Virtual Gourmet

December 28, 2008                                                                 NEWSLETTER

                                        HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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In This Issue

COPENHAGEN Part One  by John Mariani





Part One

by John Mariani

    First things first: It's pronounced "Copen-HAY-gen," not "Copen-HAH-gen," a mistake I learned soon after arriving in this beautiful sea-bound Danish city.  The common error seems to stem from a single source that has  provided most Americans with their storybook image of the city--the song "Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen," sung by Danny Kaye in the 1952 movie "Hans Christian Anderson," wherein Kaye pronounced it with the "HAH" rather than the "HAY."

    Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen, friendly old girl of a town,
    'Neath her tavern light on this merry night
    Let us clink and drink one down
    To wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen salty old queen of the sea.
    Once I sailed away but I'm home today
    Singing Copenhagen, wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen for me!

        Now that that's settled, let me tell you how wonderful the city truly is, possibly as much in winter, when I visited, as in spring or summer, when the warmer weather and northern flora burst the wintery gray mantle.  There was a dusting of snow on the ground when I arrived, a few weeks before Christmas, and Tivoli Garden was glittering with holiday decorations.
       It should be stated immediately that finding a Dane who does not to speak English  would be difficult indeed. From first grade onward they  are taught English, and other languages later on, so that it is yet again one of those distressing realizations to find Europeans have fluency in several languages, while Americans can barely speak their own well.  Thus, there is no language barrier in Denmark, so for those for whom language is an off-putting problem, Copenhagen is a breeze.
      Second, the Danes are extremely hospitable people--reported to be the happiest people in Europe, owing to a a highly taxed nanny state that actually works, albeit with a population of only 5 million inhabitants.  Which means that the Danes are in the forefront of windmill technology (they scotched nuclear some years ago), they have excellent publics schools, full medical coverage, five weeks' vacation, and few fears about how old age will affect their caretaking.  In an ironic twist, the excessive tax on buying a new car--180 percent!--forces Danes to use bicycles, which in  turn provides them with cardiovascular benefits along with the joy of pedaling through pretty streets in a city that could easily be walked about in three hours or so.  It all depends on what you want to see.
     And if you choose not to walk, you may borrow--for about $4--one of the City Bikes available at 125 parking slots around town then simply return it when you're through and get your $4 back.  There is also a fast, convenient, and on-time Metro system, which takes you to and from the airport in about 15 minutes.
     I stayed at the
Admiral Hotel (right), which is both centrally located and set right on the water in view of the splendid new Opera House.  With 366 rooms, the Admiral is just the right size to accommodate business and tourist travelers with a sense of intimacy, especially since the maritime design of the hotel and rooms use rustic-looking wooden beams and teak furniture throughout to echo Copenhagen's seafaring history. The modern amenities are all here, and there is a fine restaurant here named Salt (which I shall be writing about next week in my restaurant round-up), where you can enjoy an extensive Danish buffet breakfast in the morning as part of the room rate.
      Within walking distance of the hotel are the principal downtown sights, as well as the enchanting bronze statue of Hans Christian Anderson's Little Mermaid, which has, since 1913, been amiably anchored just steps from the water's bank, a location that has caused her more than once to be defaced and, once, beheaded.  If you walk along the water in the other direction you will pass some of the great modern architectural achievements of Danish design, including the Royal Library, a solid and angular chunk of granite and dark glass that reflects the sparkling light from the water so as to make its façade twinkle; hence its nickname "The Black Diamond" (left).  Across the water is a series of  elegantly minimalist office buildings of the Unibank Headquarters by architect Henning Larsen.
      Indeed, modern Danish design, which had tremendous global impact starting in the 1950s, has lost none of its evolutionary thrust, as might be gauged by the activities detailed at the Danish Architectural Centre and displayed at the Danish Design Centre, which are constantly showcasing young talents doing state-of-the-art work that ranges from chairs to lighting, from guitars to running shoes.  Many of these are experimental or not in production, but for a very good look at what is available for purchase in furniture, objets d'art, carpets, and so many other items of contemporary Danish craftsmanship, visit one of the HAY stores. Renowned designers like Jakob Wagner, Leif Jorgensen, Peter Johansen, Anne Heinsvig, and Christian Uldall have their work for sale, and the HAY catalog is available online.
        To catch up on modern Danish art, it is requisite to visit the beautifully designed and ever-growing Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in northern Zealand, set within a landscaped park (right) overlooking the Øresund Sound. With more than 3,000 works, a teeming gift shop, children's rooms, and a café, this makes for a day's outing, though the principal works, including an extensive Manga exhibition, can be seen in a morning or afternoon.
     Yet despite its pride in modernity, Copenhagen is an ancient city, founded in 1167 by Bishop Absalon on the two islands of Zealand and Amager. The great Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf is set in Denmark, and the Viking heritage is rife throughout the culture. While central to numerous wars over the centuries, many with their neighbor across the sea, Sweden, Copenhagen itself did not suffer extensive damage in World War II after being occupied by the Germans. Thus, the great older monuments stand much as they were, though well restored, often by prominent architects.  The center of the city, dominated by Tivoli itself, is flanked by the City Hall Square and Latin Quarter,  where you'll find the more indigenous boutiques of arts, crafts, and clothes; nearby is the main shopping street, Strøget, closed to motor traffic, whose occupants are far more international brands. Nearby you'll find the National Museum, which has an impressive collection of Viking art and antiquities, and the Glyptoket Museum (below), spectacular not just for its own architecture but for its beautiful modern interiors housing the ancient artwork of Rome, Greece, Assyria, and, in a wonderfully evocative, almost eerie subterranean series of rooms, some very fine Egyptian art.  Founded by brewer Carl Jacobsen, the Glyptoket was intended as a sculpture showcase, and the collection is built around a leafy interior, skylighted  winter garden of a kind that once distinguished art museums.  To one side is a café, whose desserts are far better than the savory offerings here.
      All within walking distance of these attractions, is the now quaint, if once notoriously roustabout, Nyhavn canal district where fisherman lived, worked, drank, and took their pleasures with the women of the streets.  These days Nyhavn is a more sanitized, colorful neighborhood lined with boutiques and cafés, and you should definitely consider one of the 60-minute boat tours that leave from here and take you around the principal waterways of the city.
      Also in city center is Amalienborg, Queen Margaret II's winter residence, four façades shaped around an  octagonal courtyard centered by an equestrian statue of the King Frederik V, who abruptly took over these four palaces from noble families after his own palace burned down in 1794.  Further away two other palaces bear visiting--Frederiksborg Castle in Hillerød, now home to the Museum of National History, and Kronburg Helsingør,  called Elsinore by Shakespeare as the setting for his 1599 drama "Hamlet," although no actual Prince of Denmark by that name has ever been proven to exist.  The former castle is huge and vast, a 17th century  testament to the pomp and self-importance of the Renaissance Danish kings.  The latter dates to 1420, although most of what you now see is from the 16th century, built as a bulwark against Swedish invasion.
        One of the sweetest of attractions outside of Copenhagen is the home of Baroness Karen Blixen, who, under the pen name Isak Dineson, wrote Seven Gothic Tales (1934), Out of Africa (1942) and several other books and collections that established her as Denmark's most famous author of the 20th century.  Hemingway said she, not he, should have received the Nobel Prize in 1954.
     Opened in 1991, Blixen's residence in Rungstedlund (right) is now in impeccable shape, and while the décor and furniture have been lovingly restored, this was not a house of great creature comforts. Her desk and her dining room and all the things dear to her are still arrayed here, with the addition of rooms containing editions of all her works, photographs, letters, memoirs, and fine paintings of the Kenyans she wrote about in Out of Africa.
     Having spent almost 18 years in Kenya on a coffee farm--the basis for the romantic 1985 Meryl Streep/Robert Redford movie--she returned to her Danish home in 1931, became a famous, if not particularly wealthy writer, and died in 1962 at the age of 77, supposedly of malnutrition after a life of chronic maladies. It is truly an author's house, as much as Jane Austin's in Hampshire, England, or Ernest Hemingway's in Key West, Florida, each with the spirit of the author still lingering in the nooks and eaves, linens and papers.
      I have saved the most obvious of Copenhagen's attractions for last: Tivoli Gardens, which is open at Christmastime, is a remarkable reverie plunked down smack in the center of a capital city, as if Disneyland were located in downtown Los Angeles.  In fact, Walt Disney was the first to admit that his inspiration for Disneyland in Anaheim came from visiting Tivoli, where he found the kind of joys young children could thrill to without any of the carny hustling,  sideshows, and bad food of most American amusement parks of the time. You can easily see what kinds of attractions and rides eventually showed up in more modern guise in Disneyland, especially the masted ship in the man-made lake here and old-fashioned kiddie rides like that dramatizing Hans Christan Anderson's best-loved stories.
  The Gardens' creator, Georg Carstensen, said in 1843 that “Tivoli will never be finished,” and of course it has grown and been transformed ever since, not least through dazzling displays of electronics, lights, and computer generated thrills--not least a roller coaster called The Demon. There is a glass concert hall, pantomine theater, aquarium, and several restaurants, from the Michelin starred Groften and Restaurant Herman, and the new Nimb, a brasserie overlooking the Gardens.  (I shall report more on these and other restaurants in Copenhagen next week.) Yet Tivoli has  happily managed to maintain the childlike scope and wonder Carstensen originally envisioned for his gardens.

* The handy and economical  Copenhagen Card costs DKK 199 (about $42) for 24 hours or DKK 429 ($90) for 72 hours, allowing free entry to more than 60 museums and attractions (Tivoli not included) throughout the metropolitan region, along with free transportation by train, bus, or Metro. You may purchase them at train stations, the airport, tourist info centers, and many hotels.

* Taxis are all licensed and may be flagged down anywhere. All drivers speak English and almost all accept credit cards. Let him know you will be paying with a card before you begin the trip.
* In fact, you can purchase just about anything--small or large--by credit cards. ATM machines are available throughout the city.
* In an emergency dial 112.
* Stores and boutiques have since 2005 been granted up to 23 Sundays to be open throughout the year.
* Tipping is not necessary anywhere, including at restaurants, hotels, and taxis. Rounding off a bill is common for good service.

Next Week: Dining Out in Copenhagen



A Troubling Year for NYC Restaurants. . . and the BEST NEW RESTAURANTS OF 2008
by John Mariani

     It was not exactly a year like any other in NY's gastro-scene. Plenty of restaurants opened in 2008, some with big names attached. Many closed.
      But the downturn in the economy, beginning last summer, has wreaked havoc within the restaurant industry nation- and city-wide, and in January, usually the slowest month of the year for dining out, we can expect to see a major shake-up and fall-out, just as in every other industry.  Restaurants are, of course, a little different than, say, a car dealership, Broadway theater, or men's store.  Expenditures of several thousands of dollars are the ones immediately reconsidered in a falling economy, while New Yorkers still cling to the idea that, by cutting back a bit, they can still enjoy a night out--they need a night out, they crave a night out. What they no not need is to order $350 bottles of Tuscan wines, $300 Kobe steaks, and $100 for an ounce of white truffle shavings.  Driven by Wall Streeters drunk on greed, outrageous restaurant bills were part of the corporate perqs, just like bonuses, and such people never blinked twice at $500 checks at sushi bars or 12-course meals at three-star restaurants. That has all now changed.  Simply being seen going into a three-star restaurant has taken on a certain onus among certain strata of society, and the exquisite boast that one could always get a table at such-and-such a restaurant now sounds like shallow swaggering.
     The bad and good news is that every restaurateur I've spoken with in NYC has felt the crunch but is trying very hard to make their restaurants more affordable and more accessible.  Winelists once heavy in $100+ bottles are now adding more wines under $50. Dover sole and foie gras are being appended with lesser species and more interesting terrines and pâtés. Chefs have been forced to be creative with cheaper ingredients--including lobster!, which has dropped in price by half this year.  And, according to my butcher, the prices of beef and pork will plummet after the turn of the year because they were kept (unsuccessfully) artificially high during the holidays.  Menu prices themselves have not dared to creep up as they did a year ago, when the $45 main courses was becoming the norm at high-end restaurants.  Even Alain Ducasse at his new restaurant Adour in the St. Régis is charging considerably less for a meal than he had back  in 1999 when he opened his first NYC restaurant in what was then the Essex House. 
And nobody has been spending $10 million to open the next big deal.  These days a restaurateur would be lucky to get a loan for any amount of money to open a storefront eatery on the Lower East Side.
      Most important, restaurants with less stellar credentials and far less posh have gotten so good at pleasing the public's taste for pastas, stews, even vegetable dishes, that to spend the extra $50 a head for the three-star experience is not as appealing as it once was.

     Value, however, is still value at the right price.  Let me share with you a wonderful e-mail I received from the great chef Jean-Louis Gerin of Restaurant Jean-Louis in Greenwich, CT--now almost a quarter century in business--which I think puts things into perspective:

     "Yes, '08 was a trying year. I was interviewed many, many, many times by international and local press as to how Restaurant JEAN-LOUIS was going to survive the crisis.  My answer to them and to you is that I strongly believe we are a 'great Value' restaurant. We enjoy a faithful customer list that evolves with time. We now cook for the kids and grandkids of our 90' client's list, while building our Internet contact list and take home sales.
   "Why? Simply because we never took advantage of you. When asked if I am going to drop my prices, my answer is clear:  I was never overpriced,  therefore I do not have any reason to discount my food. And at Restaurant JEAN-LOUIS my cuisine is served on Bernardaud china plates, finest hand-made crystal and Christofle silverware. This is the level of sophistication you and I want. Eating on cheap plates with bad silverware and mechanic glasses does not qualify as being economically correct, it's just plain snob-stupid.
     "Let's all raise our crystal glasses of finest wine to an interesting 2009 year. I will be cooking for you. I will only buy the best food available. I will continue to pile-up great wines in our Grand Award Wine Spectator wine cellar. I will use the finest porcelain, silver and crystal. BUT, I am encouraging you to take advantage of our amazing $59 Ballade Menu, which we have had for 15 years. Nothing new here, no gimmick, it was available all this time. Simply come to Restaurant JEAN-LOUIS and have a great time knowing you are safe with us."
     So here are what I think were the best restaurant openings in NYC this past year or so--in no particular order. I hope they all thrive in 2009.  (Some of these write-ups are adapted from my Esquire article
"The Best New Restaurants in America 2008," others from the Virtual Gourmet.

SCARPETTA--355 West 14th Street; 
212-691-0555--The name of the restaurant is a play on the Italian word “scarpetta” (“little shoe”), a colloquialism for the crust of bread Italians use to clean their plates with, which gives you an idea of the kind of gutsy food you’ll have here.  The word is also an alliteration of the chef-owner’s name—Scott Conant.
     At Scarpetta you push your way past a loud bar crowd into a skylighted room with close-set tables, trattoria-style, and find the menu a screed of lusty, well-spiced regional Italian food included his signature roast capretto (young goat), in all its succulent goodness. Among the antipasti is that old Italian-American favorite mozzarella in carozza—mozzarella oozing through a fried crust, cooked with stewed baby tomatoes. Meltingly braised beef ribs cuddle next to farro risotto, while his crudi is called  ‘susci--lustrous, sweet raw tuna with preserved truffles. Pastas pack punch: tagliatelle with a lamb ragù and fresh peas;  ricotta raviolini with a subtle-salty benediction of anchovy butter and orange zucchini blossoms; big fat duck and foie gras ravioli slippery with a Marsala reduction. Go simple with the main courses, maybe, seared, pearl-white sea scallops with mushrooms and sunchoke puree, or orata with leeks and a fregola ragù. It’s a good bet  you’ll be scooping up everything with a crust of bread.

BAR BOULUD--1900 Broadway; 212-595-0303--Daniel Boulud grew up in Lyons, where his family ran a little café and his maman spoiled him with the rich dishes of the region and homemade charcuterie.  Decades later, having established himself as one of America’s greatest cuisiniers at his namesake restaurants Daniel, Café Boulud, and DB Bistro Moderne, he has come full circle with Bar Boulud, and he has clearly poured his heart and soul into it.
     By bringing over a charcuterie master named Sylvain Gasdon from Paris’ renowned Gilles Verot, Boulud has been able to reproduce the lusty flavors of Lyonnaise-style artisanal sausages, fromage de tête, joue de porc, compotée de lapin, pâté grand-mère, pâté de campagne aux foies de volaille, andouille de Vire, saucisson cuit à l’ail, pâté en croûte, and much more.  You will never taste any better.
     Sit at the counter in the gold, barrel-ceilinged dining room or the “Tasting Table in the Round” in the rear, point to this and that, and tuck in your napkin. Or take a booth along the wall and order any of the bourgeois classics prepared by Chef Damian Sansonetti, accompanied by sturdy regional wines and excellent bread and butter. Give up all hope of restraint in the face of  “Plats de résistance” that include a simmering coq au vin with fresh pasta, lardons, onions, and mushrooms, and a thick, braised flatiron steak with carrot mousseline and onion confit. If steak frites is your measure of a good French bistro, you‘ll rave over  the textbook version here, and if you’re mad about blood sausage Gasdon’s boudin noir will leave you grinning like a vampire.  Then perhaps some ripe cheeses or a rich, custard-filled gâteau basque, with brandied cherries, and you’ll realize what a lucky little boy Daniel Boulud must have been back in Lyon.

BAR BLANC--142 West 10 Street; 212-255-2330--Enthusiasm and a generosity of spirit should always trump hype and heat. When you experience the kind of dedication and genuine hospitality at a small jewel like Bar Blanc, you can’t help but cheer it on, even if you’d prefer to keep it to yourself.  Set in a former carriage house on one of the prettiest streets of the West Village, Bar Blanc is a long 60-seat dining room with black lacquered walls with wine bottles in lighted niches, white brick walls, white leather banquettes, and a 12-stool white stone bar apparently favored by Carrie-Charlotte-Samantha-Miranda wannabes. Partners Kiwon Standen and Didier Palange and Chef Sebastiaan Zjip are clearly in business to please guests, so the greeting is warm and the seating always comfortable. Crispy sweetbreads lie on watercress made tangy with lemon vinaigrette and sweetened with Sherry-poached cherries. Seared black cod is underpinned with spinach, roast sunchoke, and fennel, bathed in a saffron-mussel sauce. And, when the strawberries are perfect, they need nothing more than a light marinade, a tuffet of meringue, snow-white yogurt, and a small scoop of strawberry sorbet—richly satisfying, even homey.  Now that I think of it, that’s exactly how an evening at Bar Blanc could be described, and when you get up from the table the owners seem really sorry you’re leaving.

KAMPUCHEA--78 Rivington Street; 212-529-3901--Hard to believe New York has only a single Cambodian restaurant. Fortunately, it is extraordinarily good and a helluva lot of easygoing fun. “Kampuchea” is the Khmer word for Cambodia, and Chef Ratha Chau, whose parents emigrated to the U.S., pays homage to the street food of his native land with a panoply of exciting dishes you won't find anywhere else. Kampuchea occupies a Lower East Side storefront with large windows that allow you to catch the comings-and-goings of the funky but quickly gentrifying Rivington Street.  With a few friends you get to make a large dent in the menu of 18 small plates, 12 sandwiches, 5 crêpes, and 11 soups, noodle dishes, and stews.  You’ll fight over the chilled rice vermicelli with grilled Berkshire pork, Chinese sausage, shallots, and crushed peanuts, and an egg over easy.   But you’ll definitely keep the sandwiches all to yourself. The num pang is a plate of three of them, like coconut tiger shrimp; sweet pulled oxtail with tamarind-basil sauce; and Hoisin sauced meatballs with tomato sauce, and they’re all sensationally good.    Nosh your way through a catfish crêpe with ground peppercorn, honey-soy, and sesame seed; crispy pork belly with honey, scallions, and apple cider. And if you want to rave or complain about the food, Chau is standing there, just feet away in the open kitchen.

CONVIVIO--45 Tudor City; 212-599-5045--There is never a let-up in the number of new, exciting Italian restaurants in New York run by great chefs: This year has seen the opening of Andy D’Amico’s Nizza (below), Scott Conant’s Scarpetta (above), Centro Vinoteca with chef Anne Burrell, and PadreFiglio with Alberto Arguda—all very different but all serving with Italian food that gets lustier all the time. So when Chris Cannon and Chef Michael White (left), previously at Fiamma, reconfigured the highly regarded L’Impero near the U.N. into a slightly more casual place named Convivio, I was hardly surprised to find the food going in the direction of big flavors, Cannon and White also run Alto in midtown, with a much more elevated style of Italian cuisine.  But when it comes to a choice between Alto’s $88 four-course menu or the $59 option for the same number at Convivio, and when that $59 gives you tomato-braised octopus as a starter, then fusilli pasta with Neapolitan pork shoulder ragù and a melted fonduta of cacciocavallo cheese, then grilled lamb chops with escarole and white beans, and ends off with a Sicilian tart of nectarines, almond cream, and honey, where you gonna go?     In nice weather there’s a small patio outside that overlooks the little park at Tudor City.

PAMPLONA--37 East 28th Street; 212-213-2328--Alex Ureña has quite a culinary résumé for such a young guy, earned at Bouley, JoJo, and Blue Hill, so it was inevitable he'd open his own place and break out with his own ideas.  Along the way he picked up valuable lessons from his Dominican Republic family of good cooks, starting with the meatballs with parsnip puree and a cranberry-tempranillo sauce. His bocadillo of braised rabbit with crema de Cabra goes down in a bite or two, and you'll crave more. Patatas bravas are fried potatoes spiced with paprika and aïoli of garlic-and-oil. and the bacalão croquettes are traditional and very savory, just mild enough in flavor but substantial.   You could stop after the tapas and entradas, but then you'd miss the main courses like Alex's succulent short ribs with white beans and tempranillo sauce, or one of the three dishes he prepares for two people, like his juicy confit of cochinillo, suckling pig with caramelized apples, tender Swiss chard and the light sweetness of black currants--a really marvelous dish.

DOVETAIL--103 West 77th Street; 212-362-3800--At Dovetail Chef John Fraser, formerly of Compass,  is doing his own strain of modern American cuisine, varying it with the season.  They also serve a terrific cornbread with white cheddar in it, so watch you don't overdo it. The richness, yet lightness, of a clam chowder with chorizo made it one of my favorite soups of the year, while  Fraser's take on the now ubiquitous pork belly was a fine idea--served with porcini, kale, and a hen's egg. Combining hollandaise with sea scallops  is also a bright idea, because the sauce, tinged with fennel,  brings out the sweetness of the seafood, further enhanced with the tang of grapefruit and the texture of almonds. Atlantic cod is first seared and served with gigante beans, rock shrimp, and the lovely aromatics of saffron in a nicely seasoned bath. Dovetail is a singularly brown restaurant, the only other color provided by the EXIT sign. I could certainly enjoy Fraser's cuisine blindfolded, but when you are paying high-end money for such wonderful food, it sure would be nice to do it in a more appealing dining room than Dovetail is now.

NIZZA--630 Ninth Avenue; 212-956-1800-- For decades now Andy D'Amico has been among New York's top chefs, first making his mark at long-gone Sign of the Dove, then opening his own two fine French bistros, Nice Matin and Marseilles. Now, with Nizza, he seems more grounded than ever in providing the kind of rustic Italian trattoria fare that is impossible not to love, especially the array of antipasti with Ligurian regionalism. "Nizza" is Italian for Nice, just across the Ligurian border, and they share many of the same flavors. The storefront restaurant has just 65 seats indoors, done in warm sienna brown and ocher yellow, with a white marble bar, and a wall of wines (with 30 by the glass available). Among the antipasti were irresistible foccaccette--fried ravioli filled with crescenza cheese; there is a Ligurian torta layered with Swiss chard and pancetta, and one of the best is roasted tomatoes with sheep's milk ricotta. Just point to any pasta--pesto lasagna with crescenza cheese is luscious; pansôti of herbs and greens in a creamy walnut sauce is rich; and the linguine with swordfish, tomato, pignoli, raisins and anchovies mimics the cooking of Sicily.  There's still more: wonderful pizza with pancetta bacon, taleggio, red onion, and chile flakes, and "terror stricken beef,"  a flat iron steak  marinated in fiery spices and served with shallots, capers, anchovy and a vinegar sauce.

SOUTH GATE--154 Central Park South; 212-484-5120--The room is a large, light, soaring space, with the ceiling a good 30 feet above your head, walls covered with small mirrored tiles inset at differing angles so each reflection is slightly different from its neighbor’s, and big comfortable chairs around well-appointed tables separated by wide-open spaces. Chef Kerry Heffernan, formerly at Eleven Madison Park, is doing warm-hearted food, like a flan of English peas with  a few strips of prosciutto, a few tiny morels,  and a chervil emulsion. Mayan shrimp and leeks vinaigrette with cardamom, rocket and dill, all add up to a nicely acidic provocation to the palate. The smoked char was as sweet as the morning’s catch, with flavor as fresh, clean, and delicate as the grapefruit sections seasoned with savory that accompanied it.  Delicious oven-roasted Colorado lamb, another doll-sized portion of loin, came with a generous cassoulet, deconstructed so it was light and savory, along with tat soi, an Asian, small-leafed green used mostly for salads, and a marjoram gremolata. The chocolate pot-de-crème was excellent, as were its garnish, a perfect chocolate madeleine, and little balls of chocolate as crisp and crunchy as their name, chocolate craquante, would suggest.

Eighty One--45 W 81st Street; 212-873-8181--Chef Edward Brown spent 17 years at the Sea Grill and now has re-appeared in his own restaurant. near the Museum of Natural History.  Eighty One is a deep, broad restaurant with high-backed booths, deep red lipstick colors, and polished wood floors. The tables are well set with the finest napery, stemware, and silverware, the winelist is very strong on every count, and service is amiable throughout the evening, well attuned to the pacing of the  kitchen.   Brown's modern American cuisine shows the deft way he focuses on fish species to bring out their best, as well as with meat, fowl, and vegetables.  He combines foie gras and chicken in a terrine, light and mild, with baby arugula, celeriac, apples, and truffles.  Wonderful New Bedford sea scallops and foie gras ravioli in a chervil-based wine sauce makes for a refined starter. He cooks  fluke on the Spanish griddle, giving it a gentle sear, then combines it with summer's vegetables in a fresh lemon-thyme broth. And Colorado lamb comes two ways, with roasted baby zucchini and the lovely creamy touch of ricotta. You can taste in every dish the finesse and respect he has for the principal ingredients, because they are always top of the season.

ELETTARIA--33 West 8th Street ; 212-677-3833--Chef Akhtar Nawab and partner-manager Noël Cruz have brought ideas and spices to a menu that refines the street food of those countries while making more western  ingredients like pheasant and quail sing in ways I have not come across before. The 72-seat restaurant has a cheery, rustic ambiance, with a good polished steel bar, reclaimed barn-wood ceiling, plank floorboards, and old brick walls in what is a landmarked Greenwich Village building. You and your friends could easily make a meal by ordering all the appetizers, which include plenty of winners: Kona kampachi raw fish with jackfruit, hearts of palm, and the crunch of smoked peanuts. Pork ribs are dusted with garam masala that perfumes the air, with the soft meat surrendering to the bite, served with snow peas, lychee, and cool yogurt.  Bavette, a delicious, thin cut of the short loin of beef, was impeccably chewy, served simply with oyster mushrooms, turnips, and the scent of fenugreek. Black sea bass with a confit of fingerlings (good idea) was served with coconut, tapioca, and pea leaves to provide varying textures. For dessert the "milk donuts," somewhat like Indian rasmalai, are soaked with rosewater and you get the lagniappe of ginger custard and yogurt gelato.


OLANA--72 Madison Avenue;  212-725-4900--Named after the fantastical estate of Hudson River School painter Frederic Church, Olana's décor was inspired by the grandeur of the Hudson Valley mansions. Partner/Owners  William and Patrick Resk gave the rooms 17-foot ceilings, roomy banquettes, leather paneled and mirrored walls, and mahogany blinds. Chairs are wrapped in mohair, others in velvet, and good linens drape the well-lighted tables. Hudson Valley artwork is displayed throughout.  Chef/owner Albert Di Meglio has a strong résumé, with experience at Le Cirque and Osteria del Circo. His food has gusto and a very generous personality that comes through in the largess of every dish.  We began with roasted octopus with red quinoa and a garlic-rich rouille vinaigrette and a fine heirloom tomato salad with crispy parmesan chops, a lacing of pesto, and a chardonnay vinaigrette. DiMeglio's starter of sweetbreads and langoustine lets the two ingredients subtly play off each other, with the addition of a celery-pancetta marmalade, peppery purslaine, and a green apple-parsley sauce adding numerous complementary flavors. We tried a hearty trio of pastas on one dish ($20) as a main course--tacconi, tomato risotto, and raviolini--all very good. Monkfish osso buco, nice and meaty, came with a parsnip puree, and braised endive that gave it a nice bitter edge to go with the saline flavor of crisp lardons and an herb jus.

CORTON--239 West Broadway; 212-219-2777--The closing two years ago of one of New York's seminal restaurants of the late 1980s, Montrachet, quite possibly foretold the shift in dining out that occurred as the economy slowed down.   Its replacement is the serenely cool Corton, a barely decorated dining room in a minimalist style of pale Champagne color walls, widely separated tables, soft lighting, and white tablecloths set with Riedel, Laguiole, and Christofle. The chef is something of a surprise: British-bred Paul Liebrandt, whose dubious reputation with extremely experimental, idiosyncratic cuisine and service at other restaurants seemed an odd choice for owner Drew Nieporent. But Liebrandt has restrained himself thus far, turning out beautiful modern cuisine like a simply perfect baby vegetables with fruits and herbs that taste like the first salad of Eden, while scallops take on a light brininess from the subtle use of sea urchin cream, the crispness of radish and almonds, while caramelized veal sweetbreads come with an oozing egg yolk "confit," carrot, and argan oil--a superb dish.  A rolled squab with chestnut cream, smoked bacon and foamy pain d'épices milk, and for dessert Robert Truitt's gianduja "palette" gives you a heavenly trio of chocolate, hazelnut, and tangy yuzu in profusion.




by Brian Freedman

     Outside of wine circles, or among its most ardent fans, Chablis remains stubbornly—indeed, bewilderingly—misunderstood. Some of this, of course, is cultural: In America, those oversized jugs of “chablis,” perfect for collecting dust or whipping up mediocre sangria, have done more than their part in sullying the reputation of the real stuff. And even among the more wine-knowledgeable, Chablis is often looked at monolithically: As an always-crisp, typically austere, rock- and mineral-driven Chardonnay that is perhaps best enjoyed as a quaffer.
    This, of course, could not be further from the truth, as a very good vintage like 2006 proves.
    In fact, a Domaine Laroche Chablis lunch this past autumn at New York’s Daniel threw the supreme food-friendliness of these wines into exquisitely sharp relief. And Chef Daniel Boulud’s cooking, as his legions of fans know well, tends toward lusty, fully developed flavors that shine beautifully on their own. So how, I wondered, would Chablis, so supposedly austere, pair with it?
    Perfectly, it turned out. Because just as is the case with most every other great wine region or appellation around the world, Chablis is home to a fabulously—if often subtly—varied terroir whose differences in exposure, soil composition, and drainage result in a far wider range of styles and expressions than popular perception implies.
    The Domaine Laroche Saint Martin 2006, for example, worked wonders alongside a complex tandoori cured striped bass. The wine’s smoky, stony nose, flecked with hints of pepper, provided an intriguing bridge to the aromatic intensity of the food. And even at this affordable level (the Saint Martin generally retails for around $23), its surprising density on the palate and juicy ripe apple character played gorgeous counterpart even to a dish as supposedly wine-daunting as this.
    Moving up the ladder in terms of both prestige and price, Chablis Premier Cru tends to be a step up in terms of both nuance and expressiveness. The Laroche 1er Cru Les Vaudevey 2006, for example, was sourced from a slower ripening, steep east-south-facing slope that resulted in a wine of intriguing subtlety, a richly colored, shimmering Chardonnay whose core of ripe stone fruit and minerals clearly held a great deal still in reserve.
In contrast, the Laroche 1er Cru Les Fourchaumes Vieilles Vignes 2006 lingered longer on the tongue and was richer with notes of vanilla and lemon cream. These grapes were sourced from a sunny, south-southwest-facing slope whose greater heat than Les Vaudevey’s afforded the berries an earlier start to the ripening process. There was still a striking nose of Granny Smith apple and telltale Chablis minerality here, but this wine was heartier than its Vaudevey counterpart. Despite their differences, however, both proved to be excellent “food wines,” and paired seamlessly with Chef Boulud’s butter-poached prawns with chorizo, glazed chayote, and avocado chutney.
      Then there were the Grands Crus, the greatest expressions of the best terroirs in Chablis, all seven of which come from different parts of the same 100-hectare hill. Still, the fact that the Grands Crus neighbor one another doesn’t mean that there are not significant differences between them; in fact, the proximity of one to the other seems to highlight their individual characters.
      The Domaine Laroche Grand Cru Les Blanchots 2006 almost reminded me of a white Rhone on the nose with its rich, waxy floral notes. On the palate, it demonstrated the density and length that is so typical of the best of these wines. Their Grand Cru Les Clos 2006, sourced from a climat right next to Les Blanchots but with exposure to a bit more southern sun (the two are divided by a thin road), was a touch more lively on the mid-palate despite its greater heft. It showed notes of flowers, chalk, and ripe pears, and promises to evolve for another 5 – 15 years, though it’s hard to resist right now, especially paired with a dish like restaurant Daniel’s rich, earthy poulard with celery root and porcini.
    I’ve also been impressed with the 2006 Chablis from Domaine Faiveley. Their Grand Cru Les Clos 2006 showed notable earth and mushroom flavors and a nose reminiscent of almond skin and delicate tea leaves. This wine was all about a sense of place, the transparency of the color mirrored in the gorgeous transparency of the aroma. It’s exactly the sort of wine that calls for purchasing several bottles and following their evolution over the next decade or more.
    Faiveley’s Grand Cru Les Preuses 2006, on the other hand, was a full-throttle, white Burgundy-style Chablis that showed a nutty, toasty mid-palate, all density and reserved power right now, that led the way to a finish that lingered on with grilled pineapple, subtle candy corn, fresh lemon, and mineral notes. It’s an intriguing wine, deliciously irresistible right now and still just at the beginning of a long life.
    A solid vintage like 2006, then, is perfect for allowing each of the great terroirs of Chablis to shine. For consumers, these wines offer a fantastic—and delicious—opportunity to explore this too-often misunderstood region, and to discover all that the land itself has to impart on the wines that come from it.

Brian Freedman is Director of Wine Education at the Wine School of Philadelphia (, contributing editor at Philadelphia Style Magazine, wine columnist at Affluent Magazine, restaurant critic at, and host of the weekly virtual tasting at He can be reached at


Follow That Smell!

"From One Winning Team to Another," a sculpture of the Green Bay Packers, was carved from a 640-pound block of Sargento cheddar, for Sargento Foods, Inc.  It was featured at a NFL tailgate party where hungry fans gobbled half of it and then a fan jumped on the table and ran off with the second head.  Other sculptures have incl 120-pound Mickey Mouse, a six-foot long aircraft carrier, Jay Leno, Matt Lauer, Al Roker, Katie Couric.


"Thankfully, this was all background chatter compared with the next dish, les chipirons de ligne, hand-caught baby squid sautéed with chorizo and tomato confit, surrounded by two-year-old black rice and then swamped with Parmigiano Reggiano foam. It sounds a disgusting mess of pretentious contradictions, but believe me, this was the most exciting dish I have eaten in London for quite some time. The Parmigiano exuded that rotten, durian-like stench that I adore and the rice was almost as intense as black truffles--it was a totally unique combination."--Bruce Palling, "Intelligent Life," The Economist.



TO ALL PUBLICISTS: Owing to the amount of material sent to this newsletter regarding New Year's dinners--many of which are only announcements as to price fixed dinners--it is impossible for me to include any but the most unusual of events for those holidays in Quick Bytes. --John Mariani

* From Jan. 14-19 Pueblo Bonito Oceanfront Resorts and Spas presents the 1st Annual Cabo Wine & Food Fest 2009 to celebrate Mexico’s wines and innovative gastronomy created by award-winning chefs. sommeliers and vintners. will redefine connoisseur’s perspectives of Mexican wines, spirits and beer. Visit

On Jan. 14 meet "Dine About Town" chefs at a launch party in The Cellar at Macy's Union Square. With a $20 donation to Meals On Wheels, guests receive 10 "tasting tickets" to sample offerings, wine tastings and a keepsake Only in San Francisco wine glass.

* Dine About Town San Francisco returns Jan. 15-30, and June 1-15. Diners select from more than 100 Bay Area restaurants, each offering prix-fixe lunches for $21.95 and/or dinners for $34.95. The restaurant list will be posted on the web site Call 415-391-2000.

* On Jan. 17 & 18 “Sun Winefest” will be held at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, CT, with a wineries and breweries and chefs incl. Todd English, Jasper White, Govind Armstrong, Mary Ann Esposito, Pichet Ong, Douglas Rodriguez, Susur Lee, Lydia Shire, Chris Schlesinger, Michael Ginor, Walter Potenza,  Loretta Oden, et al.  More than 1,000 wines, and exhibitors showcase  services such as wine storage, culinary accessories and specialty foods.   On Sat. evening, a charity gala benefits the American Liver Foundation and features Celebrity Chef Dine Around,  Purchase online at, or call  860.886.0070.  Call 888-226-7711 or visit

* From Jan 18-21, 2009, Chef Eric Ripert, of Blue by Eric Ripert at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman;  Dean Fearing, Ingrid Hoffman, Laurent Manrique, Michel Richard, and  wine experts Anthony Giglio, Ray Isle, Joy Spence and Joshua Wesson come together in January 2009 for the Cayman Cookout.  Package incl. 3 nights accommodation, breakfast, 4 tastings and demos,  Rum Point Cookout,  Farewell breakfast. From $4,000. Visit

* From now to Sept. in Groton, CT, the Mystic Marriott Hotel & Spa offers a “Connecticut Wine Experience Package” in conjunction with two of the state’s best vineyards, Jonathan Edwards’ award-winning wines and learn more about the wine-making process during a special VIP tasting. In addition, guests will also enjoy a wine tasting at Stonington Vineyards and a complimentary bottle of wine. Packages are $575.  Call 860- 446-2600.

NEW FEATURE: I am happy to  report that the Virtual Gourmet is  linking up with four excellent travel sites:

Everett Potter's Travel  Report: 
I consider this the best and savviest blog of its kind on the  web. Potter is a columnist for USA Weekend, Diversion, Laptop and Luxury  Spa Finder, a contributing editor for Ski and  a frequent contributor to National  Geographic Traveler,  and Elle Decor. "I’ve designed this site is for people who take their  travel seriously," says Potter. "For travelers who want to learn about special  places but don’t necessarily want to pay through the nose for the privilege of  staying there. Because at the end of the day, it’s not so much about five-star  places as five-star experiences."  THIS WEEK:  A FEW OF MY FAVORITE PLACES FOR 2008.


Eating Las Vegas is the new on-line site for Virtual Gourmet contributor 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 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). THIS WEEK: A Report on The Four Seasons Jackson Hole. Click on the logo below to go to the site.

Family Travel Forum: The Family Travel Forum (FTF), whose motto is "Have Kids, Still Travel!", is dedicated to the ideals, promotion and support of travel with children. Founded by business professionals John Manton and Kyle McCarthy with first class travel industry credentials and global family travel experience, the independent, family-supported FTF will provide its members with honest, unbiased information, informed advice and practical tips; all designed to make traveling a rewarding, healthy, safe, better value and hassle-free experience for adults and children who journey together. Membership in FTF will lead you to new worlds of adventure, fun and learning. Join the movement.

Family Travel Forum

All You Need to Know Before You Go


MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly.  Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani,   John A. Curtas, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Suzanne Wright, and Brian Freedman. 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