Virtual Gourmet 

August 17, 2008                                                                             NEWSLETTER

Go for the Gold!

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There will be no issue of Mariani's Virtual Gourmet next week, August 24, because Mariani will be on vacation.  The next issue will appear August 31. Have a good end of summer!

In This Issue


NEW YORK CORNER: For Terrific Indian Food, Head for Jackson Heights by John Mariani

NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR: The New Old Barbera by John Mariani



by John A. Curtas

     Albuquerque, New Mexico probably is not the first town that leaps to mind when you savor thoughts of fabulous, indigenous, American cuisine, but it should be. Throughout this capital of Native American-Mexican-Spanish food cultures is enough interesting and tasty grub to keep your palate interested and over-heated for weeks. And from a recent visit (my second in a year), I can confidently pronounce the food every bit as tasty
and much less expensive as that in Santa Fe, an hour to the north.
      The first thing I do upon arrival is to make a beeline to Duran’s Central Pharmacy (1815 Central N.W. ; 505-247-4141). Duran’s (below) is a small lunch counter tucked in the rear of the drugstore, and its all-female staff is justifiably famous for turning out some of the best green and red chile in Albuquerque. If you’ve never been to New Mexico, chile here means chile peppers, not the “chili” beef stew most associate with the word. The green and red you get here are thick, mildly spicy vegetable stews of those roasted chiles. As good as Duran’s versions are, what we come for is the carne adovada.
      For the uninitiated, carne adovada is meat (usually pork) marinated in red New Mexican chiles, baked (the way purists insist) and then simmered in red chile sauce. The three-way infusion of chiles into the meat gives it a succulent, deep heat that other meat stews can’t touch. We time our visits to New Mexico to begin on Thursday because that’s the only day of the week carne adovada is served at Duran’s. We get ours with a couple of huge, thick, fresh made flour tortillas, and maybe a small bowl of green chile, just to make sure everything is right in the vegetarian chile universe. Duran’s has other New Mexican classics on its short menu, including stuffed sopaipillas (Wednesdays and Fridays only), and a "torpedo" (one of those giant tortillas filled with potatoes, chile and cheese), but it’s the carne adovada that has us licking our chops the moment the plane hits the ground.
       After checking in o our casita at Casa de Sueños, within a short walk to Duran’s and Old Town Albuquerque, we decided one lunch isn’t enough, especially when Monroe’s green chile cheeseburgers are just down the street. Monroe’s (1520 Lomas Blvd; 505-242-1111) has been around since 1962. It’s not much to look at (like many of the superlative eateries in ABQ), but its low-key diner vibe masks a commitment to some serious cheeseburgers. A thick patty of good ground beef comes smothered in melted cheese with a heaping portion of house made green chile strips on the bun. They also make their red chile on-premises, and in a close contest, I had to give it the nod over Duran’s for the intensity and depth of its chile-ness. The sopaipillas here are also outstanding, but we were disappointed in the chile-infused fruit pies - which had too little of the expected jolt to ring our chimes.
      No culinary tour of ABQ is complete without at least one stop at the Frontier (2400 Central SE; 505-266-0550). You might be a tad intimidated by the gargantuan barn-like space, long customer lines, and huge posted menu, but take a breath and you’ll figure it all out in no time. Those lines move mighty quickly because everyone knows they’ll be ordering a bowl of top-notch posole (green chile hominy stew), a huge breakfast burrito with hot green chile, and what may be the best sweet cinnamon roll on the planet. Well, perhaps everyone doesn’t order those, but we found them a perfect way to start the day, as have thousands of University of New Mexico staff and students since Frontier opened its doors across from the University back in the ‘70s. And the Frontier hasn’t closed for a minute since it opened, making it the perfect stop for late night carousers and early, early-birds.

     Those seeking something a bit more upscale, but still homey and authentic, should cruise out past Kirtland AFB to Cervantes Restaurant and Lounge (5801 Gibson SE; 505-262-2253). For 35 years Roberta Finley has run this bastion of New Mexican cooking, focusing on the green and red chile concoctions for which this region is famous. Those  chiles are from the same plant – what non-New Mexicans call the Anaheim chile - and what is referred to in-state as the Hatch or Mesilla Valley chile. The red is simply a riper version of the green, but both deliver a deep, back of the throat heat that more explosive peppers never approach. In terms of sensory resonance, it’s like comparing a bass drum to a violin.
      Cervantes bottles its own line of bottled green and red, and they tasted just fine to us on the sopaipillas stuffed with well-spiced ground beef, or with chunks of pork (green), or carne adovada (red).  The green chili cheeseburger was also spectacular. Served open-faced on a thick flour tortilla, it comes smothered in chiles, and everyone at our table gave it the nod over Monroe’s version, although we went back to Monroe’s the next day and had a couple more of theirs just to make sure. At Cervantes, as in every New Mexican restaurant in Albuquerque I’ve tried, the rice and beans on the plate deserve savoring in their own right, and put to shame what most Americans think of when they order Mexican food. And the tortillas are generally larger, thicker and more scarred with griddle marks than outsiders are used to. They are served with butter melting on them, and you get as many as you want. You might think that the holy trinity of these tortillas with green and red (or “Christmas” if you ask for both) would get boring at meal after meal, but the ingredients are so fresh, and so of-the-place you’re eating them in, that palate fatigue is never an issue, and within a few days you will be debating the relative merits of these locally famous eateries like a native.
      Of the new guard of swankier joints, The Grove Café and Market (600 Central Avenue SE; 505-248-9800) serves an upscale mix of artisanal breakfast items (left), a truly stellar croque madame, and a number of in-house baked goods that make it the go-to breakfast place in town. Every table we saw seemed to have the house specialty – an old-fashioned English muffin with Heidi’s Organic Jam – on it, so we took the plunge and found it perfect in all respects, although made to American (read: huge) proportions. Located right on the old Route 66, organic is the watchword here, and even the delicious pancakes with crème fraîche trumpet the provenance of the ingredients that go into them.
      For our final meal, our native guide (my son Hugh Alexander Curtas, UNM Class of ’08) led us to a tiny, obscure strip mall that didn’t appear to house any sort of food service even as we were standing in front of it. They then led us to one of those standard metal-glass doors that usually lead to a chiropractor’s office or a muffler shop.  Once inside, however, we entered the world of Chef du Jour (119 San Pasquale Avenue SW; 505-247-8998) and knew we weren’t in traditional Albuquerque anymore. The spare, tasteful dining room was created by Chef Jennifer James - a local hero who sources local products and riffs on them daily with a menu that doesn’t know how to repeat itself.
     Our meal began with a bright, fresh chilled pea soup with mint, followed by mussels in a spicy tomato broth. From there we filled up on what the menu called “fillers” and the rest of the world calls main courses of pasta with herb butter and spring vegetables, seared scallops in a carrot broth, a perfect rack of (local) lamb with hazelnut mint pesto and smashed peas, and a pork t-bone with black beans, rice, and house-made banana ketchup. The ketchup was so good I asked for three refills, and wondered aloud why they just don’t rename the place the Banana Ketchup Cafe. Like the rest of the meal, desserts were simple, sophisticated and satisfying with the chocolate-Nutella-banana crêpe and the root beer float – made with house-made ice cream and local root beer (naturally) - the clear standouts. The wine list is very short and limited, but very reasonably priced.
     While we were there in May, a USA Today story came out rating the most expensive and inexpensive places in America to vacation. Albuquerque was ranked #1 as the best budget vacation spot in the country. Eat at any of these restaurants and you will see why. In all of them (except Chef du Jour), you can indulge in New Mexican’s finest cuisine for less than $40/couple. Dinner for two at Chef du Jour (one of the more expensive places in town) will run around $120 for two, with a modest wine.
     Aside from the price though, what is impressive about Albuquerque is a palpable commitment to the indigenous cuisine of the area, and to featuring local products throughout its food chain. From local artisanal beers, to the chile-infused fudge of The Candy Lady (524 Romero NW; 505-243-6239, 800-214-7731), to the serious wines of Casa Rondena Winery (733 Chavez Road, Los Ranchos de Albuquerque), to the cult of the green chile cheeseburger; there is a feast of good eats along this section of the Rio Grande, in a town that takes its food and drink very seriously.



For Terrific Indian Food—very cheap!—
Head for Jackson Heights

by  John Mariani

    Manhattan may well claim to have the most refined—and pricey—Indian restaurants, like Dawat, Tamarind, and Chola—but the borough of Queens’s Jackson Heights neighborhood isn’t nicknamed “Little India” for nothing.
     Here, over an eight square block area, easily reached by taxi or subway, is where you’ll find more regional downhome cooking from the subcontinent and at far cheaper prices.  The neighborhood teems with immigrants from Mumbai, Goa, New Delhi, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, and the streets are lined with kebab shops, fast food eateries, sweet shops, and casual restaurants whose specialties reflect their owners’ provenance.
      Stores sell saris set on old mannequins that look more like Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake than they do Asians. Movie theaters show all the new Bollywood films and music/video stores sell thousands of Bollywood CDs and DVDs. I’ve never seen more gold and silver shops outside of Manhattan’s Jewelry District, and the neighborhood law offices advertise their expertise with “Immigration & All Legal Matters.”
     Stepping out of a taxi or up from the Roosevelt Avenue F train stop, you are immediately hit with the aromas of cardamom, coriander, ginger, saffron, and cinnamon, wafted from restaurant doorways and apartment windows. In the restaurants young Indians, engrossed in their I-pods, scarf up rice dishes and curries.  People are lined up outside shops that specialize in stuffed, deep-fried samosa pastries, and in the sweet shops wide-eyed children point to jalebi candies, carrot halwa, and pistachio-flecked cheese dumplings.
     One of the long-running, stand-out restaurants in Little India is the curiously named Jackson Diner (
37-47 74th Street; 718-672-1232), which took over an old diner here in 1980, and has been a destination for northern Indian food aficionados ever since. It’s a huge place with high ceilings, tables with placemats and paper napkins, and a full bar.  Service is perfunctory, at best, and they take only cash.
     Somehow I suspect that if Al Pacino or Jay-Z walked in here the owners wouldn’t notice; if, though, a Bollywood star like Arjun Rampal or Aishwarya Rai dropped by, the place would become pandemonium.
     So you sit down, order a Kingfisher beer, and open a menu where the most expensive item is the “tandoori deluxe”—a big platter of kababs, lamb chops, prawn and fish for $23.95. Start off with the wonderful samosas stuffed with spiced peas and potatoes ($3.95), or the paneer pakora ($6.95), cheese fritters stuffed with mint.  By all means get a dosa ($9)—the fragile and crisp, foot-long rice-and-bean flour crepes stuffed with coconut and potato.
     This is food to be shared and taken home, and at these prices you might as well over-order. The malai kofta ($11.50) are cheese-and-vegetable croquettes simmered in a very rich creamy curry sauce, while sag paneer ($11.50) is a savory, complex stew of spinach, potatoes, and cheese. With these you pull off pieces of tandoor-cooked onion kulcha that is sweet, yeasty, and seared with a little char.
     Around the corner and up a couple of blocks is a busy storefront eatery that puts its best dish in their name—Deshi Biryani (75-18 37th Avenue; 718-803-6232), a Bengali restaurant whose recipes supposedly derive from the owners’ grandmother, and the biryani rice dishes have built an enviable reputation around the neighborhood.
     Deshi Biryani (right) doesn’t look like much—a narrow room with bamboo screens and hats, tile floors, and, up front, a couple of sofas where you can wait for a table.  Service here is not exactly a model of efficiency, and the food takes a while to come out of the kitchen.
     When it does, you will be very happy if you’ve ordered the house specialty, a lavish portion of Kachi Biryani ($10.99), made with extremely tender goat’s meat that has absorbed all the flavors, saffron, and myriad spices of a broth that also suffuses the fragrant basmati rice.
      The samosa ($3.99) and the dim aloo chop ($4.99), filled with potato, chilies, hard-boiled egg, and spices, are enormous and delicious. And the boti skewered dishes ($12.99) are equally generous—a platter of vegetables and salad topped with plump kababs of beef marinated in yogurt and papaya, then cooked for hours.
     You’re not likely to want dessert in either of these restaurants, and if you bring food home on the subway, be prepared to have people stare at you with longing as those Indian spices perfume the air.


The New Old Barbera by John Mariani

    Barbera is Italy’s third most planted red grape, and that ain’t good.
         Too much for too long has given this Piedmontese wine a decidedly second-class image, especially when compared with the regions “noble” Barolos and Barbarescos, made from the nebbiolo grape. Barbera still constitutes more than the 50 percent of the DOC red wine made in Piedmont.

     But barbera’s getting better, particularly in the zones of Asti and Alba, which tend to be warmer, allowing for better ripening.  Acidity has always been high in barbera, and alcohol low, 11 to 12 percent. Until recently it would be difficult to describe a “typical” barbera style, except as pleasant, acidic wines, with low tannins, that go well with the foods of the region—boiled meats, stuffed pastas, and risotto cooked with red wine.
      Good examples have an earthy quality about them; bad ones have very little flavor at all. But hundreds of years of shrugging tradition were bucked when, in the 1970s, Giacomo Bologna began restricting grape yield and put his barberas into small oak casks, resulting in bigger, more intense examples. His Bricco dell’Uccellone is in fact considered one of Italy’s finest wines, with recent vintages selling for $50-$70, though I’m not sure what a bottle of Bricco will tell you about barbera itself.
      Yet as so often happens among Italian vintners, once a colleague hits the big money, they begin to believe their wines should cost in the same range, with several wholly mediocre bottlings selling for $40 and up.
I recently tasted a wide variety of barberas from the Alba region with a wide variety of foods, none particularly complex.  The acid component is always front and center on the palate upon first sip—this is not a wine to have as an aperitif—and the style and complexity of most sampled did not develop until I had them with food. What’s significant is that all were at least 13 percent alcohol, two at a whopping 14.5, indicative of how better grapes lead to more intensity.
      Giovanni Rosso 2005 ($20) was more tannic than I expected, though the acids were also pronounced. It took an hour or so to loosen up, but it never really mellowed out. Perhaps it will develop over the next year, but I couldn’t discern its charms on an August evening with sautéed chicken breast.
      Attilio Ghisolfi Barbera Vigna Lisi D’Alba 2004 ($24) was a year older than the Giovanni Rosso but it had no nose and tasted quite bland—a wine I thought should cost about $10.  Then, the next day at lunch, I tasted it again and it had improved somewhat, exposing a richer content and pleasing cherry flavors.
      Giacomo Conterno is one of the best-known Piedmontese producers (not to be confused with another fine vintner, Aldo Conterno), and his 2005 Barbera d’Alba ($47) had quite a vegetal bouquet, blossoming into a delicious, medium-bodied wine with some oakiness and good tannins. If not a blissful wine, it is a good modern example of the varietal from a tradition-minded producer.
      E. Pira & Figli Barbera d’Alba 2005 ($26) was a happy surprise, especially at that very reasonable price.  It was very fragrant right from the first sniff, unusually floral for a barbera, with a far better balance of acid and tannin than other examples tried. This is an Italian red wine I could drink again and again.
      Mascarello Giuseppe e Figlio 2004 ($50) was even more enjoyable, a big, mouth-filling wine that was warm and velvety on the palate, filling the mouth with fruit and acid in fine equilibrium. Worth $50? Well, it’s the equal of Bricco dell’Uccellone, which usually costs somewhat more. Paterfamilias Mauro Mascarello (right) is headed for the limelight with this wine.
      One of the most respected Piedmontese winemakers and consultants is Renato Ratti, so I expected to find his Torriglione big and bountiful with fruit.  Amazingly, it was a 2006—less than two years old—and cost only $19, yet it brimmed with fruit and had the faint, farm-like back taste I’d missed in so many other examples. A fine wine at a very good price.
      Seghesio ($17) was also a 2006, and its freshness and bright fruit was on its side too. It had a sumptuous bouquet, followed by a lush, big red wine style, very easy to drink, perfect with the thick cheeseburger I enjoyed it with.
     Maybe, just maybe, barberas are better when they are younger. As I thought about this, I remembered those times in Piedmont when I was eating a plate of agnolotti in broth,  accompanied by a rustic, simple barbera d’Alba. I was very contented then and didn’t want to be impressed.  But now, having gone through a slew of modern examples, I will expect better.

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.


Maybe It's Your Breath!

“Generally when I’ve occupied the only table during the lunchtime service, my arrival is greeted with the sort of jollity usually reserved for when the plague ship ties up in port.”—Jay Rayner, A review of “The Old Vicarage,” The Observer (June 15).


In Cincinnati, Fredric J. Baur, who designed the Pringles potato crisp packaging system, died at the age of 89, requesting that a portion of his ashes be buried in one of the cans in his grave in Springfield Township, with the rest of his remains placed in an urn buried along with the can. . .  MORE PRINGLES NEWS: Britain’s High Court ruled that Pringles are not a snack and thus not subject to sales tax, because the judge found that only 42 percent of Pringles were made of potato.


Dog meat has been struck from the menus of officially designated Olympic restaurants in Beijing, according to Xinhua News Agency reported Friday. Waiters and waitresses are supposed to "patiently" suggest other options to diners who order dog, which in Chinese is called "xiangrou," ("fragrant meat").


* During Open House Mondays at Chicago's Pops For Champagne, created by Executive Chef Andrew Brochu, and Wine Director W. Craig Cooper, offers a special menu paired with  Champagne with various small plates, 3 courses paired with a glass of Laurent-Perrier Champagne .  $70 pp. Visit

* On Aug. 20 New Haven Food & Wine Festival featuring Wolf Blass Wines will be held at Pilot Pen Tennis, with 19 of New Haven’s restaurants, in addition to chef, cookbook author and teacher, Jacques Pépin.  The event will also include a wine tasting with wine professionals from Australia’s award-winning Wolf Blass wines.   Visit:

* On Aug. 22 in Schaumburg, IL, Shaw’s Crab House is hosting its 6th Annual Clambake Dinner on the restaurant’s outdoor patio at $49.95; Call  847-517-2722;

*   From Aug. 23-Sept. 7  Tony Mantuano of Chicago’s Spiaggia will showcase recipes from Wine Bar Food at the U.S. Open.  Call 312.280.2750 for info.

* On Aug. 23 in Beverly Hills, Two Rodeo and LearnAboutWine present STARS of California, with 40 top-flight wines from California, incl. a special cellar selection from Insignia 1997. A portion of proceeds benefit the T.J. Martell Foundation.Call  (310) 451-7600; $125 in advance; $140 at the door;;

*  On Aug. 28, Tom Bulleit, President and Founder of Bulleit Bourbon, will host a dinner at Bourbon House in New Orleans by Chef Darin Nesbit accompanied by unique Bulleit Bourbon cocktails. $75 pp/ Call 504.284.1831 or

* On Sept. 5 As part of it's 25th anniversary celebration, Paumanok Vineyards on Long Island, NY, holds a “Sunset at the Vineyard Tribute to Dick Sudhalter” with jazz by Marty Grosz and  Destiny.  $100 pp.  Call 631-722-8800 or email Proceed to Mary Manning Walsh Nursing Home.

* From Sept. 6-12 the Denver Independent Network of Restaurants (DINR) has created "Harvest Week," a weeklong celebration of Colorado’s  produce and products,  with the Colorado Wine Board, Colorado Proud, and the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau. Restaurants may do a 4-course meal with Colorado wine pairings; a selection of local beers ; or a wine tasting with local wines and cheeses.  In addition, several restaurants will host individual programs and events incl. talks with local farmers; presentations by Denver Urban Gardens; pick and cook events with kids; and much more. Fir a list of restaurants go to

* Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten now offers a "Culinary Master Course" at Trump International Hotel & Towel New York incl.  a 2-hour private cooking lesson in the kitchen of his namesake restaurant,  3  nights in an Executive Park View Suites, 3-course dinner for two with a bottle of Champagne, Breakfast for two daily at Nougatine, and signed copy of Asian Flavors of Jean-Georges. $8,999. Visit

* On Sept. 16 celebrates the New York Rising Stars Chef Awards at the American Museum of Natural History with a walk-around tasting gala. $150 pp. Visit  or call 212-966-3775.

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: THIS WEEK: A report on China; El Bonita Motel; Daly;s Home, Ireland; Least Visited U.S. Parks.


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