Virtual Gourmet

  November 13,  2011                                                                                               NEWSLETTER

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Still life by Luis Meléndez

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.
THIS WEEK:  What Your Favorite Restaurant Knows About You.

The 5th Annual Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival will take place this year from Dec. 9-13, with a star-studded, epicurean extravaganza hosted on the resort island playground of Palm Beach. Join James Beard Award-winning chefs, Food Network personalities, authors, winemakers, mixologists and a plethora of local talent in an unforgettable series of dinners and parties that will saturate your senses in the most anticipated culinary event of the season. Chefs include Michelle Bernstein, Daniel Boulud, David Burke, Clay Conley, Scott Conant, Dean Max, Michael Schwartz,  and many more.  John Mariani is proud to be Honorary Chairman. For info click here.

Seminar Hosted by Micha Vaadia, Galil Mountain Winemaker & Gil Vaadia, Galil Mountain Architect The “Four New Chefs to Watch” heralded in Esquire Magazine's November issue will come together in a first-ever collaboration to create lunch and dinner on Monday, November 14 at The Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead. Hosted by Esquire's John Mariani and Ritz-Carlton chef Todd Richards, Tyler Brown, Sachin Chopra and Scott Anderson will each prepare one course of a four-course menu, with wines paired by Linda Torres Alarcon, the hotel’s sommelier. Lunch, 11:30 a.m. $65 per person with wines; Dinner 7 pm, $85 per person with wines, exclusive of tax and gratuities. Reservations 404-240-7035.



by John Mariani

by John Mariani

by Mort Hochstein



    Big cities demand a traveler's commitment to stay put for several days, or, as has been said of great cities like New York, Rome, London and Paris, if you spend a week there you'll know the city well; if you spend a lifetime, you'll realize how much you don't know. Smaller cities, however, can be visited with pleasure for a day or two, to take in the principal sights and determine if you want to return for a longer stay.  In fact, I find such visits extremely enjoyable and, more often than not, make me hungry for more. This article is another in a continuing, occasional series I call "Day Trippers," intended to give the reader a quick, broad overview of a city where I was delighted for just a day or two. --J.M.

by John Mariani

    The citizens of Ghent want to make sure a visitor is duly impressed upon arrival, and after exiting a train from another point in Europe and moving up an escalator to the entrance hall of the station (right), you will be very impressed indeed.
    Train stations are the first thing many people see when entering a city and help to set the scene for the spirit of a city. And there are few more beautiful train stations in Europe than Ghent's, having been designed in a cruciform shape by Louis Cloquet and built just a year before the 1913 World Exhibition to show this old city had acquired a wholly modern face.
    I have no idea why the British added an "h" to the Celtic-Latin name Gent, but there it is stuck, derived from a Latin word that meant a "place between two rivers."  In any case, everyone, but everyone, speaks English perfectly. With a half million inhabitants, Ghent is Belgium's second largest city, but it has a small city feeling to it, owing to its inner historic core where rivers and streets seem to make up their own minds as to where they will go, and the natives are fine with the idea of meandering throughout the broad plazas and narrow streets, the alleys and cul de sacs where at one time or another a great merchant or prince may have lived.  Since many streets are closed to motor traffic, Ghent is as amiable a walking city as any in Europe.  And pleasingly quiet.
    Its buildings have an enormous variety of architecture, for while the twilight picture below shows massed historic buildings, some dating to the 12th Century,  none is of the same style, because with each passing era the Ghentians believed strongly they should not hang onto the past and so encouraged architects to design buildings in the newest style of the day; thus, you find late Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque structures bunched along the river and throughout the city, most richly decorated in ways you do not associate with the stoic-looking town fathers and guild members in the paintings of those days. To prove the point, there is a new, very modern Town Hall under construction whose steel lines echo the old roof lines but are in every other way completely of the moment.  Along the rivers are also great old brick structures that were once warehouses, butcheries, and markets, now converted into everything from fish restaurants and student cafeterias to retail stores.
    Ghent's main street and one of the oldest is Veldstraat, from which narrow alleys depart, once the site of the Corn Market and a hotel center, now the principal shopping area of the city. 
Sadly, the street has lost many of its old buildings and shops, but the still impressive Hotel Schamp is a baroque structure from the 18th century, and several historic mansions still lining Veldstraat.
    We stayed at the fine 46-room boutique Hotel De Flandre (right), very quietly and centrally located, which has a bracing, lavish buffet (included in the room price), while our friends stayed two blocks away at the newly renovated Standton Grand Hotel Reylof, with 158 rooms, once an 18th-century townhouse.  The ultra-modern, always booked Ghent Marriott, with its high glass dome, seems oddly situated down a narrow street, including its main entrance, but this was the only way Bill Marriott could convince the city his hotel would not intrude on the glorious historic riverscape, where the hotel's smaller, unobtrusive entrance is located.
    Ghent's gastronomy is richly northern European but highly influenced by French cookery and readily accessible to ethnic ideas, so that there is every type of restaurant here, from pizza to sushi, and you'll find Turkish restaurants have a stronghold along Sleepstraat. Thursdays are called Donderdag Veggiedag, when public canteens and schools promote their vegetarian dishes, which is a rather odd idea in a country whose good health is not in question.  Where the city should put its efforts is to stamp out smoking, now broadly indulged at outdoor tables at restaurants, meaning that anyone who is not a smoker is likely to be engulfed in cigarette smoke for the sin of wanting to dine al fresco.
    After touring much of the historic district, we had lunch at a very popular brasserie off the grand plaza, across from the Ghent Opera, called, appropriately, Café Theatre, both dating to 1840, with a hiatus of nine year's closing, re-opened in 1998.  The restaurant is a cavernous and friendly, a
a youthful place, with notes on the menu that the staff, whose photos are on the menu, is dressed by Terre Bleue, a Belgian sportswear company, and they sell their own CDs and photo books.  The menu notes, "Slow service on request," meaning this is a place to take your time, not to rush through your beer or wine--unless you're on your way to the opera--and to enjoy the pleasures of Belgian-French food and drink.  At lunch it was filled with people off from work, business people, tourists, and one elderly well-dressed Ghentian gentleman at the corner table next to ours who sat with his newspaper and spent the afternoon quietly feasting on a three-course meal, all by himself, looking wholly content with his own company and probably well practiced in dining at Café Theatre several times a week.
    Our party of four began with a good portion of mi-cuit duck foie gras with fig chutney and toasted brioche; a specialty here is the beef tartare with Belgian fried potatoes (which are sold as a snack all over the city, with toppings from mayonnaise to vinegar), again a hefty portion. Shrimp croquettes were tidy little morsels with lemon and fried parsley, while a sweet tomato came stuffed with tiny peeled grey shrimp. The dish of the day was a plate of those ultra-tender morsels of chicken imbedded in the crook of the thigh, here lightly sautéed crisp and hot.
    For our main courses we had a juicy roasted monkfish with smoky bacon, mashed green lentils and fried potatoes; sautéed sole in a classic buttery meunière style, with steamed potatoes; and an entrecôte of Scottish beef with a rich Béarnaise, grilled potatoes and seasonal vegetables, ending off the meal with a selection of housemade sorbets.
    Prices may seem high to Americans bemoaning the weak dollar, but they are moderate for Belgium, with starters ranging from €13.50 to €18 and main courses €18.50 to €26.
    That afternoon we also had a chance to visit the Gruut Brewery in the center of the city, about which I wrote last week here. And, after a good walk, we noshed a bit more--a yeasty Belgian waffle split among the four of us, a visit to a chocolate shop or two, and something new to us--cuberdon candy, made since the 19th century by only a very few candymakers (right).  It is a little purple cone of sugar containing raspberry syrup, which oozes out when you bite into it.

    That evening we enjoyed an aperitif of elderberry liqueur called roomer, then went to an even bigger place--600 square meters--and a magnet for everyone who lives or visits Ghent--a multi-tiered restaurant named Pakhuis (warehouse), this year celebrating its 20th anniversary. You come upon the place suddenly after passing down an alleyway, and you look up and see people everywhere: downstairs at the bar, in a room reached by ramp, up the stairs to the mezzanine and balcony (below). In the Chef's Corner at the bar you can feast on iced shellfish.
    Chef Koen Lefever is justly proud of his commitment to the very finest ingredients--many, including the famous blue-footed Bresse chickens, raised at the restaurant's own farm, and to sustainability; they even have their own wine label;  Pakhuis also supports many charitable organizations through special dinners throughout the year.   You can certainly taste the truth of it all in the food, and a good way to go about it is with the Market Menu at about €43, currently featuring smoked eel and fried mussel salad; various oysters; baked fillet of mullet and mussels with tagliatelle; roasted fillet of guinea fowl (its own) with chicory and celery root; and apple puff pastry with ice cream. There are also both cheaper and more extensive fixed price menus. À la carte, we enjoyed a pan-roasted lobster with vegetables, and the Bresse chicken had wonderful flavor and crisp skin.
    Afterwards we joined those throngs of people who take the two-hour Light Plan walk, when the historic buildings of Ghent are brilliantly illuminated like a movie set, a leisurely stroll under starlight and clouds, moonlight and shadows, giving the city the calm beauty
of a medieval romance.  We didn't last the whole two hours, though, filled as we were with a good dinner and fine wine, but we took in enough to know that returning to Ghent was now much higher on our wish list than we could have imagined a day before.


by John Mariani

El Parador Cafe
325 East 34th Street (near First Avenue)

    El Parador Café in Murray Hill is not, as claimed, NYC's oldest Mexican restaurant (defunct places named Xochitl on West 46th Street and Mexican Gardens on Waverly Place dated back at least to the 1940s), but after six decades in business it can claim to be the most longlived, having been opened in 1959, and in my opinion, one of the very best in the city.
     Under two owners, first Carlos Jacott and since 1990 Manuel Alejandro, who handed things over to his son Alex in 1994, El Parador has never gone the Tex-Mex way or taken a middle ground as a pseudo-Spanish restaurant.  So if you can pick out the regions of Mexico the menu is built on, you may simply call it El Parador Mexican food and be very happy that it has not changed what it does best.

    Owner Alex Alejandro (left) is a marvelous host, a handsome, well-dressed fellow with a small goatee and a big smile. If he seems to know everyone who comes through the unassuming doorway, the chances are good he does, since El Parador gets an extremely faithful local crowd.  With 160 seats to fill, including the subterranean party room called La Cueva, Mr. Alejandro, Chef Boni Junior,  and his waiters have fine tuned everything so that the tempo of a meal, which inevitably begins with a round of well-made and proportioned margaritas from an array of tequilas, is clearly set for people who are very hungry once they sit down, which seems always to be the case when people decide to go out for Mexican food. So thank heavens that El Parador serves those irresistible tortilla chips (with two salsas) that restaurants in Mexico itself foolishly eschew.
    The place can get very loud, though even with a nearby table of ten young women well into Margaritaville, we could hold a conversation at our table.  
    The menu is large, so if it's your first time, let Mr. Alejandro make suggestions. Somehow he seems to be at six tables at once but he never seems rushed, nor will he rush his guests. Platter after platter came to our table, including
aguachile, a shrimp ceviche done with lime juice, cucumber and jalapeño; a delicious three-mushroom quesadilla, with Oaxacan cheese, creminis, shiitakes and portobellos; and really hot pickled jalapeños stuffed with peanut butter, which required several gulps of Mexican beer to cool down. The only appetizer I thought was a little bland was El Parador's guacamole, but maybe you can ask for a little more spice and seasoning.
    Mexico's form of meatballs--albondigas, made with beef and pork--were excellent, full of flavor, and a mulato mole negro with Maduro plantains hit the spot, actually serving to rev up an appetite we thought might have flagged by then.  But no, we dig into the succulent pork tenderloin and tomatillo tamal, and the lobster sauté in an enchilada with a tomato and scallion pumpkin seed mole, whose ingredients did nothing to compromise the flavor of the lobster meat.
    Roast duck enchilada with a poblano and onion sofrito and a peanut and tomato mole was outstanding--the best dish among many terrific ones, and we also enjoyed braised chicken breast in mole poblano, with dried chilies, chocolate and fruits. The barbacoa de puerco--baby back ribs steamed in banana leaves with an achiote and cumin rub and a tequila BBQ salsa put us over the top, but not before we somehow managed to sample El Parador's rich pecan pie and tres leches cake.  Somehow the charms of Mexican fried ice cream continue to escape me.
    You can readily tell that the menu here is not just a repro of most every other Mexican place in town, where combo platters and ten variations on the enchilada rule.  Having just returned last week from Mexico City, I found El Parador's food as delicious as any I had at the traditional restaurantes there.  With the closing of NYC's Zarela's and the expansion of Rosa Mexicano into a chain from here to Minneapolis, El Parador has few competitors at its level in NYC. And with time on its side, El Parador has shown that consistency coupled with a commitment to gracious hospitality trumps them all.

Open for lunch and dinner daily.
Closed Sundays in August and major holidays. Appetizers $6-$16, entrees $11-$29.




by Christopher Mariani

This week the Man About Town is on assignment.
His column will appear next week.

To contact Christopher Mariani send an email to



by Mort Hochstein

 The Lurton Family,  left to right: Sophie, Christine, Denis, Pierre, Berenice, Marie Laure, Jacques, Marc, and Francois and Thierry in front.

Seminar Hosted by Micha Vaadia, Galil Mountain Winemaker & Gil Vaadia, Galil Mountain Architect

    Mondavi and Gallo in the United States,  Rothschild in France, Antinori in Italy. These are the names that come to mind when I think about great wine families. But the largest and  least heralded  of them all are the Lurtons of Bordeaux, whose ten family members quietly own or administer some 30 properties in France and throughout the world, the best known being  Château d’Yquem , Cheval Blanc and Brane-Cantenac.
     The Lurton dynasty originated in the late 1800's when the founding father, Jean-François Recapet added on to  the family liqueur business with  a campaign of vineyard  acquisitions his descendants continued into the current century. The Lurtons began by acquiring Brane-Cantenac, a second growth Bordeaux, and a share in its prestigious neighbor, Château Margaux, which they later traded for other property.  La Louvière as well as other less well known acquisitions, primarily in Graves and Entre-Deux Mers,  came into  the Lurton fold over the years.
   As in any family, there have been stresses and strains among the siblings, but two years ago, they  consolidated their activities under  the banner of  Lurton du Vin. The ten principal members, whose busy schedules   prevent them from gathering as  frequently as they might like,  convened at  Restaurant Benoit in NYC recently to trumpet their   unity, while showing    wines from Lurton  ventures  in  AustraliaSpain, Argentina, Chile, Portugal, South Africa and Spain, as well as France.
   I  mentioned La Louvière (right) because it is one of my favorite white wines, one that comes with a  happy memory. I first encountered
   La Louvière many years ago while filming the harvest in Bordeaux with the late food and wine authority, Roy Andries DeGroot.  We had  been invited to  Château Haut-Brion to meet  and have lunch with    top  producers of  the Graves region.
    While DeGroot was able to parlez Francais with those notables, I barely understood menu  French and elected to join my camera crew under a shady tree.  It was a good decision. Waiters from that great Haut Brion château  plied us with great wines and oysters  from   bottomless sacks.   I couldn’t have been happier and that was where I developed my liking for  La Louvière.
    Since that  long-ago  time, the family leadership has shifted to a younger generation,  Some members have become flying winemakers, working in South Africa,  Australia, Chile and Argentina as well as in neighboring Spain and Portugal.. All have contributed to expanding the empire, while assuming executive roles in many of the Bordeaux wine  associations and others have taken managerial positions at major  domaines owned by giant corporations.
       La Louvière white,  to my disappointment,  was not included in the tasting, but I was happy to  catch up with  two wonderful dessert wines   from Château  Climens (below), a first growth   Barsac-Sauternes, owned  by Bereneice  Lurton. I tasted the top wine of the estate,   Climens 2005 ($95) and its second wine, Cypres de Climens 2007 ($50), which was fuller and better balanced than its younger sibling, but I would have been happy to take either of those sweeties home.
   Another of my favorites, Bonnet Blanc from the Lurton ‘s ancestral home in Entre-Deux Mers , was another  favorite for me. It’s a blend of 50% sauvignon blanc, 40% semillon and 10% muscadelle, wafting aromas of grapefruit and acacia flowers,  tangy and lemony  on the palate, all at a very attractive  list price of $13 , probably less in many stores.  In the same price range,  Bonnet  fielded a Bordeaux rosè and red .  Andre Lurton did bring us a 2006 La Louvière red from Pessac-Léognan in the Graves region,  a classically  dry Graves,  reserved and well structured, with some gravelly fruit  and soft tannins, needing a few more years in bottle to show at its best ($57).
 The Lurton’s  French empire  centers on Entre-Deux Mers and on the Bordeaux peninsula, Margaux and Pessac-Léognan. It includes several  better known Margaux estates such as Dauzac, Durfort Viviens and Desmirail, and  several lesser ranked estates such as La Tour de Bessan and Villegorge.

   Despite their long history in the region and the pedigree attached to their great estates, the assembled Lurtons came across with little pretension, showing none of the hauteur often evident in the great families of Bordeaux.   As one member declared:  Notre travail nous depasse, ” loosely translated as “Who we are is less important than what we do.” Jacques Lurton, spokesman for the group, put it this way. “We are not typical Bordeaux aristocrats. We are simply a hardworking bourgeois family.”




A former jailhouse inmate turned jailhouse cook, Brian D. Price, has cooked last meals for 218 prisoners on death row in Huntsville, TX, but after state officials said they would no longer provide condemned prisoners their last meal requests, Price offered to prepare meals for free. The officials said no thanks.



"I'm writing on behalf of the American Pistachio Growers. Pistachios have been shown to be pretty important when it comes to a man’s sex life. Here’s a couple quick fun bullets:
·         Men with erectile dysfunction saw improvements in function and satisfaction after eating 3.5 ounces of pistachios daily for 3 weeks
·         A typical one-ounce service of pistachios contains 160 calories-making it easier to maybe lose love handles.
·         In ancient Persia, lovers used to meet under pistachio trees and listen to the crackling of nuts in the moonlight-and maybe more.
    Could make an interesting sidebar for Esquire." --Ketchum Social Media.



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

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.

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: TOP TEN B&BS

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