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  August 11, 2013                                                                                                NEWSLETTER

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by John Mariani

Stella 34
by John Mariani

Jefferson Was Right About Virginia Wines
by John Mariani


by John Mariani

Photo by John Mariani (2013)
    Chicago has shown it can go toe to toe with any other American city as a great restaurant town, largely for the diversity of the dining scene, its ethnic neighborhoods, its reasonable prices and a considerable mass of locals who like nothing more than going out to eat and drink with gusto.  That the city has received more huzzahs for its handful of molecular cuisiniers than for its always packed, solidly dependable restaurants says more about the local and national media than it does about Chicagoans' taste for such restaurants.  Last but not least, Chicago restaurants that have already stood the test of time get better, while new ones strive to improve upon what's emerging around the country.  Here are the places I visited on my most recent outing.

The Gage
24 South Michigan Avenue

        In a city of such wide-ranging ethnic culinary talent, there’s no such thing as a “typical” Chicago restaurant, despite its rep as a steakhouse town. But, if you could gather up all the gregarious good will and the level of satisfaction palpable at The Gage, you’d have a good idea.
        Opened in 2007, The Gage looks and feels like it’s been here since the Roaring Twenties, lodged
in a group of three buildings built in 1889 and 1890, with a façade by Chicago master architect Louis Sullivan. The current owners,  the Lawless family, who hail from Galway, lent the place a certain Irish swagger and big-hearted hospitality, practiced over the years at their other Chicago  restaurants and hotels like Gallows Prospect Hill,  The Irish Oak, Taaffe’s Shop Street, Tigh Coilin and The Twelve Pins.
        The Gage is a smart looking bi-level room, with green-tiled pillars, plenty of dark wood, white tablecloths, art deco touches, and, as you’d expect, a great bar and bar scene. It’s as all-out-American as it comes; no one leaves hungry or complains about the moderate prices for this kind of largess.  In among the steaks and chops—and a $17 venison burger with onion, Gouda, fried jalapeño, mushrooms and more—there are unusual items like bison tartare with pear and mustard emulsion; a platter of fabulous sweet sea scallops seared and served with Chinese broccoli; Korean BBQ short ribs, toasted peanuts and kimchi--as hearty as things get here--and poutine, which, if not rigorously Canadian in style, is packed with smoked pork confit, pickled red onions, cheese curds and chips.
        At lunch, too, the menu goes beyond the ordinary, with items like a hot pastrami sandwich on marble rye with Guinness-soaked Swiss, red cabbage slaw and rémoulade, and a New England lobster roll with fried onions and potato chips.
    For dessert, by all means have the strawberry shortcake, but deflect the basil ice cream from it as a topping.

Dinner entrees $11-$42.

123 North Jefferson Street

       Opened in 2008, Sepia has only gotten better under Chef Andrew Zimmerman (below), whose way with Mediterranean flavors gives him wide range to show his innovative cast.  At this point, I’d certainly rank him among the top ten chefs in Chicago for the way he makes every ingredient count, sparkle and express his own personal taste.
      Suavely dressed owner Emmanuel Nony has fashioned the rooms with an abundance of deep, rich colors, with oak wood, brickwork and antique mirrors, mementos from the building's history as a 19th century print shop, with art nouveau touches throughout. The floor-to-ceiling wine display holds more than 800 bottles, many under $75.
    I left myself in Zimmerman’s hands and was richly rewarded with dishes that showed his remarkable finesse. Foie gras took on a sour cherry gelée, the crunch of hazelnuts and buttery brioche toast.  A soft-cooked egg was rendered crispy, oozing over the season’s best morels, asparagus and ramps, while a potato and ramp soup took on a lovely smokiness from morsels of trout.  Adding brandade-stuffed tortellini and mint pesto to delicately flavorful halibut was a fine idea, as was making a pastrami of wagyu-style beef alongside a cut of bavette with a classic bordelaise and onion jam. Tea-soaked prunes and sweet hoisin were an honorable marriage with Berkshire pork, and it was good to see chicken thigh treated to red wine braising, like old-fashioned coq au vin, here served with leeks, truffle jus and pistachios.
    How do you distinguish chocolate mousse these days? Make it from malted chocolate milk, add peanut butter crunch and pretzel bark with a touch of salt. Chocolate date cake was lavished with mascarpone and orange syrup. Damn good ideas.
    The thinking behind all these shows an inventive mind grounded in rigorous technique.  While a handful of Chicago chefs are trying to create bedazzlements based on little but artifice, Zimmerman is showing the way things can and should be done.

Dinner entrees $28-$36.

652 West Randolph Street

        While I’m on the subject of dazzle, a consideration of what Grace is doing leaps to mind.  Curiously enough, I had read an interview in which chef-owner Curtis Duffy said he would not be mimicking the molecular/modernist cuisine of others in town, like Grant Achatz (for whom he once worked) and Homaro Cantu, so I was dumbfounded to find that Duffy’s menu is riddled with such hocus-pocus,  which seem all out of whack with the beautifully serene dining room at Grace, with its muted colors, soft surfaces and lighting, and the glow of a glassed-in kitchen. It’s a supremely comfortable space, which, despite local media insisting it’s a tough table to get, was half empty when I dined there this spring.
        The kitchen is a vast space with six counters, 14 refrigerators and 17 chefs, who work in monastic silence, primping and decorating dishes for minutes at a time after they come from the heat, when they are heated at all.
    I won’t go through the screed of the dozen dishes (12 each on the “Flora” and “Fauna” menus, at $185 plus wines), but when the first thing placed on our table was a literal Br’er Rabbit thicket of twigs hiding mostly sweet morsels of lemon jelly; a gougère with pureed fava beans and sweetened lemon; a single dehydrated tapioca chip with lardo and scallion puree; a Medjool date with ultra-sweet hibiscus syrup; and a green strawberry with red strawberry tart--just the things that do not set up the appetite--I knew I was in for a ride.  Or being taken for one.
    The dishes then mounted in pretension: maitake mushroom and daikon radish with coffee; a frozen beet puree with black garlic; frozen Chartreuse ice cream with oranges and more lemon; smoked banana pudding with pistachio powder, sweet curry and dandelions; and tapioca foam on king crab. Not all these were desserts.
        Six courses in, my friend and I were literally craving food—“Wanna go for pizza after we get out of here?” he asked--satisfied only by the little slice of richly marbled Miyazaki beef with mushrooms, salsify and something called mashua leaf, on the Fauna side of the menu. We fought over it.
        It’s easy to call such food silly, but there is something more disturbing about the idée fixe that a chef will strut his stuff and the guest will have no say and, perhaps, leave hungry after a meal that will cost upwards of $350 with wine.   Grace is firmly part of the Chicago Radical School, whose members have received extravagant praise for how much they can possibly manipulate ingredients—powders, gels, liquid nitrogen, ice creams made from savories, and so on, all presented in teeny portions.  Why does Br'er Rabbit come to mind again?

564 West Randolph Street

        Embeya is Vietnamese for “little one,” an affectionate  childhood nickname for chef Thai Dang (right), who did not strike me as particularly small in stature but did impress me with his enormous talent for showcasing Vietnamese and other Asian cuisines at this glamorous new restaurant in the West Loop.
        High ceilings, tall windows, a gleaming bar, carved teakwood panels and airy ice-like chandeliers give this dining room the cast of one that might well vie with the most sophisticated in Saigon, whatever that may be. Add to the mix the handsome couple of owners  Komal Patel and her bearded husband Attilla Gyulai and you have good reason to drop by for a cocktail and stay for a meal as the place fills up with a well-dressed crowd out to impress their own ilk.
    Gyulai honed his attention to detail at The Four Seasons and learned about Asian fusion cuisine at CityZen in DC.  Tenure at L20 in Chicago gave him an insight into the most modern ideas of seafood cuisine. All of this, along with Patel’s effortless hospitality and Dang’s superb cooking, makes Embeya a striking example of its kind in Chicago, and one worth other chef’s regard in other cities.
    The Vietnamese dishes are the most delicate, influenced by French cuisine, as in the shrimp wrap with shiitake, lettuce and herbs and the rice noodle salad with short rib and lemongrass.  Chinese flavors are evident in the tamarind-coated ribs with toasted garlic and hoisin sauce, while a rabbit leg gets a Thai treatment of chili, marinated peas and radish. Desserts are every bit as tantalizing, like the fried banana with coconut ice cream, caramel, and the addictive  mango and sticky rice pudding.

There’s a 3-course lunch at a mere $21, and prices at dinner are moderate, with main courses $14-$21.

PART TWO of this article will appear shortly.





STELLA 34 Trattoria
Broadway and 35th Street

    The expenditure of $20 million on a restaurant does not guarantee excellence, but it’s a good start.   In the case of Stella 34 Trattoria, you see, feel and taste every penny of it from the moment the doors of the restaurant’s own elevator lets you off on the sixth floor of Macy’s.
    So far several NYC critics have heaped praise on Stella 34 Trattoria: Gael Greene wrote,The truth is, I love most everything I’ve eaten here” and the NY Post called it “The Food Miracle on 34th Street.” Still, all churlishly note that the sixth floor is the bedding and mattress floor, which can be seen when the restaurant’s curtains are parted. There is also a wink-wink that, well, this is Macy’s, not Bergdorf Goodman.  Bergdorf should be so lucky. So should Bloomingdale’s, Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue and every other department store in the city, most of which begrudgingly put in a celebrity chef’s eatery as a convenience. (One exception, Armani Fifth Avenue, though the frequent chef changes there make it frustratingly uneven.)

    Stella 34 Trattoria is a partnership between Macy’s and the Patina Group, which also runs Lincoln Ristorante, Sea Grill, Fonda del Sol, Naples 45 and several other restaurants in NYC, as well as the Patina restaurant in the Frank Gehrey-designed Disney Music Hall in LA and the Renzo Piano-designed Ray’s at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, so they have a pretty good grip on what makes a modern restaurant of style and substance.
    Stella 34 Trttoria is a stunner, an arched dining room with a take-out section called Cibi Ronda up front and a gelateria serving what is considered the best ice cream in Florence, Vivoli. There are also three wood-burning ovens that produce creditable pizzas.  The walls are hung with caricatures by Robert Risko. There is fine marble everywhere, and you look out at the Empire State Building (above), whose spire changes color every night.
    Chef Jonathan Benno of Lincoln is consulting chef here; Jarett Appell, trained by Italian master Gualtiero Marchesi, is executive chef. They have crafted a menu of both traditional and updated Italian regional cuisine that begins with luscious farrotto grain teeming with fresh fava beans, peas, asparagus, and pecorino.
    You can put together a winning selection of antipasti as a lunch or early dinner from items like potatoes scented with rosemary and pecorino; wood-roasted mushrooms; excellent caponata with smoked ricotta salata; baby octopus with escarole, potatoes and a romesco sauce; and polpettine veal meatballs made with sheep’s milk ricotta.
    The pizzas are classic styles, with none of the extravagant toppings so faddish elsewhere.  So you have a choice of a margherita; a diavola with spicy salami; quattro stazioni with tomato, ham, eggplant, artichokes, mushrooms and fontina, and others each night.
    Every pasta I tasted was superb, not least the tube paccheri with braised beef ragù and the plump strozzopreti with cuttlefish (one of Benno’s masterpieces). An Abruzzese spaghetti alla chitarra with simple tomato sauce is a triumph of good taste (left).
    From those wood-burning ovens comes a Berkshire pork chop with a lovely dandelion salad, cherry compote for tang, a smoky bacon-sherry vinaigrette and lush Gorgonzola dolce.  Other main courses are not so complex, like the wonderful pancetta-wrapped halibut with mint and a golden raisin agrodolce.  The scampi here are indeed scampi, not just big shrimp, and they are sweet and delicious, with a green garlic puree and cooked wine.
    By all means order dessert, perhaps a selection of any of the baker’s dozen of those fabulous Vivoli gelati, or the “bongo” cream puffs with macerated cherries, whipped cream and chocolate sauce.
    Swooning is in order at Stella 34, and you will be in the hands of a highly cordial staff that, under general manager Matt Gardiner, doles out equal parts friendliness and professional courtesy to everyone.
    Macy’s and Patina should be very proud of what they’ve produced at Stella 34 Trattoria. It becomes very much a dynamic addition to the Herald Square area, with its pedestrian mall, Macy’s decorated windows, and a sense of NYC’s unique blend of nostalgia and modernism.

Stella 34 is open for lunch Mon.-Sat.; for dinner nightly; offers a $25 lunch and $38 dinner, with dinner à la carte at $6-$10 for antipasti, $17-$22 for full pastas, and $17-$32 for main courses.



by John Mariani

    More than 150 years before California had vineyards, settlers in Jamestown, Virginia, were crushing grapes.
    And by the time Father Junipero Serra brought the Mission grape to San Diego, Thomas Jefferson was planting Monticello with European vinifera.
    For the next century Virginia wineries struggled and then were killed off by Prohibition. It was not until the 1970s, when new wineries planted chardonnay, merlot, and cabernet franc, that people took notice of the state’s viticulture. Since then, Virginia’s wineries have grown from six in 1979 to 230 today. It boasts 15 distinct wine regions, seven approved as American Viticultural Areas, annual production of 475,000 cases and 2010 retail sales of $73 million, according to the most recent data available.
    Wine tourism has become big business, too, with 1.6 million visitors spending $131 million annually. The state has 26 wine trails, many on or near Civil War battlefields. Driven largely by investors from other industries and other states, millions of dollars have been poured into land far less expensive than Napa or Sonoma Valley.
    Not all have succeeded. In 1999 Patricia Kluge and her husband, Bill Moses, invested $10 million to build a 100-acre Charlottesville winery. A messy divorce was followed by bankruptcy, allowing Donald Trump to scoop up the entire 1,300-acre Kluge estate last year, re-naming it Trump Winery.

    Over the past decade I’ve been impressed with the progress of Virginia’s wines, especially its Bordeaux-style reds. A tasting of several showed me that they have gone from promising, one-dimensional wines to well-made, more complex varietals with standout fruit flavors.
The most impressive was a Stinson Vineyards Meritage 2011 ($35), made in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a Bordeaux blend at just 13.4 percent alcohol, aged 14 months. It had everything I look for in a red wine: a  balance of pronounced fruit, softened tannins, and enough acid to give it spark. That's their tasting room at the right.
    Pollak Vineyards of Monticello, founded in 2003 by Margaret and David Pollak, wine pioneers in California’s Carneros region, produces a range of white and red wines. I tasted their cabernet franc 2009 Reserve ($40), aged in French oak for ten months. It had an amazing amount of bright cassis flavors and soft tannins characteristic of a varietal that is wonderful to drink with chicken or pork. The 2011 vintage is $22.
    So, too, I was delighted with the velvety texture of Lovingston Winery's 2009 Estate Reserve 
Josie’s Knoll ($25), with 85 percent merlot, 10 percent cabernet franc and 5 percent petit verdot to buoy the body of the wine. There is complexity from start to finish, and this is very well priced.
    King Family Vineyards Meritage 2010 ($28) shows a sweeter profile, the merlot up front, the alcohol hitting 14.5 percent, which blunted finesse. RdV Vineyards Lost Mountain 2010 Bordeaux blend was even hotter, dense and unappealing. And at $88 upon release this fall, it is aiming for those who like huge red wines with high alcohol, at 14.7 percent. The winery’s Rendezvous 2010 ($75), even higher at 14.9 percent, was grapey, without an acid component to tame it.
    I was much happier with a $50 bottle of Sunset Hills Vineyard Mosaic Red Wine 2010, with 14 percent alcohol. The winery aims to make big reds that will age 15 years, but I found the 2010 quite appealing. Sourced from three vineyards in Loudon County, the Bordeaux blend, with only 186 cases made, may hint at what Virginia terroir can do for a Bordeaux blend of varietals, with a sunnier profile.
    Philip Carter Winery takes pride in its tenure of the land for three centuries. The 2010 Cleve is a 50:50 blend of petit verdot and tannat, aged in French and American oak, and “designed for longevity,” a decision that makes this very cherry-fruited, big-bodied red highly tannic at this point. It will be at least two years before this really shows any maturity.
    Petit verdot all on its own is behind Cooper Vineyards (above) Reserve 2010 ($30), with 13.8 percent alcohol. The grape shows its warm fruitiness without being cloying, and the wine is very smooth from start to finish, which makes it a good match for lamb and Mediterranean dishes like couscous and tagines.
    Jefferson, who considered wine “the only antidote to the bane of whiskey,” must be smiling under the soil of Monticello.

This article first appeared in  Bloomberg News.


NOW, NOW. . .

"A variation on Mr. Boulud’s classic roasted sea bass with syrah sauce came with radicchio so bitter I wanted to slap it."--Pete Wells, "Daniel," NY Times. 

By using stem cells from cows, scientists from the Netherlands
created the first laboratory-made hamburger. 
See video:


 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:

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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