Virtual Gourmet

August 3, 2008                                                                             NEWSLETTER

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In This Issue

by John Mariani

NEW YORK CORNER: 15 EAST by Mort Hochstein

NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR: The Business of Wine—Not Romance--Is the Subject of Wine Politics, A Review by John Mariani



by John Mariani

The obnoxious cliché, "If you have to ask, you can't afford it," originally uttered (in a slightly different form) by American financier J. P. Morgan, has become a kind of knee-jerk defense mechanism for things that are a) worth every penny, b) patently exorbitant, or c) not at all worth the money. 
   It was Oscar Wilde who, more pointedly, wrote, "Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing."

Les Ambassadeurs at Le Crillon

     The anemic state of the U.S. dollar has put both these observations into sad focus for anyone visiting Paris these days, not because you can't eat relatively cheaply at a small bistro (figure $50 per person), but because the Michelin star-rated restaurants are among the most expensive in the world: An appetizer can easily run $85, a main course $120 (service and tax included).  To dine at the three-star level is going to run a couple, with, say, a $100 bottle of wine, at least $400, and easily more.  And for that, exactly what do you get?
      The answer once was easy: The glory of French haute cuisine was, until recently, to be found at the star restaurants, where the owner or chef might employ 25 people in the kitchen and 20 in the dining room (including a sommelier or two) to serve no more than 40-50 people a night, one sitting, beginning at eight P.M. and ending at 11.  Such a restaurant might serve lunch, and if so, the price for a meal was the same.  There would be the finest in furnishings (not necessarily the same thing as taste), and the wine cave would stock hundreds of selections and thousands of bottles, mostly the greatest of Bordeaux and Burgundy, and plenty of Champagne.
       These were always celebratory places for Parisians, once-in-a-lifetime places for tourists, and de rigeuer for a serious business lunch or dinner.  The food, if not always exquisite and imaginative, was always correct and always extremely rich, with oceans of butter-based sauces, trawlers of caviar, pails of foie gras, and shovels of black truffles.  All the classics were on every menu, all made from the most expensive ingredients--Bresse chickens, Dover sole, Charolais beef, and Gevrey-Chambertin in the sauces.  And it all cost a fortune.
      What has changed in France, as elsewhere, is that you can dine splendidly and with more excitement and spirit at smaller, chef-run restaurants that offer a very personalized cuisine without always resorting to foie gras, caviar, and truffles to bulk up their checks. Some of the finest eating in Paris right now is at charming places where you can feast on  lesser cuts of meat, fish like red mullet and sardines, guinea fowl, regional cheeses, and wines carefully selected to go with the food.  Even the Michelin Guide lists some terrific places under the category of "Bib Gourmand"--restaurants with quality cuisine for a maximum price of 35€," including darling spots like Chez l'Ami Jean, Graindorge, L'Épi Dupin, and Aux Lyonnais.
      Why, then, spend ten times that amount to eat at a two- or three-star restaurant (which, more than a little ingenuously, Michelin contends are based solely on the food on the plate, not the atmosphere or service)?  Having had too many mediocre or dull meals at such restaurants--most recently a dreary repast at the ugly two-star Senderens--it is a question I keep always in mind, especially since it is the question my readers ask most often.  The answer is not to quote, once again, J. P. Morgan, but to say that there are two- and three-star meals I have enjoyed immensely--not just for the food on the plate but for the breathtaking beauty, refinement, finesse, and wonder of the entire evening.

      Restaurants like Le Bristol in the Bristol Hotel, Le Cinq in the Four Seasons Georges V, Arpège, Michel Rostang, Taillevent, and Guy Savoy, are, each in its own way, sumptuous, memorable dining rooms with exquisite food and wine.  Most recently this glory was evidenced with exceptional savoir-faire at Les Ambassadeurs in the Hôtel de Crillon (above). (These days no individual chef can afford to open up an haute restaurant without the benevolence of a grand hotel's backing.)  The Crillon itself, right on the spectacular Place de la Concorde, next to the American Embassy, and backing onto the Rue Faubourg, is one of Paris' true château hotels, commissioned in 1758 by Louis XV and in the Crillon family until 1907, when it became a hotel, opening in 1909.  Since then its guest books have been crammed with the most famous names of the 20th and 21st centuries, from Theodore Roosevelt to Jennifer Lopez, and it has never been in better, more elegant shape, with a concierge and reception staff in a gorgeous lobby that is first class in every degree.

       Les Ambassadeurs has always had a good, if sedate history, serving a classic menu with a few flourishes--at least until the arrival of Chef Jean-François Piège, 38, (left), previously one of Alain Ducasse's acolytes. Piège, from the Drôme region, also worked at the Crillon some years ago under long-time chef Christian Constant, so he knew the run of the place and how he wanted to change the cuisine. His focus is on deceptively simple plates--a few perfect ingredients composed in such a way that they appear like novelties of form but retain every bit of their essential, enhanced flavors.
      One evening with two friends, I let Piège compose  menus of several entrées (appetizers), seafood, and meats, followed by a "variation des grand desserts à la Française."  It would take a great deal of space to describe everything we ate that evening, but a few of the highlights included a salad of beets in fizzy "limonade," with the beets providing the sweetness to the tartness of the citric.  There was a cromesquis of brandade de morue--the ultimate baccalà!--with a bonbon of truffle butter to pop in the mouth.
      Perfect, translucent scallops came with a little pizza-like  tarte flambe, and wild turbot done "viennoise" style, with a side of tomato spaghetti and diced truffles--typical of the way Piège has a little fun with old concepts turned on their head to make something wondrously new.  Equally witty and delicious was his take on "spaghetti carbonara" with lard de ferme (right), in which the bacon mimics the guanciale used in Roman spaghhetti alla carbonara, while  pork head cheese added a Gallic touch. 
     One of his signature dishes is a beautiful rendering of langoustines, sushi, shellfish, in a bouillon laced with "caviar d'Aquitaine," with both sturgeon and lobster roe. Squab came with duck foie gras and olive juice, as close to something classic as Piège's menu gets.
ll around us, at widely separated tables, were Parisians having a grand old time, a few very quiet Japanese, and some eastern Europeans who seemed delighted merely to sit in the splendor of this richly marbled, beautifully lighted, baroque dining room, once the Duke of Crillon's ballroom and recently refurbished by
interior designer, Sybille de Margerie, who has brightened the room and given it far more warmth than it used to have.
     The service staff could not be more attentive--there are two dozen in the room!--the pouring and selection of wines, under sommelier David Biraud, the service of cheeses and desserts and petits-fours and chocolates all conspiring to make this grand and very expensive meal worthwhile--but certainly not for the splendor alone: Piège is one of Paris' finest chefs, and author of a cookbook showcasing his style, Côte Crillon/Côte Maison, coming out in English this fall as
At the Crillon & Home.
      So, is it worth it? Yes, I believe it is, in the same way a great performance by a great actor in a great play is worth paying for expensive tickets.  Les Ambassadeurs is, indeed, a great night of theater with many fine players.


by Mort Hochstein


15 East 15th Street
212-647-0015 (near Fifth Avenue)

In Japan a few years ago my wife and I dined luxuriously at a rooftop restaurant high atop  a five star hotel. We perched at the bar and watched as chefs prepared miniature gems of food, small plate after small plate, and passed them across the counter to us.  I cannot recall how many artful morsels of fish, meat and vegetables we enjoyed but  that evening is forever a high among my great culinary experiences.
   A few days afterward we were deep in the country at the type of small country inn the Japanese call a ryokan. In our room, whose great windows overlooked a  waterfall, we wore traditional robes and   dined  in solitary splendor. Again, small plate after small plate was set before us, ever so gently and unobtrusively  by a woman,  robed traditionally, who delivered us food cooked silently at a stove not visible from our dining area and gracefully backed away from our table   after each visit. That was great Japanese dining experience number two.
    During that trip we ate at small and large restaurants,   venturing into foods only distantly related to the limited repertoire of   yakitori and sushi we knew at home. home.  In New York recently, I entered 15 east, a small Japanese restaurant hoping to recreate those first two ‘highs.’  The restaurant takes its name from its location on East 15th Street, just a few steps away from Union Square and the Farmers’ Market, and close to its elder sibling, the large and bustling Toqueville. Its proprietors, husband and wife Marco Moreira and Jo-Ann Makovitzky, enlisted Masato Shimizu, a talented young sushi chef who formerly worked at Jewel Bako, further south on East 5th Street,  to bring upscale Japanese cuisine  to a neighborhood largely populated by restaurants catering to a boisterous after work crowd. Shimizu and his knife- wielding crew are almost the first people you see as you enter the brightly lit front room where they work.
  Seats at the bar (above) close to the chef would have been ideal, but those are prime locations, spoken for long in advance. We sat instead at a corner banquette in the less brightly lit dining room off the entryway (below). It was not a posh hotel site nor was it a solemnly peaceful ryokan, but there was a comforting look to the gray-walled room whose windows look out on 15th street.  Additional soundproofing on the wall behind us and the ceiling above would have helped, particularly when we had difficulty understanding the English of our otherwise faultless Japanese servers.
    Edamame, those crackling young soybeans, lightly salted as an appetizer, can be addictive, much like potato chips, only a bit more elegant.  While chomping away on the edamame, we enjoyed a  soup unlike any I’d ever had, a thick broth flavored by wakame, a dark green kelp and mitsuba, wild Japanese parley and crowned with one delicate quenelle of fish. The taste was  like pea soup, but more delectable and flavorful. It was the starter for an evening rich in wild seaweeds. We shared a dégustation of sea lettuces--eight   varieties  names like mozuku and hijiki, accompanied by a sauces,  among them  a red-wine tinted  mix based on sesame and another flavored with soy and ginger.  Those strange black and olive and briny greens from the sea have given me a new appreciation for seaweed.
     And then there were those small, intense, briny Kumamoto oysters, sharing a plate with lemony ponzu granité, mitsuba and house-pickled –chef Simizu does his own pickling--seasonal vegetables. Small those oysters may have been, but they were big and  fleshy and tasty on the palate.
   The parade of plates went on and on, at a slightly faster pace than  our two experiences in Japan. Simizu sent out tako yawarakani, slow-poached quarter-sized slices of octopus lightly spiced with sea salt, and a trademark dish--diced blue fin tuna, guarded by grated Japanese yam (yamaimo) and topped by a quail egg. If I found any fault, it was with an overly battered and flabby soft shelled crab, almost saved by a tangy tomatillo sauce and accompanying salad of baby mustard greens. Simizu’s skill with seafood is matched by his expertise with sauces, particularly for us with a creamy caviar dressing that made our sashimi and tartar of blue fin tuna   memorable.
       This, after all, is a sushi and sashimi house, and we ended the evening with platters of hamachi and shimaji from the yellowtail family, suzuki and hirami, wild striped bass and fluke from the white fish side,  three variations of tuna, from lean to medium fatty and oh-toro, most fatty. Unagi, eel, was on our plate as was Japanese mackerel and steamed shrimp. They could not have been tastier, and being a fan of eel, I had two types, unagi fresh water eel, and anago, from the sea, new to me.  With our main courses, we also enjoyed servings of cold sake, Hokkaisan Hongozu and Sogen Jumai, selected by our server from an extensive list.
      While we did not have that discreet Japanese woman as our chef-waitress for the evening, and while the room was abuzz with New Yorkers, 15 east could not match the solemnity of the one we enjoyed in an Asian hideaway, but the evening came as close to equaling the pleasures of the ryokan experience as any I’ve had in New York.
   Tasting menus, seven courses: sushi bar tasting menu, $120; From the sushi bar, 16 East offers a sushi or sashimi omakase chef’s choice at $55 and a 7-course menu at $120; sashimi-sushi combo at $95. À la carte, the menu ranges from $24-$45\.  From the sushi bar, there is a seven-course tasting menu for $120; Open for lunch Mon.-Fri. and dinner Mon.-Sat. Closed Sun.

Mort Hochstein, former editor and producer for NBC News and the Today Show, and former managing editor of Nation's Restaurant News, has written  on wine, food and travel for Wine Spectator, Wine Business  Monthly, Saveur and other food and wine publications.



The Business of Wine—Not Romance--Is the Subject of Wine Politics

Review by John Mariani

   You mean you really believe wine is about God and Nature, family sagas, and romantic reveries of a year in Provence?
    Read Tyl
er Colman’s new book, Wine Politics (University of California Press, 206 pages, $27.50) and be dissuaded.
     The subtitle alerts you to the myths that Colman, who teaches wine classes at New York University and the University of Chicago, seeks to dispel: “How Governments, Environmentalists, Mobsters, and Critics Influence the Wines We Drink.” That’s actually a bit more provocative than the book is—-mobsters are few and far between in these pages—but the solid reporting and historic perspective Colman provides clearly indicates that the enjoyment of wine has little to do with the way it is made, labeled, sold, distributed, and marketed.  Wine, since the 19th century, has been big business and it gets bigger all the time.
     Gallo, still privately held, sold an estimated 75 million cases of wine in 2005, with sales of $3 billion, while the mega-wine company Constellation, publicly traded, had sales of $4.6 billion. Between the two of them they control about one-fifth of the wine sales in the U.S.
      Colman focuses on France and the U.S. wine industries, with the last chapters on the globalization of wine production and distribution: Pernod Ricard owns brands in Australia and New Zealand, and LVMH owns wineries on 5 continents.  He deftly chronicles French wine history, with its chronic booms and busts, and the powerful role of bourgeois Bordeaux merchants—many of them English and Dutch--whose geographic advantage on the Garonne River allowed for swifter, more widespread distribution.
      He also shows how France’s national wine regulations, the first in 1905, were established by merchants to combat fraud that made the contents of a bottle of Bordeaux or Burgundy a farce of blends from the Languedoc, Sicily, even Algeria.
      Colman skids lightly through U.S. wine history, but his assessment of Prohibition and Repeal, shows just how hopeless the Noble Experiment was, as bootleggers grew rich on hooch sales while the wine-grape industry actually flourished because homemade wine was allowed. By 1932, when the Depression had taken a stranglehold on the U.S. economy, neither political party’s platform had a plank of support for Prohibition.  Labor unions lobbied for its repeal because the liquor and wine industry provided much-needed jobs.  Repeal came quickly with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
      Nevertheless, the government continues to classify wine not as  an agricultural product but as alcohol, under the control of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, whose name reeks of sin, sin, and sin.  Of course, it’s still easier to buy a gun than a bottle of wine in the U.S., and if you’re under 21, forget the latter entirely.
      Colman then delves into the byzantine ways of those committees that pronounce on the appellations of wines, like France’s Institut National des Appellations d’Originé (INAO), whose members (producers, merchants, INAO agents, critics) blind taste the new wines soon after harvest. “If the wine fails to meet the criteria of the appellations,” writes Colman, “it is `declassified’ or downgraded to a vin de table. . . .However, these tasting committees have become toothless in recent years, as almost all wines pass.”
      Which, of course, encourages more fraud and scandal, as when the prestigious Cruse firm in 1973 labeled non-Bordeaux wines as Bordeaux, precipitating a drop in prices nation-wide that did not recover until the early 1980s.
     One can only shake one’s head over goofy U.S. laws like Utah’s, which requires citizens to buy their wine and spirits only from one of 36 state-run stores; Pennsylvania’s Liquor Control Board is among the biggest wholesalers and retailers of wine in the country, generating $1.5 billion is sales and a $350 million profit.
      Colman has some fun with French advertising restrictions, printing two ads showing the same pretty woman holding a glass and smiling. The photo with her hair slightly over one sultry eye, her lips barely parted, was rejected under the anti-alcohol Evin Law; the one wit a nice, bright smile was approved.  Oh, and the woman had to be in the trade—winemaker Catherine Gachet; no mere models need apply.
    His treatment of environmentalists' impact on wine focuses on sustainable agriculture, including the effects of too much or too little water and how global warming will make winemaking problematic in already hot regions, while a possible boon for colder climates.
    In his chapter on the wine media Colman zeroes in (as does everyone) on the influence of Robert M. Parker, Jr., publisher of Wine Advocate, whose pronouncements can cause a rise or fall in sales of a winery within days of being published. He does, however, believe Parker's influence may be on the wane as Parker himself grows older and  delegates the ratings of wines in many regions to associates.
      That Colman can contain so much history, data, and anecdote in a highly readable 144 pages of text is to say it is free from padding, despite evidence that some chapters started out as a dissertation.
      If the book is a little short on juicy stories, rum runners and crooked pols, it goes a long way to dismiss the silliness of wine advertising and the emptiness of so much wine writing.

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 on the Saturday Bloomberg Radio and TV.



“For the New Yorker of a certain age, the first sip was a rite after nursing: from mother’s milk to Manhattan Special. Those little glass bottles may as well have come with nipples. And brother, what a sip. . . .  It muscles its way around the mouth, making itself at home, before bounding down the throat like a big, goofy kid going to play in the basement.--Michael Wilson, “A Modern Comeback for a Taste of Brooklyn,” NY Times (July 7).


A Japanese brewery Sapporo Holdings plans to make  "space beer," using offspring of barley once stored for five months aboard the International Space Station in 2006.  The company teamed up  with Okayama University biologist Manabu Sugimoto  to explore ways to grow edible plants in space.  First production will be only about 100 bottles. Researchers said the project "to prepare for a future in which humans spend extended periods of time in space -- and might like a cold beer after a space walk."


* On Aug. 2 & 3 the Great American Seafood Cook-Off will be held at the Louisiana Foodservice EXPO at the New Orleans Morial Convention Center, with cooking demos and judging throughout the day.   $10 pp. Chefs  prepare their dishes utilizing exotic seafood indigenous to their states incl..  For details, visit

* From Aug. 9-10 Alden-Houston Hotel features a  “grape escape” weekend package, hosted by *17’s sommelier Evan Turner, and Houston sommelier Kim Wallace, followed by a 5-course ‘farm to table’ dinner by Executive Chef Wes Morton.   Sunday brunch with guest winemakers Rick and Diane DuNah of DuNah Winery.   $287 pp. Visit  Call 832-200-8843.

* From Aug. 13-31 the official Swedish crayfish season is celebrated at London’s  Fifth Floor Restaurant and Café with Swedish Executive Chef Jonas Karlsson serving a sharing dish  of  12 boiled crayfish priced at £15.95 for two people sharing, or £19.95 with the addition of two shots of Schnapps. Visit or call  020 7823 1839.

* On Aug. 16 the fifth annual Toast of Ohio will take place in Sandusky with help from the Ohio Grape Industries Committee., to  be held at the Sandusky Bay Pavilion.  $1.00 admission fee, which will feature 15 Ohio wineries. Live entertainment by the Bare Bones Jazz Quartet. There will also be an Underground Railroad Trolley Tour at 11 am.  Visit

Royal Hideaway Playacar on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, is offering a $7,000 Wine Class incl. a private wine class with wine expert, Olivier Cramail, a bottle of 1986 Petrus, and paired dinner on the beach.  Call 1-800-999-9182 or visit

* Now thru Jan. 31 in Weggis,  Switzerland, the Park Hotel Weggis centers on its extraordinary wine collection with a  Parc & Wine package, with rates starting at $1,790 per room, based on double occupancy and season. Package incl. a complimentary bottle of Champagne Perrier-Jouët upon their arrival. For a pre-dinner soiree, aperitifs with the sommelier in the hotel’s wine cellar, a 5-course dinner at the Restaurant Annex, two 4-course dinners at the hotel’s Sparks Restaurant, and the Sparkling Breakfast Buffet daily. 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