Virtual Gourmet

January 27, 2008                                                        NEWSLETTER

Espada (barracuda) at The Funchal Fish Market, Madeira, Portugal (2006), photo by Galina Stepanoff-Dargery

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In This Issue


NEW YORK CORNERCapsouto Frères by Mort Hochstein

NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR: Meritage Celebrates 20th Anniversary with 201st Member by John Mariani


Eating Out in  Hong Kong, Part Two

by John A. Curtas

    Dinnertime in
Hong Kong presents but one main question to the avid eater: old school or new?  The city resembles nothing so much as an Asian New York crossed with Vegas; meaning the Central district is full of plush hotels and elevated mega-malls containing a variety of expensive dining options.  There are enough steakhouses (Morton’s, Ruth’s Chris, et al.), fusion factories (Nobu), sparkling Italian joints (Da Domenico, Grissini) and celebrity chef outposts (L’Atelier, Spoon) to put any food xenophobe at ease.  But should you wish to dive into the deep end of Cantonese cooking, there’s no better place to start than at the venerable Yung Kee (32-40 Wellington Street; Central; 852 2522 1624;
      Yung Kee has been celebrating the cult of the splayed goose since the 1950’s, and there’s no doubt what to order once you pass the front window, where chefs slice, flatten and prepare them on thick round chopping blocks on their way to the roasting ovens.  It is also famous for the luminescent purple-green yolks and amber colored whites of its 1,000-year old eggs (below). These pungent, sulfuric delicacies are really closer to 100 days old, having been submersed in lime, ashes and salt for about that long. Accompanied by fresh pickled ginger, they clear the palate and the head for the rich and fatty goose yet to come.

    Before the main attraction came two seafood offerings; first a mixed seafood soup with bean curd that was as snow white as the rice flour noodles at MiddleRow, followed by deep fried prawns stuffed with crab roe.  The soup was subtle to the point of insipidness, and benefited greatly from a healthy shake from the white pepper bottle. The stuffed shrimp were a surf-and-lake delight, wrapped in a lighter-than-air crust that tightly encased the crab fat and roe and as perfect as fried seafood can be.  For the finale, a whole breast of moist and savory roasted goose was served with a fresh plum sauce that put the bottled stuff we Americans take for granted to shame.
        Descending the four floors of this huge restaurant after the meal, I noticed there wasn’t a table left to be had, and I sneaked one last peak upon the chefs in the front window.  Big mistake.  Because standing there, beside a cleaver-wielding chef, within inches of a chopping block, were the knees and shoes of a window washer, soaping the inside of the picture window.  I can’t say that it ruined the otherwise exquisite meal, but it did point up what a French chef friend of mind told me upon returning from cooking a banquet for high rollers in Guangzhou.  With a classic Gallic shrug, and inadvertently paraphrasing F. Scott Fitzgerald, he sighed: “(When it comes to) cleanliness in the kitchen, the Chinese are just different from you and me.”

     After cacophonous dim sum free-for-alls and some mild, roasted goose revulsion, respite was found in the placid gentility of a hairy crab-tasting menu at the highly regarded Summer Palace (below) restaurant in the Island Shangri-La Hotel (852-280-8552). Such concerns should not arise in the swanky hotels, where presumably, the soles of the janitor’s shoes don’t flirt with the lemon sole.   Cantonese fresh water hairy crabs, named for the dark mitten-like fur on their forward claws, are small, succulent, and a lot of work.  Despite the awkward  language barrier, the Summer Palace staff did a commendable job in demonstrating the proper cracking and eating technique, and the understated room let us focus on Chef Lee Keung’s traditional cooking.  When the first autumn chill hits, and the crabs get to their fattest, tastiest, and most roe-laden state, all the good ones go to the top restaurants in Shanghai and Hong Kong.
   So it took me about two sips of slightly warmed Shaoxing Chiew--an oxidized 5-year old rice wine that smacks of sherry crossed with a dash of Marsala--to decide on ordering the Hairy Crab Special Set, which doesn't sound too appetizing, to be sure.  This being China, such oddball and sometimes hilarious translations are to be expected, especially in a country where the words for street, chicken and prostitute (“gai”) are one and the same.
     The repast began with a single, large Shanghainese pork dumpling dotted with coral-colored roe, followed by a haunting crab and smoke-flavored shark’s fin soup.  I’m the first to admit there are some flavor/texture profiles of Cantonese food that I just don’t get (like the obsession with dried abalone and bird’s nest), but one sip of this extraordinary soup had me appreciating the glass-like gelatinous threads that thickened the strong stock and provided a textural contrast to the uni-like crab fat roe that floated among them.  Next came my lesson in dissecting the hirsute little beast whose carapace was about the size of my fist.   It took awhile to dismember and pluck the intensely sweet crab meat from the shell and legs, but the lesson and effort proved worth it as I eventually got to more yellow-gold fat inside the shell containing intense specks of even more roe.  Of the whole “set,” only the baked fried rice with crabmeat missed the mark, as my western palate could discern none of the fatty crab flavor present in the other dishes.
     The staff, speaking broken English that easily trumped my two phrases of Cantonese--“shea-shea” (thank you) and “gan bei” (drink up!)--instructed me to take small sips of wine to accent but not overwhelm the flavors of the first two courses.  With the whole crab, they gently coaxed me into sipping warm ginger tea to balance the cold sensations of the room-temperature crab I was taking from the shell.  “Like yin and yang?” I asked meekly, as they nodded approvingly at my feeble effort to bridge our cultural divide.  That tea had a chili-like heat and spiciness to it and was unlike any I’ve ever had in any restaurant-Chinese or otherwise.
         Dessert was likewise ginger-themed, with a warm “soup” of ginger juice in which sat melt-in-your-mouth sesame seed dumplings accompanied by the large, spike-shaped flower of Forever Marigold tea.  I tend to think of tea served in American-Chinese restaurants as a bad joke--it usually being little more than vaguely flavored dark warm water. But Forever Marigold, like the ginger tea before it, had an aggressive character that played off the flavors of the dessert. And like the meal as a whole, these pronounced sensations were a revelation, and belied Cantonese food’s reputation for lightness and subtlety.  Some of those flavors can still be vividly recalled, more than a month later, and are among many reasons I can’t wait to return.
A few words about prices and etiquette.  Compared to Western Europe and Japan, prices are a relative bargain.  Of course I live and eat in Las Vegas, so everywhere seems cheaper to me.  Dim sum breakfasts and lunches will run no more than $40 for two, unless you go hog wild.  A four-course dinner at Yung Kee for two, with a modest wine was around $120, and the six course, hairy crab “Special Set” came in at about a hundred dollars a person at an exchange rate of $1.00 USD = 8 HKD.  All restaurants add 10% service charge to the check, and adding to that is appreciated, but not expected by the wait staff. Paper napkins, linens and shui, pronounced “schway” (water) are easier to find at more upscale places, although it was explained to me that potable water was only available on certain days of the week, well into the twentieth century, so the locals just aren’t familiar with our custom of quaffing large amounts of the stuff.  And that’s why hot tea is so ubiquitous.

Part Three of this three-part article will appear in three weeks.

Since 1995, John A. Curtas has been commenting on the Las Vegas food scene and reviewing restaurants for Nevada Public Radio.  He is also the restaurant critic for KLAS TV, Channel 8 in Las Vegas, and his past reviews can be accessed at



by Mort Hochstein

Capsouto Frères
491 Washington Street (at Watts)
212 966 4900

       There are several places in Manhattan where I dine often. Most are in the low price range, and usually near my home. There are only two among the more upscale that I return to with any frequency.  One is San Domenico, serving truly expensive and truly excellent Italian food. The other is Capsouto Frères, not as expensive, not really a gourmet French restaurant, but an upscale bistro that I turn to first when I think of dining  with good friends. I’ve been going there since the early eighties and it is hard to believe that this gem of a restaurant, hidden away in an obscure corner of Manhattan, has been around for more than a quarter of a century.
  The frères--brothers Jacques, Albert and Samuel—founded the place in 1980, locating in an old warehouse on an untrafficked street, still hard to get to from anywhere. They were starting up in a true, low-rent district, violating  the ancient restaurant mantra of location, location, location. Now,  the highly gentrified Tribeca,  the area below Canal Street on Manhattan’s West Side  is stretching north toward a neighborhood   the Capsoutos once had pretty much all to themselves. The once abandoned streets are sprouting upscale housing,  restaurants and gourmet shops. Parking, however, is still available, though  slightly more difficult.
     In crowded Manhattan, the peace and spacious  décor of Capsouto Frères is a joy. The room, with ceilings much higher than normal in Manhattan and floor space just as open, with antique brick walls and a comfortably unobtrusive bar at the front, is a pleasure to behold, nothing fancy, just plain easy on the senses and enjoyment is implied. The crowd, almost all regulars and a shade older than the wannabees populating trendy restaurants nearby, dine quietly in subdued satisfaction.
   The menu at Capsouto is based on a familiar bistro lineup and  trimmings the brothers and chef Bennie Pittman have added.  Escargots, bouillabaisse, roasted duck,  saucisson chaud,  and onion soup can be found on many bistro menus now in the area, along with salade Niçoise, steak au poivre,   and sautéed sweetbreads, but few places can deliver them as impeccably night after night. Capsouto  serves feather-light  quenelles as fine as those in more expensive French restaurants uptown, and few can even approximate the restaurant’s specialty--soufflés of varying flavors such as chocolate, raspberry or hazelnut or the chef’s special  on our last visit, tangerine with crème anglaise.
     We requested our soufflés immediately on arrival that night,  to insure they would be available when dessert time came around. We’d started off ordering four for our table of five, but as our companions checked the full dessert menu and saw  attractive options on the $39, three-course prix-fixe menu, we cut our order to three. Two of us went for the prix-fixe, selecting a crisp arugula salad with goat cheese and a vegetable terrine, Provençal style, for starters.  For mains, they enjoyed the roasted duck, tangy with ginger and cassis sauce, and orange braised lamb shank.
      My wife and I, anticipating those large Capsouto entrees, elected to share an endive salad, with gorgonzola dressing.  My sweetbreads, accompanied by a mushroom fricassée, always a favorite, were breaded a bit more than I prefer, but otherwise flavorful.  I mentioned it to Sammy Capsouto, and he suggested that I specify light breading in the future.     My wife went for sole amandine and my friends took the meunière, and both were happy, although Rol’s had more butter sauce than my dieting wife normally allows herself.
     And then came those soufflés, three towering poufs, one tangerine, one chocolate, one raspberry, each one better than the other and those plates went back completely empty. Our companions chose that bistro staple, apple tarte Tatin, as well as another Capsouto specialty, blueberry crêpe.
     The wine list reflects Jacques' special interests, with about 150 reasonably prices bottles, many under $40, many from small wineries in California, France and Spain where he has visited and made personal selections. As an unofficial ambassador for Israel’s booming wine industry, he carries more wines from that region than any non-kosher restaurant in the city. He  is also a Beaujolais advocate.
        Cheers to the three brothers for nearly three decades of satisfying New Yorkers. As leaders in the Tribeca community, they worked almost non-stop  after the 9/11 attacks, providing neighbors, firefighters, rescue workers, police officers and others with free meals and a place to rest. Their annual Passover seders, raising money for a different charity each year, sell out  within days of being announced and we’ve been lucky to attend two of them. And a special nod to Jacques, now a spokesman for Israeli wines, and also the heavily French-accented  voice for his restaurant’s humorous  commercials, a staple for years in New York on WQXR and now on WOR.
Capsouto Frères is
open for dinner daily. Lunch Tues.-Sun. Brunch, Sat. & Sun.  Prix-fixe 3-course menu is $39. à la carte appetizers  $8.50 to $18 and main courses from $18 to $32.
Mort Hochstein, former editor and producer for NBC News and the Today Show, and former managing editor of Nation's Restaurant News, writes  on wine, food and travel for Wine Spectator, Wine Business  Monthly, Saveur and other food and wine publications.


Meritage Celebrates 20th Anniversary with 201st Member

by John Mariani

     It is difficult to imagine a time when California winemakers scoffed at the idea of blending their big, tannic cabernet sauvignons with less prestigious grapes.  Back in the 1970s and 1980s heavily oaked “blockbuster cabs” that could “blow your doors off” were routine, and the California style was built on those very wines.
      Then, in 1988, a group of California wineries, led by Agustin Huneeus (below) of Franciscan (now with Quintessa), Julie Garvey of Flora Springs, and Mitch Cosentino of Cosentino, got together to form an association that would allow them to blend their cabs with traditional Bordeaux varietals like merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot, malbec, gros verdot, and carmenère in any percentages they chose. After holding a contest that received 6,000 entries to come up with a name for the new association, they chose “Meritage,” a cognate of “merit” and “heritage,” pronounced like “heritage.”
     The problem was, if the wineries bucked the federal wine regulation that a wine labeled cabernet had to be at least 75 percent cabernet, it would be allowed only the lowest-class label of “table wine.” Bordeaux was the fundamental model for cabernet wines,” explains Michaela K. Rodeno (below) of St. Supéry winery and from 1999 until this year chairperson of the Meritage Association. “I asked the members three times if they wanted to allow other 10 percent of non-Bordeaux grapes in the blend, and three times they said no.” (A white Meritage is made from a Bordeaux blend of two or more varieties that include sauvignon blanc, semillon, and sauvignon vert.)
      Despite acquiring a trademark for the name Meritage and charging only a small annual fee-$1 a case with a cap at $500—to join the Association, many wineries that believed in blending still didn’t see much reason to join the organization, because their wines would only carry the words “red table wine”; they also worried that consumers would think Meritage was the name of a wine. After ten years the Association still had only 22 members, even though many, like Dry Creek and Franciscan had earned reputations as among the finest American red wines.
     When Rodeno and her co-chair (since 2006) Julie Weinstock of Cosentino came aboard, they found a dormant Association that had put too much stress merely on getting recognition from the Bureau of Tobacco and Firearms, which never happened. “We decided then to revise our plans in order to do more education and marketing, tastings, charity events, and auctions,” Rodeno told me in an interview while visiting
New York. The Association donated to auctions at the High Museum of Art Atlanta, and WGBH Boston, and it was considered a coup when the very picky Napa Valley Vintners Wine Auction accepted Meritage lots. Increasingly the wines gained access to prestigious international exhibitions like Italy’s VinItaly.  The Association also works with Women for WineSense, which holds extensive tastings and educational programs throughout the U.S.
The result is that now, on its 20th anniversary, the Association has 201 members from 20 states, Argentina, Australia, Israel, Mexico, and its latest member, from France.  Among its U.S. members it counts some of the biggest names in California, like Clos LaChance, Davis Bynum, Dry Creek, Gallo of Sonoma, Kendall-Jackson, Rosenblum Cellars, Sequoia Grove, and St. Francis. Still, there are some prominent hold-outs, including Opus One and Dominus.

      Even now Meritage wines cannot put a varietal name on the label, nor even “Bordeaux blend,” though they may list the blend’s varieties on the back label. Most members have quietly dropped “table” from “red table wine.” St. Supery’s award-winning Élu (label icon at left), a wonderfully lush blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot, 2% cabernet franc, and Malbec, is labeled only as “Napa Valley Red Wine.” It costs about $65.
      Perhaps most important to Meritage achieving clout after two decades is that the name has been largely embraced by U.S. restaurateurs, who now give Meritage wines a section separate on their winelists, right next to cabernet.
      Now that the battles have been won for recognition, what are the goals for Meritage in the next 20 years? “I think we’ve established a corral of wines with different styles and prices for the benefit of consumers,” says Rodeno. “And with the under-30 `Millennials’ drinking more wine, we’ve got a whole new audience that’s really craving something out of the ordinary.”

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.


Police Collected All of the Evidence Then Ate It

In Madison, WI, Warren Whitelighting led police on a high-speed chase after stealing a Krispy Kreme donut truck. He was charged with shoplifting eight giant red hot pickled sausages from the Open Pantry on University Avenue, stealing the donut truck, ramming a University of Wisconsin Police car, attempting to elude pursing officers, operating after revocation, drunk driving (fourth time), and a hit-and-run. You may view the chase, complete with donuts flying out of the truck at: .
. . . . Around the same time in Richland, WA, another thief stole a doughtut truck from Viera's Bakery. An all-points bulletin was sent out and, after a 35 mph chase, Steve Swoboda, 19, was arrested on charges of auto theft and felony escape.  Unlike the incident in Madison, the pilfered donuts were still intact.


"While Mimi sets the tone in the dining room, her husband runs the kitchen with an innovative sense that has made him Houston's most acclaimed chef. The pair complement each other like ... well, dark roasted tomato salsa and fennel seed crema."--Dai Huynh, "Getting a New Grove," Houston Chronicle (Jan. 6, 2008).


To all public relations people: Owing to the amount of press releases regarding Valentine's Day dinners, I regret that it is impossible to list any but very special events.

* On Feb 5 in Highwood, IL, Gabriel’s Restaurant continues its monthly wine series, with Chef Gabriel Viti and Sommelier Bob Bansberg presenting “TheWines and Cuisine of Bordeaux” for a 5-course dinner at $125. Call  847-433-0031; visit

* On Feb. 5 ZYR Russian Vodka and Chef Dave Spano of Red Square host Atlantic City's first 5-course Vodka Maker's Dinner with Dave Katz, creator of ZYR, and Chef Dave Strano. Call 609-344-9100;

* On Feb. 7 at Currant American Brasserie in San Diego, Chef Jonathan Pflueger welcomes chef Wayne Nish to create a 7-course menu at Currant American Brasserie.  $90 pp with $50 wine supplement. Call 619-702-6309.

* On Feb. 7 in Washington, D.C.,  Roof Terrace Restaurant is celebrating he Japanese culture during the Kennedy Center’s “Japan! culture + hyper culture festival,” with guest chef Makoto Takamura of Ni Fu Rin restaurant. $125 pp. Roof Terrace will also be serving a prix-fixe Japanese inspired menu by Chef de Cuisine Karen Hayes and Pastry Chef Bruce Connell. $60 pp.  The less formal KC Café is offering Japanese inspired specials for both lunch and dinner. Visit or call 202-416-8555.

* On Feb. 8 in Greenville, SC, Restaurant O is hosting a 5-course foie gras dinner by chef Jesse Thompson. $70 pp,  $100 with wine. Call  864-331-0007;
* On Feb. 9 at Rialto in Cambridge, MA, Chef-owner Jody Adams will demonstrate  a "The Prince and the Pauper" 3-course dinner, pairing elegant and interesting sparkling wines with deliciously rustic food from the region of Puglia, followed by the meal and wine. $125 pp. Call 617-661-5050.

* On Feb. 20 La Samanna on St. Martin will hold “La Soirée des Chefs Act IV,” a 5-course dinner with wine pairings, with Chef Daniel Echasseriau and  John Jordan of Jordan wineries. $200 pp. Dining in the wine cellar, La Cave, available for 4-8 people at $300 pp. . . . “Gastronomic Week Act II” is a 5-day culinary event from June 18-22, with  dinners by chefs from 5 properties worldwide, incl. Raymond Blanc from the Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons in Oxfordshire, with wines from Château de Beaucastel; Francesco Carli, from Copacabana Palace in Rio De Janeiro, with Marques De Caceres;  Daniel Echasseriau from La Samanna with Domaine Louis Jadot ;  John Greeley from `21’ Club with Tablas Creek Vineyard; Wilo Benet from Pikayo in San Juan with Pio Cesare.   Visit or call 800-854-2252.

*   On Feb. 26 in San Francisco, The Campton Place will hold a wine dinner with Dr. J. Bernard Seps,  Founder & Owner of Storybook Mountain Vineyards in Napa Valley, focusing on the question of ageability of  Zinfandel. Chef Gavin Schmidt. $160 pp. Call 415-955-5574.

* On Feb. 27 at NYC’s PIER SIXTY at Chelsea Piers, Chef Marcus Samuelsson of Aquavit, Riingo, and Merkato 55 restaurants, will help orchestrate a grand walk-around-tasting  prepared by top chefs assisted by high school students to benefit the Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP). Also, a silent auction with over 30 items. TV’sAl Roker will be MC.  This year’s honoree is Alfred Portale, Executive Chef at Gotham Bar and Grill. $450 pp; VIP are $600 and $1,000. Call 212-974-7111or 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."  THIS WEEK: HIGH ANXIETY: An acrophobe goes rappelling in Belize.


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, Suzanne Wright, John A. Curtas, 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 2008