Virtual Gourmet

November 14,  2010                                                                   NEWSLETTER

"Autumn Cauliflower, Michigan, 2009" by Galina Stepanoff-Dargery


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GOOD NEWS! now has a new food section  called "Eat Like a Man," which will be featuring restaurant articles by John Mariani and others from around the USA.


In This Issue
Malaysian Magic
By Bob Lape and Joanna Pruess
by John Mariani

MAN ABOUT TOWN: restaurant i by Christopher Mariani
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR: Is Sancerre France's Most Versatile White Wine?  by John Mariani


Malaysian Magic

By Bob Lape and Joanna Pruess

      Malaysia, a bustling Southeast Asian country of 28 million people, is going all-out to make its food more of a player on the world stage. The sub-tropical nation nestled against Thailand, Indonesia, and Singapore offers a vivid array of tastes, textures and colors to tempt the palate. From a cornucopia of indigenous spices, herbs, vegetables and fruits, including the dreaded/desired durian, Malaysian cuisine is a felicitous blend of Chinese, Indian, native Malay, and nyonya (Chinese-Malay) food. European influences are also found in the restaurant choices of larger cities and towns.
     Over nine days of devouring Malaysian cuisine from Penang to Kota Bharu, Malacca and Kuala Lumpur, we tried it all. The hot and humid climate not only makes things grow, it also spurs the nation’s passion for al fresco eating. We thought Singapore and Hong Kong hawker centers were the ne plus ultra of outside feasts until we scoured Malaysia’s gazillions of “markets” for quick serve food.
     Some specialize in morning fare, like Sri Ananda Bahwan, a tiny Indian spot in Penang, where coffee beans fried in butter, ground and brewed, are served with toast in an alley-like space, and banana rice is another in-demand item. Others, by the roadside or under cover, cater to day-long attendance by hungry hordes.
     While still others, appropriately called night markets, (left) catch the after-work crowd. There are vast numbers of stands, stalls or kiosks, some no bigger than a Buick, where a few specialties are prepared and sold. Even the globally ubiquitous burgers, with a very different set of sauces and seasonings, get the hawkers’ touch. Prepared food stalls often surround enormous panoplies of fresh produce and dry goods.
            In a country where the national pastime is eating, much of it in casual style, serious attention is paid to the cleanliness of the diverse food operations. In the capital of Kuala Lumpur, population two million, a system of hygiene inspections with alphabetical grades was introduced in 1991, far ahead of Los Angeles (1998) or New York (2010). Any of Kuala Lumpur’s 3,428 licensed eating places, from the few upscale to the wealth of hawker stalls, proudly displays their health grade.
     Satays are one of the dishes Malaysians hold dearest, even if neighboring countries claim it as their own. They acknowledge that the marinated, grilled skewers of food may have originated down Java way – still the Malay Peninsula. Malaysians insist, however, that satays must be eaten with tangy peanut sauce, cucumber, onion and rice; it is a veritable meal. In Kuala Lumpur’s Satay Station, shoeless guests squat on the floor at tables soon bulging with satays of  beef, chicken, goat, lamb, venison, rabbit, tripe, liver, quail eggs, tofu or seafood.
      Chinese restaurants, notably those run by Hainanese people from the southernmost and smallest province of China – offer more conventional settings with tables, chairs, walls and a roof under which to sell their signature chicken with rice. Deep-fried prawns are marinated in tamarind. The fruit paste also figures in what’s called “salted fish Dutch style,” with garlic and shallots.
    Guests at Shing Kheang Aun, in Penang, don’t use chopsticks, just forks and spoons. The fork is strictly to push the food, spoons are to scoop and eat.  Malay and Hindu patrons eat with their hands. Chinese eating places also sell beer, which is taboo elsewhere in this mostly Muslim country. Only a few bars in modern urban hotels exist for the tourist trade.
   Food-savvy guides anxious to show us the many-faceted culinary heft of the country squired us to a south Indian vegetarian fry-up outpost called Saravanaas Bhavan. Roti canai, the thin flatbread rolled around lentil or other curries, was impeccably done and freshness abounded in every dish. Best of all, a business card for the restaurant disclosed that branches of the eatery can be found not only in Manhattan’s “Little India” on Lexington Avenue but in Edison, New Jersey.
    The colorful former pirate’s den of Malacca (the Straits are still an outpost for some modern-day buccaneers) was once a pivot point on the spice route from east to west. Today, it is a touristic home to some outstanding nyonya restaurants. Taragon (left), overlooking a scenic canal, is one; owner Alvin Tan, a former airline steward with many trips to New York, expertly explains the dishes. The views inside the posh eatery are of indigenous items like chicken rendang, cooked a day earlier to allow the many spices and herbs to meld; or sambal squid, cooked in spicy green sauce with green “stinky beans” whose wonderful taste is said to “clear your system.”
     Locals are skeptical of expensive Malaysian “fine dining” restaurants, preferring the freedom of outdoor options and value-rich pricing. Kuala Lumpur has one upscale beauty, Ibunda (below), a free-standing building in the heart of the city. The 1914 Colonial house was restored over a year’s time at a cost of one million ringgots, or about $350,000.  The cooking is done by an award-winning chef, Zabidi Ibrahim, who is like the Wylie Dufresne of Malay cooking. He uses French techniques to tweak classics in ways that are most appealing to his clientele of corporate executives, diplomats and tourists. Thinly-sliced Malaysian tapioca is fried with chile paste to produce spicy crackers, called kerepek. Foamy crabmeat soup is crowned with scallops, and lotus root chips festoon king prawn curry. A dessert of black sticky rice, durian mousse and raspberry ice cream clings to the memory, for better or worse.
    The durian (below), known as “the heaven-and-hell fruit” or, sometimes, the “King of Fruit" is a fetish in Southeast Asia. Weighing from two to seven pounds, it is banned from airports in Malaysia and hotels in Singapore. Yet durianophiles come from Singapore to durian orchards outside Penang to buy them, and they are sold and opened at many sidewalk markets. The fruit has a formidable initial assault on the nose (the hell part) and a strikingly pretty, melon-like center of some delicacy (heaven) once the fragrance has flown. Ibunda’s mousse lands somewhere in the middle.
     Malaysia’s ability to embrace the cuisines of the world is exemplified in Kuala Lumpur by the amazing ‘Q’ Bistro, a recent addition to a chain that started in 1968. Not a barbecue joint, even though ribeye steak and braised oxtail are on the menu, but rather one serving nasi kandar, the name given the array of things that can go with rice. Electronic order pads speed the traffic along while reminding us of the swiftly-efficient Wagamama restaurants in London. The two-year old ‘Q’ is a colorful, quick service-type eating mecca where breakfasters may choose from 90 non-alcoholic beverages (butterscotch Coke, anyone?), and guests later in the day – it never closes – can have anything from roti canai to tandoor beef, pasta carbonara, nachos or goulash. Young people love to hang out at ‘Q’, as the octagonal setting with entrances on every side serves as a melting pot of cultures encompassing racial harmony.

     The Malaysian government, through its MATrade arm promoting exports, is actively seeking to win hearts and minds through the belly, as it were, in a variety of ways. It is inviting food journalists to visit and sample the nation’s larder. Martha Stewart has done a show there for fall viewing and sent forth a welter of blogs. The government also seeks to enlarge the Malaysian restaurant footprint in America. Through MATrade and its Export-Import Bank, it is offering loans to Malaysians in the U.S. who will open new Malaysian restaurants here or expand existing ones. There are some 55 in the Tri-State area surrounding New York City.
     And it is actively promoting the national cuisine through a series of events such as the highly successful Malaysian Night Markets staged in Brooklyn and Chelsea. More than 1,200 attendees enjoyed the first event in climate conditions virtually akin to those of Kuala Lumpur or Penang. The Night Market experience will be replicated shortly in Los Angeles.

Roti canai at Saravanas Bhavan


Joanna Pruess has written about food and travel for the New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press and Food Arts. Her husband, Bob Lape, is heard daily on “Dining Diary” on WCBS in New York.


by John Mariani

33 West 64th Street (off Broadway)

   My oh my, has it really been seventeen years since Terrence Brennan opened this elegant restaurant across from Lincoln Center and named after a green Mediterranean olive? At the time it was one of very, very few restaurants in that neighborhood that aimed higher than pre-theater salads and light fare, and its only real competition was the now-defunct Café des Artistes.  Indeed, Picholine's presence and eminence helped draw better restaurants to the area, which now has Bar Boulud, Telepan, Ed's Chowder House, and the new Lincoln. Through two decades Picholine was always a fine dining and quite sophisticated restaurant, despite changes in culinary fashion, and Brennan's 2006 redesign of the premises have only made them more refined, now done in soft gray tones, with swooping lavender velvet draperies, gray mohair  banquettes, a grand chandelier, and very comfortable chairs. 
     You are always cordially received here by one of NYC's most professional dining staffs, the wine list is thick with selections in every category, and the cheese service is bettered only by Brennan's own Artisanal restaurant--which is cheese driven--off Park Avenue South.
      Brennan (right) has never wavered from melding  French haute cuisine with New York accents, which means incorporating flavors from around the world. The bread is excellent, the butter is top quality, and Chef de Cuisine Carmine DiGiovanni offers a wide array of flavors that are at once savory and tangy, always with a little edge or bite. So you might begin with plump sweetbreads with celeriac, mushrooms, grapes and Brussels sprouts that are a good autumnal concept, or perhaps hamachi, raw and pristine, with avocado marble, citrus "caviar" beads, and a shot of jalapeño.  Foie gras comes in a "shabu shabu" style (below), cooked in broth that has sweet and sour elements, slowly poured into the bowl, with root vegetable pearls for texture.
      There are four pastas on the menu, a nod to tpeople's unalloyed appetite for that farinaceous component, and here it can range from the hearty chestnut flour tagliatelle with a game bolognese and "snow" of shredded walnuts to a fine wild mushroom risotto with fall squash, crispy, salty duck cracklings, and the lagniappe of truffle butter.
      As a main course, skate wine comes as a cured pastrami, with red cabbage and a tangy mustard-laced fondue, and now that game season is here, you may revel in the wild birds brought in from Scotland (all U.S. game served in restaurants must come from farms), a partridge cooked to tenderness and succulence, with the menu note, "Birdshot may be present." I also enjoyed a special of hare, richer in flavor than rabbit.  Picholine is not the only restaurant serving such game birds right now, but it is among the few who know how to prepare and cook them so well.
     Most people who book a table at Picholine are well aware of its cheese cave, so almost everyone waits for the cart to be rolled out and the selections explained, which is always fascinating, with nothing listed that is not out of the ordinary, every round in impeccable condition and at ideal temperature, from Welsh Caerphilly and Burgundian Charolais to Rogue River Blue from Oregon and Constant Bliss from Vermont.
     Then again, the desserts here are splendid (and part of the four-course prix fixe), so guests tend to order them too, or split one of two, like the crèmeux of pumpkin with a walnut sable and smoked maple ice cream or the pear Belle Hélène in a chocolate soup with almond financier and mascarpone sorbet.
      Brennan's dedication to this kind of refined cuisine is especially admirable at a time when so much heat-and-gimmickry passes for culinary creativity.  And there's a lot to be said for basking in the serenity of Picholine. By the way, if you need to get to the opera or ballet, Picholine will make sure you do, exemplifying grace under pressure with the bonus of good taste.

is open for lunch, Wed. - Sat.; Dinner nightly. The 4-course dinner menu is $89,  5 courses for $105,  7 courses for $145, a 12-course tasting menu $165, and 16 courses $195. There is also à la carte dining, a vegetarian option, and both pre- and after-theater menus.



by Christopher Mariani

restaurant i
893 Broadway
(at 19th Street)

   Just a few blocks north of Union Square, restaurant i is one the newest culinary additions to the Flatiron District. Its lowercase i, lest you were wondering,  according to owner Charles Chong and executive chef Andy Seidel, stands for “inspired” “innovative” and “impressive.”  The restaurant opened in early September of this year, putting together a contemporary American menu with strong hints of Asian flavor and ingredients. I dined on a Friday night just a few weeks after the opening and was happy to see the restaurant’s two dining rooms quite full, along with a bustling bar crowd, who all seemed to be in their mid-30’s.
The interior is trendy, sleek in design and filled with lots of bright color.  Upon entering, you will see the main dining room (left), centered by a long leather banquette that extends to the bar, dark wood tables, cream -colored chairs, a very high
aqua blue-lighted ceiling, a polished floor, and in the distance, a potted grass decorations placed between tables.  The restaurant also has an upstairs dining room for larger groups and a downstairs lounge, then under construction.
That evening I dined in the main dining room.  Upon sitting, we were presented with a bowl of fried rice noodles, very addictive, and a sweet Asian dipping sauce.  We started with an order of chef Seidel’s crispy blue cornmeal-dusted squid (right), our favorite of the appetizers, served with a tomato
confit and topped with whole shishito peppers.  We also shared the salmon “brûlée,” served in a spicy citrus dressing, topped with chopped scallions, and an order of the pulled beef short ribs with kimichi, placed inside a steamed soft bun, but despite ther condiment's  spiciness, it didn’t add much to the dish.  For my main course I had the lamb burger (left), full of flavor and covered with yogurt, feta cheese and pickles, sandwiched in between a onion sourdough roll.  We also shared the grilled Angus strip steak served over a bed of pea shoots, herbed French fries and ginger soy along with the miso cod entrée sided by bok choy and a carrot-ginger emulsion.
         And if the night is young and going home is not an option, just around the corner is the Flatiron Lounge, where my brother and I ventured, a terrific spot with great classic cocktail made by seasoned bartenders.

Restaurant i is opened for lunch and dinner Mon.-Sat. for both lunch and dinner, closed  Sunday.  Appetizers run $6-$16 and main courses $17-$29.  Wine list is very reasonably priced with wines starting at $34, glasses of wine run $8-$14.

To contact Christopher Mariani send an email to


Is Sancerre France’s Most Versatile White Wine?
by John Mariani

      Choosing the absolute right wine for a particular dish is a useless exercise, not because an individual wine seems to go particularly well with a specific food (Stilton with Port leaps to mind) but because so many good wines go with so many different foods. To my mind versatility is one of the principal virtues in a wine, and for that reason and in moments of indecision—nine times out of ten—I’d go with a good Sancerre.
Good Sancerre has the fruit most people love in a white wine, the acid to keep it bright and fresh, the minerals to give it complexity, and the price to make it affordable for just about any size gathering. Chardonnay is far from an all-purpose wine, terrible with salmon and trout. Gewürztraminer has too many herbal aromatics for most seafood or light meats. Semillon can be too dry for anything but oysters. And viognier, well, I’m never quite sure when to serve a viognier.
      Not only does good Sancerre go well with most food, including all but red meats and blue cheeses, but it makes a terrific wine as an aperitif.  It is bracing and has plenty of flavor to perk up the palate and goes well with canapés, foie gras, and happens to be really good with popcorn, chips, and pretzels.
      You may have noticed I have used the word “good” before every mention of Sancerre, for there is an awful lot of not-very-good Sancerre in this large appellation in France’s Loire Valley, with about 2,600 hectares under cultivation. You might also note that I have not included other wines from around the world made from Sancerre’s grape, sauvignon blanc. I just don’t happen to think any other region, not California, not Australia, and certainly not New Zealand, understands the need for a balance of florals, fruit, and minerals that make sauvignon blanc more than a tropical thirst quencher.
      The Sancerre region has many terroirs, but none gets enough sun to turn sauvignon blanc into fruit punch. The flintiest examples are found near the town of Sancerre itself (below), where the soil contains a good deal of silex. A bit west the wines are usually more delicate, while those vineyards furthest west are bigger and richer. Not enough sun can make for grassy wines in weak vintages.  I always find amazing differences in flavor in the wines.
     Fournier Pere & Fils Grande Cuvee Vielles Vignes makes a bold sancerre from "old vines," with a  pretty green-gold color, a very herbaceous bouquet with a lot of pronounced flintiness but tame sauvignon blanc grassy notes.   Much more typical are those of  Roger et Didier Raimbault, with their fine balance of minerals, fruit, and grass, with good color.  At this price, it really is a bargain for a good Sancerre.
      Hardly typical at all but a very delicious wine is the example from Francois Cotat La Grande Côte . Its pale straw color gives little hint of the pungent spice and floral notes in the nose, or the creaminess of the fruit on the palate; the acids temper with age.  This is a unique Sancerre, if a very pricey one at $50. Tasted blind, I doubt I would ever have spotted it as a Sancerre and perhaps would have wondered if it were sauvignon blanc at all.
      My personal standard for good Sancerre that is always consistent, always easy to drink, and adaptable to so many foods is that from the producer Pascal Jolivet, whose winery began only in 1987 to make Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume. The soil of his vineyards, near the towns of Bue, Verdigny, and Sainte Gemme, offer an ideal mix of 50 percent limestone, 30 percent chalky clay, and 20 percent flint, all of which are evident in his wines, along with abundant fruit and just the right vegetal notes to balance everything out. I’ve seen thiese on sale for anywhere between $12 and $18, which makes it very reasonably priced.
      By the way, if you do happen to be serving red meat tonight or blue-veined cheeses, you can still pour Sancerre: Just get a red Sancerre, which is made from pinot noir.  But that’s a discussion for another time.


John Mariani's weekly wine column appears in Bloomberg Muse News.



"The combination of fat and crushed nuts, while repulsive in a human being, make this one of Queens' most desirable dishes."-- Robert Sietsema, "Sohna Punjab," Village Voice.




Executive director of the Washington Potato Commission, Christ Voight, in Moses Lake, went on a 60-day all potato diet to prove potatoes are not junk food. After mashing, boiling, and steaming them he also put them in pickle juice and his wife made him potato ice cream.



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


* On Nov. 16, BRABO by Robert Wiedmaier in Alexandria, VA, will host a French Themed Wine Dinner. Lead Dedmon, BRABO, and Olivier Lotterie, Vineyard Brands, will lead guests through each selection with a 5-course menu by Executive Chef Robert Wiedmaier and Chef de Cuisine Chris Watson. $75 pp. Call 571-482-3308 or visit

* On Nov. 17 (Champagne), Nov. 24 (White Burgundy), Dec. 1 (Red Burgundy), Dec. 1 (Red Burgundy), The Grand Del Mar in San Diego, CA will host the Grand Cru Tastings in Le Salon at Addison. Jesse Rodriguez presents a collection of Grand Cru pours and tastings in a fun and educational way. $30 pp.. . . . On Nov. 26 – Dec. 30, The Grand Del Mar  hosts "Grand Gatherings for Holiday Afternoon Tea" in the Lobby.  $42 pp. Call 858-314-1988. . . . On Dec. 4, The Grand Del Mar  will host "Winter Wonders Mixology Class" in Le Salon at Addison. Mixologist, Mike Guest will demonstrate the art of preparing tantalizing seasonal cocktails. $25 pp. Call 858-314-2000.

* On Nov. 18, in Naples, FL, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars will host an intimate wine dinner at Strip House, pairing its 2007 vintage, being heralded as one of Napa's finest, with John Schenk's steakhouse cuisine. $130 pp. Call 239-598-9600 or email

* On Nov 18, The Plaza Food Hall in NYC will host a “Happy Holiday Hors d’Oeuvres” cooking demo by Chef Todd English on how to prepare Lobster Popovers, Plaza Food Hall Prime Rib Sliders and Chestnut Soup with Nantucket Bay Scallops. The hotel will also launch Happy Hour  Mon-Fri and  feature draft beer/$5, Valdo Prosecco/$6, a weekly selection of red and white house wine for $7/glass and a featured/holiday cocktail for $7.  The menu  incl. $2 oysters as well as 2 sliders and a draft beer/$12. 10% retail discount on all branded merchandise on Nov 18. Visit

* On Nov. 20, La Quinta Resort & Club in Palm Springs, CA will host “Holiday Soup and Homemade Hot Chocolate” demo by Twenty6 Chef Michael Vaughn. Participants will sip La Quinta Nectar and be given tastes as well as recipes to take home. $15 pp ($10 for PGA West members and resort guests). Call 760-564-7259. . . .On Nov. 27, La Quinta Resort & Club will host "Pancakes on the Plaza" and Family Entertainment. Enjoy All You Can Eat Pancakes and Bacon Buffet; live entertainment by children’s entertainer Shannon Tanner. $13 pp. . . .  On Dec. 4, La Quinta Resort & Club  will host “How to Select, Prep & Cook a Roast” Interactive Demo. Participants will sip La Quinta Nectar and be given tastes as well as recipes to take home. $12 pp ($5 for resort members and complimentary for resort guests). Call 760-564-4111 x 7259.


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: COSTA RICA


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: Christopher Mariani, 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.

 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