Virtual Gourmet

February 7, 2010                                                                  NEWSLETTER

                                                      Pasticceria in Erice, Sicily. Photo by Galina Stepanoff-Dargery (2009)



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In This Issue

DO's and DON'T's for SAINT VALENTINE'S DAY by John Mariani





by John Mariani

By now, every single restaurant in North America is booked solid for Valentine’s Day, which is, of course, the worst day to take the woman you love out to dinner. It's amateur hour out there. Restaurants serve set, overpriced menus. Dining rooms are packed with overly demonstrative folks who are eating at a fancy-schmancy restaurant for the first time. And, as with New Year's Eve, the expectations going into Valentine’s Day never quite live up to the reality of Valentine's Day.

But no matter -- you still need to take her out. Here are some pointers on romantic dining in an age when there are so many more choices, so many ways to offend her at the table, and so much gouging of the bill.

1. Ask her out at least five days in advance. But since you've got just a few days until Valentine's Day, you're already in the hole. Assuming you've got a date, tell her the reservation is 15 minutes earlier than it actually is. This way you'll be seated on time.

2. Some restaurants are more romantic than others. Make sure you pick the right cuisine:

• French restaurants may seem romantic, but often they upstage you with a meal that revolves around an exotic menu and wine list instead of you having a good time. And then there's the snooty factor, where you're judged as much by the service staff as your date. Especially when it comes to the tip.

• Chinese and other Asian restaurants are either pushy, crowded, and frantic or completely empty, ensuring you'll be the only ones in the whole place. In either case, you'll be out the door in a hurry. Think about it: When was the last time you spent more than an hour in a Chinese restaurant?

• With their lively atmosphere and accessible cuisine, Mexican restaurants can be extremely amiable but mark you as a cheapskate. The music usually sucks, but after a few fast-acting margaritas, neither you nor your date will be complaining.

• Steakhouses tend to be meat markets. (Literally.) Who wants to compete with the crowds of guys at the bar who can't wait for you to go to the men’s room so they can hit on your girl?

• Sushi, assuming she likes it, is very good for a casual date, even a little sexy because it’s adventurous and marks you as something of a sophisticate. (This is especially true if you if you live in a landlocked city like Cincinnati or Tucson.) Just don’t sit at the counter.

• Italian restaurants, by and large, are your best bet. The staff is affable, they know how to greet a beautiful girl, the food is going to be good even if it’s only okay, and the bill won’t raise your eyebrows over your hairline. Plus, as Neil Simon once said, “There are two laws in the universe: The Law of Gravity and Everybody Likes Italian Food.”

The List of Do's

• Wear a jacket or blazer. A tie couldn't hurt, either.

• Get up from the table when she leaves and returns.

• Tip 20 percent if you expect to return. Remember to include the wine costs as well, unless you're buying bottles of wine that cost more than $100 each.

• Pay the bill. If she offers to go Dutch, resist her.

• Offer to switch plates if she hates her meal. If that doesn't work, ask her what she hates and quietly consult the waiter off to the side.

The List of Don'ts

• Don't flourish a bribe to a maître d’. Tip him on the way out if you plan on being a regular.

• Don't share plates, especially on the first and second dates. Try to stay away from the tasting menu, too, while you're at it.

• Never order soup. It will end up on your shirt.

• Don't perform the Heimlich maneuver, unless you're an EMT. Let the trained staff handle this one.

• Don't make a big production out of tasting the wine. Take a sip, nod if it's good, and leave the swishing and spitting for the sommelier.

Don’t order coffee. Because if you order coffee, how on Earth is she going to invite you back to her place for a cup?

Thirteen warning signs that your restaurant choice is a bad one:

• There is a bouncer out front.

• The host proudly offers you a free glass of "kee-ann-tee" if you order an entree.

• The bar is packed, but the dining area is empty.

• There are women's undergarments stapled above the bar.

• The restroom is unisex.

• The host says there’s a half hour wait for a table.

• Tonight's music selection: Show tunes! Played by a pianist with a tip glass on his piano.

• The menu has tassels.

• The winelist comes in a three-ring binder.

• The place has no listed phone number.

• The tables are so close together that the waiter has to pull them out to sit you down.

• The waiters have track marks on their arms.

Yes, you like oysters. Still, don’t ever suggest a food is an aphrodisiac. It makes you sound like you learned everything you know about romance from your dad's collection of Penthouse in the garage.



by John Mariani

533 North State Road
Briarcliff Manor, NY 10510-1511

    T he quality of a good steak continues to drop and drop and drop, mostly at the various high-end chains around the U.S. that advertise USDA Prime, dry-aged beef that tastes like Choice you'd buy at a better supermarket. The days when a strip steak or porterhouse had any real, marbled, dry-aged flavor has not entirely disappeared, but it is rare when you can find it. (Don't get me started on the blasphemy about Kobe and wagyu that isn't either!)
     One of those steakhouses where I have been able to find the kind of beef I used to find in NYC 30 years ago is Flames, set off as country route in Briarcliff Manor, about 45 minutes from midtown Manhattan and worth a trek for the true steaklover. At Flames you get beef that is beautifully aged and wonderfully marbled, all contributing to a steak that is among the very best in NYC, right up there with Peter Luger’s in Brooklyn and the original Palm on Second Avenue. It is then cooked at 800 degrees to seal in the juiciness and char the exterior--as good a dish as America can produce.
Flames’ dining room has pretty archways and a new, warm look of terracotta and salmon colors. Well-set tables are nicely separate from one another, and you won't find a better trained staff than this, many from Eastern Europe, whose attentiveness is never intrusive, yet you will never wait more than a milli-second for them to respond to any request you might have.  Another napkin? Zip, folded and presented. A little more butter? A full plate is brought over. The winelist? Immediately.
       And the winelist is one of the finest in America, 400 labels and 60,000 bottles of every description and price point. Ask to see the exquisite downstairs private dining room in the temperature-controlled wine cellar. I think you’ll be in awe of a cache that includes every significant name in wine making,  including remarkable verticals in bordeaux and California cabernets from the most prestigious vineyards.
     M r. Vuli maintains the sacrosanct New York steakhouse menu formula, but adds to it with some excellent pastas, not least the spaghetti alla carbonara. The appetizers include specials each day, but the classic ones like lump crab meat and jumbo shrimp,  are hard to resist. Every portion is way generous here: Eggplant rollatine with prosciutto and fontina in a creamy pink sauce is superb; the fried calamari as crisp as you can imagine, tender within. You get four hefty slices--slabs, really--of Canadian bacon.
     The succulent rack of lamb is American, which means full of flavor and richness. The sirloins are nonpareil, the porterhouse, sliced in the style of Peter Luger's, is for two or more people, and the double veal chop is massive. You'll see the lobsters in the tank up front, and you can go up to five pounds if you like. Even a vegetarian would find a rare opportunity here, for the side dishes are all terrific, from creamed spinach to home fries, from French fries to onion rings, and the baked potato is always perfectly fluffy and never overcooked.
     You really don't need dessert after this kind of meal, but press on! The crème brûlée is first-rate, the pecan pie with vanilla ice cream heartwarming, and the New York cheesecake everything you hope it will be.
       Flames' prices are a bit lower than you'll find in Manhattan but, overall, I think the quality of the food--and certainly the service--is far better than at most south of Westchester. Nick Vuli guarantees that much if you're nice enough to drive up to Briarcliff.  As the old ad for Barney's went, "You go out of your way to get here, so we gotta pay you back."

Flames is open daily from 11 AM-10 PM.


Self-appointed NYC vigilante commentator Curtis Sliwa  (right) protested Mayor Michael Bloomberg's voluntary salt initiative by announcing,  "You're gonna have to pry this salt out of my cold, dead hand," while clutching a box of Morton's Salt while on TV's "Inside City Hall." He then swallowed a  mouthful of salt (video available somewhere on You Tube.)


"A bowl of white gazpacho, smooth as almond silk, with a delicate swirl of guajillo chile oil and three purple orbs suspended in the center. Let one burst in your mouth and it's a gentle explosion of pure grape flavor. Three walnut-size pumpkin fritters, the edges hot and crisp, the centers creamy, rich and lightly sweet. Each is finished with a dot of paddlefish roe, a saline exclamation point; they're paired with a dainty peekytoe crab salad, nicely cool next to the hot fritters. Now a plump, golden-brown roasted quail stuffed with exotically spiced rice. A beguiling, velvety cashew-saffron sauce surrounds it, drizzled with an emerald green curry-leaf oil."--Leslie Brenner, "Samar by Stephen Pyles," Dallas Morning News.


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 Feb. 11-18, 10 Downing Food & Wine in NYC will be extending its pre-fixe Restaurant Week menu through NYC Fashion Week, a 3-course lunch menu of “Farm to Table” cuisine created by Executive Chef Jonathan Leiva.   $24.07 pp.  Call 212-255-0300.

* On Feb. 16 in Richmond, VA, Lemaire Restaurant of The Jefferson Hotel is hosting a 3-course wine dinner featuring Selby Winery, with owner/winemaker of Selby Winery, Susie Selby.  $50 pp. Call 804-649-4629 or e-mail

* On Feb. 18 in Berkeley, CA, Spenger's Fresh Fish Grotto hosts a One Fermented Evening wine dinner with a five-course prix fixe menu prepared by Chef Devon Boisen. $79.95 pp. Call 510-845-7771;

* On Feb. 18 in NYC, Ted Dennard, owner of t Savannah Bee Company joins Chef Amanda Cohen to host a honey pairing dinner at her highly acclaimed vegetable-focused restaurant, Dirt Candy. Ted will speak about the honey used in, or paired with, each dish or beverage. Call 212-228-7732.

* On Feb. 21  Slow Food Atlanta will host a family-style dinner  by Atlanta’s top chefs to raise funds for Slow Food’s Terra Madre Foundation, at Watershed in Decatur, and will incl. a presentation about Terra Madre from Slow Food International Founder Carlo Petrini; five courses of reinterpreted Southern food from Chefs Kevin Gillespie of Woodfire Grill, Linton Hopkins of Restaurant Eugene, Steven Satterfield of Miller Union, Kevin Ouzts of The Spotted Trotter, Billy Allin of Cakes & Ale, Scott Peacock of Watershed and Cathy Conway of Avalon Catering; and an exclusive performance by Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls.  $150 pp. if purchased before Feb. 15, $175 after Feb. 15.  VIP tix $250. Visit .

* On Feb. 24, in South Beach, FL,  Iron Chef Michael Symon, and Executive Chef Peter Vauthy of Red, the Steakhouse, will host a Prelude Dinner to the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Symon and Vauthy’s menu will showcase Certified Angus Beef® brand and  Loire Valley Wines.  $200 pp. Visit .

* On Feb. 25 in Miami, Area 31 will present “Fish + Wine,” a 7-course menu by executive chef John Critchley and master sommelier Emily Wines.  $175 pp. Earlier in the day, diners can participate in the boat trip to the fish markets including lunch and wine beginning at 11 am. $275 pp includes the pairing dinner. 305-424-5234 or visit

* On Feb. 26, in Lambertville, NJ, Lambertville Station Restaurant opens the doors to its new Wine Cellar.  Sommelier and general manager Jim Hall has selected 50 boutique wines, including limited vintages and rare Cellar opportunities, and Chef Chris Beall presents a pairing menu of artisan cheeses and charcuterie,  tapas and flatbreads, and hand-crafted chocolates.  Call 609-397-8300.

* On Feb. 26 on Miami Beach, The Setai’s Executive Chef Jonathan Wright will participate in Wine Spectator’s Best of the Best as part of South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Chef Wright and 40 chefs from across the country, incl. David Burke and Laurent Tourondel, will showcase a tasting of their favorite recipes, enhanced by an array of wines and champagnes presented by French Ambassador Pierre Vimont. . . .On Feb. 27, The Setai South Beach will host Dim Sum & Disco as part of the  Festival.  Wright partners with fusion-forward Chef Ming Tsai, David Munoz Rosillo of DiverXo in Madrid and Tim Cushman of Miami’s Tropical Chinese Restaurant \with  Asian small plates  paired with  cocktails. $150 pp. Call 305-520-6000.

From Feb. 26-28 in NYC the 3rd Annual New York Wine Expo will return to the Jacob Javits Center.  The Grand Tasting offers attendees a chance to sample more than 600 wines from over 170 winemakers from around the world.  The Expo is also excited to announce that Gloria Maroti Frazee, Wine Spectator and Leslie Sbrocco, award-winning author will be hosting seminars. Visit or call 800-544-1660.  Early bird purchasers save $10 per ticket before February 19.

* On Feb. 26, The Red Onion in Saugerties, NY restaurant  presents "The Colors of the Calendar" event series. The first event, "Winter White and White Nights- Dinner Under the Czars,"a 4-course Russian-inspired menu, featuring Taylor Hackford's 1985  film "White Nights" with owners Chef Kevin and Rochelle Katz,  co-created with Eric Weiss, food and wine consultant and founder of Service Arts, Inc,  will continue throughout the year. The color "Sienna" will be highlighted in March with a regional Italian cuisine and specific art forms. The 4-course dinner is $45 or $65 with selected wines. Call  845-679-1223.

* From Feb. 26-28 in Richmond, VA, enjoy 350 wines from more than 60 of Virginia’s best wineries  at the Virginia Wine Expo. Advanced wine tastings, seminars, dine-around deals at some of Richmond’s best restaurants. The VWE will benefit the Central Virginia Food Bank. Day Passes: $35 in advance; $45 at the door.  Call 804-349-6909.

* On Feb. 28th, Celebrate National Pig Day at the 2nd annual COCHON555 in Napa, CA,  at
Silverado Resort, featuring 5 Chefs, 5 Pigs and 5 Winemakers working together to raise awareness for heritage breeds. The chefs incl. Devin Knell, Christopher Kostow, Peter Pahk, John Steward / Duskie Estes and Dennis Lee, with wineries Gamble, Wind Gap, Zacherle, Hirsch and Hill Family Estate. Support chefs and VIP incl. Jeremy Fox, Butcher Ryan Farr, Magnolia Brewing and reserve wine from Krupp Brothers, Chase Cellars, Pey Marin, Hope & Chase, Erna Schein, Verge, Miner, Larkin and Wind Gap.

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: TEL AVIV AFTER THE CENTENNIAL.


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).

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