Virtual Gourmet

  September 11, 2011                                                                                               NEWSLETTER

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Windows on the World, North Tower of the World Trade Center

Very Important Announcement!

My latest book, written with Jim Heimann and Steven Heller,  Menu Design in America,  1850-1985 (Taschen Books), has just appeared, with nearly 1,000 beautiful, historic, hilarious, sometimes shocking menus dating back to before the Civil War and going through the Gilded Age, the Jazz Age, the Depression, the nightclub era of the 1930s and 1940s, the Space Age era, and the age when menus were a form of advertising in innovative explosions of color and modern design.  The book is a chronicle of changing tastes and mores and says as much about America as about its food and drink.


“Luxuriating vicariously in the pleasures of this book. . . you can’t help but become hungry. . .for the food of course, but also for something more: the bygone days of our country’s splendidly rich and complex past.  Epicureans of both good food and artful design will do well to make it their cofee table’s main course.”—Chip Kidd, Wall Street Journal.


“[The menus] reflect the amazing craftsmanship that many restaurants applied to their bills of fare, and suggest that today’s restaurateurs could learn a lot from their predecessors.”—Rebecca Marx, The Village Voice.


“Restaurateurs, take note: A resurgence in thoughtful, artistic menus is past due.”—Bon Appetit Magazine


by John Mariani

by John Mariani

by Francesca Crozier-Fitzgerald

by Christopher Mariani

GOOD NEWS!  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.
This Week: The Secret Past of Your Favorite Foods.
Where'd These Drinks Come From?


by John Mariani

    This article was originally published in September, 2001, after the events of 9/11, in the London Observer and was included in The Best Food Writing 2002. I thought that today, the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it would be appropriate once again.

    On the day the day the World Trade Center was destroyed, Sirio Maccioni, owner of New York’s Le Cirque 2000, called then Mayor Rudy Giuliani to ask how he might help in the crisis. Giuliani said two words:  “Stay open.”   That night Le Cirque did only 65 covers. Two weeks later, on a  Saturday night, the restaurant served 260.
   That sentiment has always carried weight with me, not only because sitting down to a meal requires the harried mind to re-focus attention on a basic human  ritual but  because it truly helps to return to a normal need.  After hearing of a tragedy, the appetite may flag, eating may be the last thing on one’s mind, and dining seems downright frivolous.  But to restore one’s appetite is to restore one’s strength, as anyone who has long been sick knows.
   That same year, when I heard the news that my mother had passed away overnight, I was tying my tie in a room at the Crillon Hotel in Paris, ready to go down to dinner. The news had the obvious effect of bringing me to my knees, but after commiserating with my wife, I determined that going down to dinner would be the very best thing, rather than stay in the room and weep.  We went to dinner, sure that my mother, who gave me life, nurtured me as an infant, and imbued me with a love of good food, a woman who was a great hostess and loved nothing more than going out to a fine restaurant, would have insisted I do so.  And so, we ate very well and drank a very fine wine, toasting my mother as she so richly deserved.
    As a food and travel writer what I do for a living may seem odd (T.S. Eliot wrote, “We measure  out our lives in coffee spoons,” but I measure out mine in morsels of foie gras), but, whenever I think of it as ephemeral to the great issues of the day, I am reminded of a scene in the movie based on The Diary of Anne Frank (left) in which the family, isolated for months in an attic but still believing they will soon be out, fantasize about the first thing they’ll do when they return to the world outside.  Anne says she yearns to go to a dance. The teenage boy wants to go to a movie, a western movie! And the adults all start remembering and dreaming of a wonderful pastry shop, a good stew, a romantic restaurant with thick linen and fine wines.  None, not one, declares that the first thing he wants to do is to change the political structure of Europe.
   This scene made me realize not only that deprivation takes away freedoms of movement but also access to the most wonderful sights, sounds, and tastes of life--the very things we live for until they are taken away from us. Every human being on earth who has ever gone hungry thinks first of survival, then of doing something seemingly superficial--a dance, a western movie, a visit to a restaurant.  For when all goes well, when the doctor cuts out the cancer, when debt is retired, when the debris is cleared away, returning to normal means returning to those things that make life worth living.
During World War II director Frank Capra made a series of powerful propaganda films entitled “Why We Fight,” and if seeing yet again the cheesecake photos (an interesting turn of phrase) of Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable in servicemen’s lockers seems pointedly nostalgic, that does not destroy its touching allure.  “Why We Dine” is as reasonable a proposition as any other, once we survive the inevitable rigors and horrors of life that must be endured.  It is not by accident that the setting for the film "Casablanca" was in a place that seemed a neutral oasis  in Vichy, where the horrors of war cannot intrude, but in fact Rick's Café Americaine was a whirlwind of political and moral dilemmas.
   So I carry on extolling and criticizing our world’s food culture, sometimes whimsically, sometimes with vitriol.  For the importance of dining out, and drinking good wine, and falling in love under the spell of candlelight at the dinner table is to enjoy all that terrorists--especially those whose religious fanaticism seeks to deprive people of all pleasure--would seek to destroy.  By indulging in life’s passions we do much more than live out our lives.  We gain strength in the belief that they are part of the goodness of man.
     Eat well, be well.


by John Mariani

"Catfish" by Charleston artist  William McCullough

    I've been going to and writing about Charleston, SC,  pretty much on an annual basis for some time now, not least because I love attending the Charleston Food & Wine Festival held each spring, when Charleston is abloom and the whole town turns out for always overbooked activities, lunches, and dinners through the weekend.  It also gives me a chance to catch up on what's new and how established places are doing.
    Everyone these days is talking about Husk, not only because it is run by local celeb chef Sean Brock, with Chef de Cuisine Travis Grimes, and the Neighborhood Dining Group but because it is a labor of such intense commitment that you simply have to be wowed by the extent to which they brandish their locavorism. But let them tell it: "At Husk there are some rules about what can go on the plate. `If it doesn’t come from the South, it’s not coming through the door,' says Brock, who has even stricken olive oil from the kitchen. As he explains, the resulting cuisine `is not about rediscovering Southern cooking, but exploring the reality of Southern food.'  Seed-saving, heirloom husbandry, and in-house pickling and charcuterie efforts by the culinary team are the basis of the cuisine at Husk. The restaurant is as casual as it is chic, evoking a way of life centered on seasonality and the grand traditions of Charleston life—one lived at a slower pace, preferably with a cocktail and a wide porch in the late afternoon."
    All of which I find admirable--even to their making their own salt on the roof!--if a tad doctrinaire.  Fortunately this doctrine does not carry through to wine and spirits, so if you want a vodka Martini or a Spanish wine, you can get it.  Otherwise you'd be drinking wines pretty much exclusively from Virginia and Maryland.
    Anyway, it's a fine old structure, resembling someone's Charleston rooming house, with two floors. The prices on the dinner menu are very reasonable, nothing more than $26. Needless to say, Southern hospitality rules here.
    The menu changes all the time, but I stated off with deviled eggs, crispy rillettes, a foie gras parfait (is foie gras indigenous to the South?), and fried chicken skins.  One of the best appetizers was South Carolina quail, nice and meaty, stuffed with cornbread and country sausage, peas, and pickled peaches.  Wood-fired clams with braised peppers and sausage topped crispy bread, while a true country stew of rabbit with dumplings is indicative of what Husk is all about.  There's also a platter of  various Southern hams, and that is an education.
    Under "Supper" is listed a well-textured lamb terrine with butter-braised cabbage, red pepper relish and garlic jus. along with cornmeal-dusted catfish with potato puree, crowder pea gravy and bacon jam. Pork comes with braised greens and a butter bean-cherry tomato chow chow. Also get one side of bacon cornbread and mac-and-cheese,  And if you've ever wondered why Southerners get all moony over grits, have the stoneground grits at Husk, with mushrooms and Tennessee Cheddar cheese, and youi'll get the point.
    The South has always made great desserts, and Brock (above) knows that, so they'd better be special, and are: S'mores bread pudding (have it with a glass of bourbon on the side), and pecan pie with chocolate and herbsaint cream.  Of course, there's a decadent black bottom pie in a jar, with bourbon vanilla cream.
    Brock's menus at McCrady's may be more elegantly presented--and it's one of the best in the city--but his heart and soul are in Husk, and you'll taste it in every dish.         
Appetizers $5-$14, entrees $22-$23.

  If asked who the all-around best chef is in Charleston, it would be a tough choice among Brock, Mike Iata of the superb Fig, and Robert Carter of The Peninsula Grill at the Planters InnBut when I factor in the refinement of the dining room (right), the civilized ambiance and excellent service, then consider that Carter has been cooking here for a long, long time and perfecting all he does, I'll go with him.
    I've dined many time over the years here, since Carter took over in 1997--often staying at the adjacent Planters Inn--and while consistency is one of Carter's hallmarks and his own commitment to Low Country ingredients is unassailable, there is always innovation on the menu, like the lobster 3-way ravioli with a warm tomato basil vinaigrette.  You can stay very simple with platters of oysters or crabmeat, but Carter will combine them in wonderful ways the lobster and crab cake duo with Creole mustard vinaigrette.  Foie gras takes on Southern BBQ sauce with ease, on the side a black pepper biscuit and peach jam. There's a rich chilled asparagus and sweet Vidalia onion soup with a smoked trout relish, and lobster and corn chowder--but there is a sampling of three soups (a mere $12) that is clearly the way to go.
    For a salad very much in the Southern style, have the "Super-Chilled" wedge of iceberg lettuce with smoked bacon jerky and buttermilk dressing. Then there are the unadorned, first-rate steaks and chops, all with various sauce options,  but I seem always to go for the seasonal specialties like grilled shrimp with hoppin' John, green onion-horseradish hushpuppies and brandied peach butter. American lamb loin chops are hefty, with garlic-braised mustard greens, horseradish and green onion grits,  and kumquat marmalade. There's nothing better here than Carter's pan-roasted chicken with Vidalia onion napoleon, green beans and mushroom chicken jus for simplicity and wholesomeness, and his pan-seared red snapper with  Swiss chard, tahes on crabcake ravioli and spicy tomato consomme for lagniappe.
      The wine list may be the best in Charleston.
    There are some sumptuous desserts here, but at least one person at your table should go for Carter's now famous coconut layered cake, a magnificent example of Southern abundance, twelve layers five in inches high and ten across, based on his grandmother's recipe.  People order it by mail (through the restaurant's website)--I did for my birthday last year--and it's always a hit when displayed and cut into.  It's also absolutely delicious.  Otherwise go for the sour cream fruit tart or the banana panna cotta with milk chocolate ganache vanilla wafers--a Southern guilty pleasure--and Tia Maria caramel sauce.
    The Peninsula Grill certainly gets it fair share of sophisticated travelers to Charleston, but to get a real sense of the genteel traditions for dining with the locals, this is where you'll find it done up with style.   

Dinner starters $9-$18, entrees $25-$39.

    I returned to the 18-month-old O-Ku on Broad Street (right), a Japanese restaurant very much in the modern style--no pale wood walls and counters, this is a terrific design with tall ceilings, great bar and counter, brick walls and Asian artwork.  Chef Sean Park's handiwork is as impressive as ever, as a lunch proved one spring day, which consisted of toro tartare with osietra caviar, Fuji apple, Asian pear and sudachi mint; seared Wagyu tataki with sweet potato puree---a wonderful match-up--microgreens for texture, soy demi-glace and a splash of truffle oil; and a grand array of sushi, from uni to toro, from nigiri to avocado roll, and for dessert, yuzu pot au crème and mocha ice cream, which didn't entirely convince me that Asian chefs have a real grasp on desserts.
Appetizers run $4-$18, with sushi and sashimi variations $11-$19 (combinations $35-$100).

Quite a delightful surprise in a town with no other even decent Italian restaurants is Trattoria Lucca, set in an old clapboard structure (left) on a corner of the Elliotsborough neighborhood.  Here Chef Ken Vedrinski turns out the kind of modern Italian food--with a big nod towards Tuscany--in tiny room (it can and will get very loud) that's become very much a local favorite, away from the center of town.
    I was privileged enough to have Vedrinksi throw a book-signing party for me at Lucca, a festive night when he served a lovely, briny crudo of Nantucket Bay scallops with spring vegetables, followed by tuffoli alla Caruso pasta, with chicken livers, then a very richly flavorful deckle of beef, which he grilled and lavished with Gorgonzola cheese and a Vidalia onion sweet fondue and a little arugula with a squirt of lemon. For dessert he went commendably simple--local goat's milk rice pudding with amaretti brûlée, all of this accompanied by excellent chosen wines. 
    Vedrinski (right) was born in Ohio, with an Italian grandma who taught him to cook and do so with respect.  He became a chef at Opus in Atlanta and later at the posh Woodlands Inn & Resort in Summervile, SC, where he did a very high-end, sophisticated style of cuisine before opening his own Italian restaurant on Daniel Island outside of Charleston, which I named one of Esquire's Best New Restaurants of 2004. I lost track of him for a bit, but in 2008 he opened Lucca to great local applause. Next time I'm in town I will order from a menu whose every dish appeals to my taste in authentic Italian food.
    Antipasti range from $9-$20, pastas (full portions) $19-$28, main courses $21-$27.

    I also paid a pilgrim's stop for breakfast at Hominy Grill, one of those seemingly downhome Southern places in a clapboard house that you think has been dishing out Low Country fare for decades.  Actually, it's only been since 1996, when Robert Stehling and his wife,  Nunally Kersch, opened this one-room spot devoted to down home Low Country cookery, based on old cookbooks but with plenty of flair. You can go for lunch or dinner and eat yourself silly, but I particularly love breakfast--always jammed--when you can start off with a true country breakfast of eggs, grits, sausage or bacon, or luscious buttermilk pancakes.  But if you're man or woman enough for it, order the "Big Nasty Biscuit," with fried chicken breast, Cheddar cheese and sausage gravy--it is, in a cliché, awesome!
    For lunch and dinner the specialties here include Southern fried chicken with country ham gravy; shrimp and grits with scallions and bacon; and good old country captain, a chicken breast in a tomato-curry sauce with toasted almonds and currants over jasmine rice. They also do a true purloo rice casserole with sausage, ham, shrimp and fried chicken. 
    And say hello to Bob and Nunally.  You can bet on their being there.
Dinner appetizers runs $3.95-$7.95, main courses $8.95-$16.95.

    A few remarks on the sad state of barbecue in Charleston, where you'd think you'd fine some of the very best in the South, not least because of the city's large black population.  I keep asking where I can find good Carolina barbecue, and I'm met with a very sad, wagging head. It doesn't exist.  Maybe if you drive many miles away, to Duke's in Orangeburg, or Sheeley's in Leesville, you'll find it, but not in Charleston.  Don't even think of going to Sticky Fingers, one of a chain of 17 across the South, and I wouldn't recommend the 'cue at Pink Pig Bar & Q by Jim 'n Nick's, on King Street, which has a raffish-looking bar (right) but the food and service is way below the best in the South, with really dreary pulled pork and ribs without much smoke in them.  I hope I've been misinformed, but if anyone knows any good barbecue in Charleston, I'd sure would like to know about it.





By Francesca Crozier-Fitgerald


    For the past five years, I’ve lived on the Upper West Side in the well-landscaped, safe, student-populated neighborhood between midtown and Harlem known as Morningside Heights. While my first priority during this time was to attend class and meet deadlines at Columbia University, my friends and I spent our free time exploring the area’s wide variety of restaurants, live entertainment, and reasonably priced happy hours. Luckily, most venues have compassion for their student clientele living on slender student budgets. Even though of us head downtown to find a livelier scene, there is plenty going on within my ten-block radius for anyone to be  satiated, active, and entertained.
    To get out of your apartment and off the crowded streets, there are three expansive, welcoming parks in Morningside Heights. Since I first moved to the area, Park Security Services and Columbia University Security have increased their patrolling staff in these parks, making them safe in daytime and off-hours. The largest and most obvious, Central Park, can be entered right at 110th and Frederick Douglass Circle.
    Morningside Park, found directly behind Columbia University’s campus at 116th and Morningside Drive is complete with basketball courts, baseball fields, and playgrounds. During exam season, my friends and I would joke that this park was placed here as a healthy reminder to Ivy League students that laughter and youth truly do exist.
    Riverside Park, the preferred exercise space among students, stretches from 158th to 72nd, at which point it feeds into the Hudson River Park along the River. For centuries, artists, philosophers, and poets alike have been inspired by the magnificent landscape this view provides of the Hudson River and the Palisades of New Jersey, as well as the majestic George Washington Bridge.  The River’s vastness is a humbling and necessary natural element for those living in the Big Apple, creating balance with the man-made concrete jungle.
    Morningside Heights also has several monuments that have managed to bypass the typical tourist radar. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, (left) at 112th and Amsterdam Avenue, whose cornerstone was laid in1892, is the world’s largest Gothic cathedral and holds regular services for all denominations as well as tours throughout its architecturally advanced arches and decorated chapels. The Cathedral and its parishioners have withstood two world wars, the Great Depression, 9/11, and the tragic fire in the north transept in 2001. There has always been ongoing construction and many believe it will never truly be finished. The decision to continue construction and remain open to the public was so eloquently justified to me as a reflection of religious freedom in our world today, as a “a work in progress.”
    Over on Riverside Drive and 112th Street, General Ulysses S. Grant’s Tomb  (right) seems another well-kept secret of the Upper West Side. Standing as the second largest mausoleum in the Western Hemisphere and copy of  the tomb at Halicarnassus once considered a Wonder of the World, this burial space for our 18th president and his wife Julia Boggs Dent Grant demands respectful and sincere reflection from the moment its bronze doors comes into view. Architects strategically positioned the marble and granite monument to meet Grant’s wishes to overlook the Hudson River through laced foliage in Riverside Park.
    As Columbia University’s campus (below) and culture define a great deal of the neighborhood’s personality, it would be foolish to leave it off the list. The huge wrought iron campus gates on 116th and Broadway and 116th and Amsterdam Avenue are open 24 hours a day, monitored by security, and invite tourists and students alike to sit on the famous Low Library steps, visit the Journalism School, where annual Pulitzer prizes are debated and announced, see one of the eight copies of Rodin’s The Thinker outside Philosophy Hall, or peruse the list of performances in Columbia’s Miller Theater. Concerts feature contemporary musical performers, composers, dancers and choreographers at the forefront of their discipline. I have seen international composers such as Georg Friedrich Haas, the eclectic John Zorn, and twenty-one year old student composer, Ryan Beppel, and was thoroughly impressed each time. You leave Miller Theater feeling musically up-to-date.
    The nightlife in Morningside Heights can start as early or as late as you choose. Without question, the best happy hour deal in the neighborhood is The Heights Bar and Grill located between 111th and 112th on Broadway. The mood is always lively during The Height’s two separate happy hours, taking place from 4-7 pm and 11pm until closing. You can get drinks as low as $3 Drafts, frozen drinks, and wine by the glass, while noshing on their famous nachos. If you have never tried a passion fruit margarita, bartenders at the Heights will be happy to get you hooked. While Saturday nights tend to get overcrowded with Columbia University students, summer months are perfect as they open up the rooftop bar and dining space, to offer an optimal view of Morningside Heights.
    If finger food and cheap drinks do not fit your fancy, Vareli Wine Bar (right) next to The Heights is a great date spot. Offering over 20 different wines by the glass and 100 by bottle by certified sommelier Richard Bill, it is a classic yet affordable selection for you and your date. With large wooden barrel tables lit only by candlelight, Vareli can boast about its unique and intimate ambiance.
  For the best burger of Morningside Heights, hit up Mel’s Burger between 110th and 111th on Broadway. It’s a perfectly sized, juicy, quarter pounder patty and does not come with french fries, so you need not feel guilty about ordering it. Fried zucchini slices are a somewhat healthier substitute for the table.
For great drink and entertainment specials taking place in one spot stroll into Havana Central (below), between 114th and 113th on Broadway. Formerly The West End,” where Jack Kerouac used to drink away his writer’s block, Havana Central is now an upbeat Cuban club, bar and restaurant. Offering live Cuban music on the weekends and daily bar specials, it appeals to students and neighborhood who locals enjoy chatting in this palm tree- decorated atmosphere on the UWS. Regulars are especially fond of Havana’s household recipe of fresh, potent Sangria, and all six flavors of the $1 Empanada’s during Wednesday’s happy hour.
      For the notorious “jumbo” slice of thin crust, cheesy pizza for only $3, Koronet Pizza sits in the middle of 111th and 110th on Broadway. It can get noisy, but service is quick and the pie-size slice can’t be beat for this great price.  For the best Italian meal in the area, I would suggest Pisticci on 124th between Broadway and LaSalle. I was taken here as a freshman for my birthday, when it was still a relatively secret spot, and my friends and I were overwhelmed with the unusual pasta combinations and meat dishes on the menu. All ingredients are purchased fresh daily and all recipes are homemade. Owners Michael and Vivian Forte, originally from the southern region of Basilicata, make sure to import items weekly such as mozzarella and olives that they say, “just cannot be recreated anywhere!”
         For the best Soul Food in the neighborhood, it’s probable that you already know where to go. Sylvia’s Restaurant, founded in 1962 by Sylvia “Queen of Soul Food” Woods (below), is located at 328 Lenox in historical Harlem and has been serving authentic food for nearly sixty years. Sylvia’s is most famous for the gumbo, candied yams, black-eyed peas, fried chicken, barbecued ribs and corn bread recipe. The atmosphere is always jovial in the dining room and right next door you can enjoy Sylvia’s Also Lounge. Weekly events include Comedy and Poetry Night on Wednesdays and Thursdays, Reggae and Latin Night on Friday, and great dancing beats of “old and new school classics” on Saturdays.  In recent years Sylvia’s has been joined by a number of bistros, as well as the very popular Red Rooster, owned by chef Marcus Samuellsson.
    If you are not looking to drink or eat, but enjoy lounging with a self-proclaimed sophisticated crowd, 1020 Bar on 110th and Amsterdam will fit the grade. Tuesday Trivia Night presents an intriguing battle between neighborhood intellectuals and core-curriculum aficionados from the nearby University. Patrons can also watch the featured nineties film on the big screen hanging on the back wall or the TV’s above the bar. Without naming each individually, it’s helpful to note that the neighborhood is stocked with numerous cafés, delis, and markets for students to run in and out before class and many stay open late for the all-nighter library crowd. For this reason, the area is regularly patrolled by security and campus safety.

       In one sentence, I’d say Morningside Heights is a neighborhood with many distractions to make you stay full, entertained, and relaxed. And, one last thing: I encourage visitors always to strike up a conversation with the man or woman sitting beside you on a park bench or on a stool at the bar; the area is filled with recognized intellectuals, always willing to chat about their latest achievement or project.

Francesca Crozier-Fitzgerald is a recent graduate from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, currently working as a freelance journalist. Her work has been published in Ambler Gazette's Ticket to Entertainment, i-Italy Digital Magazine, and The NewYorkWorld. This is her first article for The Virtual Gourmet.


by Christopher Mariani


    Three weeks ago I headed down to Riviera Maya for an end of summer vacation. Mexican tourist destinations are generally ghost towns in August and that is fine by me. Hotels run are around forty percent occupancy and the beaches and pools are almost empty. Peak season in Mexico is during the holidays, especially Christmas and winter break when families make up a large majority of the travelers. August may be slightly hotter and more humid than other times of the year, but the open space and personal service cannot be beat. I would have it no other way.     The beaches go on for miles and there is almost no one in sight. The bliss of getting away and actually feeling secluded from the rest of the word is an idyllic sentiment. In the month of August, there is a big influx of European travelers, specifically from Italy, who come to Mexico and the Caribbean islands for a tropical experience not often, if ever, found in Europe. This is usually the last surge before major hotels go into hibernation in preparation for the winter rush.
    I stayed at the Grand Velas, one of Mexico’s finest upscale all-inclusive resorts, and a 180-degree change from the cookie-cutter tourist hotels of Cancun City. I was surprised and happy to hear a large majority of hotel guests are Mexican, coming from all over the country for vacation. There is a very eclectic group of visitors on property who add a wonderful dynamic to the stay. The guests are warm and the entire experience is hospitable.
    I touched down in Cancun where the hotel had sent one of their airport shuttle buses to pick up my girlfriend and me, a very pleasant gesture, and much appreciated, considering the property is 45 minutes from the airport.  Playa del Carmen is just five minutes' away and Cozumel just across the water; Tulum is 45 minutes away.  Once at Grand Velas we were welcomed with a refreshment and checked in with ease. We were staying in a huge Grand Class Suite, 1,377 square feet to be exact. The lay-out was gorgeous, with a direct view of the ocean, a concealed terrace dressed with purple and pink flowers, a small day pool, a bathroom fit for a king and his queen, and of course a mini-bar that re-fills itself every time the room is cleaned (the mini bar is part of the initial cost and re-fills are free). Oh, and how could I forget, the indoor Jacuzzi? The design is magnificent and is clearly intended for guests on a romantic retreat.
    Upon entering the massive suite your eyes are immediately drawn to a grand view of the ocean that stretches calmly just a few hundred feet away while the bright sun glistens off the water and fills the white room with light. I was immediately dragged towards the terrace where I leaned over the railing and looked out into the horizon while inhaling in a deep breath of the sea salt-filled air. Back inside the room I took a lay on my king size bed and smiled, knowing my vacation had officially begun. I opened the mini-bar and cracked open a can of cold, crisp Pacifico and sat outside for a while unwinding, following the shutting down of my Blackberry and locking it away in the safe.
    The resort as a whole is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen in Mexico and offers every amenity one could wish for. I spent most of my days relaxing by the giant infinity pool, occasionally hopping in to cool off and take a leisure stroll to the swim-up bar for another Pacifico and sporadically a shot of tequila, always forced upon me our generous and encouraging bartender.
    Other days we lounged on the beach where we received personal drink and food service, part of the all-inclusive package. So, order as you please because you have already paid for it. All liquors are top shelf and there are no boundaries with what you can and cannot order.
    In terms of food, the in-room dining
was surprisingly disappointing and needs much improvement. Breakfast items are all good but when it comes to lunch or late night snacks do not expect something great, you are much better off dining in one of the hotels eight restaurants.
    For breakfast and lunch Azul (below) is open with giant windows that stare out onto the beach. They prepare a terrific buffet every day with great selections but it grew tiresome considering we ate there for breakfast and lunch almost every day, simply because it was the only option for those two meals besides in-room dining.
    I dined at three other restaurants during my stay, Sen Lin, Frida and Cocina. All three restaurants offer an à la carte menu and/or a chef’s tasting menu paired with wine. Sen Lin is the resort’s signature Asian inspired restaurant; Frida is chic Mexican; and Cocina is Spanish. There are also French, Italian and Mediterranean restaurants on property, so it will be difficult to grow bored. All the restaurants have attractive spaces, most very large in size, all with high ceilings and elegant décors.  The service staff is as amiable as one would hope for and they are always within a stones throw to offer you another drink.   Sen Lin even offers a tableside sake bar with flavored sakes, the best was unexpectedly the peanut butter sake. Frida too, offers a tableside bar stocked with multiple tequilas with freshly made featured margaritas.
         The food throughout all three restaurants was good at best. The common trend found in all the restaurants was frou-frou food with little to no balance and a lack of  fine execution. Take my advice and order off the menu, not the lengthy tasting menus. Chefs typically reach beyond their skill level when they put together fancy tasting menus like the ones presented during my stay. This is not to say I didn’t have a fine meal at each and every restaurant. Notable  dishes inlcude the duck carpaccio with hoisin sauce and the coconut tapioca.
         As the weekend came to an end, I packed my bags and took twenty minutes to savor the beauty that last morning in paradise by sitting out on my terrace and looking out onto the beach. The peacefulness and seclusion was exactly what I hoped for and graciously received. Just before saying my goodbyes to my lovely suite, I entered my four-digit code into the safe and retrieved my Blackberry. It was back to reality and man did I have a lot of unanswered emails, but at least I had a great tan.


 To contact Christopher Mariani send an email to



In DeWitt, NY, a couple got married with an
Oscar Mayer Wienermobile in the church parking
lot for a memorable photo op shown here.

"Eggplant gave a convincing performance as the Great Late-Summer Vegetable,
first in a sweet caponata bruschetta; soon after as the money ingredient of a
modified panzanella stuffed inside a sweet pepper; and finally melted down
to a fibrous custard with penne, tomatoes and two cheeses -- mozzarella and
 provolone -- that bubbled brown and crusty over the surface of a
hearty pasta casserole."--Brett Anderson, "A Mano," Times-Picayune.

 Any of John Mariani's books below may be ordered from

My new book, How Italian Food Conquered the World (Palgrave Macmillan) is a rollicking history of the food culture of Italy and its ravenous embrace in the 21st century by the entire world. From ancient Rome to la dolce vita of post-war Italy, from Italian immigrant cooks to celebrity chefs, from pizzerias to high-class ristoranti, this chronicle of a culinary diaspora is as much about the world's changing tastes, prejudices,  and dietary fads as about our obsessions with culinary fashion and style.--John Mariani

"Eating Italian will never be the same after reading John Mariani's entertaining and savory gastronomical history of the cuisine of Italy and how it won over appetites worldwide. . . . This book is such a tasteful narrative that it will literally make you hungry for Italian food and arouse your appetite for gastronomical history."--Don Oldenburg, USA Today. 

"Italian restaurants--some good, some glitzy--far outnumber their French rivals.  Many of these establishments are zestfully described in How Italian Food Conquered the World, an entertaining and fact-filled chronicle by food-and-wine correspondent John F. Mariani."--Aram Bakshian Jr., Wall Street Journal.

"Mariani admirably dishes out the story of Italy’s remarkable global ascent to virtual culinary hegemony....Like a chef gladly divulging a cherished family recipe, Mariani’s book reveals the secret sauce about how Italy’s cuisine put gusto in gusto!"--David Lincoln Ross,

    "Equal parts history, sociology, gastronomy, and just plain fun, How Italian Food Conquered the World tells the captivating and delicious story of the (let's face it) everybody's favorite cuisine with clarity, verve and more than one surprise."--Colman Andrews, editorial director of The Daily

    "A fantastic and fascinating read, covering everything from the influence of Venice's spice trade to the impact of Italian immigrants in America and the evolution of alta cucina. This book will serve as a terrific resource to anyone interested in the real story of Italian food."--Mary Ann Esposito, host of PBS-TV's Ciao Italia.

    "John Mariani has written the definitive history of how Italians won their way into our hearts, minds, and stomachs.  It's a story of pleasure over pomp and taste over technique."--Danny Meyer, owner of NYC restaurants Union Square Cafe, Gotham Bar & Grill, The Modern, and Maialino.



FEATURED LINKS: I am happy to  report that the Virtual Gourmet is  linked to 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: America's Best Inns for Foliage

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).

The Family Travel Forum
 - A community for those who "Have Kids, Still Travel" and want to make family vacations more fun, less work and better value. FTF's travel and parenting features, including reviews of tropical and ski resorts, reunion destinations, attractions, holiday weekends, family festivals, cruises, and all kinds of vacation ideas should be the first port of call for family vacation planners.

Family Travel Forum

                                                                    ALL YOU NEED 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.

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© copyright John Mariani 2011