Virtual Gourmet

January 17, 2010                                                                  NEWSLETTER

                                                                            "Crêpes Suzette" (1950) by Bernie Fuchs


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There will be no issue of Mariani's Virtual Gourmet next week because Mariani will be in snowy Austria.  The next issue will be published January 31st.

APOLOGIES: This past week the ARCHIVE has been down, but it is now back up.

In This Issue

By John Mariani

The Oak Room
by John Mariani




By John Mariani

   The death knell for haute cuisine has been sounded about as often as for the demise of Broadway, and a new book by Michael Steinberger carries the plaintive title Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France, detailing how the decline in both standards and admiration for the glories of French cuisine have been long in coming, as Michelin star restaurants go empty and master chefs go global rather than stay in their kitchens cooking.
     To which I answer that such assertions are looking at the issue from the wrong end: Haute cuisine as represented in ultra-expensive dining salons with crystal chandeliers and gold bathroom fixtures are indeed suffering from both a weak global economy and a certain stuffiness out of kilter with the way most people enjoy eating these days.  But the true excellence of haute cuisine’s legacy is still very much intact; in fact, it is more widespread than ever, and, thank heavens, cheaper.
      The reasons are simple: the last generation of chefs who learned all the lessons of masters like Joël Robuchon, Alain Ducasse, Eric Ripert, and Daniel Boulud have applied them with a more modern style and individual panache that has resulted in restaurants around the world now serving the same quality of haute cuisine in more casual surroundings that used to be served only in the three-star temples of French gastronomy.
      Indeed, while the worldwide appeal of Italian, Mediterranean, Spanish, and Japanese cuisine is now in full flourish in cities from New York to Berlin, classic French cuisine and techniques are and always will be the ballast for it all.  Modern American masters like Alfred Portale of Gotham Bar & Grill in New York, Thomas Keller of The French Laundry in Yountville, CA, Rick Tramonto of Tru in Chicago, and Lee Hefter of Spago in Beverly Hills all trained under the French system, yet their restaurants—all tremendously successful—are anything but staid or traditional in menus and décor, and all are expressive of their own American backgrounds.
     At every level of modern restaurant haute cuisine’s concepts have filtered down, from the commitment to freshness in every ingredient to the stocking of winelists that are designed to complement chefs’ cooking.  You might dine at a superb Italian restaurant like Valentino in Santa Monica and find that the best seafood is shipped in from the Mediterranean and the finest wines from small Italian estates fill the list.  At London’s Nobu, the sushi takes on all sorts of global influences along with a winelist that matches the food impeccably.  And in New York, Chef Michael Psilakis has revolutionized Greek cooking by using French and Asian techniques, along with a screed of the finest wines coming out of the Mediterranean. In the past, French cuisine monopolized the term "haute," even when the cuisine was not, though the prices were.
      The truly wonderful thing about this evolution of haute cuisine is how master chefs have brought down the haute along with the prices.  The great Joël Robuchon has opened a series of L’Atelier restaurants (New York's is shown at right) where you sit at counters and choose from an array of small plate dishes that might include the finest Iberian ham or the beef burgers riddled with morsels of foie gras. It ain;t cheap but, à la carte, you may spend what you wish.
      Famous Washington-based chef José Andrés has been in the vanguard of modern Spanish food in America, nowhere better enjoyed than at his restaurants Jaleo and minibar, and now in Los Angeles at the superb Bazaar, where he takes common foods like olives, chicken wings, and even cotton candy and serves them as small plates of wondrous invention based on the soundest and most precise cooking techniques.
         This is a far cry from the day when dining out, as opposed to eating out, was a world of privilege and expense, and more about social clout than true fine dining.  French haute cuisine was synonymous with extravagance and the haute meant haughty.  Social position counted more than wealth, and knowing the rules  more than gustatory taste.
The pompous owner of New York’s Lafayette (long defunct), Jean Fayet, once ordered a guest to remove her sunglasses because they caused a reflection on the ceiling; refused a table to the beauty editor of McCall’s Magazine because her Pucci dress was too short; banished the Italian designer Valentino for wearing a turtleneck; Fayet even refused to accept credit cards because he “didn’t want to be another name on a list.”   Robert Meyzen, owner of La Caravelle (also gone), told the New York Times, “I don’t care if you call three weeks ahead.  When I can have someone like Mrs. Lytle Hull and Mrs. Burden [two New York socialites], why should I take Mrs. Somebody from Kalamazoo? Even if I have ten tables empty, if I don’t feel like taking someone, that’s my privilege. We don’t sell tables here. You couldn’t get a table here for $200.  If you belong here, you get a table.”
      If, then, the definition of haute cuisine is stuffy, pretentious, overly elaborate food full of truffles and caviar served on gold-rimmed plates at astronomical prices, then there are more than enough such places still thriving in Paris, New York, Las Vegas, and Tokyo.  But the heart of haute cuisine has always really been the excellence of product, the care in cooking it, and the richly flavorful result that distinguishes it from food that is merely tasty.  Indeed, traditional French cuisine is alive and kicking, both on the haute and bas levels: NYC's La Grenouille just received three stars from the Times; In Las Vegas you can luxuriate at French salons like Guy Savoy and Fleur de Lys; in Chicago, Everest is still going strong; in NYC and Washington DC, there are Alain Ducasse restaurants; but you can also feast at bistros and brasseries doing top-notch French food--much of it once regarded as haute cuisine--all over the U.S., London, Copenhagen, and Berlin, (and, of course, France). In Atlanta, Pano Karatassos has just opened Bistro Niko; in Cleveland, Zak Bruell has a big hit with L'Albatros Brasserie; and NYC is filling up with bistros like Fleur de Sel and Minetta Tavern. Under the circumstances, I'm happy that haute cuisine conquered a long time ago and now just needs not to rest on its laurels.



The Oak Room
The Algonquin Hotel
59 West 44th Street

    The Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room is, with Café Carlyle and Feinstein's, one of the few great cabarets of NYC, which has no lack of newer clubs all over town. But none is so special or historic as these.  
"The Oak Room Supper Club tradition began when friends petitioned owner Frank Case to open the room to an after-theater crowd wishing to continue their merry-making until the wee hours of the morning," reads the press release, heralding the opening in 1939 with a Viennese chanteuse named Greta Keller.  Since then the careers of many of the great stars of music have both begun and flourished here, including Barbara Carroll, Harry Connick Jr., Michael Feinstein, Andrea Marcovicci, Diana Krall, Jane Monheit, and Peter Cincotti.
     The Algonquin was, of course, also famous as the meeting grounds of those 1930s wits known as the Round Table--New Yorker writers like Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Alexander Woollcott--forever remembered as a crucible for quips that have become part of gossip Americana. "
A Vicious Circle"--Parker's characterization of the Table--is also the title of  a painting of the Algonquin Round Table (below) by artist Natalie Ascencios that hangs in the hotel's Round Table room. Featured in the painting, from left to right, are: (standing) Robert Benchley, Franklin Pierce Adams, Robert Sherwood, Harpo Marx, Alexander Woollcott, Marc Connelly, Edna Ferber, (seated) Dorothy Parker, Harold Ross, George S. Kaufman, Heywood Broun. Some examples of their wit:

"That woman speaks eighteen languages, and she can't say No in any of them."--Dorothy Parker.
"Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn't the work he is supposed to be doing."--Robert Benchley.
"All the things I really like to do are either immoral, illegal, or fattening."--Alexander Woollcott.

Those legendary figures are long gone, but The Round Table room is still there, open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Anyway, back to The Oak Room.  I was recently fortunate to attend a performance of Andrea Marcovicci (left) doing the song book of Johnny Mercer--"Skylark," "Days of Wine and Roses," "Autumn Leaves," "Hit the Road to Dreamland," and many more--and she knows well how to play the diva, one who sadly missed being painted by John Singer Sargent, just as he would have missed painting her: She is the epitome of "Madame X." And her knowledge of American Music history is both impressive and tied neatly into her performances, so that you learn while being slyly seduced.
       The food, served before the performance, is not really the point of attending, but
Chef Alex Aubry and Sous Chef Michael Moore do a more than creditable job with continental dishes like a salad of cherry tomatoes, avocado, smoked mozzarella, red onion and lemon thyme vinaigrette; a nicely meaty pan-seared crab cake with a good smoked pepper, tartar sauce, and organic greens; well cooked, generous  rack of lamb with grilled sweet potato, charred asparagus, merlot reduction with fresh mint; saffron Gulf shrimp with artichoke hearts, tomato, English peas, and a lobster saffron sauce over linguine.  For dessert you will not go wrong with the crisp and juicy apple caramel galette with sour cream and cinnamon ice cream or the big, dark brownie ganache cake. The winelist could use considerable updating.
       The service at The Oak Room is very Old School, performed with impeccable timing by long-time waiters who are dependably affable--and I suspect they could tell enough stories to fill a couple of volumes on Oak Room lore. I really wish someone would write that history, which evolves, quite successfully, season to season.  Too bad John Cheever and John O'Hara are no longer available.
      Going there is one of those things out-of-towners are wont to do and a requisite for those who think of themselves as true New Yorkers.  So you get a genteel mix of the former and the latter, some who know the performer of the evening, some who stare, dazzled by the radiance of the star light who stands just feet from the dining tables and comforted by the  assurance that cabaret is still going strong in a New York that seems much the way it used to be pictured in MGM movies where Gene Kelly danced with "Miss Turnstiles of the Month" and Judy Garland met a soldier under a clock at the Astor.

The Oak Room is open Tues.-Sat. for dinner only, with à la carte appetizers, $14-$20 and entrees $38-$42. Dinner seating begins at 6:30 p.m. with an 8:30 p.m. curtain time. There is a second performance on Friday and Saturday evenings at 11 p.m. Guests may enjoy an à la carte menu at 10 p.m., prior to the second show.  There is also a Music Charge for performances.


by Mort Hochstein

    The outlook down the road may be disappointing  for fans of Isosceles, the cult wine from the hills of Paso Robles. Harvest this past autumn was interrupted by ten days of rain, destroying  nearly a quarter of the crop at Justin Vineyards, and when the wine is released two years from now, there’ll be  a smaller allotment for the wine’s fanciers, consumers, collectors or speculators.
         Although some winemakers try to avoid the descriptor “cult wine,” there’s no way around the term when it comes  to Isosceles, a much sought after blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Opening prices for Isosceles usually start around $60 but often  escalate  to three figures for those  who aren’t on the mailing list and must  seek it  on E-Bay and other trading sites.
    The term may carry some baggage, but owner Justin Baldwin sees nothing wrong with fathering a cult wine.  “We’ve got several hundred fans waitlisted for Isosceles and I’m only sorry we can’t satisfy everyone.  Our production, unfortunately,  tops out at  about  4,000 bottles, not enough to satisfy demand.. It’s gratifying to know so many people want Isosceles,  and it’s rewarding to our team to know that   people will go to great lengths to enjoy what we make.”
  Unlike many producers whose  skills are  in the fields and  the winery, Justin and his wife-partner Deborah Baldwin  have a strong financial world  background. Justin was an investment and international banker when he and Deborah, a mortgage banker, purchased vineyard property near Paso Robles in 1981 and planted their first wines one year later. Over the years they added accommodations, appropriately called Just Inn, and a restaurant, creating added reasons  for winelovers   to travel the back country. There were fewer than a dozen vineyards in the region in those days. Now there are nearly 200.
    They kept their executive positions in Southern California, working weekends and every spare day for the next ten years to nurture the  vineyard, the inn and the restaurant. “I kept my day job until I felt we were ready to concentrate full time on the winery,” Justin observes. Today,   a skilled crew handles the vineyards and other basics,  while Deborah concentrates on marketing and Justin on administration, although both are active in production.  With a creative , strong-minded couple like the Baldwins, there is often a  lot of give and take. “No major disagreements,“ Justin notes, “we share a goal and understand the difficulties and eventually find  our way together.”
     “You need good dirt, good wine and good people,” says Deborah, “ but the final step is marketing. You must be able to sell the wine and keep it in front of the public.”  One or both of  the Baldwins hit the road frequently, bringing their message to distributors, retailers  and consumers.
    Isosceles, the star of the lineup is a dark ruby, almost black wine with blackberry fruit and spicy oak scents  on the nose.  It’s a big, mouth-filing wine with dark flavors and tannins that need aging time. Isosceles follows the traditional Bordeaux blend, about 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, and equal parts of Cabernet Franc and Merlot, depending on the vintage.
    Justin produces a varied lineup of 35,000 to 40,000 bottles each year. It includes a Cabernet Sauvignon rich in dark chocolate, black and red berry tones, a food-friendly wine that can only improve with proper cellar time as well as a Syrah, both in the mid-twenties.  The winery offers three wines at about $45: Savant, primarily Syrah blended with Malbec and other reds; Justification, 65% Cab with Merlot, and reserve Tempranillo, as well as Zinfandel and Malbec.
     Orphan, the entry level wine  at about $18  is a blend of reds selected by the winemaker after other bottlings are accounted for, hence the name Orphan.  The whites include  a basic and reserve Chardonnay, a Sauvignon Blanc and a  Viognier, ranging from $15 for the Sauvignon Blanc to $26 for the high-end Chardonnay. In January,  the Orphan,  Zin and Malbec were sold out and the only Isosceles to be had was a magnum listed at  $150.
    The pastoral calm in the hills of Paso Robles is a far cry from the executive suites of southern California and the Baldwins   have carved out the kind of life that they dreamed of while toiling in the financial world.

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



WABC-TV in Boston reported that Wendy Golini, 43, swears she saw the image of the Roman Catholic nun Mother Teresa on her cutting board after praying to her. "Like most people lately, this economy has taken its toll on me financially -- causing much need for faith and prayer. I was praying to Mother Teresa every day," Golini said. "I was at my coffee shop, stressing out about bills and I started to pray to her and when I wiped down the cutting board, she appeared on the board. I have witnesses who were there, and I’m not crazy -- this isn’t a hoax."


“My husband will love that kind of dirty-whore cheese.”—Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, buying Pecorino Gregoriano  at Brooklyn  Larder.



Guidelines for submissions:  QUICK BYTES publishes only events, special dinners, etc, open to the public, not restaurant openings or personnel changes.  When submitting please send the most pertinent info, incl. tel # and site, in one short paragraph as simple e-mail text, WITH DATE LISTED FIRST, as below.  Thanks.  John Mariani

* From now until
Feb. 1, Restaurant Nicholas in Red Bank, NJ, will honor its truffle season tradition with a new 6-course Black Truffle Tasting Menu at $105 pp. Call 732-345-9977 or visit

On Jan. 18 in Dallas, TX, Stephan Pyles will host a  5-course dinner paired with Hall wines in the restaurant’s private dining room.  Chef Pyles and Proprietor Kathryn Hall will educate diners on the food and wine pairings. $125 pp. Call 214-999-1229 x102 or email

* On Jan. 22, in NYC, restaurateur Ken Aretsky and soul food chef Charles Gabriel debut Fried Chicken Fridays at Aretsky’s Patroon, in the restaurant’s Gibson room.  Executive chef Bill Peet’s bar menu is also available.  The live musical stylings of honky tonk piano player Benjamin Healy accompany the Southern feast.  $25 pp.  Call 212-883-7373.

*On Jan. 23 in NYC, Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits, presents the Union Des Grands Crus Bordeaux Tasting of  the 2006 and 2007 Vintages from more than 80 of Bordeaux's greatest châteaux. Winemakers and châteaux proprietors themselves will be pouring the wines.  VIP ticket holders will be entered into a Special Raffle in which 6 Signed Magnums from a selection of featured Châteaux will be awarded to 6 lucky winners.. For VIP tickets ($125pp before Jan.15; $150 after) and Grand Tasting tickets ($75pp before Jan. 15; $95 after); sold online at:; 212-838-7500.

* On Jan. 29th The Boat House in North Tiverton, RI, will host a Moët Hennessy Wine Dinner. Melina Catelli, for Moët Hennessy, will lead guests through each selection of wine paired with a 4-course menu from Executive Chef James Campagna.  $75 pp.   Call 401-624-6300.

* On Jan. 29, in DallasNana at Hilton Anatole Hotel is hosting a Chivas Regal Scotch Tasting paired with exemplary bites by Executive Chef Anthony Bombaci for $50 pp. Call 214-761-7470. . . . .On Feb. 5,  Nana  is hosting its monthly Friday Night Flight featuring 3 wines paired with 3 small plates created by Chef  Bombaci. $20 pp.

* On Feb. 1, Feb. 22, Mar. 29, Apr. 19, May 10, May 24, and Jun. 7 in NYC, the French Institute Alliance Francaise (FIAF) presents “A Wine Tour de France: Discovering French Cépages” in 6 sessions, each focusing on the wines of a different region of France. Tastings will be led by Michael Madrigale, Chef Sommelier at Daniel Boulud’s Bar Boulud, and guests will also sample France’s cheeses and charcuterie. Single tastings $115, or $95 for FIAF members,  additional pricing options for multiple tastings; Call 212-355-6100 or visit

* From Feb. 2 – 6, in Sausalito, CA, Poggio is celebrating their 3rd annual Bollito Misto Festa with a selection of slowly simmered meats  served tableside from a special heated cart. $19 pp. Call 415-332-7771. . . .Every Monday Poggio offers traditional Tuscan porchetta prepared from David Pasternak’s Devil’s Gulch Ranch milk-fed pigs.  $16 pp. Add a quarto of Chianti for $7.50. Call 415-332-7771.

  * From Feb. 4 - 6, at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY,  The Bocuse d'Or USA Foundation will hold the qualifying competition to select U.S. team to compete at the Bocuse d'Or International Culinary Competition in Lyon, France in 2011. Sixteen teams will compete, with the top 8 to advance to the final competition. A panel of judges, incl. The Foundation's Board of Directors comprised of Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller and Jerome Bocuse, will Team USA at the global competition. This event is free and open to the public. Visit

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: FIVE EXPERTS VOICE THEIR OPINOION.


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 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:

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

nickonwine: An engaging, interactive wine column by Nick Passmore, Artisanal Editor, Four Seasons Magazine; Wine Columnist,;;


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, Bloomberg News, 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 2010