Virtual Gourmet

  February 3,   2013                                                                                                NEWSLETTER

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Have a Great Super Bowl Sunday Tailgate Picnic!
Photo: Christopher Mariani


                                                                                                        Oh, ATLANTA!
                                                                                                by John Mariani    

El Toro Blanco
by John Mariani


                                    Oh, ATLANTA!
                                                                                                      by John Mariani

        One of the best songs Allison Krauss and Union Station ever did was an ode to Atlanta, in which she croons,

Oh, Atlanta, I hear you calling,
I'm coming back to you one fine day.
No need to worry, there ain't no hurry.
'Cause I'm on my way back to Georgia,
On my way back to Georgia

     Atlantans seem unanimous in their affection for the city that forty years ago began a whole new upsurge of spirit in the South, even if it demurred at prior stereotypes about the region.  Although New Orleans might argue with the notion, Atlanta is perhaps the least Southern of the South's cities, with little of the old timey about it and enough modern edge to get Tom Wolfe to write a satiric novel about it, called A Man in Full. Still, however cosmopolitan Atlanta becomes, there is a pride in its Georgian foods, as evidenced in these new restaurants in town.

914 Howell Mill Road

    A soaring, fabulously convivial spot, with a hip oyster bar shaped like a surf board up front, a first-rate cocktails program, and seafood cooked over a wood fire—what's not to love?  The restaurant’s name, like Citizen Kane’s “Rosebud,” is from Fry’s childhood: it was his dinghy’s name, as well as what every fisherman dreams of--“catch the next big fish.”
    Fry already runs the admirable Southern restaurant JCT.Kitchen & Bar, and he hosts the raucous annual
Attack of the Killer Tomato Food Festival, so everybody just knew his `new place to be next big deal in Atlanta.  But The Optimist is far more than a resounding local success.  It is an overnight totem of all that is absolutely, positively, indisputably wonderful about American food today.
    Start with the grandness of the space—its inspiration taken from a
vintage photo of a seafood plant in Savannah. The big main dining room, with a white wooden ceiling trussed with steel rods and a wall of wine and spirits behind a waxed steel bar counter, seats 180, with booths covered in gold “wetsuit” fabric.  Every table is taken every night by a handsome, casually dressed crowd drinking cocktails with names like White Train, made with Death’s Door Whiskey, and ordering the fabulous frothy she-crab soup with shrimp toast, spicy glazed Spanish octopus with watermelon and coriander, and a exceptionally delicious hearth-roasted red snapper in lime broth with herb salad. Chef de cuisine Adam Evans is keeping everything in line nightly, not letting things get too complicated. Thus, striped bass comes with butter poached crab and sweet corn--what could possibly sound better than that? Sea scallops come with an oxtail marmalade and brown butter chicken jus.  Even side orders are standouts, like his basmati fried rice with smoked fish, curry and crushed peanuts. 
    The winelist is a very sensible size and well chosen for foods with gradations of seasoning and spice, so that many of the reds--grenache, pinot noir, pinotage--go very well with this food along with a slew of fine rieslings sancerre and chardonnay.
        If American seafood gets better than this, it will have to be sometime in the future. Right now, The Optimist is American dining at its best, and that’s why it’s Esquire’s choice for 2012 as the Best New Restaurant of the Year.

Lunch is offered Monday – Friday, Dinner nightly;The Optimist’s dinner menu is broken down into the following components: On Ice $2.50-$11, Start ($7-$12), main courses  $18-$26, and desserts $4-$7.



75 Fifth St NW

    Richard Blais, who runs the immensely popular Flip Burger Boutique, has gone upscale without sacrificing the kind of casual, easy-going American ambiance that has brought equal attention to his new place, The Spence, which, he notes, is a synonym for larder. The restaurant is done up with lacquered white brick, reclaimed wood, tartans and zinc and pine tabletops, with a centrally set open kitchen.  It is one of the Concentrics Restaurant Group that also runs Two Urban Licks, Tap Gastropub, and others around Atlanta.
    There are some downhome items here, but each gets a global twist, like the pile of fried smelts with pickled turmeric.  Pickling is rife here and it adds tremendous flavor to a dish like shrimp tostadas and guajillo salsa.  Gazpacho is made with melon and is cool and sweet.  One of the best dishes is the lobster knuckle sandwich (what do they do the rest of the critter?) with malt vinegar chips fresh out of the fryer, and for $16 you get a generous slab of foie gras with sweet  green peach and toast. Succulent lamb leg has Mediterranean overtures of ricotta gnocchi and honey, while sweetbreads are deep-fried.  One of the most interesting matches is a plate of bone marrow, quivering alongside tuna tartare, with fried quail eggs, and a dish of porcini-infused noodles comes with sliced lamb tongue, egg and truffle.  The only disappointment--at a time when mac and cheese rules American menus--was a bland version of it here, made with headcheese.
    Deserts include a yuzu semifreddo with peach sorbet and chili oil that goes a little too far in heat and a terrific malted barley panna cotta with popped sorghum.
    This is clearly not a menu of clichés and Blais knows how to to build flavors without overpowering the prime ingredient. You'll be surprised by some of the compositions but you'll never scratch your head over their resolution.  This is food that works hard to win you over.
    The Spence's winelist, "curated" by sommelier Justin Amick, is done by titles like "Tried and True" and "Leap of Faith."  The specialty cocktails are a reasonable $9-$10, and there are some unusual beers, like Clown Shoes Clementine and Whales Tale.

The Spence is open for dinner Monday-Thursday 5-10 p.m. and Friday-Saturday 5-11 p.m. For more information visit Prices range from $6-$28. 


InterContinental Hotel Buckhead
3315 Peachtree Road

    I'm not sure Chef Art Smith is punning on his own name at Southern Art, but he is definitely a son of the South, and you can see it from the moment you walk in, with hanging country hams and evocative works by local artists lining the walls. This used to be Au Pied de Cochon, and its high ceilings, bar up front, and oversized space will remind you that this is, after all, a restaurant in a hotel, lacking the intimacy of a smaller room or the excitement of a large one like The Optimist with more cohesion. 
    Nevertheless, Smith and exec chef Anthony Gray are turning out first-rate versions of classic Southern cooking, starting with a lavish charcuterie board of American meats "From the Ham Bar" (left) that are poached, smoked, and dried, served with various mustards and relishes--a platter of these goes a long way at lunch or as an appetizer at dinner for two or more.  The array of hams here include many I've never seen before--from Moneta, VA; Bremen, KY; St. Matthews, SC; and more.
    Combine these with the nonpareil biscuits here and you have a meal that demands a good glass of wine and thought of a good nap for the afternoon. (Odd, then, that th winelist has not a single bottling from the South. Surely there should be at least some Virginia wines here.) But there is so much more that is so good here, starting with fried green tomatoes with Alabama pimiento cheese and a jalapeño pepper jelly--all ingredients sublimated beyond the usual.  Wild shrimp of real meaty sweetness come with Surry sausage, okra, hominy, field peas, and a shrimp scallion broth, which makes up for in taste and texture what it lacks in subtlety. The buttermilk fried chicken here is excellent, served with a yellow squash casserole, garlicky greens beans and lush red pepper gravy--all of it testament to one of the South's great classic dishes. Duck confit, not at all a classic Southern item, is very good, too, served with farro grain, spinach, pickled watermelon rind, and a green peppercorn reduction. 
    You could easily make a meal of the side dishes too--especially the superlative hominy and field pea succotash, and the creamed  corn scented with thyme. Mac & cheese with smoked bacon was a weak third.  Prices work wonders for the budget: a $12 Buckhead Express lunch of soup or salad and today's meat-and-three,
iced tea or soda.  or for $10, soup, half a sandwich, salad,iced tea or soda.
    It would be foolish not to have dessert, with a textbook lesson in red velvet cake--12 layers of it, with cream cheese frosting (right)--or the high and mighty coconut cake.  The caramel chocolate pretzel pie may need some re-thinking.
         This is comfort food and impossible not to lap up with gusto.  With just that tantalizing edge of innovation, such beloved classics seem as modern as menus with global reach.  You can learn a lot about the South at Southern Art.

Southern Art is pen for breakfast and dinner daily, for lunch Mon.-Sat., for brunch Sun. First courses $6-$18, main courses $18-$35.



191 Peachtree Street

    Alma Cucina is an excellent modern Mexican restaurant in an unfortunate location, set within the atrium Peachtree Tower Building, making it enticing enough for lunch but a bit off-putting for dinner.  It's a great looking place, complete with bull's head, a tequila bar, and an atmosphere that guarantees you'll have a good time.  Try to snag one of the booths, which are roomy and convivial all on their own, buoyed by good Latin jazz.
    Executive Chef Clevenger, formerly at Agave Grill and Mel’s Bar & Grill in Denver, with a strong résumé in kitchens in France, has the experience and taste to push Mexican food further than is usual, starting with a huitlacoche empanada with charred tomato, jalapeño, queso Oaxaca, the sweet herb epazote, avocado oil, and ranch salsa--the whole adding up to an explosion of flavors in the mouth, to be enjoyed with one of the many mezcals carried at the bar.  The pork pibil braised in a banana leaf with bacon-flavored corn and lavished with green chile sauce is a far cry from what less ambitious Mexican eateries attempt.  Huaraches form a separate section--crispy corn masa with toppings of braised goat, tomatillo sauce, chile rajas, and cotija cheese, or perhaps a chicken mole Oaxacan style with pickled onions that really perk the dish up, sweet onions, sesame seed for a toasty crunch, and cilantro.
    There are also several taquitos--my favorite stuffed with braised tongue, grilled onion pickled radish, avocado and green chile. The chile-based sauces here have just the right bite to them and you can adjust the heat as you wish. The nicely smoky roasted chicken mole comes with mashed plantains, grilled green beans, and sesame seeds.  The only dish I found somewhat bland was Peruvian-style red snapper with roasted sweet potato, lime, and aji amarillo sauce, but I suspect that was only by comparison with the other, spicier dishes.
    The only dessert you have to think about are the fried, crisp, sugared churros (left) for dipping into a dark, rich and creamy chocolate espresso, salted cajeta, and Meyer lemon sauces--an irresistible finish with coffee, maybe one laced with rum or along with a glass of tawny Port offered here.   
    You will neither leave hungry nor unsatisfied that you have had some of the best Mexican food in Atlanta.

Alma Cucina is open for lunch Mon.-Fri and for dinner nightly.  Dinner appetizers run $6-$9, huaraches $8-$11, main courses $17-$27.

1106 Crescent Avenue NE

    Like Alma Cucina, Lure is owned by the Fifth Group Restaurants Group, Atlanta's most prolific, and they put a lot of conceptual thinking  into décor and menu.  Lure is a seafood concept, and while it hasn't quite the panache of The Optimist, it's been justifiably popular since opening last summer for those who want good quality and very reasonable price. Overseen by Chef David Bradley, a longtime Fifth Group alumnus, the menu is a long one, broken into "Raw, Chilled & Really Fresh," "For You or for Sharing," and "Sizable Servings," but even in this last category nothing runs above $33 (and that's for a non-seafood item, the ribeye). Incidentally, I don't quite understand the menu note "bread and butter upon request." Is this some new trend I hope doesn't catch on?
     Lure is pleasant looking if uninspired in its décor, with a huge anchor outside and inside some maritime paraphernalia hanging from steel beams and ceilings.  The wine and beer list (with many by the glass) is just right, with a good global reach and plenty of bottlings under $50.
    I found most of what I sampled with three other people quite good, from seared scallop crudo (therefore not really "crudo") with snap peas and a bite of horseradish, to grilled octopus and pork lettuce wraps with a pungent Vietnamese sauce.  Broiled Gulf shrimp done scampi style on toast had plenty of flavor, and there's everything to love about good old fish and chips--the batter light and greaseless, the white Acadian redfish delicious and moist, served with good fries drizzled with tangy malt vinegar. Simple but satisfying was pan-fried sole in breadcrumbs with tangy capers, brown butter, and sautéed spinach.  When trout is done well, as it is here, it's a very savory fish, and I liked the idea of its being grilled whole to keep in the juices, served with pickled ramp butter and new potatoes.
This being the South, the kitchen needs a lesson or two in what a true New England clam chowder should taste like.
    Of course, you will want to try the citrus tart with Georgia pecans and whipped cream or the warm apple pie for two with buttermilk ice cream.

Lure is open for lunch Mon.-Fri., for dinner nightly, for brunch on Sun. Starters runs $2.50-$12, other courses $8-$33.


by John Mariani

257 Avenue of the Americas

    To compare El Toro Blanco to Alma Cucina, above, is to understand a little about the difference in real estate in NYC versus Atlanta.  I have no idea what either restaurant pays for rent, but in Atlanta the space itself is a pretty big deal, wide open, well lighted, and good for people watching.  El Toro Blanco, on the other hand, in NYC's Greenwich Village, is cramped, darkened, extremely loud, and with few sightlines around the room.  Prices are higher at El Toro Blanco--$2 to $5 more for most dishes. A "small" order of guacamole at El Toro Blanco was $12, while a generous portion at Alma Cucina was $6. But when it comes to  cocktails:  at Alma Cucina the margaritas made with Herradura Lay of the Land tequila, poire william, and jalapeño is $9; a blend of Herraduro El Centro resposado with Fiednecio mezcal, ginger, chamomile is a dollar more.  But at El Toro Blanco, a margarita made with Herradura añejo and Cointreau cost a whopping $19!   So our party of four spent $72 on one round of drinks at El Toro Blanco, about what they'd cost at one of those vast midtown nightclubs like Tao.  For a dollar more we could have had a margarita at Restaurant Daniel or a bellini at Harry Cipriani uptown.
    The reflex to say, "Hey, that's New York for you!" is to suggest that Atlanta is a cheap city, which it is not, and the food at El Toro Blanco was, by virtue of it being in New York, much better, which it was not.  The simple thought of four of us spending $307 plus a 20 percent tip--with one bottle and two glasses of wine ($60) and no desserts at El Toro Blanco made me think that something is way out of whack.
    Yet the place was packed and people were obviously enjoying themselves at this, one of the current downtown hot spots.  The cooking is good at El Toro Blanco, although not inspired. The guacamole was all right (not made tableside--there's simply no room to do so), and the chorizo queso fundido was tasty enough. The best of the dishes we tried was a luscious short ribs empanada with Oaxacan cheese and ancho chile barbecue. Two orders of cabrito tacos went fast, but in many of the dishes the flavors were much the same, so that we were asking ourselves, "Is that the cabrito?" "Is that the chicken taco?"  Swordfish, not an easy species to get right, was juicy, but shrimp tacos with Cuban slaw, roasted tomatoes and avocado were bland.
    When I left the restaurant, which got louder as the night wore on, I felt a relief from the noise, the cramped tables, uncomfortable seating, and the thought that I'd learned a lesson.

El Toro Blanco is open for lunch Mon.-Fri., dinner nightly; Appetizers $9-$18, main courses $19-$26.



"Rickybobby is a great place for stoners. That's what I was thinking as I sat in the month-old restaurant, surrounded by a kaleidoscope of cartoonish colors and images, half-watching Super Troopers projected on one wall and trying to avoid the glassy stare of a spooky taxidermy calf with two heads. The food seems made for the munchies too — totally filling, but you compulsively eat it anyway because it tastes so good. The remarkable thing about Rickybobby is that it helps you achieve a higher state of being even if your mind isn't chemically altered."--Anna Roth, "Rickybobby: Mind-(and Body)-Expanding Comfort Food," SF Weekly (1/16/13).


In Huntsville, Alabama, a Starbucks employee  thwarted a would-be thief  by offering him a free coffee instead of cash, which the man accepted, then walked to the parking lot where he was immediately arrested.



 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--Now in Paperback, too--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: Switzerland's Appenzell Region; Montreal in Winter.

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).

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 2013