artifacts of ancient and modern distillation methods are also well explained and shown, too, and you'll inhbale some of the "angel's share"--to spirist that evaporate into the air and, apparently, to the heavens.36yy6
       Other than that, you may soon be able to visit the headquarters of Grey Goose, the French vodka company also owned by Bacardi, just outside of town. It's quite an impressive, very modern place, with a tasting room and videos, and there are plans to open it to the public. I was there when they introcued their new Poire (pear), which is the only flavored vodka I've ever enjoyed.
    Otherwise, stroll the old section of the city of Cognac, with its quaint central square with its equestrian statue of Francis I from which lead all the retail and market streets, and there is a delightful semi-indoor market worth visiting to see what the Cognacais are likely to be having for supper. There are some charming bistros and cafés along the way, and in the square there is the bustling Brasserie Le Coq D'Or (below; Place François 1er;
05-45-82-0256), set on two floors lined with banquettes and served by a brigade of fast-moving waitresses who carry out huge platters of choucroute, shellfish, and meats to ravenous customers who pack the place lunch and dinnertime.  It has the usual art nouveau appointments, though it will win no design awards, and everything here is paced for a racing appetite. yy44 The choucroute is indeed very good (if steamy) and lavishly proportioned, with layers of sausages and jarret de porc over steaming, winey sauerkraut.  Mussels are cooked in Pineau des Charentes wine, and the shellfish are superbly fresh.  Cold langoustines with a wonderfully rich mayonnaise made for a fine starter, but soupe des poissons was very bland, and the sole a la meunière with boring white rice lacked flavor.  The frites, surprisingly, were terrible, limp and oily.
      Considerably higher on the hog is La Ribaudière (Place du Port; 05-45-81-3054), a very swank restaurant in Bourg-Charente with a clientele that tends to dress to the nines for the  big night out, and it obviously draws a good deal of its business from the Cognac trade in the area.  Chef-owner Thierry Verrat controls every aspect of the large restaurant, which has several dining rooms on two floors (below) and a lovely patio on the banks of the Charente river.  He sources his products as locally as possible, and his cuisine is simple and based on those ingredients to provide the principal flavors.
     I was with a large crowd of people and managed to steal bites from several plates, which included a millefeuille of sea spider with tomatoes laced with vinegar, and a similar treatment of langoustines and dried tomatoes with fennel.  Local farms' eggs were stuffed with parsley, salmon, and tomato--a lovely idea--and a Saint Pierre cheese in perfect condition was perfumed with roast laurel, fava beans, Iberian ham, accompanied by a little morsel of aged goat's cheese.22
      A simply cooked filet of sole had a generous portion of black truffles along with homey polenta, itself lavished with diced truffles.  Boring indeed was a côte de boeuf grilled with gray sea salt, served with marrow and cèpes, while breast of chicken cooked in a cocotte with a side dish of ravioli stuffed with fromage blanc was very good.  Best of the main courses was a roasted squab with an étouffée of morels.  Cheese followed from a well-arranged cart, then a soufflé flavored with lemon vodka, and another chocolate dessert of various sweets--a crispy chocolate croustillant, with chocolate cream, ice cream, and hot chocolate.
     The winelist is superb, as befits a  restaurant of this caliber.
There are several pricing options for dinner, including a very reasonable 4-course menu of the season at just 35 euros (service and tax included), a "menu gourmand" at 45-50 euros, a lobster menu "of discovery" at 70 euros, and à la carte, with first courses 24-35 euros and main courses 26-32 euros.
      Much in a similar vein of luxury is the Château de l'Yeuse (65 rue de Bellevue ; 05 45 36 82 60; below), with a very formal dining room and a beautiful terrace.  Here Chef Pascal Nebout does classic French cuisine, not with a great deal of flair but with considerable conservative taste in dishes like pastry-crusted scallops with cauliflower, 9-very finely grained roast veal with girolles mushrooms, and a fine assiette of cheeses. It's a prettier place than it is distinctive in its cuisine.

      We were staying at a charming, very beautiful small chateau called Logis du Fresne (right) in Juillac Le Coq, smack in the middle of the farm and vineyard country that rolls around it.  The rooms have both a rusticity and country elegance that  is replicated in the outdoor patio and the lovely people who run it with a very warm heart. It is also located in a serenely quiet region of farmland and vineyards, and if there are no mosquitos, letting the air of the night in
has as soprofic effect as does the glass on Cognac on your bed table.

by John Mariani

313 Church Street
I've followed Dennis Foy's career now for nearly three decades, first in Chatham, NJ, where he ran a very novel restaurant called the Tarragon Tree (a very Seventies name) in a very pretty country house where he garnered enormous attention for the precision and creativity of his cooking. A stint at Mondrian in midtown Manhattan back in the 1990s didn't fare particularly well, but he had a good run in Greenwich Village at EQ, named after his wife and partner Estella Quinones. Now in TriBeCa, the Foys (below) have fashioned a beautiful and very comfortably sophisticated dining room of a kind we haven't seen much of in NYC this past year.
      The premises
that were previously La Scolca, retain the dramatic arching beams of the ceiling, though now they are painted green, red, and blue and look rather like a floating Frank Stella painting.  The rest of the artwork (for sale), set against gold-leaf walls, is by Foy himself, who has spent as much time at that craft as he has in cooking, and both talents show similarly on the plate, with strong colors and simple shapes.
     Is this really the first new dining room I've visited in months to have real tablecloths?  How refreshing, clean, bright, and soft!
Pretty flowers deck the tables. Stemware is thin, silverware of fine quality, and the overhead silk-fabric lighting--glowing like onion skin--is perfect, convivial, and flattering, as is the civilized sound level. It's even the ideal size for a personalized, chef-run restaurant, 60 seats. (Upstairs is a 30-seat private dining room.)
      There is a judicious 100-label winelist here with plenty to choose from under $50, and actually not too many high-priced bottles, though they stand out like sore thumbs among other less expensive wines on the list.12,
        I always like a menu that is not too complex,  easy to read, and with just enough choice and imagination to make that choice difficult.  Our table of four wanted to devour everything on it--seven appetizers, nine entrees--but held ourselves to the standard starter and main course.  There was an amuse of thick, very dark, very rich and delicious lentil soup, then we began with a silky terrine of French goose foie gras in an eiswein jelly with a purée of prunes and a little shower of white flakes on top that Foy makes by mixing foie gras fat with tapioca powder--a great idea sure to be copied. The dish is described as "Eis and Snow," and that it is (right).
      A warm crabmeat terrine was so simple, so good, just kissed with fresh thyme, while big-eye tuna tartare with apple and cinnamon was, if not inspired, a fine rendering of a ubiquitous dish.  If I recall, Foy has been serving sautéed potato gnocchi for a while now, and well he should: the current dish, with sage and and chives and some tiny mushrooms epitomizes the directness Italian pasta should always have.
      bbbbbbbbbbFor entrees there was very tender pink squab, fat and buxom indeed, with green vegetables, saline-bitter spinach, the sweetness of spiced golden raisins, and argan oil (I still haven't a clue what that is). Braised pork from the Berkshires had plenty of flavor and a judicious amount of fat, served with a lovely quince tart, sow peas, honey, cumin, and saffron--each spice very subtly adding another spark of savoriness. Arctic char was white and meaty, with spinach, a dusting of nutmeg and pommes salardaise, sautéed in goose fat with garlic and cèpes.  A dish of fluke, squid, white beans, fennel, chorizo, and almonds was rather flaccid and bland.
     "Refined" is the word I would repeat again and again if I repeated myself, but I will save it for the desserts--rather gently priced at $10--like the black plum financier with winter fruit compote and rum ice cream; the coconut caramel bar with mango lime sorbet and a ribbon litchi fruit; a pear and pistachio tart with brandied cherries and  vanilla ice cream; and a rich chocolate and hazelnut-studded dome with coffee brûlée and dulce de leche--a devastatingly good ending for a, yes, highly refined evening.
     But that's what struck me most about this graciously civilized night out in New York, without the noise, the puerile service, the slovenly clientele, and the throbbing music you now find all over town. The cooking is all that cooking should be and rarely is, clean, focused, and very good.  I'm glad to have the Foys back in NYC.
           Appetizers, $8 to $18, entrees, $24 to $35; desserts, $10. Open for dinner only.

by John Mariani

     333t    Following the format of Michelin's U.S. guides to New York City and San Francisco and the Bay Area, the ratings company has issued new Paris and London guides (separate from the more comprehensive France and Great Britain and Ireland guides, also issued recently).  This is all to the good for now every restaurant and hotel gets a write-up (in the past Michelin wrote not a word about their selections until adding a line or two in 2000), and the restaurants awarded one to three stars get a full page with photos.  There are all the usual icons--an umbrella and table for outside dining, a bunch of grapes for a "particularly interesting wine list," a figure at a lectern for a conference room, and the head of the cartoon character Bibendum (below) licking his lips to indicate a "Bib Gourmand" restaurant with "good cooking at moderate prices."
     This last icon might well be the most valuable virtue of the new Michelin guides, for they make clear that one does not have to spend a fortune to eat well in Paris or London.  There are scores of Paris restaurants with a menu at 33 euros ($43), and scores more at 35 euros ($46).  Alas, the price of dining at the star level is daunting in both cities, though more so in Paris than in London:  The lowest price for a three-course meal (à la carte) at the one-star Gérard Besson is 100 euros ($131); two-star Lasserre  runs 122 euros ($160), and  three-star Pierre Gagnaire will cost a minimum of 231 euros ($303); these include tax and service but not wine.  In London,  the one-star Amaya has a minimum of 30 pounds ($58),  as does the the two-star Square, and London's only three-star restaurant, Gordon Ramsay, starts at 40 pounds ($77);  depending on the restaurant a 12-15% service charge may be added on to the bill, which makes dining in London  quite comparable, if not a bit lower, to doing so at similar restaurants in NYC, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas.p;
      One can't help but feel, then, that the price of a star is getting more and more exorbitant, and just looking at the festooned dining rooms that have stars makes one wonder if food and food alone determines the star rating, as Michelin has always contended. Indeed, in awarding one star to the modest-looking Assaggi in London, the guide reads, "Those in any doubt about the fact that Michelin stars are awarded for the quality of the food on the plate and not for the style or decoration of a place should come to Assaggi." But Assaggi is such a rare exception among the stars that the guide's contention falls rather flat.  In Paris the kinds of restaurants that annually receive stars are the kind of restaurants with 50 seats, extravagant decor that extends to the restrooms, a kitchen brigade of 25 and a service staff of equal number.  Some may be more stark than others, but the Starck in question is probably Philippe, and many might argue that the guide is still very, very generous to Paris restaurants long resting on their Michelin laurels, like La Tour d'Argent and Hélène Darroze.
      In an interview I had with the dynamic director of the guides, Jean-Luc Naret (right), who can be credited with the improvements of the past two years, he admitted that the stars are not yet as highly regarded in the U.S. as in Europe.  The reception of the local media  to the New York guide was actually quite warm, though San Francisco foodies threw fits over the choices and ratings for their region. "The problem is that the rankings in the U.S. tend to be four or five stars," said Naret, "so people see us give a restaurant one star and they don't think that is very high, although
Alice Waters called and said she was so pleased she got one star.  A Michelin star means yours is one of the 1,000 best restaurants in the entire world, while three stars means you are one of the 60 best."
      One of the criticisms of the guides, which I share, is that to read through the text on any of the restaurants, you would think none has a single flaw, no notice of weak desserts, uncomfortable seating, loud music, poor service. "It's true," said Naret. "We were very mellow in the beginning. We felt, let’s be positive, let’s not be negative.  But we have heard this comment and the next ones will be very different."
      3iSo what do the new Paris and London guides show?  
The London guide lists 428 restaurants and 50 hotels, with only Gordon Ramsay getting three stars. Five receive two stars--The Capital, Le Gavroche, Petrus, Pied a Terre, and The Square; 42 receive one star. In Paris 10 restaurants have three stars, with the Meurice, now under Chef Yannick Alleno, rising into that firmament this year.  Demotions to two stars include Le Cinq at the George V Four Seasons Hotel and--quel horreur!--the revered Taillevent, which received its first Michelin star in 1948,  its second in 1954, and, until this year, had retained its third star since 1973.  One wishes there was any indication in the guide as to why those mighty temples of gastronomy took a nose dive, mais non. Perhaps next year we shall know more.



by John Mariani

Everything You Need to Know About Italian Wine Is in Matt Kramer's New Book

     Except for an encyclopedia, I can’t think of any reason why a book about wine should run more than 280 pages, which happens to be the length of Matt Kramer’s Making Sense of Italian Wine (Running Press, $24.95). Cogency and the avoidance of Winespeak are just two of Kramer’s virtues, and his impressive knowledge of his subject is never brandished as omniscience about a subject as fascinating as it is frustrating.
      As Kramer writes in his Preface, “Italian wine, like quantum physics, is such a vast subject that even the most assured, experienced tasters are left scratching their heads over some new madness. No nation so relentlessly, even profligately, issues so many wines.  No winegrowers anywhere are so willing—insistent even—on throwing over the older order as Italians.  Yet no sooner do they do so than a revisionist reaction sets in. It’s as close to a permanent wine revolution as can be imagined.”
      Kramer certainly has as much experience in such matters as any living wine writer: He is a longtime wine columnist for Wine Spectator, Diversion, and The Oregonian, and has traveled extensively in Italy since becoming a full-time wine scribe in 1976.  This new book is the latest in a series that began with Making Sense of Wine and continued with Making Sense of Burgundy.
      Kramer knows that covering such a huge, chameleon subject as Italian wine makes commentary on bottlings of the moment as out-of-date as last season’s hemlines.  Instead, he focuses on ten aspects of a wine: The type or name (which may be either by grape or place); region; grapes; “The Tradition,” by which he provides the historic, cultural foundation for wines that allows the reader to understand what “the modernists are opposing or seeking to modify”; How the wines have changed over centuries; noteworthy producers, both traditionalists and modernists; What do the Locals Eat with this Wine?; Whose wine would Kramer buy at a wineshop (he favors low-yield vineyards); wines “Worth Searching For,” including the sub-category “Don’t die without trying it”;  and Similar Wines from the Same Neighborhood.
      He then, very sensibly, spends 3-8 pages on wines alphabetically, from Aglianico del Vulture from Basilicata to Vino Nobile di Montepulciano from Tuscany. Each is a quick, easy, conversational read without endless lists of producers, unavailable vintages, and technical jargon on Brix levels and volatile sulfur compounds.
      In two paragraphs on Aglianico he tells you when the vines first arrived in Basilicata (the name of the wine refers to “ellenico,” meaning Hellenic or Greek), the best terroir in the region (Monte Vulture, with its layers of volcanic lava), and its competition, from Calabria. He then explains how, only in the last decade, the varietal has gone from a tradition of “anything goes” to a serious red wine whose best producers think globally and act locally.”
      Of Veneto’s Bardolino, he is refreshingly candid, contending that declining sales in the 1980s caused local producers not to make better Bardolino but to imitate Beaujolais Nouveau: “I’d like to say that, embarrassed by the error of their ways, Bardolino’s producers are grasping their way back to greatness.  They aren’t.”
      Kramer (below) is right on the mark when he characterizes the scores of new Brunello di Montalcino produces as problematic. “Never before have we seen so many Brunellos,” he writes, “Yet the quality is distressingly variable.  Simply put, many . . . aren’t worth the invariably high price being asked.” He then alerts you to which producers’ wines—both traditionalists and modernists—really are.
      YYHHHHe also puts into perspective contemporary efforts at improving Lambrusco, long regarded as a fizzy (frizzante) soda pop-like red wine from Emilia-Romagna. Acknowledging that most Lambruscos are still made for an undemanding audience and high volume, he has also ferreted out a handful of producers “who are truly serious about this underrated wine” by using a strain of the grape that is lower yielding to create a richer, denser red wine.
nd so it goes for 280 
user-friendly pages, which include a very helpful section on “Frequently Seen Wine Label Words” like abbazia (abbey), colle (hill), podere (farm), prato (field), vecchio (old), and vinicola (winery).
      This is a wine book you can pretty much read right straight through, peruse at your leisure, or consult before hitting the wineshop.  Most important, it is unlikely to be out of date any time soon.  When it is, I’m depending on Mr. Kramer to revise his book without making it any heavier.
     To order a copy of this book from click on the book cover above.
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 AMPLICATION:  Last week's "Notes from the Wine Cellar" about Irish whiskey erroneously omitted a section on Jameson's, which is now restored.  Click here.

NEW FEATURE: I am happy to  report that the Virtual Gourmet is  linking up with two excellent travel sites:

Everett Potter's Travel  Report
I consider this 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,  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:


Tennis Resorts OnlineA Critical Guide to the World's Best Tennis Resorts and Tennis Camps, published by ROGER COX, who has spent more than two decades writing about tennis travel, including a 17-year stretch for Tennis magazine. He has also written for Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel, New York Magazine, Travel & Leisure, Esquire, Money, USTA Magazine, Men's Journal, and The Robb Report. He has authored  two books-The World's Best Tennis Vacations (Stephen Greene Press/Viking Penguin, 1990) and The Best Places to  Stay in the Rockies (Houghton Mifflin, 1992 & 1994), and the Melbourne (Australia) chapter to the Wall Street Journal Business Guide to Cities of the Pacific Rim (Fodor's Travel Guides, 1991). Click on the logo below to go to the site.



* Elite Travel International's Trips for Cancer has raised $61,000 for The Breast Cancer Research Foundation. The 2007 campaign ends March 26 and trips start closing out soon. In addition to bidding on trips, you can also make a $200 donation to BCRF and be entered into the HOT PINK raffle, with prizes drawn on June 7 to include a $15,000 trip to Italy, a 4-day stay at Canyon Ranch, a 5-day stay in Fiji, a $4,500 Coach bag, and an Audemars Piguet Watch. Visit

 * From March 19-24, Taberna del Alabardero celebrates 18 years in Washington DC with a week of festivities by offering  a 3-course menu of  special dishes from Spain, and a “Flamenco Extravaganza,” with dancers Carmela Greco and Edwin Aparicio, guitarist Richard Marlow, and singer Alfonso Cid; a special 18th Anniversary Wine Dinner prepared by guest chefs Miguel Angel Prieto and José Molina of Taberna del Alabardero in Sevilla, Spain, and Executive Chef Santi Zabaleta.  $55 pp. To cap off the week-long celebration, Taberna del Alabardero has teamed up with Aurelio Cabestrero to present an 18th Anniversary 7-course Wine Dinner on  March 24, paired with wines selected by Sommelier David Bueno. $130 pp.  Call 202-429-2200; visit

* On March 31, at Nana in Dallas, Chef Anthony Bombaci will present a special luncheon to honor renowned Sonoma California winemaker, Merry Edwards, with herr husband and partner, Ken Coopersmith. $55 pp. Call 214-761-7470; visit

* Each month Chicago’s Cafe Matou hosts its “4th Wednesday Wine Cellar Raid,” featuring select wines for $17. Wine Director James Rahn pulls about 25 bottles from the restaurant's cellar, which diners may enjoy with Chef/Owner Charlie Socher's French cuisine. The date for the next cellar raid is March 28, 2007. Call Cafe Matou at 773-384-8911.

* The sommelier at Addison at The Grand Del Mar in San Diego, Jesse Rodriguez, now offers"Perfect Wines for Your Perfect Match,” a full day of fine wine tastings and tours lead,  customized each day to match a couple's specific wine expertise and interests, incl. a meal for two; an in-depth tour of Addison's expansive wine vault of 10,000 bottles, with  advice expanding  personal wine cellar; an interactive session with a boutique winemaker to taste and discuss a variety of new wines; a staff-education meeting led by Rodriguez; and a 6-course meal by Rodriguez and executive chef William Bradley.  $500 fee.  Call 858-314-1900.

* Alexander's Steakhouse in Cupertino, CA, now offers a  hands-on experience at its Chef's Table with Chef Jeffrey Stout and his team. Guests are greeted with signature chef coats ansd then learn to Grill a piece of fish on the back line;  Organize the walk-in refrigerator; Sauce plates with a Sous Chef;  Vacuum pack filet mignon;   Learn how to present and open a bottle of wine with Sommelier Erik Entrikin;  Mop the floor.     Guests dining at the Chef's Table can either order a la carte. Minimum $100 pp. Call 408-446-2222.


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 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 2007