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 November 17, 2013                                                                                             NEWSLETTER

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Jean Harlow in "Dinner at Eight" (1934)



by John Mariani



by John Mariani

Le Bernardin
by John Mariani

Some California Pinot Noirs Aim
for Higher Quality, Not Alcohol

by John Mariani




by John Mariani


         Eating the kind of bizarre foods TV omnivore Andrew Zimmern  (right) puts in his mouth each week was once the hapless lot--never the intent--of 19th century adventurers like Sir Richard Burton, who while trekking from Zanzibar into the Congo would have given anything for some good British beef and Yorkshire pudding.
         Traveler’s illnesses will lay low, even kill, guys who count themselves manly if they gulp down stinky tofu in Taipei or maggots in the Yucatan.  Ernest Hemingway would have shot anyone on safari who suggested he drink the blood of a water buffalo.
         It’s bad enough just dealing with unwashed lettuce in a salad in Madrid much less shrimp pulled up from the putrid rivers of Phnom Penh. And you can just as easily come down with Delhi Belly in Mumbai as you can Montezuma’s Revenge in Mexico City.
         You’re never going to escape it entirely, not on the Champs Élysées or the Via Veneto, though you can take precautions by watching out for certain foods that have a greater chance of bringing you to your knees talking to Ralph on the big white phone.
         The basic problem is that if you grew up in the U.S., no matter how healthy your are, you haven’t developed defenses against all exotic bacteria.  The stress of travel, the different schedules and missed routines can compromise your immune system so that you’re ripe to fall prey to  bacteria from something as innocent-looking as a stalk of celery. Even a cold, uncooked soup like gazpacho can mean trouble.
         And, because it’s impossible to know what the animal you intend to eat was eating before it got to you, odd species like snake and rats are not to be trifled with.
         Next problem is how food is handled, even in the finest restaurants.  Hell, 67 out of 78 people dining at Noma in Copenhagen, considered by some the best restaurant in the world, got food poisoning in one night.  But the odds stacked against you really mount in street foods, when running water is rarely available.
         Processed foods out of China and Thailand have become so problematic—sometimes what the package says, like beef, isn’t even what’s inside—that many Chinese markets and restaurants in America refuse to buy ingredients from Asia and proclaim that on their menus.
         Still, there are specific foods that are in varying degrees risky. Here are a few I (mostly) stay away from in foreign countries.  Manly man that I am, I can live without ever eating Mexican monkey’s brains or Malaysian ants. And probably live longer.

      By the way, I read a study once that taking two Pepto-Bismol caplets before going out to eat helps coat the stomach and keep the bad bugs at bay. Works for me (mostly).

  Raw shellfish—However proud an Osaka sushi chef is of the pristine quality of his raw seafood, shellfish, which are bottom feeders, pick up a lot of nasty bacteria, and, if uncooked, they can easily be transferred to you.  Cooking should kill most of them off, and the fish used for sashimi is pretty safe.  But eating raw oysters or mussels anywhere can be hazardous. I know: I ate a bad oyster in New Orleans once and was never so sick in my life. Oyster-causing hepatitis can be a killer that destroys your liver (and thereby your ability to drink alcohol). You can also get a tapeworm from eating contaminated raw meat.

Wild game—Next time you enjoy a nice haunch of venison at a restaurant in the U.S., rest assured it came—by law—from an inspected game farm.  Wild game, even trout from crystalline Alaskan rivers, may contain bad-ass bacteria, and before you eat what you kill in the wild, you’d better be damn sure the animal was healthy.  If you do see “wild game” on a menu, then it was most probably venison or grouse that was shot in Scotland and approved for sale by a game inspector. One of the best, most reliable sources for wild game is D’Artagnan Foods, which imports inspected foods including Scottish pheasant, redlegged partridge, grouse and wood pigeon.

Fruits and Vegetables--Every guidebook to a foreign country stresses not eating unwashed, uncooked vegetables and fruits.  And too many people have done so anyway at their peril and ended up sick as a dog from salmonella,  cyclospora, campylobacter, and more.  You can wash and scrub and peel raw fruits and vegetables and remove the outer bacteria, but that won’t kill what’s inside. Boiling and cooking is more advisable. And watch out for desserts, too, that may have raw fruit in or around them. Order a nice slice of apple pie instead.

--Some Americans still harbor an irrational fear about eating pork that has not been cooked to shoe leather, supposedly to kill off the trichinosis larvae. The fact is, there are less than a dozen reported cases of trichinosis in the U.S. each year, and all of them come from eating wild game, including a wild hog. Hog production in the U.S. is extremely hygienic, so cooking your pig till pink is just fine. In the rest of the world, however, particularly in Third World countries, such hygiene is not standard practice, so only eat pork there that has been thoroughly cooked through to 160 degrees F.


Eggs--Bet you didn't know that half of all egg-related illnesses, mainly salmonella, are picked up in restaurants, including in the U.S.  The problem is in the chicken that lays them, not the shell itself, though this should be thoroughly washed, something that cannot be counted on abroad, where a freshly laid egg is cherished. That means no Caesar salads abroad and no steak tartare with a raw egg in it.  Forget the raw steak too.

--It used to be a maxim for traveling abroad not to drink the water, even in Europe.  But this has largely become irrelevant if you’re staying in a city like Paris, Stockholm or Tokyo, where the better hotels filter their water.  Nevertheless, unless you ask, you won't know that and even brushing your teeth with contaminated water is going to be bad news.  Bottled water is crucial when traveling, and the more familiar the label on the bottle, the better off you’ll be.  Drinking from a fountain is very stupid.  A friend of mine recently spent three weeks in spasmodic pain just because he caught a wave of river water in his mouth while sailing through Bangkok.

Local brews
--If you’re taking a pleasant cruise down the Amazon with a reputable outfitter, you probably don’t need to be told about chicha.  But just in case you are invited by some local tribesmen anywhere in the Amazon Basin to knock back a tot of chicha, do anything to avoid it. Chicha comes in many forms, but it always involves saliva.  In some cases the cassava root is chewed by the tribeswomen and the juice spat into a bowl that is left to ferment into alcohol.  The honor of drinking chicha is one that may follow you home for the next several months.  Fortunately, I have not been so honored; unfortunately, I do not know the etiquette for turning the chief’s offer to take a swig. Maybe tell him your doctor put you on antibiotics and said you can’t drink alcohol.






by John Mariani

I suppose I should say something about the death of Charlie Trotter.
       If that sounds lukewarm, I don’t mean it to be: it’s just I’m saddened by so many overwrought, hyperventilated assessments suddenly made over a great chef whom the media abandoned years ago.  Indeed, two years ago, the NY Times wrote his professional obituary, wondering what had ever become of him—despite his still running his restaurant, publishing many books on food and hospitality, and having his own award-winning PBS TV show.
    My own relationship with Charlie—whose very name had the brash ring of the Midwest in it—began in 1987 when he opened his eponymous restaurant in Chicago at a time when the city’s finest restaurants all had names like Le Français, Le Perroquet and Les Nomades.   Chicago’s food scene was bustling if too often imitative: concepts innovated in NYC or L.A. were picked up in Chicago, often refined and made more accessible.
          So when Charlie Trotter’s opened, in homage to the very finest cuisine and service of Charlie’s idols, whose signed menus lined the walls, it shook up the food establishment by being as inextricably tied to his bulldog personality as was Spago to Wolfgang Puck’s and Chez Panisse to Alice Waters’.
    Charlie had a feverish mind that consumed the best from every quarter then put it through the forge of his own inner fire.  He was a demanding master, intent that no one in his employ waste a moment’s time when there were always so many details he felt needed to be immediately addressed.  His dining room staff wore double-sided tape on their shoe soles to pick up dirt and lint from the carpet.  Scores of eminent graduates from his kitchen—chefs like David Myers, David LeFevre, Ric Tramonto, Graham Elliott, and many others who cherished their arduous tenures at the restaurant—testify to the withering force of Charlie’s discontent.
    I first wrote about him in Esquire’s Best New Restaurants in 1988, contending that he was a chef dedicated to “building something solid for the future” of Chicago.  I wrote that “Some of the food sounds eccentric”—I recall my eyebrows rose at foie gras ravioli with mango and lemongrass sauce—“but Trotter brings most of it off with enormous finesse and shows a compelling belief in himself that puts him in the top ranks of Chicago’s chefs.”
    In fact, Charlie’s ego was often on display, and after keeping track of my not having written much about him in ensuing years, he challenged me that “on your next trip to Chicago, if I don’t serve you the best meal of your life, I’ll never say another word.”  I responded by telling him, “Charlie, I think you are a great chef but you seek to overwhelm your guests with so many dishes that your batting average is always going to be high, even if several dishes strike out.”    
    We actually negotiated the number of courses he would serve me—six—and next time I was in Chicago I took him up on his challenge.  I sat down, Champagne was poured, and out came the first course—on which he had arrayed eight items! I cried foul but enjoyed the meal immensely.  Was it the greatest meal of my life? No, but my admiration for what I enjoyed was in equal measure to my enjoyment of the man’s Midwestern chutzpah.
    For 17 years Charlie never veered from his pursuit of excellence, though, as the media quietly backed away from him, he went through a period of malaise that ultimately forced him to close his restaurant earlier this year, to great fanfare. The last meal served was covered extensively.  He said was going to study philosophy, travel, learn more about what he’d neglected to learn for lack of time.
    Perfectionists are like that. There’s never enough time to do what you need to do much less do what you’d like to do.  The medical autopsy has not yet determined what caused Charlie’s sudden death—he was found unconscious at home—but his legacy is one of extraordinary achievement in a field he not only helped plant but also fertilized with his own nourishing spirit. He was, in a word, a master, and might well have been in any field he chose to pursue.  Thank heavens it was in the kitchen. America eats—no, dines—much better because of Charlie Trotter.




by John Mariani

Le Bernardin
155 West 51st Street
212- 554-1515

     The great Le Bernardin is wondrous proof of Albert Einstein's maxim that "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."
     The genius of true simplicity is to discard whatever is not essential, however enticing, and in the cooking of chef/partner Eric Ripert you find on every plate an idea so thoroughly and beautifully thought through that there is no room for error. 
    This has been the case since Le Bernardin was opened in Paris by Chef Gilbert Lecoze and his sister Maguy (left) in 1972, refined still further upon translating its style to NYC in 1986.  Gilbert was rigorously classic in his French techniques yet always inventive, not least in treating American seafood species with respect and by eliminating heavy, cover-all sauces from his dishes. His fish carpaccios are copied worldwide by other chefs.   
    The menu evolved but was always indelibly à la Le Bernardin, and the sad passing away of Gilbert in 1994 brought longtime chef de cuisine Eric Ripert (below) to the foreground, as Maguy strived to maintain the spirit and ambiance of the restaurant despite her loss.  Since then, the two of them have never wavered in their commitment to exquisite good taste, from the new décor and lounge to the table settings, staff outfits, and Maguy's wardrobe itself.  For her, Coco Chanel's dictum that "Fashion is made to go out of style" is effortlessly applied each evening by the ever-glamorous Madame Maguy.      
    The room retains its magnificent coffered ceiling, with soft light spreading over each well-set table. And, while the illumination allows you to see everyone in the room, it feels distinctly intimate at your own seating. On the wall is an extraordinary seascape by Brooklyn artist Ran Ortner, as perfect a metaphor for Le Bernardin as can be imagined.  Sommelier Aldo Sôhm has sustained Le Bernardin's wine list as a model for fine dining establishments, not least in the small European estates of unique character.  Put yourself in his hands and you will discover how fine a new wine from a region you thought you knew can be so impressive—even more so regions you never knew at all.
    Eric, whom I know well enough to call by his first name, recently did a tasting menu for me, my wife, our son and his fiancée. So, starting with a glass of Champagne, we began, each course paired with a wine, and each dish designed to capitalize on the one before in terms of tastes, texture, and seasonings.

    Slivers of fluke came with a wasabi-nori crisp in a so-black pepper vinaigrette, a signal homage to Gilbert’s seafood carpaccios now found everywhere.  King fish caviar sashimi followed in the same line, with osietra caviar and a light marinière broth, enjoyed with a Clos Floridéne, Graves 2011 and a Pernand Vergelesses 1er Cru Sous Frétille.
    Lightly sautéed langoustine—big and plump—had the woodsy flavors of truffles and chanterelle mushrooms and the tang of a balsamic vinaigrette, while the next dish was barely cooked shrimp with a brown butter dashi, accompanied by a Montille Soeur & Frère 2010.

    Ripert is fascinated by Japanese and Asian ideas about seafood flavorings, more so than was Gilbert, demonstrated in a King crab medley with a warm matsutake custard and a seaweed-shiitake broth, which seemed to me too close to what I might have around town in a good Japanese restaurant. Halibut with opal basil and shaved fennel with a red miso citrus emulsion restored the balance unique to Le Bernardin and went well with a fine Riesling GG Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg and half-dry Karthäuserhof Ruwer 2009.
    The meal, over two hours, sat lightly on the appetite and stomach, satisfying but not exhausting, so that desserts like chestnut cream, light chocolate mousse, and a cinnamon tuile, and a passion fruit mousse with Meyer lemon, and pistachio ice cream were as much refreshments as rewards for cleaning our plates.
    Le Bernardin has received more accolades than any restaurant I know of—enough stars from the media to light the Empire State Building—and when asked, as I often am, what my favorite NYC restaurant is, I respond without hesitation, Le Bernardin.  Indeed, were Le Bernardin to close, as it someday must, it would be a loss as devastating to me as the Yankees moving to Cincinnati or the Café Carlyle being turned into a dive bar.  Uniqueness is rare in restaurants and Le Bernardin, in its elegant, deceptively simple way, is the savory embodiment of that virtue.

Le Bernardin is open for lunch, Mon.-Fri. and for dinner Mon.-Sat. dinner $135 for four courses, with tasting menus at $155 and $198.  

Photo of Maguy Lecoze by Nigel Perry;  Food photos by William Hereford.



Some California Pinot Noirs Aim
for Higher Quality, Not Alcohol

by John Mariani

    I’m often on the edge of despairing over California’s pinot noir producers’ refusal to back down on making massive blockbuster wines with none of the finesse they always promise on their labels and websites. Then I come across California pinots that raise my hopes that there are good producers who have succeeded in making wines of refinement and complexity, without the high alcohol levels that mar the wine of so many of their competitors in Napa and Sonoma.   
    Certainly the argument can -- and should -- be made that pinot noirs from any region outside of France need not mimic the benchmark style of Burgundy. Soils and climates differ radically from the sun-deprived vineyards of the Cote d’Or to the overheated floor of Napa Valley and other pinot noir-producing areas in South America and Australia. (Frankly, I don’t know what Italian wineries are Italian wineries are aiming for in their mostly insipid pinot noirs.)   
    Some Californians, like Pat Rooney of Windsor Sonoma Winery north of Santa Rosa, try very hard to achieve a Burgundy style, focusing on the grapes themselves and, usually, not filtering the wine. 
    I don’t ask for parity between Burgundy and the other regions, but I am dismayed at how often California pinots don’t even taste like pinot, a notoriously fickle grape to grow. I admire the sunny fruit that brightens California pinot noirs, but I don’t like being hit in the mouth with a rush of grape preserves and enough oak to fuel a bonfire. When pinot noirs go beyond 14.5 percent alcohol, sometimes a lot higher, I stop drinking after one glass.
    And then a California pinot noir comes across my dinner table that both amazes me for its quality and restores my faith in what the varietal can be when made with care. I have always enjoyed Twomey Cellars' merlots; I think I’m even more impressed by its pinot noirs -- four of them, from different regions, including Anderson Valley, Russian River Valley, Healdsburg and the Sonoma Coast. Twomey was established in 1999 by the Duncan family, who also own the esteemed Silver Oak Cellars. Twomey is named after owner Ray Duncan’s mother. None of Twomey’s pinot noirs top 13.6 percent in alcohol; and one, its 2011 Twomey Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir, only hits 12.9 percent. Its 2009 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir took first place in the American Wine Society’s National Tasting Project in 2012.

    "Wine grapes and zucchini are a lot alike,” Daniel Baron, 64, (right) director of winemaking at Twomey, said in a telephone interview. “Years ago, I had a garden planted with zucchini and they grew to be three feet long. I didn’t know what to do with them. They were impossible to cook with. So, too, wine grapes that get too ripe start to taste like prunes. The trick with pinot noir is to choose plots carefully, then go out every day to make sure the grapes are not getting too ripe. I learned from the Institut Francais de la Vigne et du Vin to chew on the skins and squeeze the pulp on the roof of my mouth to taste how the grapes are developing. If you pick pinot noir too ripe, you won’t be able to tell pinot noir from merlot or syrah.”
    Twomey’s pinot noirs are definitely in the Burgundian style, layered and complex, and assured of aging beautifully, which cannot easily be said of blockbuster pinots. I’ve also been very happy with several other California pinot noir makers, including Failla Hirsch Vineyard, Freeman, Williams Selyem, and Morlet Family, all producing fine examples of what the varietal should be -- a medium bodied, velvety wine with flower and bright fruit flavors.

    Those markers for pinot noir are very evident in the Inman Family Wines' 2010 pinot from its Olivet Grange vineyards in the Russian River Valley. Owner Kathleen Inman (left) likes to say, “I operate as a one-woman show since I manage the vineyard, make the wines and answer the phones.” She adds: “I call myself a groper. I touch and taste in the vineyard and don’t go by numbers. Pinot noir is the most feminine of wines, and I want that delicacy, perfume and elegance in my wine.”
    The 2010 was light on the palate at first, then revealed its young fruitiness, not the cloying jamminess of other California examples. It reminded me of an Aloxe-Corton, one of my favorite middle-range Burgundies, though at $68 the Inman has raised a few eyebrows. With just 12.5 percent alcohol and 23 months in French oak, this wine proves that elegance and aromatics are better achieved with restraint, rather than by pushing the grapes.



"Was I supposed to break things off with Stoner over text? Was I supposed to turn away the cronuts (fig and mascarpone flavored, fyi) but stay vague about the reason, as if Stoner were an idiot who wouldn't know what that meant? Was I supposed to stick to the original plan and keep my cool until dinner? What kind of asshole takes the cronuts, anyway? What kind of asshole rejects cronuts? How was it possible that a pastry would factor into one of the biggest moral dilemmas of my adult dating life?--Helin Jung,   “Can You Accept Cronuts from a Man You’re About to Dump?” Cosmopolitan.




Villagers in Stilton, Great Britain, tried to overturn the rule which states that Stilton blue cheese can only be produced in the Midlands, where it's believed to have originated. "It's ridiculous that we can't make Stilton in Stilton," said a local store owner. "People come in and ask for it several times a week and I have to tell them we can't legally call it Stilton." According to the EU ruling,  Stilton can only be produced in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire - including the area of Melton Mowbray.



 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: DOMENICA; HOW TO VISIT CUBA

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