Virtual Gourmet

  December 22, 2013                                                                                             NEWSLETTER

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Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen in "White Christmas" (1954)



by John Mariani

by John Mariani

by Mort Hochstein


Part One

by John Mariani

Frank Sinatra's Private Plane

    Those who in the past have tried every which way to pass off Las Vegas' dining scene as everything from lacking in breadth and depth to merely copying what other cities have already done simply haven't eaten around town in the past five years. 
    True, a decade ago Las Vegas entrepreneurs tried to buy their way into the culinary big leagues merely by signing up chef/restaurateur celebrities like Emeril Lagasse, Julian Serrano, Daniel Boulud, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and the posh and size of the restaurants was more in keeping with the city's appeal to extravagance than refinement. Then there was a period of bringing in concepts that began elsewhere, like Rao's, Spago, and Craft.
    But, for at least the past three years the restaurant scene in Vegas, both on and off the Strip, have begun to show far more breadth and individuality.  Some new places even seem downright neighborly.

        For the second time I stayed at the three-year-old Aria Resort and Casino (left), within City Center, which in its architecture and sweeping arched design is among the finer looking new structures in the city, veering away from the monolithic hotels of recent years.
        There are some spectacular corner Sky Suites (below) with a near birds-eye view of the desert and a good deal of Las Vegas. The closet space in the rooms is commensurate with the size of all else. I also count Aria’s multi-lingual concierges as among the finest in a city that always takes care of its best clients. There the usual high-end shops, the requisite Cirque du Soleil extravaganza, Zarkana, and the casino itself is well away from the suites for both comfort and relief from that kind of intensity.  None of this goes cheap, of course, but Vegas has several off-peak seasons each year and the prices drop everywhere in town: at the moment, there are rooms (not suites) going for just $109.
        You could easily spend your entire time in Vegas—assuming you are there an average of three nights—never leaving Aria to dine, for the resort has more than a dozen restaurants, including a buffet and various cafes; these show what I mean by the breadth of offerings in the city’s hotel casinos now.  Julian Serrano’s fine dining room is here, as well as Sirio, an Italian restaurant run by the Maccioni family; Jean-Georges Vongerichten has a steak house here, and Michael Mina has American Fish. 

        I had dined at these other restaurants in the past, so this time my focus was on other, more personalized places.  One of the best was Tetsu, a teppanyaki concept by famous sushi master Masa Takayama (left), whose previous restaurant here was a dark, dreary, extremely expensive Sukiyaki restaurant of surprising dullness. Tetsu (the name means “iron,” as in Iron Chef) is the happy opposite, a brighter, more convivial area dominated by a counter—shaped like a blackjack table--in front of the teppan griddles used by the cooks to prepare your meal, which might begin with signature dishes like toro tartare with caviar (below); nice, fat butterflied Scottish langoustine, and Kobe garlic fried rice, yakisoba noodles and seafood udon, accompanied by 100 varieties of sake available by the bottle and 13 by the glass, plus a 600-selection wine list.
        You can see the quality of the ingredients here as you enter and pass a showcase of seafood, meats and vegetables. Locavorism is simply not an option in Las Vegas, so the restaurant brings in the finest produce, meats and seafood from wherever they may be on a seasonal, even weekly basis, whether it’s Maine or Manila.  There is a “fried & sizzling” section with items like a panko seafood roll and “Dancing shrimp,” both delicious, and of course a very fine array of sushi and sashimi.
        You cannot avoid ordering the teppanyaki dishes here, which include an impressive Australian wagyu filet mignon and luscious duck breast with assertive Thai basil.  Along with all this are irresistible side dishes like garlic butter fried rice, habanero shrimp nuggets and a spicy mango-zucchini salad.
    I think it critical to go to a restaurant like Tetsu with at least three friends, tasting, switching, swooning, nodding.  This is interactive Asian cuisine at a very very high level fit for discussion over many sips of sake.


    Lemongrass is another Asian restaurant at Aria, this with a particularly Thai slant, and I found the management here, from hostesses to servers, among the most cordial I’ve come across in town.  Lemongrass also functions very well as one of the city’s best places to have a really fine lunch—not so easy as you think in a town that only really comes alive after 5 p.m.  Most of the better restaurants are not open midday and some only five days a week.   
    The room is high, wide and very handsome, with plenty of fine wood and enchanting hanging lamps. 
    Lemongrass is made for an ideal and very relaxing Sunday lunch, and I very contentedly sat alone at a big table, ordering a wide array of dishes, almost all extremely savory, not least the delicately crafted dim sum (right).

    I gorged on siu mai, steamed BBQ pork buns, minced chicken basil bun, a spinach shrimp dumpling, minced pork curry, lobster infused with ginger and scallion quickly cooked in a wok to perfect succulence, and much more.  Rather than take a walk in the 108-degree heat after lunch, I cranked up the a/c in my suite and drifted off into a long nap before cocktails that evening.


Wynn Las Vegas
photo by Brian Brown

    A third Asian restaurant of note--not at Aria but at Wynn Las Vegas--was the most spectacular, a riot of red and gold colors, and a dazzling backdrop of falling, lighted waters. This is Mizumi, where there is also a teppanyaki room as well as a sushi bar, but I just put myself in the hands of Chef Devin Hashimoto, who was out as much to please me as to impress me, which are sometimes mutually exclusive.  I told him how many dishes I’d like to try and how long I wished to be at the table, and it was all wonderfully orchestrated, beginning with live ama ebi sweet shrimp with a hot peppery yuzu kosho vinaigrette, foie gras torchon powder, and osietra caviar—quite a beginning.
    Next came a selection of pristine sashimi and sushi, followed by a trip of appetizers: octopus carpaccio with ika shoyu squid and red wine vinaigrette peppercorns, shiso and garlic chip, a tantalizing contrasts of textures; a duck confit and taro taco with spicy kim-chee infused Korean sauce and pickled Napa cabbage; and a lobster beignet with tonkatsu breaded pork chop, bonito, aonori seaweed and yuzu aioli, a dish that is as fine example of global fusion as I’ve had.
    There was spaghetti next, made from mentaiko (marinated roe), with a raw quail egg and ikura salmon roe to mix in. A grilled nodoguro (sea perch) was to follow with cherry blossom and pickled turnips, then a wagyu hot stone with vegetables and edamame hummus. Nodoguro miso soup soothed the palate at this point before coconut and mango with angel’s food cake, coconut mousse, and a mango-passion sorbet and a “Mizumi Chocolate Mask” with hazelnut dacquoise, chocolate mousse, praline puffed rice and vanilla ice cream.
    Hashimoto is widely regarded in Las Vegas as a chef’s chef, and I was in no rush to disagree.  His cuisine is careful, not flighty, and the ingredients, however disparate in their regional origins, show that dependence on overnight airfreight can distinguish a kitchen’s choices as well or better than adherence to using only local ingredients.  

In Part Two of this story, I will write about two new restaurants off the Strip



by John Mariani
photos by Sandra Moreno

Polo steakhouse

45 Seventh Street, Garden City, NY

         When you open a steakhouse just nine miles from Peter Luger in Great Neck, Long Island, and eight miles from Bryant & Cooper in Roslyn, you’d better deliver beef every bit as good as those stellar competitors do, and offer something more in terms of atmosphere and service.

        The brand new Polo Steakhouse in Garden City delivers on all counts: superb, mineral-rich USDA Prime steaks, a luxurious dining room and lounge, and first-rate service from a staff that is far more interested in your menu choices than you’ll find at the ever-brusque Peter Luger. Polo is located within the Garden City Hotel, which doesn't look anything like it did when it opened in 1874.  But you may get a faint sense of Gilded Age bravura in the steakhouse, decked out as it is in tufted red leather chairs and brown sofas, acres of polished mahogany, and silver and gold artwork.  Even on a fairly slow night, the noise level can be higher than expected; on a full night, I fear it will need some buffering.

    The tables are broad and convivial enough for any size party, and beverage director Frank Caiafa is serious about crafted cocktails and building the wine list, which has a ways to go to match a cellar like Bryan & Cooper’s.

        Polo’s chef is Michael Mandato (below), a Long Island native with 30 years kitchen experience, including most recently as executive chef of the Taj Boston hotel.  He has crafted a menu that intelligently stays within the American steakhouse genre while adding items you won’t find so easily elsewhere.  And they don’t skimp on portions here.

        There are the requisite array of oysters and shellfish, available in a seafood tower for $50 or $95. Our party enjoyed a delicious amuse bouche of onion soup gratinee.  I’ve grown re-acquainted with the charms of iceberg lettuce—actually, one charm: its crunch—and it went great with crumbled blue cheese, grape tomatoes, bacon, toasted corn and shaved red onion (below).  A lobster salad, abundant with big chunks of the crustacean, was well melded with avocado, haricot vert beans, tomatoes and dressing, and there was nothing to improve upon with the hearty, creamy lobster bisque.
        Crabcakes may be ubiquitous in steakhouses, but not all are so lightly compacted with so much sweet lump crab as Polo’s, accompanied by toasted corn, celeriac and a bite of chipotle aïoli.  Boursin baked clams casino lost a bit of flavor from the richness of the Boursin.  An expertly tableside-mixed beef tartare had just the right amount of seasoning. Four of us could hardly polish it off.

        And so we turned to the meat. (I’ll happily go back another time and go fishing, but we were four guys in a highly carnivorous mood that night.)  There is no better standard for a steakhouse than a strip steak; here, curiously appended on the menu with the designation “Kansas City,” which is the same as a “New York” cut, so why the Midwestern reference?  Anyway, this was one of the best steaks I’ve had all year, its perfect texture, both chewy and tender, and its minerality proved its 28 days of dry aging was no lie.  So, too, a bone-in ribeye was well marbled throughout the muscle, and, owing to a bone attached to the filet mignon, that cut stayed juicier and got a bit more flavor than it otherwise might.  Four Colorado lamb chops secured that state’s reputation for the best anywhere. With these meats came sauces of green peppercorn, Bearnaise, and the house brand.

        Creamed spinach was very good and truffle salted steak fries had flavor but could have been crispier.  Grilled asparagus came with a citrus salsa, while four-cheese macaroni and cheese was wholly delectable.

        Dessert is well worth putting some room aside for, particularly the lime meringue pie, which will feed two easily.

        You might then retire to the lounge for a nightcap, especially if you have a room at the hotel, and enjoy the live music.

        One caveat: the main course meat prices, ranging from $57 for the strip steak and $65 for the ribeye and filet mignon, are as high as you’ll find anywhere in the U.S.  Consider that Luger charges $46.95 and $47, respectively, while Bryant & Cooper charge $47 and $50.  That’s a discrepancy you’ll have to decide is in the rest of the details at Polo.

        Put one way, Luger and Bryant & Cooper now have real competition in that neck of Long Island with the opening of Polo; put another, Polo is setting a higher bar for those other two to meet.

Polo Steakhouse is open daily; Appetizers run $12-$24, main courses $32-$65.





by Mort Hochstein

Montalcino, Tuscany

    Barolo and Barbaresco from the Piedmont and Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany are generally regarded as the best red wines of Italy. The two Nebbiolos from the Piedmont have long been exalted over all others, while Brunello from Tuscany is a relative newcomer, having attained recognition only in the last half century.  Montalcino, in the southern toe of Tuscany, is one of those mountaintop towns seemingly cobble-stoned together to guard the valley below.  Although it is less than 25 miles south of Siena, its climate is dryer and hotter, more Mediterranean than the cooler atmosphere of Chianti country.
    Like their colleagues to the north, where Chianti reigns, producers in the hills of Montalcino cultivate Sangiovese. The local clone known as Sangiovese Grosso (below)  produces a more robust wine and Brunello is never blended with other grapes. Brunello di Montalcino is prized for its concentrated flavor and tongue-jarring tannins, which evolve slowly with great potential for aging.
      Until recently, Italian wine laws required four years of maturing in wood for Brunello, but that has been relaxed to just two years followed by bottle aging, and, purists argue, it is still an infant when it is released.  For those who don’t care to wait, there is Rosso di Montalcino, a lighter and far less costly, but still delectable, wine.  The rosso drinks well young, but improves immensely with a couple of years in bottle.      Clemente Santa is believed to have identified the Brunello clone in the 1840s, but it wasn’t until 1888 that a grandson founded what was to become the region’s  pioneering winery, Biondi-Santi. More than half a century passed as Brunello began to develop a small but devoted following. In the 1950s Fattoria di Barbi, Constanta and a small group of producers began making what was characterized as wine for heroes, needing many years before becoming approachable.
      Montalcino remained one of the poorest communities in Tuscany until the 1970s, when major firms such as Cinzano of Piedmont and the Mariani family of the American importing  giant Banfi Vintners began acquiring vineyard property in those rugged hills.  Banfi put together what would become the region's largest contiguous estate, planting a constellation of single vineyards and building a state of the art winery. After a false start with sweet white Moscadello, John and Harry Mariani replanted their vineyards for Brunello and put their promotional and distribution muscle into expanding the market.  Italian giants such as Frescobaldi, Antinori and Gaja and many smaller producers followed, and Montalcino, no longer a backwater, became one of the must-visit sites on the Italian wine trail.

      Two wineries struck our interest at recent tastings in New York.  Fattoria La Gerla (right), which has two vineyards spread over 28 acres on hills around the city, was built and is still run by its founder, former advertising executive Sergio Rossi (below). In 1976, Rossi was able to acquire land and an ancient farmhouse from the Biondi Santi family  and established his winery two years later. Rossi produces a Riserva and a standard Brunello, as well as a lighter Rosso and Birba, a less powerful version of Brunello. As with many of the better producers, his top-of-the line Brunellos are aged long beyond the mandated two year minimum.
      The rosso, an intense, ruby colored, velvety wine, matures for two years, one of them in Slovenian oak, and rests for eight months in bottle before being released at an average retail price of $21. The Birba, billed as a super-Tuscan even though it is 100% Sangiovese Grosso and created to be positioned between the Rosso and the Brunellos. It ages 14 months in French barriques, unlike the Brunellos that require two years in 5,000 or 10,000 liter Slovenian barrels, plus eight months in bottle.
This departure from tradition  required a different appellation so the Birba is classified as an IGT Toscana or Sangiovese di Montalcino Super Tuscan,, about $32.

      Rossi exercises extreme selection, hand picking in small amounts from each vine for his Brunello and Riserva. The Brunello, 14.5% alcohol, sells at about $45 for the ’08 and $53 for the ’09, and is projected to mature over the next decade. The Riserva ages for a minimum of five years in cask and a year in bottle before being released, usually one year after the standard Brunello.  La Gerla Riserva ’07 retails for about $80 and Rossi gives it a 20-year frame for good drinking.
    La Gerla and the other wine on our list that day, La Fiorita, are moderately priced among a field of high fliers in Montalcino and, enthusiasts argue, are good values   when compared with similar wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy. La Fiorita was founded in 1992, making it practically an upstart in that area, but the wine has quickly earned a reputation for quality. The two producers share the winemaking expertise of Vittorio Fiore, one of the most highly respected of Tuscan oenologists.


La Fiorita (right)

was established recently by a well-credentialed winemaker Roberto Cipresso (left). He had worked at several leading wineries in the region, including Case Basse and Polio Antico, and in Argentina at Achaval Ferrer. In 2011, the ebullient and attractive American-born former adult film actress Natalie Oliveros joined him. A charmer, her beauty and warm outgoing personality have helped open doors for the brand. La Fiorita produces a Brunello, a Riserva and Laurus, a blend of Sangiovese and Merlot. La Fiorita’s 2007 Brunello, a full-bodied red with violets and red fruit tones on the nose, is a powerful wine with dark fruit and strong tannins, retailing for about $55.  The standout 2006 Riserva, sourced from a single vineyard and aged in bottle for an additional year, is more complex, with flavors of red and black berries, tobacco and vanilla and an intense, spicy long finish. Listing at about $89, it is a lush wine, the most delicious Brunello I have ever enjoyed.    The 2008 Laurus offers those same flavors of plum and cherry, but is less complex and much more approachable at a young age. It is priced at about $24.
Their vineyard sites are the main difference between  La Gerla and La Fiorita.
Fiorita’s Poggio al Sole vineyard is primarily tufa—porous limestone—and clay. The soil and altitude of the vineyard give the wines volume and structure, ripe and fragrant tannins and the minerals are reflected in the wines. Fiorita winemaker Robert Cypress stresses the soil in his approach. His second vineyard, Pian Bosselino , sits at nearly 1,200 feet above sea level, twice the height of Poggio al Sole,  The air at that height, he feels, adds color and salinity to the wine.
La Gerla grapes grow on the northern, colder slopes of Montalcino and reflect the site in their freshness,   and fruity characteristics. More recently, La Gerla added vineyards in the warmer area of Castelnuova Abate and developed wines with more ripe notes and a freshness that makes for pleasant and seductive quaffing. The change, observers feel, has added even more appeal to the La Gerla wines. Both producers have put to rest the old feeling that Brunello was a wine fit only for warriors and the lengthy  aging period of the past is strictly history at these wineries.



"Meanwhile, if you want a truly gorgeous, watermelon-like pure as driven snow, estate bottled rosé for the winter you're a bloody idiot if you don't go to Chambers Street to purchase the Esquisse from Christian Ducroux."--Alice Feiring (left), The Feiring Line 12/2013


Moët & Chandon is selling tiny bottles of Champagne from a vending machine
in the Christmas section of London department store Selfridges. The 200-milliliter
bottle goes for about $29, considered by Luxury Daily as a "feasible price for budding luxury buyers."



In March 2014, for the first time ever, Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group will partner with the Institute of Culinary Education to offer an immersive, ten-week Wine Course covering the major wine regions of the world, with insights from the perspective of some of New York City’s most beloved restaurants. USHG Wine Director and Master Sommelier, John Ragan, will lead the course along with wine directors and sommeliers from USHG restaurants including Union Square Cafe, The Modern, Maialino, and more. This course provides an opportunity for serious wine lovers to pursue the same rich and dynamic education that has previously been available only to staff of USHG restaurants. Register now online ($1,750 for ten classes) at (Course details: Tuesday evenings, March 25th—June 3rd, 2014, 6:30—9:00pm, at the Institute of Culinary Education.)



 Any of John Mariani's books below may be ordered from

The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink by John F. Mariani (Bloomsbury USA, $35)

Modesty forbids me to praise my own new book, but let me proudly say that it is an extensive revision of the 4th edition that appeared more than a decade ago, before locavores, molecular cuisine, modernist cuisine, the Food Network and so much more, now included. Word origins have been completely updated, as have per capita consumption and production stats. Most important, for the first time since publication in the 1980s, the book includes more than 100 biographies of Americans who have changed the way we cook, eat and drink -- from Fannie Farmer and Julia Child to Robert Mondavi and Thomas Keller.

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: OUR 30 FAVORITE PLACES IN 2013

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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