Virtual Gourmet

May 18, 2008                                                        NEWSLETTER

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In This Issue



NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR: Petite Sirah Grabs Attention and a Formal Spelling by John Mariani



By John Mariani

      People who can’t get enough of TV gastro-clowns like Emeril “Bam!” Lagasse, Rachael “EVOO” Ray, and Gordon “F-Word” Ramsay are obviously not getting out of the house much to dine. So contrived, so unenlightening, and so grating are such shows on my nerves that I’d rather be watching a re-run of “Meerkat Manor.”
     What I’d really prefer is to go out to a great movie centered around the pleasures of food and wine, then grab some good food and wine afterwards. There are some wonderful food-and-wine related films you can watch again and again for what they tell us about the seductive interplay of food and wine, cooking and canoodling, elation and exhaustion.
        I expect--I look forward to!--responses from readers, which I will happily publish here. (No, I didn't forget "Babette's Feast"; I thought it was a big bore!) Here are my faves. And why are most of them foreign movies?

Woman on Top
(2000)—The breathtaking Penelope Cruz plays a brilliant Brazilian cook named Isabella--clearly the prototype for cleavage-popping TV chefs like Giada De Laurentiis--who cooks with such sensuality and abundant chilies that she trails an aroma that renders all men on two continents insensibly in love with her. This hilarious fantasy by director Fina Torres is one of the most joyous proofs that, as Isabella, says, “The secret ingredient in cooking is sharing it with someone you love.” The bossa nova music is a big part of the mix and the scenes of Bahia are gorgeous.

Mostly Martha
(2001)—A German film about a beautiful workaholic haute cuisine chef (Martina Gedeck) whose perfectionism is a shield against intimacy, until she is forced to take in and cope with her late sister’s angry daughter and to be forced to compete with the highly emotional, operatic charms of a new Italian cook (Sergio Castellitto). Admirably re-made as “No Reservations” (below) this year with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart, which is almost as good.

Big Night
(1996)—One of the sweetest films of brotherly love ever made, with Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci as the owners of a 1950s New Jersey restaurant on the brink of disaster because the demanding chef Shalhoub refuses to cook insipid Italian-American food for undiscerning customers. The feast they prepare for no-show star Louis Prima is as overblown and sexy as a Fellini-esque orgy, complete with the voluptuous Minnie Driver and Isabella Rossellini at the table, and the last kitchen redemptive scene, played without words between the two brothers, is as beautiful as anything made in the Silent Era of film.

Like Water for Chocolate
(1992)—Yet another Latin-American fantasy, this film tells a series of erotic stories built around recipes of the heroine, Tita de la Garza (Lumi Gavazos), whose exquisite cooking causes all sorts of passions and emotions to collide within a Mexican ranch family. The climax comes when Tita and her lover bring so much heat to the bedrooms that a fire literally consumes them and the ranch, leaving behind in the ashes only her cookbook. The double meaning of the title refers to sexual arousal, as when boiling water is poured onto chocolate.

(2000)—Though seemingly a French movie, this is actually an American film shot in Burgundy and directed by Swedish-born Lasse Hallström, starring Juliette Binoche as a mysterious unmarried mother and artisanal chocolatier arriving in a very conservative French village,  with Johnny Depp as a river gypsy, Judi Dench as an embittered old woman, and Alfred Molina as a rigorously religious mayor—all of whom are seduced and changed by the taste of Binoche’s remarkable chocolates. There’s also a mouthwatering scene of a bourgeois backyard roast chicken dinner, and of the debauchery of wallowing in chocolate bliss.

Tortilla Soup
(2001)—A small, completely beguiling film about a Latino L.A. family whose widowed father and master chef (Hector Alizondo) tries to prevent his three daughters from leaving him for husbands, while he himself tries as hard to keep love at bay and to avoid a brassy, pushy woman played with engaging vulgarity by Raquel Welch. The youngest daughter, Carmen (Jacqueline Obradors), cooks with her father in beautiful scenes of closeness and breaking away. The movie is a remake of Ang Lee’s “Eat Drink Man Woman,” but I find the Latino style much more affecting.

by John Mariani
chop suey
Renaissance Hotel
Times Square
714 Seventh Avenue (48th Street)
212- 261-5200

     The name Chop Suey and hotel address may put some people off, but once you ascend to Chop Suey and see that it gives one the most dazzling panoramas on the throbbing, pulsating, shimmering, neon riot of Times Square, you may never want to leave.  The technology of lighting, digital lettering, and beacon-like towers is dazzling, to say the least. Okay, maybe a tad too Las Vegas, but Times Square has always had its own kitschy charms, and nowhere will you see it better than from a table at Chop Suey. If any out-of-towner is coming to NYC and wants a window on its Theater District glamor, this is the place to go.
       Still, I must tell you that you will have a sense of being in a hotel restaurant, not least because the well-meaning but amateurish service staff may well remind you of the same staff you once had at a Marriott in Little Rock.  Management has, however, hired the notable chef
Zak (Fatty Crab) Pelaccio to consult on the men; just how much he does in addition to glancing at it now and then is anybody's guess, but there is a lot of interesting food here.  What it needs is a kitchen crew of cooks who really care to turn it out with snap and consistency.
      The interior itself need not concern you, given the great three-sided view, but suffice it to say that it has a certain '60s pop coloration, as in orange. Hanging light fixtures look like alien spaceships in a 1960s Japanese sci-fi movie--kind of fun. Dark ceramic plates on bare tables complete the lounge-y look.
        The menu doesn't actually have any chop suey on it, but the various Asian-inspired dishes are tasty enough to make up for the omission of a dish I doubt very many people would ever order anyway.  In its stead, there are Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese dishes, along with a few Mediterranean flavors thrown in for good measure, beginning with some cute little shishito peppers with tuna bottarga that are mild enough to pop into your mouth. Scallion pancakes with an Asian pear mostarda were doughy the night I tried them.  Curry leaf fried chicken wings with chili vinegar didn't pack much of a punch, but the "twice-caramelized char siew" of Chinese sweet roast pork with Hong Kong noodles and shaved garlic was very easy to love, as was very good crispy shrimp with the bright idea of thinly sliced braised pork belly and a sweet chili sauce.
       The menu really isn't broken into appetizers and entrees, though the right-hand side of the pages clearly are large plate dishes, like the Berkshire pork shoulder with preserved black beans, clams, and mustard greens. Atlantic halibut is cooked in the sous-vide process and then lashed with green curry, prosciutto, and clams--tasty but it was not warm enough when it got to the plate. Lamb loin hot pot was hot enough and a lovely presentation, while Kobe hanger steak ($48) is simply grilled with a watercress-yuzu sauce and not-very-interesting potato croquettes. As with most Kobe items, a little goes a long way.
       For desserts (also based on a consulting chef)  there is a poached pear and some creditable sorbets. "Vietnamese iced coffee" was more Italian-American than Vietnamese, with spongecake, chocolate cream and espresso granita stacked on each other.
       If Chop Suey's food isn't as thrilling as it might be, it may be because of a certain lack of attention in the kitchen.  But your own attention may well be focused on the parade of people and lights below you on Times Square. It's really a fabulous aerie.

Dinner menu prices range from $10 for small plates up to $48 for Kobe beef.



Petite Sirah Grabs Attention and a Formal Spelling
by John Mariani

      You know a wine has an image problem when it needs its own advocacy group. Which is why there is the California-based PS I Love You, Inc. The PS stands for petite sirah, a grape whose principal problem is that winelovers too often confuse it with syrah, now increasingly being called shiraz.
      According to PS I Love You, the grape was first produced in 1880 by a French nurseryman named Dr. François Durif from a seed extracted from an old varietal called peloursin that absorbed pollen from syrah. The new grape, which Durif named after himself, had very concentrated clusters and made a deep dark red wine. But it never made much headway in Europe.
      In California, however, durif flourished as early as 1884, where it was called petite sirah, although a few other varieties, including peloursin, went under the same name. After Prohibition the varietal was widely planted, making up 60 percent of the total crop in Napa Valley.  The first example to be labeled “Petite Sirah” was in 1961 by Concannon Vineyards.
      But as an unbridled preference for cabernet sauvignon developed up in California, petite sirah faded, dropping from 14,000 acres in 1976 to 1,738 in 1996.
      The problem with promoting and selling petite sirah was not just confusing nomenclature (the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms just recently forbade the label spelling “Petite Syrah”) but the fact that producers never seemed to agree on what style the varietal should take.  I recall the few petite sirahs I tasted back in the 1970s as being of the deepest inky purple color with a surprisingly cherry-like bouquet and robust flavor. But along the way many examples of the varietal were been made into jammy wines without the finesse of the best true syrah from the Rhone Valley, California, and Australia. It doesn’t help that the wine media have too often used descriptions like “easy to drink” and “versatile,” which are catch words for second-rate picnic wines.
      Still, petite sirah has persisted, now with 437 wineries and 110 growers in California, with current plantings of 6,859 acres. Since 2002 there have been six symposiums devoted to the varietal at Foppiano Vineyards (below) in Sonoma, and the Petite Sirah Wine and Food Tasting held in February this year sold out. But ask most winelovers what their favorite petite sirah is, and I suspect you’ll get either a blank stare or the name of a shiraz from Australia or a syrah from the Rhone.
      Until recently I would have fallen into the staring group.      But last month I had a chance recently to taste more than two dozen petite sirahs at a Wine Media Guild of New York event.  I learned a lot: first, that petite sirah has come a long way from the days when styles differed almost from producer to producer. Most of those I tasted that afternoon had a clearly identifiable varietal character beneath the formidable tannins and, in some cases, an alcohol content—16 percent for a Gelfand Vineyards 2006 SFR Paso Robles Estates ($30)!--that almost put them into the fortified wine category.
      None would I characterize as “easy drinking” or “versatile,” because these are big, serious reds, fit for grilled and roast red meats—great with venison or bison. I did notice that, the farther along the tasting I went, my palate got used to the tannins and began to appreciate those lush cherry-blackberry flavors that make petite sirah a real and singular pleasure.
      Prager Winery and Port Works 2004 ($38), from Calistoga, would be a good introduction to the varietal, and at a reasonable 14 percent alcohol a briary, rich red wine.  A little lighter in body was Big House 2005 The Prodigal Son Paso Robles ($15).
      I also enjoyed the Cecchetti Wine Company Line 39 2006 Lake County (left) for its lovely nose, ripe fruit, and delightful price of $15.  Ehrhardt Estates Winery 2004 Clarksburg ($26) hit that sweet spot of price versus value for the varietal, with good minty, peppery, mineral notes and complexity throughout. A few bottles, like Stags’ Leap 2004 Ne Cede Malis Estate (at a whopping $75), I couldn’t even see through, and the tannins were muddy. But if you like a jammy style of California wine, I’d recommend the Charles Cimicky 2005 ($49), which is not from California but from Australia’s Barossa Valley, made the way the Aussies like their red wines to taste.
      Given their sturdy tannins, it’s difficult to say how these wines will age. Many were ready to enjoy right now. And, frankly, it’s difficult for me to imagine most winelovers outside of the most avid petite sirah fans laying these bottles down for the next decade to find out if they’ll mellow out.
      Is petite sirah the new hot varietal? Not yet, but there are plenty of wineries clamoring to get on the bandwagon as it starts to roll. “I’ve gotten requests from Australia and Israel to join our group,” says PS I Love You’s co-founder and executive director, Jo Diaz. “But we’re proudly a California group of winemakers who have pushed for petite sirah through thick and thin. I told them all no."

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.



“RARE VIRGIN MARY PRETZEL DUPLICATE -Own a blessed piece of history. This is a one-of-a-kind, hard pretzel replication of the Virgin Mary, freshly baked and in perfect form. 10% of the profit from this sale will go towards the charity organization of the buyers choice!!! The rest of the money will go towards the late mortgage payments for a family currently about to experience foreclosure.I know many other sellers are currently making financial crisis claims, but this one is completely legitimate and you're purchase will be greatly rewarding for both you and us!The lucky buyer will receive ONE Virgin Mary pretzel, along with printed certification.”—EBAY listing. Starting bid was $40,000.



In an interview with Brian McDonald, a bartender at Elaine's restaurant in New York for ten years and author of the new book, Last Call at Elaine's, he was asked,
People say Elaine doesn’t respect women as much as men. True?

"Elaine liked people who spent money. Guys were good for business more than single women. Mailer once came in with his girlfriend, who was mouthing off. Elaine said, `From him, I gotta take it, but I don’t have to take it from a half-hooker like you.' Mailer stormed out of the place. The next day she got a diatribe written by Mailer in his own hand. Elaine just wrote BORING BORING BORING on it with Magic Marker and sent it back to him. He came back to the place for many a bourbon and orange juice."


* From May 20-24  The New Orleans Wine & Food Experience (NOWFE), brings together world-renowned winemakers, celebrated chefs and industry insiders in a showcase of signature events, incl. vintner dinners in some of New Orleans’ most celebrated restaurants, the traditional Royal Street Stroll, Grand Tastings in the Superdome, the
  The Louisiana Seafood Cook-Off,  live auction, and an expanded VINOLA! premium tasting event, and more. Proceeds benefit local charities . Visit

* From June 18-22 at La Samanna in St. Martin will hold its Gastronomic Week Act II culinary event, with chefs from five Orient-Express properties worldwide, as well as wine pairings from five different wineries.  Chefs incl. Raymond Blanc, from the Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in Oxfordshire, England; Francesco Carli, from Copacabana Palace in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil,;Daniel Echasseriau from La Samanna; John Greeley from 21 Club, New York City; and Wilo Benet from Pikayo in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Call 590 590 87 64 00; Toll-free US: (800) 854-2252.

* From June 26-29 in Atlantic City, NJ, Harrah’s Entertainment’s Toast To The Coast Food and Wine Spectacular will take place at its Bally’s, Caesars, Harrah’s Resort and Showboat casinos, incl. celebrity chef luncheons and gala dinners, culinary demos, wine tastings, cookbook signings, food and wine pairings, gospel brunch, and comprehensive Food & Wine Exposition. Tix from $20 to $150, with the Vine and Dine gala dinner at Caesars priced at $250 pp. Visit or call 1-800-736-1420.  For two- and three-night packages, visit  or call 1-888-516-2215.

* From now until Jan. 4, 2009, Monaco’s Hôtel de Paris’ “Unforgettable Honeymoon “5-night package,  priced US$10,275 for two, incl.  a guest room overlooking the Mediterranean, Champagne, and a wine tasting and tour of the Wine Cellar; Limo to/from Nice Airport; A 30-minute panoramic helicopter tour of Monaco and the surrounding region; VIP day at the Montecarlospa at Les Thermes Marins;  lunch at L’Hirondelle; dinner with wine and Champagne at Le Grill; evening at the Casino de Monte-Carlo (with Champagne and 100€ of tokens);  His-and-hers personalized bathrobes; A “surprise” evening at one of the SBM Resort venues; A private car for half-day of exploring the Principality; “Carte d’Or,” allowing free access to the Casino de Monte-Carlo, charge privileges at all Monte-Carlo SBM hotels, unlimited shuttle transportation between properties, and discounts of 50% on fees at the Monte-Carlo Country Club and Monte-Carlo Golf Club. Call (800) 595-0898;  visit

NEW FEATURE: I am happy to  report that the Virtual Gourmet is  linking up with three 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: THIS WEEK: An Interview with Angler Tom Ohaus


Eating Las Vegas is the new on-line site for Virtual Gourmet contrinbutor John A. Curtas., who since 1995 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 Click on the logo below to go directly to his site.


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). THIS WEEK: A Report on The Four Seasons Jackson Hole. 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.

My 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

© copyright John Mariani 2008