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Marilyn Monroe in "The Prince and the Showgirl" (1957)



In the Hills of the Cotswolds
by John Mariani

by John Mariani


                    In the Hills of the Cotswolds
                                                                            by John Mariani

Ellenborough Park

    Worldwide devotees of the TV series “Downton Abbey” might well wonder if anything quite like that grandeur of man and nature still abides in England and if the great houses are still in good enough shape to visit.  Indeed, their rarity makes the allure of actually staying at one a reverie of nostalgia and class. But in the Cotswolds region, which takes in the counties of Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, the opportunity to stay at one of those grand estates is a mere few hours from London’s Paddington Station (90 minutes by train).
    You arrive in Cheltenham, and a five minutes’ drive takes you to the glorious Ellenborough Park, whose most modern amenities and excellent restaurants co-exist within an atmosphere of long British history, most readily felt in the estate’s Great Hall (right), decorated by designer Nina Campbell. Having tea, cocktails or nightcaps in this splendid room can certainly make you feel like a Downton Abbey heir, with its Minstrels Gallery and an intimate room for tending to business or penning a letter on signature stationary.
    The 60 bedrooms are very spacious, blissfully quiet, and a blend of British country style and modern comfort, with large bathrooms and sofas you can sink into while reading British Vogue.  There is, of course, a very up-to-date spa and lovely outdoor pool. One touch every guests passes through and smiles at is the outfitting room (below), where you can rent riding boots and gear. Nice touch.
    The attention to a guest’s comfort is paramount among the young staff that ministers to you during your stay, overseen by omnipresent  general manager John Hanna.
    The dining options at Ellenborough are the casual Brasserie, with a simple menu of British and global foods, and the Beaufort Dining Room. I had lunch in the former restaurant, a rustic, stone-walled room with a fireplace, bentwood captain’s chairs and a menu that properly begins with a chicken liver pâté with Melba toast, then pan-fried rump steak with hand-cut chips (French fries), along with Lock Fynbe smoked salmon; and Cotswolds sausage with baked potato mash and onion confit jus.
    The more formal, but not in the least stuffy, Beaufort Dining Room (below), is where you will feel cosseted in the best, old-fashioned way of British manners. And while Welsh-born Chef David Kelman revels in British tradition and the finest ingredients available, he has a sense of creativity that shows a delicate balance of the classic and the new.
    When I was there, basking in an ambiance of ancient wood paneling, with stained Oriel windows and Tudor fireplaces, the tables set with thick linens, specially made bone china, fine stem- and silverware, I perused the well-priced wine list and cast a glad eye towards a cheese cart brimming with English and Irish offerings you don’t often find much anymore. The fixed price menus are amazingly modest in price--two courses £45 per person, three  £55, four £65.  In London, for this degree of posh, service and cuisine, you’d have to add ₤50 at least.
    My table of three began with spring asparagus with a soft-poached pheasant’s egg, fresh peas and a gossamer-light fennel hollandaise dressing. Wild black bream and South Coast crab came with wild asparagus, creamy crab mayonnaise and baby spinach—a generous appetizer—and pan-fried scallops came with the deft addition of carrot and golden raisin salsa, coriander shoots and carrot crisp.
    The main courses included a roast breast of local Creedy Carver duck with a tangy sweet, bitter side of orange-braised chicory, potatoes scented with thyme, morel mushrooms and an assertive raspberry vinegar jus. A delicate hand in the kitchen rendered a pan-fried filet of bass to perfect succulence, with baby spinach, parsley root puree, white asparagus that was just then coming into season, and a creamed shellfish tartlet.  This sounds like an awfully heavy dish, but instead it had a finesse that satisfied without sating the appetite. Distinctively hefty, though, was a spiced loin of slow-roasted belly of Old Spot pork with a fricassée of peas and broad beans, apple relish and sage jus.
    Then came the cheese! Wheeled over ceremoniously and presented with Dickensian flourish, there were more than a dozen of them in peak condition, with wonderful names like Isle of Mull Cheddar, Wyfe of Bath Kersey, and Gorwydd Caerphilly. I pounced.
    But I did leave room for a dessert or two, including a fig sorbet and vanilla baked Alaska—a silly old 19th century favorite that was here enlivened with Mandarine Napoleon brandy. A tot of Port afterwards in the Great Hall, a stroll in the moonlight, breathing the fresh Cotswold air, and sleep came quickly that night.   
    The next morning I was up and out for some clay pigeon shooting—not an avocation of mine, but one that seemed right for the weekend. Donning tweeds and cavalry twill for the occasion and borrowing a wool cap, I drove to Ian Coley Shooting School (left) near Andoversford, and, with a tutor, managed not to embarrass myself with a powerful Beretta shot gun, blowing the clay rounds out of the sky and managing not to hit the side of a barn.
My ears were ringing for days from the sound of the gun.  As one might have mumbled a century ago, a ripping afternoon.
    Incidentally, if you forgot to bring your own tweeds or other shooting togs, they sell them at the School, from Barrington Ayre shirtmaker and tailor, with a superb selection of British mill wools that will put you in mind of all those photos of the Royal Family on their hunting grounds. They even carry Derby Tweed Breeks, the knee-length britches and long socks (right) that were all the rage in the 1880s.
    The Cotswolds, though only 90 miles long and 25 wide, are home to hundreds of little towns, some more picturesque than others, as well as large tourist cities like Bath, now prettier than it was for so many post-war years when British “Kitchen Sink” movies were filmed here.  Many of the houses in the Cotswold are built from the local pale-gold limestone, and, this being farm country still, ancient stone walls keep in the herds of sheep, famous for their fat, flavor and wool.

   It is hilly countryside, the very definition of the word bucolic, and puts one in mind of Christopher Marlowe’s idyllic lyric “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”:

Come live with me and be my love, 

And we will all the pleasures prove 

That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,

Woods or steepy mountain yields.

And we will sit upon the rocks,

Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers to whose falls

Melodious birds sing madrigals. 

    There are true castles in the area worth visiting, including Sudeley (below) once the home of Catherine Parr (1512-1548), Henry VIII’s last wife, where she is now buried.  Though still a private residence, arrangements can be made to visit.
    And what about Downton Abbey, supposedly set in Yorkshire? The stand-in was actually Highclere Castle (below) in Hampshire, which is about 90 miles from Ellenborough Park, so well within a day’s driving distance. The owners, the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, have again opened the castle to the public in summer. Booking far in advance is a must.
    Last but certainly not least, it is easy enough from Cheltenham to visit Oxford University, a mere hour’s drive. Contemporary Oxford itself has few quaint charms—and lots of t-shirt shops—but the vine-clad University itself is a magnificent amalgam  of architectural styles, and the Ashmolean Museum, with works by Da Vinci and Michelangelo, is a must-see.  There is also a fine Museum of Natural History, the great Bodleian Library, the Museum of Science, and 70 acres of parkland for strolling, along with England’s oldest botanic garden and, close by, the Harcourt Arboretum spread over 130 acres.

    I have never been one to rough it in search of dusty antiquity—an afternoon visit to underground catacombs should always lead to a good dinner and room at night—and throughout the Cotswolds, the palpable sense that the history of rural England is still embodied in the hillsides, the copses, the sheep fields and the architecture of places like Ellenborough Park makes this a uniquely beautiful region, of a kind that Shakespeare called “the envy of less happier lands, 
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”

NB: The Cotswolds is often spelled as "Cotswold," and I have no idea why.

National Express network offers a range of discount fares and trail passes for coach travel. The main route to the Cotswold from London starts at Victoria Coach Station, takes about 3 - 4 hours and costs about £17. The main coach stops in and around the Cotswold are at Bath, Bourton-on-the-Water, Cheltenham, Chippenham, Gloucester, Moreton-in-Marsh, Northleach, Oxford, Stow-on-the-Wold, Stratford-upon-Avon, Stroud.



by John Mariani


206 Spring Street (off the Avenue of the Americas)

    Michael White has been opening new restaurants at a furious pace—four this year alone, though there are still four months to go. 
    Since opening the fine dining room Ai Fiori two years ago, his efforts have been more casual, like Morini Trattoria, and a couple of pizzerias.  But, since everyone else is opening steakhouses—Mario Batali, Tom Colicchio, Gordon Ramsay and others—why shouldn’t he? And to put his own stamp on it, White’s given it a touch more Italian swagger.  Thus, Costata, which in Italian means a ribeye cut (left).
    This is something of a homecoming for White (below), who first established his rep on the same Soho premises, when it was called Fiamma, which he was not a partner in. After that, he scored big with the Italian seafood ristorante Marea; by then his fortunes were assured and his investors grew in number, leading to such furious, current expansion, including an Italian restaurant in Hong Kong called Al Molo.  Just how much attention White is, therefore, able to pay to any and all his ventures is anyone’s guess, but Costata, at least, is a creditable addition to the already super-saturated NYC steakhouse scene.
    There are three levels at Costata, the third for private dining.  I dined at the lowest level on a very quiet Monday night, with only half the tables occupied all night, despite the food media’s insistence that this is a very tough table to get at all.  The place is appropriately masculine, swathed in wood paneling, with admirable tablecloths,  and huge lampshades overhead to spread the light and allow you to see everyone else. The table candles in glass are cheap looking. The music, not loud the night I dined, is ‘70s and ‘80s rock. Always nice to hear Fleetwood Mac again.
    Service is highly professional, and the 25-page wine list is, as at all White’s restaurants, solid, and, while not cheap, there are some good bottlings under $60 here.

The menu is not breaking any new ground for either a steakhouse or for White; indeed, White reprises several of his hits from other restaurants, including an extensive crudi (below) section of pristine, raw seafood.  I very much enjoyed the amberjack dolled up with Calabrian chilies and pickled cauliflower. The “caviar” offerings—from California and Florida—are awfully expensive for domestic product at $100 and $120 per ounce.
    An appetizer of quail saltimbocca, wrapped with pancetta and sage, was good and juicy, but a lobster cocktail all’amatriciana, despite spicy horseradish and guanciale, would have been better warm than cold. White’s pastas are always a high point, and there was no arguing that point when it comes to a sublimely rich ridged garganelli lavished with peas, Speck, radicchio and truffle cream. Nicely al dente spaghetti with clams would have been a lot more rewarding had there been more of the promised vongole and razor clams, which were out of the shell to begin with.
    There are several steak offerings, including three served for two people.  Our table shared a consummately flavorful 44 ounce costata at $59 per person, considerably less than Minetta Tavern’s cote de boeuf at $70 (and they both use the same butcher). This is truly a great piece of beef, with the bone, which we most certainly took home—and we have no dog with which to share it. Oddly enough, as more than one other food writer has remarked, the lamb chops ($49) at Costata are not up to snuff, lacking in lamb flavor.
    Desserts are fairly refined versions of what you’ll find elsewhere, but I’d recommend the gelati, which seem just about right at the end of a big meal.   
    White himself has a big Midwestern personality, and he has invested himself in the past in his restaurants as a presence to be anticipated and welcomed. With so many ventures now part of his growing empire, the chances of seeing him at any of them grow dim. Costata does what it does well, but it needs an infusion of personality and more attention to detail and diversity.

Costata is open for dinner nightly; Appetizers and pasta, $14 to $24; main courses, $33 to $59.



DL 2pp Decked out in  "an afro and a pimp cane," rock star Prince (right) had dinner at NYC's Costata (see article above), but when the check came, Prince handed it to his security guard, who telephoned Prince's manager, who realized that he forgot to give Prince money. The guard then gave his telephone number to the staff and promised to make good on the check the following day. But the restaurant says it is "still waiting" for payment.



"Natural redwood and a woman’s smile reflect in sparkling ceiling-high mirrors. A guy drapes his lap with a white linen napkin. The dining room bustles. The patio blooms. At every turn, Rustic Tavern melds masculine with the feminine."--Cal Foster, "Rustic Tavern," Diablo.

DL 2pp


 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: MAINE

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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