Virtual Gourmet

December 30,  2007                                                       NEWSLETTER

Donna Reed in "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946)


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In This Issue

NEW IN NAPA: Go Fish and Ad Hoc by John Mariani

NEW YORK CORNER: Bodrum by John Mariani


by John Mariani

                                                     "Mount St. Helen's" by  Jocelyn Audette;
ile for mile California's beautiful Napa Valley probably has more fine restaurants than any wine country in the world. Indeed, it has more fine restaurants than many major cities, and I would include Las Vegas, San Diego, Seattle, Providence, Miami, and Dallas.  This critical mass has been building ever since the late 1970s when places like Domaine Chandon opened its doors and Mustards Grill set the absolute proper template for wine country dining.  The stature of others like Auberge du Soleil, La Toque, and the great French Laundry have made the Valley a dining destination, and when you add in terrific, more casual places like Bistro Jeanty, Bouchon,  Tra Vigne, Wine Spectator Greystone, Redd, Terra, Martini House,  and Angèle, you've got a territory worth more than a weekend visit to see a few wineries.

    Sorry to report, then, that the brilliant chef Joseph Humphries at Meadowood Resort, having
won every accolade possible, including from this reporter in Esquire, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Michelin Guide, left recently, and management is now actively looking for a replacement.
       New restaurants do not open in the Valley on a weekly or even monthly basis, and there is little turnover--except for chefs. Here are two new ones that I found well worth a visit for a casual meal while you save up for one at The French Laundry and wait for the new chef to arrive at Meadowood.

641 Main Street

St. Helena, CA



  The people who run both Mustards Grill and Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen, have now opened Go Fish in St. Helena. Surprisingly, while there is no lack of good seafood in the Valley, this is the only restaurant solely devoted to seafood. Its clean, bright setting (formerly Pinot Blanc) is wonderfully apt--white tiles, blue fabrics, white tablecloths, large glass windows, a fireplace, comfortable, well-set tables.  There is a broad marble sushi and sake bar as you enter, and you can just drop by for a bite there. Outside is an apple orchard, a patio with mulberry trees, and a vegetable garden. All in all, a lovely mix.
      This is a Cindy Pawlcyn production, and since 1983 she has been one of the Valley's prime movers in food. She has brought on
Tokyo-trained sushi master Ken Tominaga (right) to oversee the raw items at the bar, where there are dozens of options for sushi and makimono rolls, with various combinations available. There is also a tasting menu of shellfish, that includes Pacific oysters, Dungeness crabs, and Gulf prawns.
     The regular menu lists "small plates & bowls" along with main courses and "fish your way," for which the day's catch is offered sautéed, wood-grilled, and then sauced with any number of options, from tapenade and scallion-ginger to lemon-caper-brown butter, and tartar sauce, and there is a distinct Pan-Asian influence throughout. I found the simpler dishes the better ones, like a whole snapper with black-eyed peas and spicy greens, and the Alaskan halibut with beans, vinaigrette, and herbs. Grilled calamari with a gremolata and watercress were flaccid and a little too charred, and a miso-marinated black cod in shiitake broth was quite good, even if the dish has become something of a West Coast cliché.  There are some delightful desserts here, including a warm peach tart with vanilla ice cream and a roasted banana-rum ice cream sandwich.
      The winelist is listed on the back of the menu, about 60 labels strong, with an additional list of about 13 sakes, even a sparkling Haruishika.

Go Fish is open for lunch and dinner daily. Small plates begin at $9 and entrees $17-$28.

Ad Hoc
6476 Washington Street
Yountville, CA


      Ad Hoc is certainly no substitute for masterchef-restaurateur Thomas Keller's French Laundry or the more casual Bouchon, nor was it ever meant to be.  In fact, it wasn't really intended to stick around for very long: As its name suggests, Ad Hoc was supposed to be opened for a few months while Keller planned for the opening of a burger joint to be called Burgers and Half Bottles. The latter is still not open, while Ad Hoc is still around, and for all the best reasons.
As you might have guessed, the Keller name has attracted so many people to Ad Hoc that there now seems no reason to close it down or to change its straightforward looks and menu. "I was kind of naive in the beginning and when everybody started paying such attention to it, I decided to keep it going," Keller told me in a phone interview. "People pleaded with me to keep it open and not to change anything about it. So we did."

     The sign on the outside reads "For the Temporary Relief of Hunger," and like Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Ad Hoc doesn't offer menu choices: You eat what's offered on any given evening, and pray you like whatever it is. (I remember once at Chez Panisse years ago when kidneys were the only thing offered for a main course.)  The fare at Ad Hoc is much simpler, however, and only a vegetarian would find it impossible to love what is served. Food , overseen by chef de cuisine David Cruz, formerly of Bouchon, is served family style, which I love, and there are about 20 items in rotation on the seasonally driven menu on a nightly basis. The night I visited we began with a heirloom tomato salad with marinated cucumbers, avocados, basil, and garlic-and-oil crostini--each ingredient at their peak of the season.                                    

  Next came juicy braised beef short ribs (above) with sautéed wild mushrooms, baby spinach, fingerling potatoes, and yellow corn.  It was very rich, very intense in flavor, and very good for using the terrific bread to sop up the juices. Next came Cowgirl Creamery's SF Drake cheese with wildflower honey and almonds, and for dessert an old-fashioned warm chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce (right).  On second thought, if you were a vegetarian, you could just not eat the meat on the plate  and gorge on the abundance of vegetables.
      The premises, formerly the Wine Garden, are utilitarian, with a bar and simple wooden zinc-topped tables and chairs that let you know there is nothing pretentious about Ad Hoc, and the restaurant only takes walk-ins.  Fried chicken night--every third  Monday or so--has, apparently, become something of a Napa Valley residents' pilgrimage item when it's served.
     The winelist is serviceable and the waitstaff friendly (ill suited, however, in drab gray gas station attendant shirts), and the noise level can bounce around the room rather fiercely.
      Just as The French Laundry is very French filtered through Keller's vision, so Ad Hoc is very much in the tradition of the American roadhouse in the same way. As they say, there are no bad dishes, only bad cooks, and Ad Hoc, in its small but purposeful way, shows just how wonderful American fare can be made with the best provender and lots of care.  Next time I'm in Napa, I'm making sure it's one of those Monday  nights for the fried chicken (left).
      By the way, Keller hopes to have his 20-seat burger place open by next summer, attached to Ad Hoc with a separate entrance, but sharing a kitchen.

       The price of a meal at Ad Doc is $45. The restaurant is nightly for dinner.

by John Mariani

584 Amsterdam Avenue  (at 88th Street)

     I am always excited by the prospect of going to a new Turkish restaurant, not only for the wonderfully savory food, full of onions, tomato, cheese, sesame, and pistachios, but because of the family atmosphere that usually makes them so comfortable and inviting.  The owners always seem deliriously happy you have chosen to dine with them, the food comes out quickly and generously, and the wines go with the whole flow of the evening.
     This was exactly the atmosphere I enjoyed at Bodrum, a six-month old Turkish-Mediterranean restaurant on the Upper West Side, owned by Executive Chef Turgut Balikci (who also runs the admirable Pasha) and his partner, Huseyin Ozer.  Named after a Turkish resort by the sea, Bodrum seats 40 inside and 30 at the outdoor cafe (heated in winter).  The dining room is intimate, with candlelit walnut tables, leather and iron chairs, fabric banquettes, bronze sculptures  by Arturo di Modica, and  a woodburning oven that bakes an array of pizzas and other dishes.
     There are two chefs here--
Aysen Candaner, who handles the mezes and kebabs, and Mehmet Tanyeri, who does the main courses.  One could happily dine all night long at Bodrum from Mr. Candaner's side of the menu, and sharing is very much encouraged in this family-style atmosphere.  Hummus here is one of the best I've had in New York, and the babaganoush runs pretty close behind, with its smoky flavor and lightening with yogurt.  Strained yogurt with mixed walnuts, dills, and purslane was delicious, and you could quite easily keep eating the slender sigara borek--crispy phyllo stuffed with feta and chopped parsley--and be greedy about it.  I liked the manti,steamed ravioli-like dumplings filled with ground lamb and herbs, although the garlic-yogurt was too thick, too much, and too rich, drowning the flavorful manti. A plate of celeriac with dill, peas, lemon and olive oil called zeyfinyagli kereviz was fairly bland and served too cold.
     Moving on to Mr. Tanyeri's offerings, there is a very good lamb shank, succulent and falling from the bone, served with mashed potatoes, and spicy ground lamb kebabs with pitas (which keep coming out piping hot throughout the evening) are drizzled with yogurt and tomato sauce.  I'm afraid I can't bring the same high praise to the seafood dishes I tried: grilled dorade was overcooked and fell apart, and a Moroccan-style fish tagine of red snapper with preserved lemon, olives, and vegetables didn't come together and was in pieces and a little fishy.
      The desserts here are lighter, and therefore less cloying, than comparable Mediterranean, honey-drenched sweets, so by all means have the crisp, delicious baklava and a cup of well-made, very hot, very dark Turkish coffee.
      I regret I didn't have a chance to try the pizzas at Bodrum, because it was just too difficult to stay away from those dishes farther east in the Mediterranean. But I'll be back and pizza will be my first choice, then the mezes.

Bodrum is open for lunch Mon.-Fri. and for dinner nightly. Main courses are $12-$24.


The world's largest underwater dinner party was held in a
London swimming pool, with 500 people aiming to get into the Book of Guinness World Records  by diving in to nosh on smoked salmon and candied lemon starters, a main course of crab with asparagus, followed by wafer-thin mints. Divers wore diving belts to stay underwater, removing the air regulators from their mouths in order to swallow their food.  Tim Slater,  organizer of the record attempt, said, "We got space food from NASA through the international space school in Cardiff. "It did say just add water, but perhaps a whole swimming pool was too much."



“Can a lasagna with as little sunshine and as much stormy intensity as [chef] Trabocchi’s justly call itself a lasagna?  . . . That’s a chewy topic for debate, and I cast my vote this way: Fiamma is about as Italian as a poodle in a Prada scarf.”—Frank Bruni, “Rewritten in Its Own Language,” NY Times (Nov. 28, 2007).


* In Healdsburg, CA, Cyrus announces its Winter 2008 Winemaker Dinner Series beginning Jan. 7, featuring a selection of Sonoma and Napa’s greatest cult wineries.  For each dinner, Chef Douglas Keane will craft a tasting menu to complement the wines of the evening’s vintner.  While dinner is served in Cyrus’ luxurious dining room, the guest winemaker. Jan. 15: Screaming Eagle and Jonata; Jan. 15: Williams Selyem; Feb. 5: Littorai Wines; Feb. 26: Brogan Cellars; March 3: Peay Vineyards. Call 707-433-3311 or

* On Jan. 9 in New Orleans Bourbon House hosts Jack Daniel's Master Distiller Jimmy Bedford for a Guided Tasting and 4-course Dinner featuring their Tennessee whiskey. Signed bottles will be available for purchase with proceeds benefiting the  Southern Food & Beverage Museum. $70 pp. Call 504-274-1831.

* On Jan. 14 in NYC Tribeca Grill will present a Sine Qua Non Wine Dinner with a special 5-course menu by Executive Chef Stephen Lewandowski.  $450 pp. . . . On Feb. 6 several Chateauneuf-du-Pape producers will be attending and showcasing their barrel samples from the 2006 vintage, as well as many older vintages.  Tribeca Grill will host a 5-course dinner to pair with these wines;; Call 212-941-3900.

* From Jan. 15-31 San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau's (SFCVB) 7th annual Dine About Town San Francisco will be held, sponsored by The San Francisco Chronicle. Visit for more than 100 participating restaurants offering prix-fixe lunches for $21.95 and/or dinners for $31.95.
* From Jan. 18-20 the Fifth Annual Sun WineFest, Mohegan Sun's Food and Wine Festival, will be held with celebrity chefs, cooking demos and wine tastings, incl. Celebrity Chef Dine Around, with Todd English (Tuscany),  Jasper White (Summer Shack), Govind Armstrong  (Table 8) and Mary Ann Esposito (Host of PBS cooking series Ciao Italia); Grand , with more than 600 varieties; Seminars by  chefs and sommeliers. Visit

* From Jan. 27-Feb. 1, and Feb. 3-8 dineLA Restaurant Week, offers 3-course lunch and dinner menus from LA's restaurants incl. Patina, Grace, Crustacean, 3 on Fourth, Twin Palms, Dakota Steakhouse, Ciudad, Zucca, Red Seven and Katsuya. The two dining levels are Deluxe: $15/lunchand $25/dinner; and Premier: $22/lunch and $34/dinner. For a complete listing of restaurant, go to

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. It was 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