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  June 2,  2013                                                                                                NEWSLETTER

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Bette Davis (circa 1935)



                                     by Brian A. Freedman                                  
by John Mariani

In a Pinch, Pinot Blancs Are Perfect Matches
by John Mariani


                                                                                   by Brian A. Freedman

Plaza Independence, Montevideo

    As more travelers continue to take advantage of all that South America has to offer, Uruguay stands poised to become a major destination alongside Argentina, Chile and Brazil. It’s not quite there yet--though it will be, I think--in terms of sheer numbers and reputation among Americans. However, that is a very good thing: There is a real sense of discovery to visiting this breathtaking country on the east coast of the continent, and therein lies much of its charm.

    Getting to Uruguay can be a long flight from the east coast--I flew from Philadelphia to Miami and then on through the night to Montevideo, the capital--but no more difficult than getting to Buenos Aires. And because the country lacks the physical expanse of neighboring Argentina or Brazil, it’s easy to use Montevideo as a base of operations and take day trips to the key wine regions without spending much more than three hours in the car, and it will often be far less than that.
    Accommodations run the gamut, of course, and can easily be tailored to fit your budget. My experiences here were universally positive. We stayed at the MySuites wine hotel in Montevideo, nestled on a pleasant tree-lined street a quick walk from the water. The approach to the city from the airport reminded me of the view of downtown Tel Aviv from Jaffa, the coastline arcing towards the city’s expanse in the distance. I also spent a night at the splendid Four Seasons Resort Carmelo (left), a magnificently luxurious property with all the amenities and perks you would expect from the brand, including, in this case, warm bungalows and bi-level suites. It was recently purchased by the team behind nearby Bodega y Granja Narbona, and its proximity to their own property, complete with swimming pool, fabulous on-site restaurant, and world-class hospitality, not to mention easy access to the Rio de la Plata, make both true South American destinations.
    If you so stay at Narbona, make sure to take advantage of that excellent restaurant on-site, which is built into a structure that used to house a general store and that still retains the feel of those origins--brick walls, the woods dripping with character, the casually sophisticated ambiance. This is exactly, it seems, the sort of place that embodies all that is so remarkable and exciting about Uruguay right now. And the food, with its ever changing menu, is worth the trip. Homemade pastas are remarkable, as are the cheeses that are crafted then aged on-site. Make sure to enjoy breakfast there the following morning, too: The dulce de leche and pastries are among the best I’ve had.
    Punta del Este (right), often referred to as the Riviera of South America, is everything it’s renowned to be: a lovely, transfixing beach area with all the energy and appeal of its French counterpart. And Parador La Huella, famously one of the top beach restaurants in the world and located in nearby José Ignacio, is the kind if place I’d like to return to annually. Right on the water, with casual yet professional service and perfectly turned out and fire-kissed seafood and beef, it has earned its reputation and then some. My recommendation is to start off with a plateful of sliced, smoky-sweet entraña--the texture is similar to flank steak, with a phenomenal chew--and move on to a whole fire-cooked fish, whatever the fresh option of the day is. Pair it with a side of smashed-and-grilled potatoes, some olive oil, and a few bottles of wine, and you’ll be as close  to paradise as you’ve been in a while.
    The meat culture in Uruguay is not terribly dissimilar from that of Argentina--spectacular beef, all smoky and grilled over carefully managed flames, is a staple here--but the Uruguayans will tell you that their beef is of higher quality than their neighbor’s. Personally, I’ll reserve judgement here--no sense getting involved in an international debate--except to say that the ample grazing land and strict laws governing the raising of cattle in Uruguay result in beef of impressive depth, minerality, and outright deliciousness. There is also excellent seafood, as well as pork and vegetables worth exploring, too.
    Virtually everywhere we ate, in fact, there was some new version of local salumi on the menu, or a different cut of beef than we’d encountered before. At Restaurante Garcia (left) in Montevideo, the sausages and organ meats were especially noteworthy, particularly the morcilla. The Casa Chic Hotel, in Punta Gorda, is a breathtaking property with an excellent restaurant on-site that offers carefully composed dishes and distractingly beautiful views of the Rio de la Plata.
    Whatever you do, make sure to save room at least once for one of the great sandwiches of the world: The chivito, a majestic layering of beef, cheese, pickles, mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, and any of a range of other accouterments, sandwiched between halves of addictively cakey bread and perfectly accompanied by a beer. As a native Philadelphian, I don’t say the following lightly, but here it goes: in the pantheon of meat-and-cheese sandwiches, the chivito (right) beats the Philly cheesesteak, hands-down. Let the hate-mail begin.
    And as far as ease of getting around, speaking Spanish certainly helps, but it’s not strictly necessary. Throughout our time in the country--I was there with two highly regarded wine writers--I was struck by the sincere friendliness of the Uruguayans. Whether at a restaurant with local winemakers or on our own trying to figure out the buses in Montevideo, there was not a single interaction during which we were treated as anything but warmly welcome guests. That alone is worth the flight to experience.
    Really, the entire country is. I’d recommend getting there sooner rather than later, before the secret gets out. Uruguay is perhaps the Next Big Thing in South American travel. And deservedly so: It’s a country that is easy to fall in love with, as I have no doubt a whole new generation of travelers will be doing. I know I did.

For a report on Uruguay's wines, click here.


by John Mariani

MORTON'Sthe steakhouse
551 Fifth Avenue (Entrance on 45th Street)

      It is a perfectly reasonable question to ask why anyone coming to NYC would want to go to a steakhouse chain headquartered in another city, and it's one I addressed a few months ago in an article on the NYC branch of the Dallas-based Del Frisco's Grille, writing,  "It's kind of like going to Neiman Marcus rather than  Bergdorf Goodman.   But the fact is, with a very few exceptions, NYC's own steakhouses have themselves branched out across the country, even abroad. . . . Therefore, those `out-of-town' steaks house chains have proliferated based on consistency, each with a different style, like Ruth's Chris sizzling filet mignon and Shula's football memorabilia, which appeals to regulars, even when visiting New York."
    It is also obvious, when I visited the NYC Morton's (soon to be another in the new World Trade Center), you will be seeing a large number of New Yorkers from the area,  just west of Grand Central Terminal, who may well prefer Morton's to more indigenous steakhouses to the east, and, on the basis of a recent visit, I can heartily endorse the food at Morton's, one of 69 locations around the world.  Their beef is unquestionably of high quality--USDA Prime--and the service staff showed a lot more courtesy in their demeanor than you'd find at Palm, Spark's, or Luger's.  Call it a more Midwestern hospitality, if you will, for Morton's started out in Chicago back in 1978, when
Arnie Morton and Klaus Fritsch opened on North State Street. That original Morton's was a rather clubbish place, but there is a far more egalitarian spirit at work in the branches, as in NYC, led by g-m Michael Rains.
    They have done a re-design here--the restaurant opened in 1993--which I'm told is a model for others in the chain, involving painting black what was once mahogany wood, and I don't really see that as an improvement on the conviviality of the dining room.  But the lighting is good, the white tablecloths reflect light, the noise level is civilized, the kitchen is semi-open, and the tables well separated from one another.  The wine list, overseen by sommeliers
Novel Gonzales and Sawan Thakkar, is more than 200 labels strong, and there are some excellent prestigious bottlings on there that are not overpriced by steakhouse standards. The wine room is a fine, romantic spot for a more intimate dinner.
    Since many new items have been added to Morton's current menu, I asked Exec Chef Elias Iglesias to guide me to them. Among those we tried was an ahi tuna tower of wonderfully clear-flavored, herbed tuna in a cylinder with avocado and tortilla chips, the plate laced with a spicy mayo. There was warm  prosciutto-wrapped mozzarella  and a platter of various seafood, including jumbo shrimp, pearly sweet broiled sea scallops, and a jumbo lump crab cake.  The latter was indeed chock full of  lump crabmeat, though I found  too much filler in the bargain than I'd like. A refreshing Bibb lettuce salad was requisite with a meal that would soon become carnivorous quickly.
    By the way, it was not Morton's idea to put calorie counts next to every dish on the menu. They are forced to by NYC mandate for any restaurant that is a chain. It's ridiculous, of course.  Who ever ordered a 22-ounce ribeye and cared about the calories?
    Thank heavens Morton's has stopped their silly presentation of its raw meats and seafood under plastic wrap shown off at your table. I always thought that was so bush league, so I'm glad to say they don't do it in NYC.
    The filet mignon, not usually my favorite cut, exceeded my expectations both in its size and its texture, with good beefy flavor and fat.  A New York strip was perfectly charred on the outside and medium-rare within, and a bone-in veal chop was succulent and as finely textured as any in  the city. The stand-out dish among the new items, though, was a five-peppercorn strip steak, richly encrusted with assertive crushed pepper spices then seared and grilled so that those elements are really absorbed into the exterior, so you get a fine crunch and a good shot of pepper without it being burned or masking the taste of the beef.  It's a first-rate dish.
    As accompaniments, the fat, crisp, stacked onion rings made a good showing, as did thick grilled asparagus, now in full season, and creamed spinach. The Parmesan-truffle matchsticks didn't taste much of truffles but the whole batch went fast at our table, as fried potatoes tend to.
    Morton's goes a bit beyond the usual steakhouse desserts with a creditable crème brûlée, hefty Key lime pie, its "legendary" hot chocolate cake (quite a portion, as are all the desserts here), and another "legendary" sweet, its huge chocolate sundae, which is catnip to me.  Disappointing was an upside-down apple pie whose pastry and filling didn't meld as it should. A soufflé for two, ordered in advance,  had a festiveness to it.
    So, if you are not tied to going to one of the rare, uniquely New York steakhouses like Porter House, Spark's or Luger's (or the original Palm on Second Avenue, but none of the others), Morton's will give you great beef, consistency, and a degree of hospitality it's not always easy to find in the rough-and-tumble steakhouse biz.

Open for lunch Mon.-Fri., dinner nightly. Appetizers run $12-$21, entrees $28-$61.




In a Pinch, Pinot Blancs Are Perfect Matches
by John Mariani


    They are the color of gold but not at all rare; they are inexpensive yet hard to find on a wine list. Yet they are among the most versatile white wines, not least with dishes that contain a good dose of spice.
    I’m speaking about pinot blanc, once a prolific grape in France’s Burgundy region but now displaced by chardonnay.  It is widely planted in Alsace, where it is sometimes called klevner, in northern Italy, where it is called pinot bianco; in Germany, called weissburgunder; in the Czech Republic, rulandské bilé, and in California, a bottle labeled pinot blanc may actually be another varietal called muscat melon.
    Pinot blanc is such a workhorse grape (left) that it’s difficult to get handle on just what it’s supposed to taste like. In Austria and Alsace, the soils contribute to distinctive spiciness and aromatic qualities that make it as easy to drink as a faintly sweet aperitif as with a wide variety of foods.  It doesn’t have the acidic bite of riesling or the pungent herbaceousness of gewürtztraminer; instead, it achieves a middle ground whereby the wine never overpowers food but buoys up many savory flavors, not least those in Asian dishes.
    Last week in London, I drank pinot blanc at almost every meal, finding it as refreshing with dishes like wild bream and crab as it was with smoked salmon, and with just about all cheeses, from cheddar to Gorgonzola.
    I was most charmed by pinot blanc’s vivacity with the refined Indian seafood food at the restaurant Quilon (right), including curry leaf and lentil crusted fish with ginger and coconut chutney, and a prawn with ground pink peppercorn and byadgi chili. That’s a lot of spices, some hot, each with its own aromas. Yet the combination of citrus fruit, mineral, oak, and spice flavors in a 2009 Haberle Alois Lageder ($20 retail) from Alto Adige, Italy, mingled beautifully with the exotic spices of the meal.
    So, too, at a new hotspot named Social Eating House in Soho, sommelier Boris Poliakov served me a luscious, pear-like, highly aromatic Alsatian pinot blanc from Jean-Marie Haag 2011 ($20), with a modest 12.5 percent alcohol, to go with a salt cod fishcake with lemon butter and chive cream, and a dish of Colchester crab with a roasted tomato vinaigrette, ending with a very sweet honey-almond sponge cake with goat’s curd ice cream and orange, which the wine still had the body to complement.
    At chef Heston Blumenthal’s superb restaurant named Dinner, I ordered another Alsatian beauty from one of the best-known estates in the region—Domaine Zind Humbrecht 2009 ($30), which was a beautiful match with a chicken liver and foie gras parfait; spiced duck breast with a smoked confit of fennel; and brown bread ice cream with salted butter caramel, pear, and malted yeast syrup. Now, that is a difficult array of flavors for any wine to cope with, but the pinot blanc was more than a good companion for it all. With 13.5 percent alcohol it had the power of a good Burgundian chardonnay.
    Even within Alsace, pinot blancs show many different flavor components, and, at lunch at the Brasserie at Ellenborough Park (below) in the Cotswolds, a Paul and Philippe Zinck 2011 ($12) showed a great deal of fruit and very little acid, with a real softness on the palate and a touch of sweetness that went very well with a wild mushroom and vegetable risotto.
    The puzzling thing was that all of these restaurants listed but a single pinot blanc on their wine lists; neither will you find scads of them at wine shops. But when I got home I sampled a couple of others I found without difficulty.
    Domaine Pfister 2009 ($27) was very tangy and delightfully herbal, with a flowery bouquet, and a pretty sweetness, with 12 percent alcohol making it very easy to drink.  By contrast, Domaine Mittnacht Frères Terre d’Étoiles 2011 ($19) was of another style: spicy with a gingery spark and a nose close to a gewürtztraminer.  It was a subdued wine without much punch, but, with chicken burgers on a bun with ketchup, red peppers, and baked beans, I couldn’t have been happier sitting outside for my first early summer’s meal.
    Pinot blanc is that kind of appealing and amenable wine, offering surprises from estate to estate. And if it’s not a wine to go with a porterhouse steak, for most everything else, it will serve.
Wine photos courtesy of ConseilVinsAlsace.

This article first appeared in  Bloomberg News.



The U.N.’s  Food and Agriculture Organization released a report encouraging the consumption of insects, citing that 2 billion people worldwide already supplement their diets with insects high in protein and minerals, and have environmental benefits. The agency noted that its Edible Insect Program is also examining the potential of arachnids, such as spiders and scorpions, although they are not strictly speaking insects.


Butcher William von Schneidau of Seattle’s Pike Place Market feeds pigs the "useless" stems, root bulbs, and "over sized" marijuana leaf by-products form a local medical dispensary, telling NPR, it results in "redder and more savory meat." 


 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: 10 BEST BBQ JOINTS   

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