Virtual Gourmet

  April 29, 20012                                                                                                NEWSLETTER

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On Monday, May 21, John Mariani will be appear as part of  a Celebrity Author Wine Dinner Series at Davio's Philadelphia (left), 111 South 17th Street, to talk about his book How Italian Food Conquered the World.
 The wine dinner series will feature wine pairings presented by Davio’s Sommelier Kevin McCann and will feature a menu by Executive Chef David Boyle. Each guest will leave with a signed copy of the author’s book as part of the $85.00 per person (tax and gratuity not included). Call 215-563-4810.



Taiwan, The Beautiful Island
by John Mariani

North End Grill
by John Mariani


Taiwan, The Beautiful Island
by John Mariani

Taipei 101 Building

    The Portuguese called it Formosa, "beautiful island," and, despite its very new Chinese name, Taiwan, one can easily see why visitors from Europe regarded its rippling coastline on the Pacific and its 200 mountains--its highest, Yushan or Jade Mountain the inspiration for the island's artists--as a place at once removed from their own civilization yet buoyed by a history that dates back 20,000 years to a time when Taiwan was connected to the mainland, a symbiosis that continues to preoccupy Chinese on both sides of the straits.
    Occupied in 1895 by the Japanese after the First Sino-Japanese War until after their defeat in World War II,  Taiwan was claimed by both Communist forces led by Mao Tse Tung and Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-Shek (below, with his wife,Soong May), who in 1949 evacuated two million people to Formosa, where they founded the Republic of China.  Tensions between the two territories have flared and sputtered for decades, and Taiwan's own harsh suppression of suspected Communists decimated much of the island's intellectual community. Not until the 1980s, when Chiang's successor, Chiang Ching Quo took over, was there a liberalization that eventually led to democracy. Then, in 2007, with all ties to the Mainland severed, Taiwan became the island's official name, with Mandarin its official language. 
    There seems nothing like pent-up democracy to send Asian countries' economies soaring, and this has certainly been the case in the capital of  Taipei, a very modern city, with broad boulevards, good transportation system, and a well-educated populace. Industry is booming, advanced tech and computer sciences flourish, and, as the 19th largest economy in the world, Taiwan is one of the Four Asian Tigers. As a result, foreign investment by luxury companies has poured in, so that the new Taipei 101 building (above)  is anchored by several floors of the most expensive European designer shops in Asia, along with a stunning food court in the lower floor selling everything from French chocolates to 50 different kinds of Western breads and scores of wines and cheese--things new and much wanted by the Taiwanese, who apparently have a good deal of money to spend and a strong middle class of a kind still lacking in Mainland China and Russia.
    There is not a single spot in Taiwan that escapes your view of 101, which dominates a cityscape of much lower buildings. (For six years, from 2004 to 2010, it was the world's tallest, at 1,671 feet.) Its design is done not only according to the principles of feng shui but is also certified platinum, the highest award, from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design; it is also designed to withstand typhoons and hurricanes and earthquakes. Its design is also in line with ancient Chinese symbolism--the number 101 commemorates the new century and the traditional number of perfection. Its ruyi figures throughout the design, evoking heavenly clouds, connotes protection.
    The city's proudest cultural monument is the beautiful National Palace Museum (left), housing more than 677,000 pieces of art and artifacts, not least an extraordinary collection of calligraphic scrolls stored within exquisitely crafted wooden boxes. The holdings date back 8,000 years up through the Qing Dynasty, reflecting the sumptuous history of China's emperors. Like everything else on Taiwan, the collections are hotly disputed by Mainland China as to which country actually owns it all. A Ming Dynasty vase in shown at right.
    Also on a monumental, if monomaniacal scale, is the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, (below, left) entered through a huge white Gate of Great Centrality and Perfect Uprightness  and flanked by the National Theater and National Concert Hall. Completed in 1980, the colors red, blue and white evoke those of Taiwan's flag, and its octagonal shape the lucky number eight. After climbing the steps in front of the Hall, you go through immense, tall doors and find yourself in sight of the huge bronze statue of the general himself, who died in 1975. (Mao Tse Tung had bigger and many more statues of himself, but this is a pretty impressive statement on Chiang Kai-Shek's importance to the country.)
    Being that this is a memorial, not a museum, there is actually very little to see inside, which is where events and official ceremonies take place.  But walk around its perimeter and you'll see Taipei stretch out in every direction.
    After dark Taipei throbs with the kind of frenetic Asian energy you would expect in Tokyo's Ginza, and the Taiwanese love nothing better than to eat out, many strolling through the Night Market at Ningxia Road, a long stretch--like the rest of Taipei, impeccably clean--where scores of food vendors sell everything from noodles and barbecue to what is tellingly named "stinky tofu," a delicacy I could bring myself to taste since I could not get within ten yards of the bad odor that gives this fermented item its name. But visiting the Night Market is requisite for any visitor interested in the panoply of Chinese cuisine.  (I will be reporting on Taiwan's restaurants in an upcoming issue of this newsletter.) There is also an indoor Nammen Market that is even more extensive, with shop after shop selling fresh fish and meats, dozens of exotic vegetables, and stands mounted with nothing but buns or noodles. Again, all is extremely clean and sanitary, virtues the Taiwanese not only hold dear but are intensely committed to, in contrast to the problems of those conditions in food markets and restaurants often encountered in Mainland cities. It's worth noting that ever since the Sars virus outbreak in 2004 on Taiwan, the country has been scrupulous in its environmental oversight and inspection of food and restaurants.
    Outside of town is the Tea Promotion Center, set in the bucolic hillsides. (Public transportation is available.)  Not being a tea fancier, I still found the visit instructive and its terraced tea plantings lovely.  Inside I saw a video and exhibitions of the various kinds of tea that makes Taiwan a global center for fine examples of a brew central to Asian culture. Our group was also treated to a tasting of the various teas grown and aged at the Center.
    Given my own tastes, I was happier visiting the amazing King Car Whiskey Distillery (below), established in 206, a huge, grandly designed testament to the fact that good whiskies are now made on the island.  I was very happy tasting their Kavalan Single Malt Whisky--they make five different kinds--at their expansive bar and tasting room within the distillery, well worth a visit.
    Taipei has any number of modern hotels, many with those international names that appeal to foreign visitors, including Shangri-La, Sheraton, Westin, Holiday Inn  and others.  One of the most famous independent hotels is the 427-room Grand (below), set majestically at the top of a hill surrounded by trees and parks and dating back to 1952, when Chiang Kai-Shek needed a five-star hotel to attract foreign ambassadors--U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have all stayed here.  His wife, Soong May, took on a good deal of the responsibility for the project, setting ii on the ruins of a former Shinto shrine. She expanded its size and imperial décor many times over the next five decades, interrupted by a devastating fire in 1995, and the place has enough Chinese dragons motifs to earn it the nickname Dragon Palace.  I did not have a chance to stay at the hotel and was told by some that it's in need of modern refurbishment. But when I return to Taiwan, it would certainly be fascinating to spend a night in this famous and historic and very reasonably priced hotel. Rooms may be booked for as low as US$99 a night, up through the $4,800 Presidential Suite.
    Where I did stay was a great contrast in design and style to the Grand.  The Sheraton Taipei is completely modern, obviously popular with business travelers and conventions, with a splendid, wide lobby (left), a vast dining area with the most impressive breakfast buffet I've ever seen, stretching from American and European dishes and pastries to abundant Chinese dishes.  The rooms are wholly comfortable and well serviced by a staff, beginning at the front desk, that could not possibly be more amenable to any request, always in good English. An added benefit is the array of banks of computers in the lobby, all available to use free of charge.
    There are several restaurants in premises, but the only one I tried--the most casual and definitely the most popular with locals--was the pizzeria in the basement floor. It's an affable enough spot, but I can't say much for the taste of the pizzas, about which the Taiwanese have a lot to learn.
    The current rate for a Premium Room is about US$270 per night, with breakfast.

    I visited Taiwan in the winter, but there it was more spring-like, and excursions out of town showed its landscape to be green and fertile, with miles and miles of rice paddies, towering mountains and forests, and a coastline that, as you head south, becomes wonderfully escapist and secluded.  And then, there is the terrific food. More on that at another time.



by John Mariani

104 North End Avenue (near Murray Street)
Interiors photos by Melissa Hom

    It is one of the wonders of American gastronomy that only a very, very few names cause people to anticipate the opening of a restaurant with intense, positive curiosity rather than with a blogger's to demolish whatever serious, experienced restaurateurs try to do. Foremost in this minuscule group would be Danny Meyer, whose canny sense of location, civilized taste, and St. Louis-bred affability have provided him some protection from the vapors spewed by the blogosphere.  (Also, since he owns Blue Smoke and the Shake Shack chain, he's considered cool.)
     The opening of a new Danny Meyer restaurant, then, is an event, dating back to his post-Union Square Café days when he brought a refreshingly cordial hospitality to NYC service, backed up with delicious food and décor.   Attentive and committed to his  guests' total enjoyment of their dining experience, Meyer has always been guided by an old-fashioned idea that people go to restaurants to be swooned, enchanted and made happy--this, in contrast to a contemporary restaurant culture in which the chef/owner sees absolutely no reason to provide creature comforts to his guest. (For a stinging description of the latter, see NY Times critic Pete Wells's jeremiad on the subject.)
    And so we come to North End Grill, way downtown in Battery Park, just shy of the under-construction tower of the new World Trade Center.  It's a neighborhood that has always been pretty much a ghost town after six pm, with only a handful of fine dining restaurants--the great exception being Sho Shaun Hergott, further east.  Down amidst those windy corridors a few bars draw a customer base that comes for an anti-depressant round of martinis before catching the town car back to Scarsdale.  But Meyer must know something, and, although it's too early to tell, North End Grill has been packed most nights since opening in January. When our party got there on a warm Tuesday evening, nearly every table was already taken, though by 9 o'clock, most people had left and few were coming in for another turn.
    This is Meyer's first new restaurant (aside from his Shake Shack chain) since his two-year-old Roman trattoria Maialino and his year-old café Untitled in the Whitney Museum of Art.  Last year he sold Eleven Madison Park to chef Daniel Humm and closed the twelve-year-old Tabla, where chef Floyd Cardoz (left) had crafted a modern Indian-based cuisine.  Cardoz is now chef at North End Grill, and while you can still sense his delicate way with Asian seasonings, his menu is more heartily contemporary American. 
    You enter and are greeted, as always at a Meyer enterprise, by an attractive, well-dressed host or hostess or manager Kevin Richer and shown to the main dining room, past a wall of Scotch bottles (above) at the bar, an open kitchen and pastry station overseen by Alexandra Ray, formerly at Meyer's Gramercy Tavern. The dining room (below) is smart, with fine black-and-white photography by Mariana Cook, distressed wooden walls stained gray, a window on the street, and a dark ceiling punctuated with dripping lightbulbs hung from big lampshades that put me in mind of a 1960s set for "Mad Men."
    Beverage Director Jason Hopple oversees both the excellent, rationally priced wine list as well as a drinks program of Cardoz's signature cocktails.
    The sensibly sized menu is troublesome only because you'll be intrigued by just about everything on it and may find it impossible to choose among appetizers like grilled bacon with crispy fried oysters and apples, or charcoal grilled artichokes with spring onions and crunchy peanuts. Our table of four opted for perfectly grilled and tender octopus with a light lentil salad and the salty-tangy addition of Taggiasche olives.  How many times do you run into cod throats on a menu these days? They are terrific, as soft as you'd expect, here done in a buttery meunière style.  A special that night was lamb's liver, and very tasty it was. The only oddity on the menu seemed to be a grilled clam pizza,  whose clams were clumsily fat atop the thin, flat crust; they seemed a bit trendy here.
    Cardoz has said that he believes eggs are underutilized at dinner, and goes on to prove his point convincingly with a quintet of amazingly good examples, starting with a rich lobster omelet. Perfectly soft-scrambled eggs come with bacon, ramps, and grilled bread, as delicious after 7 pm as they would be after 7 am. Also consider the crisp, decadently rich Scotch egg--one is all you need--with chorizo and a watercress soup, almost as a dainty foil for a British luncheon.
    Excellent wild Norwegian steelhead salmon went well with chewy quinoa, a carrot puree, cashews and a balsamic glaze, and Vermont baby lamb showed Cardoz's Indian roots with the addition of apricots, chickpeas and preserved lemon, although baby lamb tastes even better when it is well-done rather than medium.  Ashley Farms Poulet Rouge was of excellent quality, succulent and flavorful, but I suspect a brine gave it a too-salty edge. Of the sides, chargrilled ramps and a dish of Brussels sprouts and lentils were delightful, if unnecessary for the way Cardoz generously plates his food.
    Alexandra Ray's pastries are outstanding, not in the least extravagant, just wholesome goodness, most of all her sticky toffee pudding with ginger ice cream, and a homey pot de creme of butterscotch with chocolate streusel and marshmallow.  Also delicious were her simple lemon meringue pie with candied almonds, and a welcome rhubarb-mascarpone napoleon with pistachio brittle.
    The more I go to restaurants where the decibel level is abusive, the seating cramped, the Techno music horrid, and the waitstaff merely delivery boys for food, the more restaurants like North End Grill are needed to get us through this period of ego-driven, guest-unfriendly eat shops. On the "Charlie Rose" show, Meyer said he was trying to find the soul of the neighborhood way downtown.   If anyone's going to do it, it will be Danny Meyer, and North End Grill we be around long after the current hot spot in Williamsburg or the Lower East Side boards up its windows.

North End Grill is open for lunch Mon.-Fri., for dinner nightly, and brunch on Sat. & Sun. Appetizers run  $13 to $18; main courses, $19 to $41.



“Wonderland. Alice’s adventure began with a tumble down the rabbit hole. Your dining adventure at The Catbird Seat begins decidedly smoother, but with similar intrigue. . . . Crumbles of country ham give smoky salt and crunch. Each bite is a revelation, as the scallops melt and slip effortlessly down your throat. . . . In Habiger’s next course, it is not the pressed duck, an exquisite plank of breast and leg, nor the airy and unctuous duck liver mousse filling ruffled Brussels sprouts leaves like cups, but the pool of quince puree that elevates the dish to sublime. Exotic, both sweet and tart, citric and floral, the fruit of the ancients brings seductive complexity. . . . That petite Oreo sandwich cookie reappears. . . . It’s sweet closure, as you make your way back through the silvery-hot pink tunnel to the elevator, out the side door, back into the night. Exuberant. A bit dizzy. And buoyed with thoughts of returning to Catbird’s dreamlike perch.”—Nancy Vienneau, “Dinner is a grand adventure at the Catbird Seat,” The Tennessean.


The Brandling Villa in South Gosforth, Newcastle, is now offering a pet-friendly menu that includes a special beer designed for dogs and a Sunday roast covered in "cat-flavoured gravy."

[NB: No dogs were injured taking this photo.]



 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:

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 2012