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NEW YORK CORNER: ALLEN & DELANCEY by John Mariani
RATING THE NEW 2008 MOBIL GUIDE RATINGS by John Mariani
MY FAVORITE MANSIONS: Tuscany, Part One
by John Mariani
The Grand Hotel Florence and the Villa San Michele
Despite the recent romantic reveries written about Tuscany being Italy's premier province, it is but one of many whose startling beauty makes the entire country appear to be the last place on earth God created, after having practiced on the rest of the world. Nevertheless, I too always fall in thrall to Tuscany's own beauty, which manages to marry the cool topography of the north with the breezes of the Ligurian Sea. Increasingly, Tuscany is home to more and more converted palaces, castles, and mansions set with great wisdom in some of the region's most pleasant valleys by flowing rivers that invest them with the magical spirit of this wine-rich province. Here are two of them, in and just outside of Florence, with some spectacular resort hotels and spas to follow in Part Two of this article, next week.
there a Grand Hotel in
every city in
À la carte dinner antipasti run
€16-28, pastas and soups €14-22, and main courses €26-56, which
includes tax and service.
VILLA SAN MICHELE
Via Doccia 4
011-39 055 567 8200
I'm surprised the Villa San Michele has not been used for countless movie locations, for its situation at the top of a winding road in the town of
The original building was a Franciscan monastery as of the 15th century for the Franciscan monks, and the present structure, whose façade has been attributed to Michelangelo, dates to the 17th century, becoming secularized by Napoleonic decree in 1817, at a time when many of its rich artworks were shipped elsewhere in Europe. There is, however, still a superb 1642 "Last Supper" fresco (right) by Florentine painter Nicodemo Ferrucci in 1642, recently restored to its original vivid colors, revealing Judas shown as the only apostle without a halo. In 1900 a New Yorker named Henry White Cannon bought and restored the Villa with new gardens, greenhouses, and Victorian-style wrought iron gates. Badly damaged during World War II, the villa was bought by a Frenchman, Lucien Tessier, in 1959 as a private residence, eventually turning it into a hotel that was in turn acquired by Orient-Express Hotels in 1982, which restored the property under the consultation of the Florence Fine Arts Authority.
I have not, as yet, had a chance to stay at the Villa, but I was fortunate to spend a splendid evening there with my wife and friends dining at the al fresco Ristorante (below), which takes place on an arched verandah overlooking the countryside and gardens. We were greeted by maître d' Vittorio Dall’Ò, who is among the last of his breed, a gentleman whose true happiness is to make his guests happy and who, by his mere presence, lends the evening a genteel sophistication very rare these days anywhere in the world.
Chef Attilio de Fabrizio (below), an Abruzzese, has worked throughout Europe and the Americas, and was most recently at Florence's great Enoteca Pinchiorri before joining the Villa. He also runs a cooking school here, tailored to foreign guests that includes trips to Chianti, wine tastings, and visits to
You might begin with a classic beef carpaccio with arugula, celery, and shavings of Parmigiano, or puff pastry filled with asparagus and laced with a lemon sauce. Scallops baked with rosemary and rock salt arrive at the table with a burst of steamy aroma, served with broad beans and tender leeks. The Sienese pasta called pinci, like slender gnocchi, comes with a rich brown duck sauce, while plumper potato-spinach green gnocchi are graced simply with tomato and basil. Tortelloni are stuffed with eggplant and goat's cheese--a wonderful idea!--in a subtle thyme sauce.
We picked two seafood items and two meats among the four of us: Charcoal-grilled catch of the day--that night branzino--with grilled vegetables, glossed with Tuscan olive oil and lemon; true scampi and baby lobster from the Tyrrhenian Sea that were also grilled over charcoal, with a light green salad dressed with apple vinegar; medallions of very tender veal with sprightly citrus fruits, crisply fried zucchini, and sweet carrot purée; and a duck fillet with a crisp skin and eggplant soufflé in a juniper sauce. Each dish seemed quite simple, based on seasonally superb ingredients, but there was masterful technique in the cooking that made them equal to the ambiance and panorama here.
They were also light enough to allow us to indulge in desserts like raspberries in puff pastry with raspberry sorbet; a bitter chocolate soufflé with vanilla sauce; a crunchy "cappuccino" of coffee meringue with cinnamon ice cream; and a delightful babà in the Neapolitan style, flavored not with rum but with orange blossom essence.
It was a gorgeous night, late spring, and the intense blue of sunset turned cerulean, with the scent of the season's flowers and garden herbs in the air. And the lights of Florence had slowly come on, with a half moon glowing above the silhouettes of the churches and the Duomo, flecking the Arno with silvery light.
The Villa closes in winter and will re-open this year on March 20. Rates will range from €670 to €3200.
NEW YORK CORNER
by John Mariani
ALLEN & DELANCEY
115 Allen Street (at Delancey)
Despite all the media hype about restaurants opening day by day on the Lower East Side, few endure and most are not places you'd go out of your way to get to, with the exception of a fully realized concept like WD-50. So the addition of Allen & Delancey on the corner of those same streets by developer Richard H. Friedberg adds measurably to the neighborhood, taking over what had previously been the premises of the Salvation Army.
The designers have managed to echo the early 20th century ambiance in the restaurant, with exposed ceiling joists, wide-planked wooden floors, a hammered tin ceiling, and walls hung with "found" personal belongings of period photos, books, and children's toys, all of which makes this a cozy place to dine. The lighting could be a bit brighter and tablecloths would add measurably to the warmth of the room. When I ate there, canned music--a "staff mix"--threatened to pump up the decibel level, but they were nice enough to turn down the volume.
Chef Neil Ferguson, a year ago the first chef at Gordon Ramsay at The London, has created a well balanced, aptly sized menu of updated classic European, British, and American dishes, and director-and-sommelier Glen Vogt--one of the most experienced professionals in New York--has crafted a 100+ label of wines to go well with Ferguson's food, with a focus on small production vineyards from around the world, like Du Lot Soave Superiore 2005 ($50), Ayres Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2005 ($66), and Numanthia Tinto de Toro 2005 ($130). Some more wines under $40 a bottle would be even nicer.
Ferguson (below) has an impressive pedigree in kitchens like Claridge's, Pied à Terre, The Square, The Connaught, and Aubergine in London before taking over Gordon Ramsay's New York operation, from which Ferguson was ousted when the restaurant failed to win four stars from the NY Times--not that Ramsay chose to spend much time in the kitchen, busy as he was reaming inept cooks on his Las Vegas TV show. Ferguson and Vogt also run a splendid Hudson Valley restaurant called Monteverde at Old Stone Manor, whose location 50 miles away means the two of them have to put a lot of mileage on their cars and strain on their time. I'd check to see if they're going to be at A&D before you go.
A&D has been packed since opening last fall, so the well-meaning service staff can become harried. You have to ask for bread and butter, and by all means do: it is terrific, and it goes very well with an impeccably made terrine of guinea hen with smoked ham knuckle, foie gras, and beets--a truly wonderful melding of flavors. Sea scallops come with a celery cream, braised sweet baby onions, and verjus, and I recommend the crisply cooked red mullet with a hazelnut crust. A raviolo came with a stuffing of delicious sweetbreads with bolognese sauce, parslied carrots, and Savoy cabbage--a little complex but quite good.
In the times I've eaten Ferguson's food here, at Monteverde and at Ramsay's, I've found his meat dishes superior in flavor to his seafood, and the same goes for the menu at A&D. Colorado lamb chops with a classic persillade of parsley, braised neck of lamb, and potato puree is the kind of hearty food that will never go out of style, while his slow-roasted pork belly with pickled pear, sweet parsnips, and a touch of fenugreek syrup was superb. But both braised filet of John Dory with a cauliflower cream, parsley roots, and trompette mushrooms was only all right, and fillet of cod with fennel was bland. Look back over the items I've mentioned and you'll also find a very European preference for soft textures, whereas American food has made texture a crucial factor in cooking. Case in point: Ferguson's poached bone marrow dressed with paddlefish caviar, a dish I just didn't have the palate to try.
Desserts, all $12, are, in a word I try not use too often, scrumptious, from a chocolate-hazelnut crunch terrine with milk sorbet and blood oranges (now there was some texture!) to sweet cream French toast with oatmeal ice cream and caramelized banana. A passion fruit crème brûlée with spiced coconut sorbet and marinated pineapple was a delight. There is also a selection of farmhouse cheeses, if you prefer.
The prices for just about everything at A&D are very reasonable for this standard of cuisine, with appetizers $14-$18 and entrees $24-$29, which is particularly refreshing because so much more buys you so much less in inferior area restaurants.
Allen & Delancey is open for dinner nightly.
RATING THE NEW 2008 MOBIL TRAVEL GUIDE RATINGS
by John Mariani
The annual Mobil Travel Guide 2008 ratings have been announced for both hotels and restaurants, and hôteliers and chefs are either swooning or fainting. Not that there are many changes in the top categories of four- and five-star establishments, nor are there any real surprises among the new five-star winners:
HOTELS: Boston Harbor Hotel, Boston; The Sanctuary on Kiawah Island in South Carolina; the Four Seasons Resort in Jackson Hole, Wyoming; and the Stein Eriksen Lodge in Park City, Utah.
RESTAURANTS: The Georgian Room in Sea Island, Georgia (below); The Inn at Dos Brisas in Brenham, Texas; and Le Bernardin in New York, NY.
I don't disagree with any of the new choices with which I am familiar (I have not dined at The Inn at Dos Brisas), and generally speaking the ratings jibe with most other guides, including Michelin and Zagat. And the Mobil inspectors are rigorous in their criteria, which was not the case in the past when hoary old properties and outdated restaurants clung to their five stars despite all evidence to the contrary. According to Mobil, "Every property gets a visit from a facility inspector, who uses a checklist to evaluate cleanliness, physical condition and location. This inspection results in a Mobil One-, Two- or Three-Star rating. . . . Based on the facility inspection, properties that might qualify for a Mobil Four Star or Five Star Award certification will receive a visit from a second, this time incognito, inspector. This inspector makes an anonymous visit and performs an incognito evaluation based on more than 500 service standards. During service evaluations, inspectors keep a low profile and do not reveal that they represent the Mobil Travel Guide."
Fair enough. But note well that while inspectors actually stay and and sit down to eat at the potential four- and five-star properties, that is not true of any below those ratings, which means that no one from Mobil actually sleeps in those thousands of three-, two, and one-star hotels and none eats at the restaurants.
Which is, uh, disappointing. How can you give three stars to a hotel without staying there or a restaurant without tasting its food? It's like going to a whorehouse and rating it after only checking out the décor.
Mobil puffs itself up in its statement that "For travelers who use the Internet to plan trips, hotel ratings have become seriously suspect. All major travel Web sites offer ratings that appear to help consumers find hotels that meet their requirements. In reality these ratings are intended to help sell hotel rooms, not to provide a consumer unbiased, information that they can trust. Comparisons of Web sites' ratings reveal wild fluctuations that can only be described as confusing (at best) or misleading (at worst). For online travelers, be careful which ratings you trust!"
I suspect most travelers believe that the Mobil inspectors do in fact sleep and eat at all the establishments in the guides, which, not being the case, strikes me as "confusing (at best) or misleading (at worst)." A quick look at the overall ratings for 2008 show that it is clear no one bothered to eat at the restaurants and compiled their ratings based on data that is way off the mark or out of date by as much as a year. Granted, guide books' publishing schedules require data to be set in print many months in advance, although, as with all books, changes and corrections can be made much later than that. (Still, the Michelin Guides to U.S. cities, which appear in the fall, are amazingly up to date, even to menu items, though there are some mistakes in those volumes too.) More puzzling is that the recently updated Mobil website has a dismal number of errors that could easily have been checked and corrected on the website.
I perused the online 2008 Mobil ratings for New York City alone and found an astonishing number of goofs and simple omissions. In several cases--The Biltmore Room, Montrachet, Bolo, and The Oak Room, for instance--the restaurants closed many months ago, yet they are still in the listings, complete with star ratings and descriptions. Bayard's and Guastavino's (below) are described as restaurants serving up wonderful food to the public, but they have been open only as banquet/exhibit halls for a year or more. Mobil updated Markt's change of location, but not Steakfrites'. The description of Park Avenue Café does not mention that the whole restaurant was gutted last spring and changed to a seasonal menu and decor, and it is now called Park Avenue Summer/Fall/Winter/Spring.
In the matter of chefs, Mobil seems clueless: Tom Valenti left 'Cesca a long time ago, Scott Conant was out of L'Impero last spring, Josh DeChellis left Sumile six months ago, and Ed Brown exited SeaGrill more than a year ago. Yet you wouldn't know all that from Mobil, which sings the praises of those very chefs at those restaurants. Mobil notes that Fiamma is "chef-driven," but never mentions that chef, who changed from Michael White a year ago to Fabio Trabocchi this fall. No mention is made of the significant chef change, now Christophe Bellanca, at Le Cirque 14 months ago!
Most astonishing, however, is the omission of so many of the finest, most talked-about restaurants in New York, including The Modern, Mai House, Barbuto, Dennis Foy, Anthos, Insieme, Craftsteak, Grayz, Porter House New York, and Momofuku Ssäm Noodle House. And even if they aren't four- or five-star restaurants, how can Mobil have ignored The Russian Tea Room and Café Cluny, or packed houses like Buddakan, The Waverly Inn, and Morimoto?
So you have to wonder, don't you? Maybe the Mobil Guides are good for a five-star meal like The French Laundry in Yountville or finding a place like The Olde Broom Factory in Cedar Falls, Iowa (2 stars) or Ol' Heidelburg (2 stars) in Huntsville, Alabama, or the Silver Fox restaurant and Lounge in Casper, Wyoming (2 stars), but you better check if the place is still open before driving out of your way.
WE DIDN'T EVEN KNOW OCTOPUSES HAD THEM!
According to sushi master Masaharu Morimoto of NYC’s Masa, his favorite snacks include, “In Japan, I buy tako yaki [octopus balls]; in
Claridge’s Hotel in London now offers a water-tasting menu, with more than 30 varieties, including 420 Volcanic (from underground volcanic springs in
* NYC’s Alma de Cuba during March & April will hold its "Paella King" Festival, Mon.-Fri. - Patrons will receive a dish of Paella Valenciana along with Sangria for only $15. Call 212-242-3800; visit www.havananyc.com.
* On March 4 in
* On March 4 Gabriel’s Restaurant in
* On March 7 & 8 Savor Dallas 2008 with feature wine seminars, and a showcase for the signature recipes of 60 ofNEW FEATURE: I am happy to report that the Virtual Gourmet is linking up with two excellent travel sites:
* On March 11 in Boston, a “Taste of the South End 2008” will benefit the AIDS Action Committee with South End chefs and restaurants featuring their culinary creations, incl. Addis Red Sea, Aquitaine Bar a Vin Bistrot, The Butcher Shop, Hamersley's Bistro, Icarus, Mistral, Rocca, Sibling Rivalry, Tremont 647, et al. $95 General Admission, $250 VIP. Visit www.aac.org/taste.
* On March 13 in
* From March 14-16 in
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, ForbesTraveler.com and Elle Decor. "I’ve designed this site is for people who take their travel seriously," says Potter. "For travelers who want to learn about special places but don’t necessarily want to pay through the nose for the privilege of staying there. Because at the end of the day, it’s not so much about five-star places as five-star experiences." This week, a report on "HOTELS FOR RECESSIONARY TIMES."
Tennis Resorts Online: A 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 (www.GerryMcL.com).
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