Virtual Gourmet

July 8,   2007                                                       NEWSLETTER


Lemon and Asparagus (2007) by Galina Stepanoff-Dargery

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In This Issue


NEW YORK CORNER: Park Avenue Summer  by John Mariani

NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR It Takes a Greek Woman's Touch To Keep Château Margaux On Top by John Mariani



Dining Out in Lisbon
by John Mariani
Photos by Galina Stepanoff-Dargery

   uuuuuIn Paris you start the day with a croissant and bad coffee; in Rome with great coffee and a bad croissant. But in Lisbon you begin with a pastéis de nata—an incredibly rich cinnamon-laced custard tartlet dusted with powdered sugar, originally created by nuns.
      The little tarts are sold in many of the city's cafés, but most everyone agrees the best are at the historic and vast Pastéis de Belém (84-92 Rua de Belém; 351-213-637- 423; left), here since 1837 and packed from morning till midnight. Students gather here before and after school, well-dressed Lisboans come here mid-morning or after lunch, and late into the night the huge kitchen keeps turning the perfect pastries out and the coffee machines are hissing.  Legend has it that the café has the original nuns' recipe, and if so, we are all blessed indeed.
       After you've had a breakfast of one or two 
pastéis de nata, take a long walk over to the Largo de Sao Dominicos.  By the time you get there you'll be ready for a pick-me-up, so join the line out the door of the minuscule bar named À Ginjinha (8 Largo de Sao Domincos; below) for a bracing shot of liqueur made from Óbidos cherries.  It's absolutely delicious, very sweet, and makes you smile, as is everyone else around you.  Drink only one--for now--because they are potent as well as restorative, so they are as good in the morning to get you going as they are to urge you towards a nice sesta in the afternoon.ujjj
     For a good, fairly light lunch, head uphill (Lisbon has lots of hills) to the 
casually modern Restaurante Flores (2 Praca Luis de Camões; 351-21 340 8222) attached to the Bairro Alto Hotel. Here Chef Henrique Sá Pessoa is showing himself one of the young innovators of Portuguese cuisine within a sleek modern dining room where we enjoyed cannelloni stuffed with shellfish and thinly sliced scallops, with which we drank a Vértice 2004 white wine from the Douro. Next came, unexpectedly--and unexpectedly good--a Thai salad with sliced seared beef and roasted peanuts, followed by a filet of grouper crusted with chorizo and potato, and sided with eggplant caviar and a tomato olive oil--nothing strained, just good flavors in harmony. The red wine was a Singularis Alentejo '03.  For dessert there was lemongrass and raspberry crème brûlée.  Flores carries a very up-to-date Portuguese wine list obviously chosen to show off modern viniculture at its best in the country.  Prices for appetizers average $10, main courses $18, desserts $6.50.
Some of the most experimental cooking in Lisbon right now is at Pragma (
Casino Lisboa, Parque das Nações;  214 667 700) in the sleek new Casino in the Parque das Nações.  Here Chef Fausto Airoldi (below) aims to be Portugal’s answer to Spain’s Ferran Adrià, with dishes like scallops carpaccio with pomegranates and truffled vinaigrette, and chocolate-poached foie gras with salt and red wine. Some of it works brilliantly, some limps. Among my favorite dishes that evening, in this strikingly modern, tall, back-lighted barrel-ceiling room with walls painted aluminum and deep red, with very spacious, well-set tables, seating, in total, just 46 people, were a blood pudding with bread cubes, carrot cakes, tomatoes, and fava beans, with crispy pig's tongue cut as a cookie shape.  An intermezzo in the meal was a refreshing pineapple daiquiri shooter, ryu6and the main meat course a sautéed filet of fine venison with stewed vegetables--very, very delicious.  The cheese course was taleggio and came with Madagascar pepper ice cream that somehow won me over, served with marinated cherries, followed by a dessert of almond puree in puff pastry, served with a Grandjo Late Harvest wine from the Douro.  Menus here run about $70 for five  courses, $82 for seven, and $95 for nine.
     For traditional Portuguese fare, a good bet is Nariz de Vinho Tinto (75 Rua do Conde; 251-395-3035), around the corner from the Lapa Palace. The name means “Red Wine Nose,” and owner José Matos Cristovão creates the menu, waits tables, and talks to every guest. Have the clams with garlic and coriander or the bean-and-cabbage soup, washed down with Portuguese wine from a list with bottlings dating back to the 1980s.  If you wish to take a break from Portuguese food, traditional and modern, there is a good Italian restaurant in the Rata neighborhood called Mezzaluna (Rua Arthilharia Um 16; 351-21-387-9944) that is always packed, run by an Neapolitan-born chef  named Michael Guerrieri, who actually grew up in Long Island, came to visit Lisbon, and never left.   He happily comes out of the kitchen to  talk with his guests, which number many Americans,ooooooo and he has managed to keep his prices very reasonable indeed. The dining room is too low-lighted (Note to Mr. Guerrieri: if your waiter needs a flashlight to brighten the menu, your room is too dark), with a pleasantly casual ambiance. Some of his best dishes are rigatoni with morsels of pork and radicchio and laced with vinegar, and a very juicy, crisp-skinned chicken leg stuffed with ham and tomato and served with shoe string potatoes. The winelist comprises about 60 selections, mostly Portuguese.
      yiooIf, however, you have time for only one meal in Lisbon, I'd send you straight to the
narrow Travessa de Santo Antão where you can grab an outside table at Bon Jardin (11 Travessa de Santo Antão; 351-21-342-4389; right), which Lisboans know as "Rei do Frango" (King of Chickens) for the platter of fabulous spit-roasted chicken with fried potatoes that has been served here forever (left).  A long-time concierge  at the Lapa Palace said his grandmother used to take him to Bom Jardin as a Sunday treat.
      Having just about gotten my appetite back after a bout of flu, I tore into the wonderful chicken here with knife, fork and fingers, and after a couple of bottles of cold Sagres beer all was right with the world again, and it cost all of about $15. By the way, if Bon Jardin is full, which is usually the case,  there's a branch about twenty feet away on the other side of the street.

      I haven't mentioned all the art deco and art nouveau cafés, the wineshops, or the stores selling candies, spices, and dried cod.  It is all part of a gastronomy based on the sea and enriched by Portugal's imperial designs on colonies that once reached to Southeast Asia and gave up its spices. That's all long in the past now, but the bright flavors and colors remain everywhere.

To read about Lisbon as a destination, with hotels, museums, etc., read Part One of this article.

by John Mariani

100 E. 63rd Street

      You've got about two months to get to Park Avenue Summer before it disappears like Brigadoon.  Actually its premises won't disappear but the menu will and much of its decor.  This is the unusual plan for a restaurant that had a good long run as Park Avenue Café, under owner Alan Stillman.  A few months ago the word was that the place would close, but then Stillman's son Michael, who also oversees the Quality Meats steakhouse on the West Side, decided to reinvent the restaurant with a similar name but new concept, whereby the decor and menu will change every season.  Changing a menu seasonally is nothing new, but as far as I know, only The Four Seasons restaurant changes decor that way, and then, it's mostly just a change of foliage in the Pool Room.
     At Park Avenue Summer will mutate into Park Avenue Autumn come fall, with new decor, staff uniforms, seating  arrangements, and wine displays. Currently, in its summer motif,  the main dining room has reclaimed wood throughout, turtle shells on yellow panels, and bare tables, with dune-like vegetation instead of flowers.  This is attractive though not nearly so much as was the old Park Avenue Cafe, which was a superb  ambiance of vivid color and American folk art.  I was about to write that the decibel level when I visited was off the charts, with not a single soft surface to absorb the sound, and that the room was overly bright. But I just heard from my colleague Bob Lape that in the two weeks since I visited they have radically decreased the sound level and the lighting is now quite civilized, so that the photo above probably does not reflect the current look of the place.
     vfdThe chef is Craig Koketsu (below), who does double duty as exec chef at Quality Meats and before that at the Manhattan Ocean Club. The formidable pastry chef is Richard Leach, who makes the wonderful corn-polenta  and roasted pepper, cheddar, and rosemary breads, which came with an amuse of big cubes of watermelon topped with sea salt and pepper,  not something I was eager to begin my meal with.
     The menu I had certainly had summer written all over it, and the bounty of ingredients must delight the kitchen at this time of year. Softshell crabs were big, fat and  crunchy as  I could wish, served with avocado and white soy, but, inexplicably, with strawberries, which got a big question mark in my notes.  Caprese-style ravioli with a yellow tomato coulis was a much better idea, and better still was shrimp spiced with a Turkish pepper called Urfa-Biber and laced with a coconut cream.
      Of the main courses I was very happy with an above-average veal chop (as one would expect from steakhouse owners), juicy and with just enough fat to give it sweetness. Grilled langoustines were of good size, and impeccably cooked to a turn to retain all their succulence, while "sticky chicken" with a cucumber and lemon salad was a nice summery dish, if a little sweet.  Side dishes, as at the steakhouses, are requisite because you don't really get any with the main course.  But the sides are stand-outs here, including corn and white grits, and something called "Club 55 Potatoes" with cut rosemary.  The Club seems to refer to a place in St. Tropéz that inspired these golden crisp potatoes, though at $12 a portion I'm not sure they are all that wonderful.  Other sides include fried okra, sugar snap peas, and spiced carrots.ki5
      Mr. Leach has always had plenty of panache when it comes to desserts, all of which are highly decorative and wonderfully rich.  Go for the chocolate-peppermint trio (left), which includes a flourless chocolate little cake with peppermint foam. There is cherry rice pudding and lemon custard with bombolini, both delicious.
      The winelist is building and doing so beyond the strictly American bottlings that Smith & Wollensky promotes, so you'll find an array of wines from around the world. Prices are about on a par with any restaurant of Park Avenue Summer's caliber--not cheap but not a gouge either.
       So, if you like what you've just read, hurry over to this welcome addition to that neck of the Upper East Side woods (and let me know about the light and sound levels!).  If you don't, well, just wait until fall, when everything changes to the autumnal.

Lunch and dinner are served daily, brunch on Sunday. Dinner appetizers run $11-$18, entrees $29-$45.


It Takes a Greek Woman's Touch To Keep Château Margaux On Top
by John Mariani

      yu10One of the world’s greatest wines was not always so great. Like other First Growths of the
Médoc, Château Margaux has had its ups and downs, and by the 1970s, when you could buy a bottle for ten dollars or less.
      The estate itself and the wines had clearly been neglected, and by 1977 Château Margaux had been on the market for two years with no takers.
      “When my father (André Mentzelopoulos) looked into buying Margaux, I actually went to a dinner where other businessman tried to discourage him,” remembers Corinne Mentzelopoulos, “but it was too late. Honestly, when a Greek citizen arrives in Bordeaux after centuries of British, Irish and Dutch ownership, it’s quite a shock. But my father had the extraordinary foresight to understand what Château Margaux stood for at a time when nobody wanted to buy it.”
      One offer by the American company National Distillers had been spurned by the French government itself, but the Greek-born André Mentzelopoulos, who had made his fortune in France in the grocery and real estate business and was married to a Frenchwoman, was granted permission in 1977 to purchase the estate, which Thomas Jefferson had once called one of the “four vineyards of first quality.”
      Mentzelopoulos poured money into the estate both to restore the vineyards and the chateau, today considered one of the most beautiful in Bordeaux. “My father brought in a respected outside wine consultant (Emile Péynaud),” said Ms. Mentzelopoulos (right) in an interview in New York. “He put in new vat rooms, built a new underground cellar from scratch, made a careful selection of grapes for further ripeness, and introduced a second wine called Pavillon du Château Margaux. By 1980, he’d pretty much turned it around. Yet all his efforts would have been meaningless if we didn’t have the basic asset of the soil.”wf
      Upon André’s death at age 65 in 1980, his wife Laura, then Corinne took over Margaux’s management, which she continued to do when, in 1991, Italy’s Agnelli family bought majority ownership.  When the Agnellis put the château on the market in 2003--at a time when Bill Gates was shopping around for a Bordeaux wine estate--she marshaled her considerable resources and bought the Agnelli’s 75 percent share for $440 million, making her the sole owner of the estate.
      Ms. Mentzelopoulos, 54, regards herself as the latest in a long line of caretakers at Margaux: “Chateau Margaux does not belong to us but we belong to Château Margaux. Our role, albeit great as some people have thought, is only a little part of a very long history [the estate has been making wine since the 16th century], so whatever we’re doing today is nothing in comparison to the soil and terroir that has been assembled over the centuries that have made the wine great.
     “Funnily enough, we need a poor soil because we want the vines to struggle. The more the struggle, the more complex they become, and every decision I make, about an acre or a barrel today is going to be judged in another 50 years.”
      Corinne Mentzelopoulos speaks very fast, in flawless English, as well as in French and Greek.  Born in France, she had a Scottish nanny and at the age of ten spent the first of many summers in Canada. “I literally lived on North American junk food!” she says, “ and I’m very, very much into American stuff because when you are 10 years old and you go every summer of your life for two months, it sticks with you forever.”
     After graduating with a major in Classics at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris, she was appointed product manager at Havas S.A., then comptroller of Primisteres S.A., which ran the family’s food  stores, before becoming involved with Margaux, now a full-time job, along with raising three children, two daughters, currently in college, and a 14-year-old son. “I am raising my children like American kids,” she says happily. “They’re very much into the American way of life. And if I had to move, I’d move here to the U.S. To be honest, I wouldn’t live in Greece.”
      vWhen I asked her if she sees a future in going into partnerships with California wineries to produce a Bordeaux-style California cabernet, as did Château Mouton-Rothschild with Robert Mondavi to produce Opus One, she shook her head and shrugged:  “We make 12,000 cases of Margaux, and that’s a hell of a lot of wine. So you will still find old vintages available in the years to come. I don’t want to make a cult wine that sells all its bottles before it’s even released. I’m convinced that, whatever the investments, whatever the energy, we couldn’t produce something as good as Château Margaux.  And if it produced something less good, what’s the point?  I might as well invest in bonds, which I already do.
      “I mean, I don’t need it because I work all day and I’m happy as I am. So O.K., I invest in shares and what do I do then?  Sit all day and buy ten Rolls Royce and 20 yachts?  I would shoot myself at the end of the day because I’d be so bored.”
      Today no one would argue that Château Margaux has regained its eminence, which was proven yet again to this writer over lunch with Ms. Mentzelopoulos at Le Cirque in New York. She’d brought the 1999 vintage, which was decanted, and from the first burst of its sensuous bouquet to the long, lingering finish on the palate, the wine showed itself the match of any in the Médoc, any in Bordeaux, any in the world.  In its balance of fruit, acid, and tannins, its complex, evolving structure, and its wonderful freshness, the wine was a revelation every time I took a sip.  And, according to Madame, “It will get even better in the years to come.”
      You probably want to know which dishes Madame thought would go well with the ’99 Margaux at Le Cirque. She perused the menu and chose an appetizer of stuffed zucchini blossoms followed by two cheeseburgers with caramelized onions. Then she started in on the French fries.

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.


In Sibiu, Romania, bakery owner Vasilie Presecan shaved his head and asked his 60 employees to do so for hygienic and marketing reasons, explaining that the resemblance between his workers' bald heads and the bakery's bread was "very striking."

Oh, Bee-HAVE!
Excerpts from Kissing in the Kitchen: Cooking with Passion by Kevin T. Roberts2ip

Hot Dates--How cool is it to eat hot dates when you're on a hot date?

Lumpia--This Philippine "love stick" is like a meat-style egg roll. My Irish buddy had these at his girlfriend's house and hasn't left since. Now they're engaged; thank you, Lumpia Gods!

Firecracker Shrimp with Cajun Salmon Butter--This dish has some heat to it, but it's a full-flavor heat, not the "Oh, my God. I've burned my date's lips off!"

Make-out Macaroni with Lobster ad Cheese Blend--When you make this recipe you're guaranteed to whet your date's whistle and get some serious kissing in.


* On Bastille Day, July 14,  Shaun's in Atlanta celebrates with a French-inspired $38 menu and drink specials. Call 404-577-4358 or visit
* On July 14 the Festival del Sole will hold an Artisanal Wine and Food Tasting hosted by the Boutique Wine Producers of Napa at Meritage Resort in Napa.  Wineries incl. Eagle Eye, Elkhorn Peak, Frasier Family Estate, Hill Family Estate, Jocelyn, Judd's Hill, Phelan Vineyards, Rocca Family Vineyards, StoneFly Vineyards, Work Vineyard, et al. Artisan food purveyors and entertainment. $45 pp. Call 707-944-1300 or visit

* On July 18 the Bel-Air Hotel in Bel-Air, CA, will hold a Grgich Hills 5-course Wine Maker Dinner at $175 pp. Call Karla at 310-943-6742.

* On July 20 the Center for American Food & Wine at SageCliffe in Quincy, WA, will offer the 'Savor the Region' culinary series offers a luncheon and dinner, each featuring a wine tasting reception of Cave B Estate Winery and SageCliffe releases, as well as a hands-on cooking demos from the Ancient Lakes, followed by an elegant meal.  Call 509-785-2283;  Tix by  calling 509-785-3780.

* From July 22-27 the South Jersey Independent Restaurant Association (SJ Hot Chefs) presents "Farm to Fork Week," a tribute to local farming. Each restaurant will offer a 4-course dinner at $30 pp. Info is available at

* From July 26-28 in Washington, DC,  Taberna del Alabardero's "Noches de Andalucia" (Nights of Andalucia) pays tribute to the Andalucian regional art of Flamenco with a special menu and performances. Flamenco singers Manuel Leiva and Almudena de Malaga, guitarists Cidi de Malaga and Arturo el Gitano and dancers Sara de Jerez and Ana Menendez. Executive Chef Santi Zabaleta's specially crafted menu starts with an array of  tapas, followed by a traditional  appetizer, entrée and dessert. $65 pp. Call 202-429-2200. Visit

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.



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