Virtual Gourmet

  March 3,  2013                                                                                                NEWSLETTER

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"Bread Basket" (1926) by Salvador Dali

ANNOUNCEMENT: There will be no edition of Mariani's Virtual Gourmet on March 11, because Mariani will be in Tucson, Arizona, eating tamales, enchiladas, burritos, tostones, tacos, tortillas, and churros, all on one plate.


                                                        BEEFING UP IN MENDOZA
                                                                                            by John Mariani 

S Prime
by John Mariani

by John Mariani


                                    BEEFING UP IN MENDOZA
                                                                                            by John Mariani  

Polo Beneath the Andes Mountains


              Argentina, I was not entirely surprised to learn, is the fifth largest country in the world,
and looking at it on the map, stretching way down to Patagonia and the very tip of South America, there's no reason to doubt it. If they could only get those pesky Falkland Islands back from the Brits, it would be even bigger.  I've seen very little of it, but now I've seen Mendoza, whose existence these days owes much of its prosperity to the wine trade and vineyards that surround it.  I will be reporting on the wines I drank with such pleasure there in a few weeks, but for now let me concentrate on the city and its gastronomy, which is, as it is everywhere in Argentina, based on beef, beef, and more beef.  Americans may say "A day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine" but the Argentinians say, "A day without beef is unthinkable!"
    One thing must be said about Argentine beef, which, like European beef,  is all grass fed and not aged.  Nothing wrong with that unless you have eaten in the best U.S. steakhouses that obtain corn-fed beef that is dry aged (increasingly rare to find).  So, the Argentine variety is never going to have that deep, fat-riddled quality that the best in the U.S. has.  But Argentina's best is very very good indeed, chewy but good. But first, a little about the city.
    The city was settled in 1461 by Spain's Pedro del Castillo, and, despite  the devastating earthquake of 1861, was rebuilt better and stronger, so that today it is a city of broad avenues, all of them edged with irrigation ditches--the city's mantra is "Mind the Ditches!"--that make it inhabitable for its population of 112,000, owing to its location in the high desert.  Today, with wine and olive oil its principal industries, it brings in tourists who enjoy visiting  the wineries, one of which, Bodegas Escorihuela, is located right in town, with a fine restaurant named 1884 (see below).

    Many beautiful parks throughout Mendoza also make the city very appealing for both visitors and locals, and you can rent a bicycle at Bikes and Wine, then tour the parks for the whole day.  The largest and most splendid is Parque General San Martin (above), named after the hero of Argentine independence (you'll find his name on everything in the city, from streets to buildings); it is 1,200 acres--larger than NYC's Central Park--designed by Carlos Thays and opened in 1896.

    It is also a city of eight plazas that open up the center and allow for casual strolls and ice cream on a hot day. The most popular is the Plaza Independencia, and Plaza Italia (left) is dedicated to Italian immigrants who came to Argentina in huge numbers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. There's even a statue of Rome's founders,  Romulus and Remus.

    Compared with Buenos Aires, which I shall report on soon, Mendoza is not a great shopping city, though it is very pleasant to walk down the broad Boulevard Sarmiento, free from cars and lined with boutiques and restaurantes and cafés of every stripe. Be aware, however, that the Mendozans keep to the tradition of the siesta, closing shops at 1 PM, having lunch at home then taking a rest, re-opening  at 5 PM, which leads them to a very late dinner hour.

    At the end of the street, just across the park, is the Park Hyatt Mendoza (right), considered the city's best hotel, which has every modern amenity, not least wi-fi access (not always easy to find in Mendoza) and a highly helpful business center.  There is also a small casino on premises.
  Bistro M here offers an extensive buffet breakfast in the morning, and I had a fine plate of gnocchi for lunch.  Grill Q (below) is a beautiful, sunny spot to introduce you to the Argentine parilla, which features--as you might guess-an array of cuts of beef and other meats, done in front of you on the grill and sliced to your request, accompanied by a wide array of vegetables, and an outstanding wine list of 4500 regional labels.
    Within blocks of the hotel are two well-regarded restaurants, one named Francesco Barbera that is set up for delightful al fresco dining.  The chef here is 86-year-old woman named Maria Teresa, as spry as ever she's been in the 60 years she has been cooking. I found the menu quite traditional Italian, except for the Argentine empanadas, and of course there is beef in several versions. We went at 8 PM and the place was dead; when we left at 11, it was packed.
    In the other direction from Francesco Barbera lies the best restaurante in a far more modern style, called Azafrán, opened in 2001 in a space that used to be a delicatessen.  Here Chef-manager Pablo Ranea (below, far left) is doing what he calls "New Argentinean Cuisine," which means taking the traditions of the country's gastronomy and playfully updating it and presenting it in stunning new ways.  The restaurant also has within its space a wine room where you can pick out and purchase bottlings from  a stellar array. I allowed Ranea to choose my meal and was impressed by what came from the kitchen, beginning with crispy olives stuffed with goat's cheese that popped in the mouth. Warm Camembert was served with
fresh peach and shallot-studded vinaigrette, then came a trio of empanadas (below)--sweetbreads with mushrooms, onion, and blood sausage with parmesan. My appetite had not yet flagged, so next up was shell pasta with smoked eggplant purée, mushrooms au gratin, truffle oil, and parmesan cheese. Of course there was beef--a six-ounce tenderloin  with blue cheese, spinach and mushrooms in crisp filo dough, with a sweet potato puree, shallot and roasted red bell pepper sauce. For dessert were a cream cheese pie with raspberries, Malbec and fresh grapes, and  dulce de leche (a ubiquitous caramel spread Argentinians are addicted to) crème brûlée with rice pudding and biscotti. Well-chosen wines were poured throughout the meal, which is one of the best I've had in South America.  If you had time for only one meal in Mendoza, Azafrán is the place to go.
    We had another outdoor meal at 1884 Restaurante (below), the one within the winery, in the Godoy Cruz neighborhood. Here master chef Francis Mallmann prepares his famous seven-hour grilled lamb, cooked in a mold.  The restaurant, built in the Spanish style,  was opened in 1996 by Dr. Nicolas Catena Zapata, head of one of the country's most extensive wine holdings, and it draws from the best agricultural products it is possible to produce or buy. The menu, changes every two weeks.
    On a winery visit well outside of the city, I stopped for lunch at a very popular pulperia, a term for an old-fashioned bar where caballeros would stop to refresh their horses and themselves.  Today La Juntada is a darling, rustic restaurant where the meats are cooked outside (below)--beef, lamb, goat--and brought sizzling to the rough-hewn tables, along with salads and empanadas.  One particularly savory empanada contained scallion, onion and bacon, and there was a tasting of regional products like cheese, salami, olives and marinades of turkey and hen. 
    The goat ribs were succulent to the bone, and then came the even more delicious piglet with mahogany-colored crisp skin and silky, fatted meat underneath.  Desserts included pears--then in season and bursting with flavor--soaked in Malbec wine.
    Prior to visiting La Juntada, we had been in a high altitude vineyard owned by the Alamos winery, which was kind enough to bring us delectable little fried tortas made right there in the vineyard, along with a national obsession, a tea-like drink called mate (right) which has a ritual about it as rigorous as high tea in London.  You place a couple of teaspoons and sugar into a little wooden cup, pour boiling water down the side, let it steep then drink it through an ornate, decorated silver straw.  To me it was a fairly bitter taste not acquired on the spot, but no one should visit Mendoza without taking a crack at mate.


by John Mariani

35-15 36th Street
Long Island City, NY

And while we're on the subject of beef,
none I ate in Argentina can compare with that served at the six-month-old S Prime in Queens, which I've been predicting will be the next borough the food media suddenly finds has wonderful restaurants.  Of course, it always has, from the Flushing Mall, with its much-praised Hai Di Lao noodle shop to Venezuelan place called the Arepas Café.  S Prime is a much bigger deal, set on two levels, near the Moving Image Museum. 
    The interior is done in dark wood, with dark recesses and bare wooden tables polished to a sheen, but the large bar area up front has a fine conviviality (though I found they were out of or did not carry some standard liquors). There are also private party rooms for 12 to 200 people, and the restaurant is closed Sundays and Mondays for those parties alone. (The owners, S Hospitality Group, also run Studio Square Beer Garden and the adjacent event spaces.)
    Executive Chef Joel Reiss (left), a Queens native and alum of first-rate NYC steakhouses like The Post House and Smith & Wollensky, is as serious about his ingredients as any chef I've ever met. Everything is prepared on premises, including the dry aging of Prime beef for 25, 35, and up to 60 days, which is a ribeye that has justifiably become S Prime's signature item (above). The careful control gives the meat an earthiness that will remind those who remember what beef used to taste like 25 years in NYC steakhouses, with a fine, mottled texture, true charring, and intensity of flavor.
    The menu has a classic steakhouse cast, but among all those dishes on comes to crave in such a place, just about every one at S Prime stands out from a very competitive crowd.  Only a handful of steakhouses in America show the consistency in every dish that this one does, and you can tell it takes a whole lot of work to achieve.
    You might start off with a bouquet of shellfish on ice, but not, thankfully,  too cold. The crab cakes are fat and full of lump meat, graced with a lemon aïoli.  Bone marrow is lavished on brioche toast (made here, of course) with "ugly" ripe tomatoes and onion mustard vinaigrette. Foie gras--a good slice of it--is accompanied by apple-quince puree with a verjus and grapefruit reduction that shows you Reiss is going a step ahead of his competition. White water mussels are steamed open in white wine and garlic, and the tartares--there are three, beef, spicy tuna, salmon with yogurt and "everything" bagel chip, and they can all be had on one generous plate. The pork belly is a sizzling slab of bacon-like meat.
    In a steakhouse, one of the ways to judge it across the board is how they do lobster, and the big three-pounder I ordered was superb, the claws chockful of meat. From the meat locker you can order any of those steaks above or go with a spicy Cajun ribeye or Colorado rack of lamb.  One dish that is impressive as much for its size as its taste is the Veal Chop "Parmanese," an awkward name for a massive, pounded veal chop with mozzarella and tomato.  We all took a piece of it and I still brought some home.  If you're in the mood for seafood, have the buttery scallops with white bean and bacon ragout.
    The sides (called "good" and "bad," monikers they should get rid of on the menu) include superlative creamed spinach, sweet tiny Brussels sprouts, irresistible Parmesan-herbed French fries, and garlic-laced mashed potatoes.
    Most steakhouses stick to a small group of desserts that are too often brought in from outside, but Reiss conceives of and makes all of S Prime's, from the classic NY cheesecake to one of the best Key lime pies with raspberry sauce I've ever had--the Key lime juice makes an enormous difference.
    S Prime is an indicator, in the quickly gentrifying section of Queens called Long Island City, can compete handily with anything in Brooklyn, including the revered Peter Luger's, where the porterhouse are nonpareil and everything else is inconsequential, including service and wine list. S Prime's wine list is excellent, as are the breads, the potatoes, the pies, and most distinctly the service staff.  And it's a helluva lot easier to get to than to get to most places in Brooklyn, unless you live in that borough.

Open Tues.-Sat. from 4 PM.; Appetizers and Sides, $8 - $19; Main Courses, $25-$53. 



by John Mariani

    Every wine lover knows the famous James Thurber cartoon in The New Yorker of a wine snob saying to his dinner guests,“It’s a naïve domestic burgundy, but I think you’ll be amused by its presumption.” Or the parody of wine talk in Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” when two drunken heroes, Charles and Sebastian (below),  describe various bottlings as “a little, shy wine like a gazelle. . . . Like a leprechaun. . . . Dappled, in a tapestry meadow” and “like the last unicorn.”
          As the business of wine has become more serious, thereby demanding more serious observations, the verbiage of less elegant writers on wine is today more along the lines of what sounds like a chemical breakdown: “Bret in the nose, incomplete malolactic fermentation, a slight taste of graphite, a scent of botrytis, and enough vanillin to suggest overuse of new French barriques.”
If you love wine but haven't the foggiest notion of what any of that means, you are probably not a true wine geek if you are less interested in the science of viniculture than what a wine actually tastes like. Of course, anyone can simply make up blather to describe the taste of wine as “cinnamon, Meyer lemon, papaya, Monte Cristo No. 2 with Dominican wrapping, cat’s pee, and a hint of Sicilian blood orange.”  But there are a few Winespeak terms you might want to become familiar with for the next time a wine snob tries to lord it over you.

Legs—Also, “wine tears.” The ring of wine near the top of the glass whose liquid creates tear-like droplets caused by a high alcohol content. Or, more colloquially, those same droplets caused by a thick, sweet wine. 

Grip—A vague term suggesting that a sip of wine lingers on the palate rather than just slip away. 

botrytis cinerea (right)—A fungus on grapeskins that rots the grapes but concentrates the sugars and acids to make a very sweet but balanced wine like French Sauternes or German trockenbeerenlause. In grateful homage to this fungus, it is called the “Noble Rot.” 

brettanomyces—Or, simply, “bret.” A chemical term for an unwanted  yeast whose volatile compounds can cause wines to have a barnyard or wet blanket smell. Bret can live on many surfaces within a winery and is treated with sulfur dioxide. 

Brix—A scale used to determine the must weight or sugar content in grapes, determined by the numbers of sugar grams or per 100 grams of water or as the percentage of content. The number can provide winemakers of what the eventual alcohol may be in the finished wine. One degree Brix equals 18 grams per liter of sugar. 

malolactic fermentation—After a wine goes through its initial fermentation, a second malolactic fermentation converts malic acid into lactic acid via the Lactobacillus bacteria, releasing carbon dioxide, which helps round out young wines. If the second fermentation occurs in the bottle, the wine can taste fizzy and taste unpleasant.

Phylloxera (left)—A tiny aphid that can devastate vineyards by attacking grape vine roots. From the 1860s on, the bug killed off 6.2 million acres of vineyards in France alone, and was believed to come from the U.S. on other imported plants.  Europe’s wine industry was only saved after graftings of resistant American vines were made in the vineyards. An infestation also hit California vineyards in the 1980s. 

biodynamic wines—When the term refers to wines made according to techniques that emphasize the healthiest, organic vineyard practices with no use of chemical fertilizers, it is a process focused on the soil.  The term becomes controversial when some winemakers factor in the effects of the moon cycle wherein plantings, spraying, and organic fertilization is done according to the signs of zodiac. 

chaptalization—The addition of sugar to wine must intending to boost the alcohol level, named after French agronomist Jean-Antoine Chaptal, who published his findings in 1799. In some wine regions the practice is forbidden, but it is widely used in vineyards, including Burgundy, where the sun may not create enough sugar in the grapes.



In Gijón, Spain, an assistant chef at the  cider house El Lavaderu
was arrested for 14 counts of poisoning his coworkers by allegedly
 introducing calcium cyanamide into the employees' staff
meals for over a year.


On NYC Bice restaurant is serving a
$2,000 dish of tagliolini
with lobster and black truffles, served on a gold-leaf platter
designed by late  Gianni Versace.



 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: Tour d'Afrique; Park City.

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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