Virtual Gourmet

  February 24,   2013                                                                                                NEWSLETTER

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Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica, CA (2012), photo by John Mariani



    by John Mariani

by John Mariani

Notes from the Wine Cellar
Bordeaux Bargains
by John Mariani



    by John Mariani

Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (1958)

    Okay, so the 49ers lost the Superbowl on a really bad call. San Franciscans can always drown their sorrows at any of a thousand good restaurants and watering holes, and you and I don't need a good reason other than to seek out what's new and exciting in dining in the Bay City.

State Bird Provisions

1529 Fillmore Street


             First, the weird name:
As owners Stuart Brioza (below) and his wife and pastry chef Nicole Krasinski, formerly at Rubicon, tell it, their place is proudly named after California’s state bird. . . the mighty. . . quail!, which shows up fried in a buttermilk-and-cayenne batter, with a sweet-and-sour jam, one of dozens of items that constitute a wholly new, global approach to dim sum-style eating.

    Although they apparently had a designer, the couple seems to have spared every expense in the décor, which is basically a big brown wall of pegboard on concrete. No matter. The place is friendly, full of vitality--and loud!--and everyone sits and waits to see what the next rolling dim sum cart will carry.  It is very hard to go very wrong with anything from those carts. Dishes change all the time here, and there will always be surprises, always beautifully plated.  You’ll just have to go with your friends, spot a cart and hope they come by soon before they run out of what looks so good.
Unlike at San Francisco’s Chinatown, where they just wheel past you and toss the plates on your table, amiable waiters at State Bird describe everything and you may feel free to pass up what doesn't appeal to you, which, I guarantee, will not be much--especially since most items run $5-$8. Burrata mozzarella tops garlic bread; pancakes form a little section all their own; pork ribs are glazed with togarishi chilies; and chocolate pudding is enriched with sesame crisps. This is out of the ordinary food, served with dispatch and a good-natured approach to eating out casually but very well.

The restaurant is open for dinner only, Mon.-Sat.


1085 Mission Street

      AQ is magnificent  and engaging proof of several things about contemporary dining in America: First, location isn’t everything, since this stretch of the Mission is none too snazzy; second, by using the more sensible ideas of molecular cuisine, Modernism, and locavorism, a great chef like Mark Liberman can turn out tantalizing, ever-changing ideas without the conceit of serving only 15 people per night; and third, a big, gregarious, well-lighted, comfortable room—whose décor changes every season—will always be more exciting than a minimalist cell where, as the pretentious, droning cliché goes, “the excitement is all on our plates.”  At AQ the excitement is all over the place.
    AQ is located smack in a section of the Mission District that has forever been promised gentrification, but it's going achingly slow. In fact, when I arrived early for my reservation, I told the hostess I'd just take a 15-minute walk and she winced. "OK, but be careful."  I thereupon restricted my stroll one block this way and one block that, accosted twice by panhandlers. So. . . take a taxi.
    AQ stands for “As Quoted,” once used on old menus to
describe seasonal or market specialties that drove the cooking of the day.  When I dined there in summer, radiant presentations were buoyed by both delicate and bold flavors in dishes like wild salmon with corn, lime, romano beans, and roasted lobster juices; a surprisingly hearty stew of green tomatoes, onions, okra, French lentils and yogurt; and meltingly tender honeycomb tripe with plums, charred lemon, and wild ginger.  The soft gnocchi (left) with cherry tomatoes, broccoli di rabe, curds and whey is a simple delight.
    Desserts are quite beautiful and luscious, based on the season, which is the long legacy of Chez Panisse.
So, the peaches with lemon, verbena, brioche and frozen yogurt will burst with essential flavors, while the parfait of raspberries with a little soy milk, coconut and aloe, shows off those berries at their best.
    The wine list has about 225 selections and most are under $100, with plenty to choose from way below that figure.
    Every one of the food combinations is dazzlingly new, yet each makes perfect gustatory sense in flavor and texture, of a kind that will  cause another chef to ask himself, “Why the hell didn’t I think of that?”

Prices range from $10-$32 for plates.

524 Van Ness Avenue

        The wide-open area around San Francisco's City Opera and Symphony has needed an equally expansive, gregarious Asian restaurant like 03, where Executive Chef Joseph Villanueva, previously at Le Colonial, is doing sophisticated food without any pretense, and the restaurant is built for a bar crowd pre- and after-theater, when there are smaller menu options available.

    The restaurant's name came about when the  partners, who already owning two Ozone Thai restaurants in town, wanted to change the style of their next restaurant but keep a signature link. Then they noticed that O3 is the molecular formula for ozone, so the name seemed a natural.

    The main dining area (right) seats 45, with 35 more in the lounge, all within a space with huge windows on the plaza, and a striking design of black, silver, grey and purple, with wood accents, fabric-covered banquettes, chandeliers and recessed lighting, a polished concrete floor, and a large print of a Buddha’s head.

    The prices are right here, and you are encouraged to share dishes, which I did quite extensively on my visit, noshing my way through a miso Caesar salad with gem lettuce, chicharrones,  and toasted seaweed. Impeccable freshness marked the subtle flavors of hamachi sashimi with cilantro vinaigrette, Asian pear, pickled jalepeño, avocado, and crispy shallots.  At the other end of the spectrum was a very rich, luxuriant piece of pork belly with quail egg, hosui pear, caramel,  and a splash of truffle oil, while a step away from Asia involved braised oxtail tacos filled with tomato, cabbage, jicama, and miso aïoli (left). Everyone will love the pork-shrimp spring rolls with garlic, cilantro, and green onion, and even if you (like me) don't care for Brussels sprouts, try those at O3, with chili sauce,  and you may be amazed. One of the best among a fine array was the plate of lobster garlic noodles in butter, green onion, soy sauce, and sprinkled with bacon dust. That's easy enough to love.

    For dessert go for the Thai tea bread pudding with white chocolate, almonds, sesame, feuilletine tea crunch, and vanilla ice cream, or the chocolate Vietnamese coffee and chocolate cake, with coffee-chocolate mousse, coffee butter cream, condensed milk, and coffee cocoa crumbs.

   The wine list is nothing to rave about, with only about three dozen labels.

    I’m sure O3 is wonderful before rushing off to the opera, but I’d prefer to come by at 8 PM, sit down with friends and take my time, exiting just about the time the opera-goers pile in for a late night supper.


03 is open for lunch Mon.-Fri. and for and dinner nightly. Appetizers and small plates run $8-$11, entrees $14-$27).

Mandarin Oriental Hotel
222 Sansome Street

    The Mandarin Oriental Hotels have always put a great deal of emphasis on their restaurants and cuisine, and I've had several excellent meals at their San Francisco hotel over the years, all in the Asian fusion mode. Last year, however, they shifted to a more global approach, re-locating the restaurant downstairs and bringing in highly experienced chef Adam Mali, formerly at Nick's Cove in Tomales Bay.  It is now called a brasserie, which is a catch-all term these days, but the proof of Mali's talent for a wide range of food styles is evident from breakfast through lunch and dinner here.

    The dining room itself is pleasant enough, situated as it is just off the lobby, with good sight lines, soft colorings, milled woodwork, and leather banquettes. Service is impeccably friendly and helpful, not least with the superlative wine list. 

    When I dined at Brasserie S&P, I just asked Mail to send out whatever he liked, and that meant starting off with a duck liver pâté on grilled levan bread, making me forget, briefly, about California's imbecilic ban on duck foe gras.  Potato latkes, crisp and hot, came with duck confit and the delightful addition of sweet plums, while grilled and steamed pork buns with kimchee and coriander had some good bite to them.  Poke sushi (left) was made from Albacore tuna with a macadamia nut, sesame oil and chilies, while clam chowder was perked up with bacon and thyme.  

    One of the too-rarely-seen classics of San Francisco gastronomy is Dungeness crab Louis. Here it is a splendid rendering with radishes, avocado, and butter lettuce.  Of the main courses I tried I was particularly impressed with the duck breast, cracked peas, and lemon marmalata--a fine combination of pure flavors--while the roasted Moro Bay white bass with snap peas, mustard greens, cherry tomatoes, and preserved lemon vinaigrette summed up everything wonderful about California's bounty of fine ingredients.

    You may choose among several artisanal cheeses, but don't miss the strawberry rhubarb crisp if they have it or the cinnamon-rosemary beignets (right), hot and lavished with Meyer lemon crème anglaise. Sample the olive oil polenta cake too, with macerated cherries and pistachio brittle, a good combination of tastes and textures.

    Mali gratefully lists all his suppliers next to each dish, which may be a tad precious at this point, but you will know that he has ferreted out the very best available, and that underpins all the fine flavors he brings to the civilized table here.

The restaurant is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. At lunch and dinner appetizers run $5-$18, main courses $17-$31.


by John Mariani


142 West 19th Street

    No NYC restaurant so far this year has made me happier than Louro. It is such an engaging place, fitted snugly into Greenwich Village in a spot that used to be Bar Blanc; it's not too loud, and the staff is complete with very amiable people from the moment you arrive till you pay for a check that will be a square deal for a fine meal.
    You can readily tell when the food a chef cooks is really what he is most proud of. 
Chef-owner David Santos (below) is a very gregarious guy and he’ll come out of the kitchen to chat with you with great ebullience about what he’s trying to do at Louro. A year or two ago, after stints at Hotel Grifou and Five and Diamond, he was serving theme dinners in his apartment but now he’s able to show everyone everything he's got, and it is impressive.

         The room itself, long and fairly narrow is cozy, with a décor that does not exactly call attention to itself.  Lighting is just low and warm enough not to require a flashlight to read the menu by.

         Right from the get-go the food raised eyebrows of collective pleasure at our table, beginning with “Bites” of duck rillette on toast flavored with fennel. It was good, honest, comforting on a cold night. Duck pâté with black truffles and pickled red onion worked the same charms.   Piri piri shrimp were pick-me-ups, spiced to set the palate roaring.

         Then there are “Small Plates,” like lustrous hamachi with purple carrots and tempura tops, scented with minty bergamot.  His uni is mildly flavored, set atop crispy pork belly with yuzu, shiso, and togarashi pickled cabbage.

    Santos is Portuguese-American but does some culinary globe trotting on the menu. His heart is in cooking up deeply flavored foods of all kinds with a common thread—the mark of all good chefs—in his case, a robust approach to everything, with never subtle but never overpowering seasonings.

         You taste it in his mushroom with sea buckhorn (not an ingredient you see too often), the crunch of hazelnuts and buttery puff pastry.  You savor it in gnocchi romana with a generous dose of truffle cream, cipollini, and crispy onions—four ingredients in perfect, gusty equilibrium.  The Malayan rice in lobster risotto was a little overcooked but its bouillabaisse foam was a lovely addition to lighten it all up. 

    Among the “Large Plates” I enjoyed was monkfish with rice, parsley, and a Portuguese tomato sauce,  Duck with red and white quinoa, sweet plantain, cilantro and black bean jus was a fine idea. And American snapper in a Thai ginger broth was lackluster, however.

         After food of this heft, it’s nice to have  sweetly poached pears with brown butter crumble, though pine needle ice cream goes a bit astray.  Much more lovable on all counts is the lemon cake with lemon confit and an olive oil sorbet.

    One of the best ways t appreciate Santos’ talent is to go for the chef’s tasting menu of five courses at a very reasonable $65. The wine list is well selected to go with this food and there are plenty of good bottlings, and some admirable unfamiliar ones, under $50.

    If I lived in Greenwich Village, Louro would be among my five favorite standbys when I wanted to eat very well as well as taste dishes that I won't find anywhere else.  Santos is cooking at the top of his form, and, given the packed house on the night I visited, a whole lot of people know it.

Open Tues.-Sun. for dinner; Bites and Small Plates run $16, Large plates $22-$29.


by John Mariani

Bordeaux Drops Its Prices and Shows Off Its Terroir

     The most illustrious names in Bordeaux—the First Growths like Lafite, Mouton, Margaux, and others—show no signs of drop-off in sales, despite prices that rise into the hundreds of dollars per bottle.  But not far below the First Growths, even among the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Growths, wineries in Bordeaux have had a tough time selling their product at a time when the global market is so flooded with cheaper quality wines from so many other countries.
         What’s worse, even the French have cut back drinking their own wine. According to a demographic report by AgriMer released last November at the Vinitech wine and spirits trade show in Bordeaux, the annual per capita wine consumption in France has dropped from 160 liters in 1965 to 46.6 liters as of 2010. The percentage of French
who drink wine “almost every day” fell from 51% in 1980 to 17% in 2010. Today, 24% said they drink wine with dinner – less than half the percentage 32 years ago.
         Yet for years Bordeaux regional estate-bottled wines, cru bourgeois and bordeaux supérieur were selling at prices wine drinkers worldwide balked at for wines with no reputation. For the last decade it was easy—and onerous—enough to pay $50 and more for Bordeaux wines of no particular distinction.
         In the last year or two, however, the Bordelais have smartened up and begun selling and shipping wines that show their terroir well and are priced to move. These are, of course, the wines the French themselves drink on an everyday basis, with First, Second and Third Growths saved for special occasions or collecting.
         “The range of Bordeaux emphasizing their terroir is definitely becoming
far more approachable price wise,” says Lelanea Fulton, wine director of one of New York’s hottest new restaurants, Bill’s, where she carries about 350 international labels. “I’m finding that the winemakers for some of the most prestigious châteaux have branched off to make their own small estate wines, like Château Cherubin, which is owned by Bertrand Bourdil, and his daughters Carole and Marie-Line. He used to be the winemaker at Mouton-Rothschild.”
    I found an exceptional array of Bordeaux for well under $30, some below $20. These were not bland red commune wines or generic Bordeaux like Mouton Cadet, the mass market wine made by Château Mouton. These are distinctive blends and have the true taste of Bordeaux, restrained fruit when young, solid tannins, and plenty of minerals that provide layers of flavor and texture. And, even though they may improve with a little age, they are ready to drink right now. Here are some that enchanted me.

    Château Lavagnac 2010 ($10)—This one was an amazement at this price. A blend of 75% merlot, 20% cabernet sauvignon and 5% cabernet franc, it is velvety smooth and lush on the palate, a perfect wine for French appetizers like terrines and pates. Its appellation is merely “Bordeaux” but it shows its terroir, north of St. Emilion, with dignity.

    Château Penin Grande Sélection Merlot 2009 ($13)—A Bordeaux Supérieur from Graves, this 100 percent merlot has the gravelly taste characteristic of the region’s terroir as well as a remarkable fruit component that makes it very good to go with grilled meats.
 Château Haut-Mondain Grande Reserve 2010 ($15)—If you’ve never tasted Bordeaux and wish to know its character, this happily priced example, which won a silver medal at the 2011 Los Angeles Wine & Spirits Competition, will provide all you need to know how soil rich with clay, gravel, and limestone minerality can impart flavor and spice. The blend has equal parts smoothness and tannic grip, with 69% merlot, 30% cabernet sauvignon and 10% cabernet franc.
Château Lamothe-Vincent Intense 2011—This simple, good wine lives up to its name, with bold fruit and powerful but supple tannins that make even this young vintage impressive. I’d keep it around for another year two, but, priced as low as $11, it’s worth buying a case and sampling it every six months or so.

Château Bellevue Bordeaux Supérieur 2010 ($15)—I was surprised this young bottle had some sediment, but this is a big Bordeaux, made by the family of Vicomte Bruno de Ponton d’Amécourt from vineyards that date back to the Hundred Years’ War. There’s some malbec in with the dominant merlot and cabernet sauvignon, with plenty of structure and depth. It would be just as good with firm cheeses like cheddar as it would prime rib.






"I already hated the Ten Room at the once-grand Café Royal.  Along one side is a wall of square marble posts, backed by glass. The wall looks like a design feature from a self-consciously modernist men's loo. Frankly I didn't know whether to rest upon it or pee against it. By the end I was sorely tempted. . . Music thumps. It continues its muffled thump throughout dinner so that sitting at the table back in the dining area you feel like you're listening to a disco full of young people exchanging rare strains of chlamydia."--Jay Rayner, "The Ten Room at the Café Royal," The Observer.


In York, PA, the deceased David Kime funeral procession first stopped at his favorite Burger King, which prepared 40 burgers to go for the mourners. One last burger was also placed on top of the coffin before burial. His daughter said it was not intended as a joke but instead a happy way of honoring her father and the things that brought him joy.



 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 won top prize 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: BIKING IN BERMUDA.

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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