Virtual Gourmet

  January 29,   2012                                                                                               NEWSLETTER

HOME    |    BOOKS    |    ABOUT US    |    CONTACT

Marcello Mastroianni in "Divorce Italian Style" (1961)



by John Mariani

by John Mariani


by John Mariani

    As NYC and London wage war to see which city can open the greatest number of restaurants per month during a bad economy, San Francisco always seems to have a few good new ones opening throughout the year, more often than not these days fairly small, often storefront places run by individuals one or two owners or chefs who put their heart and soul into the kitchen rather than the dining room.  The finest restaurants in the city endure, even thrive, like Gary Danko, Boulevard, Fleur de Lys, and Ame.  Here are some of the newest that have impressed me.

490 Pacific Avenue

    Good Italian food is usually good enough, and when things go a bit too fancy, some of its soul may get lost in translation.  A good middle ground occurs when a San Francisco chef like Michael Tusk develops a feverish passion for the food, so that even if his grandmother wasn’t Italian, he tries to cook like one while adding everything that Northern California can offer in terms of meats, seafood, and vegetables.  Seven years ago Tusk opened the still red hot Quince, but Cotogna is far more rustic and downright chummy; every bottle on the wine list is just $40.  And—get out!--a three-course fixed price menu runs $24?! The pastas are all radiant, from the most delicate fagotelli with ricotta and flowering blossoms to the triangoli with corn and chives. A fearsome grill/rotisserie turns out sizzling Gulf prawns with a watermelon panzanella salad. And for dessert there’s a peach crostata that would make Alice Waters weep with pleasure.
         So how do you cook like an Italian grandmother? According to Tusk,  “My first trip to Italy I was taken around Italy by a barrel maker named Francesco Renzi, who was generous enough to take me to see the production of cheeses like  Parmigiano-Reggiano, mortadella, culatelllo di zibello and the boiling of grape must for aceto balsamico. This trip was my initial awakening to the incredible diversity of products available to cook with and definitely changed the way I thought about food.
          “The Renzi family also invited me into their home to eat, which is where I saw the greatness of Italian regional cuisine and the generosity regarding food and what it meant to eat together as a family.
           “Great Italian food can’t be cooked by following a recipe. The grandmothers never had any. As products change, the cook has to adapt to different flavor profiles. Great home cooking is about following your intuition and following small nuances that have been passed down from generation to generation.”

Open Mon.-Sat. for lunch and dinner, Sunday for dinner only.  Antipasti $12, pastas $15, main courses $22-$24; fixed price menu $24.



Michael Mina
252 California Street

    I was delighted to be back in this airy space, lighted by the soft, foggy San Francisco sun, that had long been Aqua, which Chef Michael Mina had helped open back in 1991.  Since then Mina has built an empire of mostly high-end restaurants from Atlantic City to Vegas, from Detroit to Seattle, not least four Bourbon Steaks, a rampant expansionism that caused me to lose interest Mina as a working chef. So Mina’s return to his roots, at this stylish flagship where he swears he will be cooking most of the time, was promising news. After visiting the new restaurant, I realized what San Francisco—and I--had been missing all those years he was away.
         Mina is a chef for whom the word finesse seems created. His website says his food features his “sensibilities with Japanese ingredients and a French influence,” which tells you little, like describing a high mileage Citroën with cup holders.  Mina has learned all the best lessons from the global kitchen and here, in this civilized, adult dining room he puts everything he knows to work in the interest of delicacy and essential flavors.
         That means wild Alaskan halibut is warmed in a ginger-carrot broth, with steamed dumplings and snow peas.  He makes a shabu shabu of foie gras in a dashi broth with Asian mushrooms, and his Maine lobster pie comes with smoked potato, corn pudding, and oven-roasted tomatoes—the best New England dish you’ll ever find on the west coast.
         I take Mina at his word that he will be there when you visit.  If so, you will have one of the great meals of your life by a true American master in a space that has grown more beautiful than ever.

Lunch Mon.-Fri. dinner nightly. Appetizers $17-$28; $34-$98.


25 Lusk Street

         Grandeur need not be rapturous. At 25 Lusk, in the fast-developing South of Market/China Basin, Chef-restaurateur Matthew Dolan and partner Chad Bourdon found a huge 1917 smokehouse and meat packing building and utilized all its massive industrial timbers and exposed brick to create a shadowy, two-story restaurant of daunting size and cool, casual elegance.  The two men met in culinary school a dozen years ago, and with a solid training on both sides of the kitchen door, they opened this grand venture last year, and it's been a hit and catalyst for the neighborhood.
    Dolan’s food has the same balance of expansive ideas and simple good taste, obvious in dishes like his grilled prawns with Japanese pepper grits and carrot puree with horseradish vinaigrette, and his smoked beef short rib with truffled corn mousse and summer blossoms.  This is very much contemporary American cuisine, drawing on so many cultures that make San Francisco such a dynamic city of great chefs, few of whom ever go into extravagant whirls of  menus designed solely to dazzle you with their ingenuity. Chefs like Dolan know, first, how to cook great ingredients and then how to respect them ingredients, employing a few to great effect.
    He'll do a fine red kuri squash and ginger soup with a touch of basil and pimenton. Local Dungeness crab gets a touch of ginger, too, along with horseradish chutney for a spike, and there's roasted bone marrow with a poached duck egg, parsley and lemon that is straight-down-the line classic bistro fare. He poaches lobster in butter and serves it over fresh fettuccine with pickled ginger butter, mint and cilantro, while his duck breast is seared then served up with Brussels sprouts and a tarte flambé with Banyuls wine.

    Desserts might be vanilla tacos with raspberry salsa, sweet "imitation refried beans" and kiwi avocado sorbet or a big, luscious caramel swirl brownie with mint chocolate chip ice cream and anise meringue.
    There are wines of the week on an extensive list that includes plenty of bottlings under $50 that are bargains, both from and outside California.             This food is lovable, satisfying, highly creative and the kind that makes 25 Lusk a place you'd put on speed dial for a weekly visit.

25 Lusk is open for dinner and for weekend brunch. Dinner appetizers run $12-$18, main courses $23-$48.

Fifth Floor

Palomar Hotel

12 Fourth Street


    The Fifth Floor is located, as you’d expect, on the fifth floor of the Hotel Palomar, and for about a decade now it’s been one of the top restaurants in the city, under several chef changes.  The newest is David Bazirgan.

The 195-room hotel, located off bustling Market Street and near the Moscone Center, is actually on the fifth to ninth floors, and the design is built around geometric forms and formulas, with deep colors in the fabrics and polished wood, with a vaguely art deco feel.  This is a Kimpton Hotel, so it contains one of its signature Mind.Body.Spa program (including in-room), featuring complimentary yoga basket. They also promise to be pet and child friendly, and they deliver live goldfish to your room throughout your stay, not, apparently, to be eaten as a snack but simply to calm your nerves. 

Which may be needed if you book a room on the Market Street side, because, thanks to San Francisco’s indulgent city fathers, street musicians are allowed to play all day until nine p.m., and outside my window was a guy—every day—who played a full set of drums that was as disturbing as if they’d put a jackhammer out there.  Ask for an interior room or one facing away from Market Street.

Every evening the hotel hosts a wine hour from 5 PM-6 PM on the Fifth Floor Lounge, a nice way to start before dinner (which may also save you from spending money on aperitifs at the restaurant). Although some reconfiguring of space and décor has been done in the restaurant, which was once oddly broken up, now modern, with good lighting and semi-circular chairs, and a definite romantic cast good for a first or tenth date, as well as 25th anniversary. The Fifth Floor is a serious restaurant but it manages to convey that Northern California sense that you shouldn't take the experience too seriously but relax and enjoy yourself, perhaps putting yourself in Bazirgan's hands.
    The menus change all the time, so I won't tell you much of what I ate several months ago.  Bazirgan was trained in Boston, working at Barbara Lynch's No. 9 Park before moving to San Francisco to work at with Elizabeth Daniel at Jackson Square and at Chez Resto Papa.  His menus at Fifth Floor are exactingly crafted, and I thought there was on some plates far too much going on that didn;t all coalesce. Too many exotics like "radicchio ash" and "nigella seeds" seemed more contrivance that additions to taste, meaning I couldn't really taste them to any significant degree.  Nevertheless, this is impressive cooking: the current menu lists dishes like foie gras burrata with marinated chanterelles, nasturtium, truffled vinaigrette and fried bread; mushroom risotto with sylvetta, parmigiano and white truffle butter; lamb with crunchy yogurt, rye berries, pickled raisins, cauliflower and cipollini onions, and, of course, the obligatory Kobe beef, the braised cheek, confit of shimeji mushrooms, eggplant, beet, gobo root, and barley.
    The wine list at the Fifth Floor has always been outstanding, now under the supervision of Amy Goldberger. There is also an extensive cocktail menu.

The Fifth Floor is open for breakfast daily and for dinner Tues-Sat; Dinner appetizers run $12-$20, main courses$29-$42. Tasting menu at $95.

Boxing Room
399 Grove Street

San Francisco has always drawn the cuisines of the world to its belly, though it’s not exactly awash in Cajun restaurants.  The Boxing Room fills that need well and does so within a fine-looking, big open room with a very popular 28-seat counter where you can just drop in and eat in front of the open kitchen where Chef Justin Simoneaux works his spicy magic. He’s a Southern Louisianans native who grew up eating—and sometimes catching—the food of the region, and began cooking at 15, eventually moving to California to attend the California Culinary Academy in 2005, then worked his way around the Bay Area.
    The space itself dates to the mid-19th century, once the Standard Shirts Factory, utilizing the original structure as a base for Douglas fir walls and steel bracing, a zinc-top oyster bar, and bar stools with faux-alligator-skin fabric. It can get loud in there.
    The menu ranges over the Cajun-Creole map with ease, from boiled peanuts and crisply fried boudin balls to shrimp Po’ boys and excellent  fried chicken (right). There's a hefty platter of boucherie, which the night  was there was porchetta, and the dirty rice and cornbread muffins are good sops for this hearty kind of fare. Salt, however, is heavy handed though in some dishes whose spicing really doesn't need so much.
     Of course, there is also crawfish etoufée, and for dessert, bananas Foster cake with cream cheese frosting and bourbon ice cream, and a pralines and cream ice-cream sundae, and hot beignets with espresso cream.  Like a good Louisiana boy, Simoneaux serves red beans and rice on Mondays, and there are daily specials throughout the week.
    This food goes as well with beer as with wines, but the wine list of about 50 bottlings, is sound with big rich varietals that can cut through the seasoning of the food.

Boxing Room is open daily for lunch, dinner and weekend brunch. At dinner appetizers run $8-$13, main courses $14-$24.

All Spice
1602 South El Camino Real
San Mateo, CA

    Down in San Mateo, about thirty minutes from San Fran proper, Chef Sachin Chopra and his lovely wife Shohana (who herself helps run her family's vineyard, Wolff & Father Wines, in the Santa Cruz Mountains),  working out of a charming western Victorian house, have married a  North Cal sensibility to Indian food culture with dazzling, novel results.  The place is so pretty, inside and out, very truly like a home, with fireplace, small, trim rooms in bright colors and trim, and a sense that you really have been welcomed to the Chopra's for a home-cooked dinner.  But the menus go much further than the usual Indian menu of mulligatawny soup, samosas, and lamb vindaloo.  Mr. Chopra does do a vindaloo, but it is a short rib with molten goat’s cheese, baby bok choy in a roasted onion, fennel, ginger sauce.
    The food presentation is enchanting too--none of those somber bowls of gray-brown stews; instead there is radiance in the pea soup with an herb and apple gelee and smoked chili candied bacon. Mr. Chopra's "Ode to My Wife" is a rightly beautiful plate of roasted beets served with lollo rosso lettuce and dill-scented goat;s cheese ice cream. He does a succulent roasted walu with summer melon risotto, watercress and a reduction of passionfruit and mango, so you see how his flavors are evocative of India but not rigorously traditional.  Indeed, his dark chocolate kulfi with spiced macadamia nut brittle is a perfect balance of what you might hope for but had not wholly expected. This is very much cooking from the heart,  just as the greeting you will receive from  Shoshanna, who is the soul of the All Spice.

All Spice is open for dinner Tues.-Sat. Appetizers $8-$14, main courses $13-$25.



24 East 81st Street (off Madison Avenue)

    T here are some food writers who will always lament the quality of the restaurants on the Upper East Side, despite the existence in that affluent stretch of real estate of first-rate restaurants like Daniel, Café Boulud, Café Sabarsky, Caravaggio, David Burke Townhouse, JoJo, L'Absinthe, The Mark by Jean-Georges, Park Avenue, and others.  Too often the criticism is aimed at minor eateries that a certain type of  UES crowd has tended to favor, lackluster  places like Nicola and Swifty's, where the food is never the point and money no object.  It is easy enough to satirize such people--just page through any issue of the New Yorker's cartoons--but I think it's sufficient to say that if that's the kind of food they want to eat and the prices they will pay for a Waldorf salad, let them munch away.  All NYC restaurateurs should be so lucky.
    Still, the clientele at the new Crown on East 81st Street is eyebrow-raising if only for its predictability, a vast number of skinny society matrons and their stylish blond daughters, a passel of blue blazered bankers and their younger, tie-less investment banker sons, and the odd celebrity here and there, all to soak up the cacophony of noise from people whose voices,  as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, "were full of money."  So many seem to know each other, with so many cheek kisses deliberately missing their mark, that you can readily see from the clubby, though curiously dark, brown-and-taupe décor why they feel at home here between Madison and Fifth Avenues in a Beaux Arts townhouse (formerly the Italian restaurant Parioli Romanissimo, then a private supper club) with beautiful New York mouldings and well-set, lamp-lighted tables, along with a new skylight in the rear dining area (right).

    The draw may well be social but the food, under chef-partner John DeLucie must be of the same appeal to his clientele as that of those UES fine dining rooms listed above.  DeLucie had been chef at Graydon Carter's ultra-snooty Waverly Inn, then struck off on his own to open The Lion, a well-reviewed spot in the West Village.  Here at Crown, the menu is not radically different from The Lion's--both serve California caviar and East Coast oysters, squash soup, beef crudo, truffled gnocchi, côte de boeuf for two, and other items.  Except for Crown's more expensive entrees, the prices are pretty close and very high.  The wine list at Crown is far more extensive and is exceedingly top heavy in bottles costing in excess of $150; indeed it's tough to find much at even $70. The average white wine by the glass is $17, a red $22.
    I dined very, very well at Crown, whose cooking is obviously based on first-rate ingredients like the sweet, good-sized Nantucket bay scallops now in season, served with snails, artichokes à la grecque, and a laurel nage.  A wild mushroom salad had various textures to increase the pleasure of the mushrooms themselves--chestnuts, arugula, aged goat's cheese and a sweet onion purée.  We tried two excellent pastas, a bowl of tortellini stuffed with beef shortrib meat in a red wine broth with celery leaf, croutons for crunch, and a touch of thyme.  "Silk handkerchief" pasta (very very thin sheets called in Piedmont mandilli di saêa) were braced with a superb white bolognese sauce enriched with hazelnuts and assertive pecorino cheese.
    For entrees we enjoyed perfectly cooked Pennsylvania rack of lamb of enormous flavor, with rainbow Swiss chard, chanterelles, and an enticing bordelaise spiked with horseradish and ruby Port, the sweet and salty elements all working with the richness of the meat.  There is also a delicious roasted and braised Muscovy duck with shiitakes, pomegranate, walnut, pumpkin, and winter spices, served for two (it would have been nice but perhaps unwieldy in these close quarters to slice it tableside); its breast skin was wonderfully crisp, the braised meat tender and juicy and sweet from absorbing the sauces. French fried potatoes were impeccable.   We shared a light and vanilla-rich panna cotta for dessert, via pastry chef Heather Berntinetti.
    After all this sumptuous New York-style food, all cooked with finesse, it is troubling to report that the service staff needs a thorough run through boot camp.  Owing to Crown being packed, I can forgive a certain lapse of time trying to get a captain or waiter's eye, but, without going into boring detail, the check I was presented with included full portion prices for the pastas we requested as appetizers, which we were assured we could have.  Worse, when I pointed this error out, the waiter insisted it was not an error and he would "talk to the chef"--the last person to be consulted on such an issue. One bumbling captain and one gracious manager later it was sorted out, but I couldn't help thinking that I was one of the rare people in the room who bothered even to look at the check before paying what is a very high tab, where full portions of pasta run $24 and up and entrees $27-$65, with that duck-for-two at a whopping $97.
    The incident curdled what would otherwise have been a splendid evening, although the noise is a factor they should address here, monied voices or not.  DeLucie is clearly a very talented chef who knows his audience, and together with kitchen chefs  Jason Hall and Ted Rozzi, he's proving the UES can be a destination for the most finicky gourmands, even those who never think to venture above 57th Street.

Crown is open for lunch Mon.-Fri., for dinner nightly.




A new study in the journal Addiction reveals exactly how much you can
 safely drink before having ill-conceived, unprotected sex.
An increase
in blood alcohol level of 0.1 mg/mL increases the likelihood of engaging
 in risky sex by 5 percent.  This means approximately four drinks for
women and five for men.


"Earlier Kinch told me, `When the Savoy cabbage is ready, we're prepared to use it, because it's been growing in my head...,' and again he trails of. At first you think he is apprehensive about questions and answers, and then you sense he is not completely present, that he listens and speaks, he physically takes up space, but he is actually somewhere else, in a secret world he explores and from where he files little reports from time to time, as menus."--Charles BowdenGQ.


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

My latest book, which just won the prize for best book from International Gourmand, 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 coffee 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) 
has just won top prize 2011 from the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.  It 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: VISITING PHILLY; THE PLAYBOY SKI GUIDE/

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.

To un-subscribe from this newsletter,click here.

© copyright John Mariani 2012