Virtual Gourmet

  AUGUST 10, 2014                                                                                             NEWSLETTER

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"Cupcakes on the Brain" (2011) by Galina Dargery


By John A. Curtas


By John Mariani

By Mort Hochstein


By John A. Curtas

"Ocean's 11" (1960)

        What’s new in Las Vegas? Well, quite a lot, actually. After five years of recession and a commensurate depression in restaurant openings, celebrity chefs have returned with a vengeance. Not only have they returned to these fertile fields of green felt, but they have come bearing some mighty tasty grub. Unlike many in years past, few of them are phoning it in (at least as of this writing), although few are exactly slaving over the hot stoves that bear their names, either.


The Cromwell Hotel & Casino
3595 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Photos by Erik Krabik

    As you contemplate the contrived name, you are tempted to make a joke and think --  Giada – The Manufactured Italian Food Maven. As you walk into this drop-dead gorgeous room, which opens on to and wraps around a main corner of the Strip, you might feel a tinge of skepticism as you wonder what this Food Network star will do with her first restaurant. But all cynicism quickly fades after a couple of bites. What she’s done on the second floor of the newly opened Cromwell (the old Barbary Coast) is bring forth her particular take on Italian food, one that lightens and brightens the cuisine, while keeping it accessible and satisfying for tourists and finicky gastronomes alike.
      From the day it opened in early June, this place has been the toughest ticket in town. Love her or hate her, Giada is pretty much the Martha Stewart of the 21st Century to a lot of ladies. And those female fans have appeared in force since the get-go. As soon as you hit the hostess stand, you will see a bevy of 30- and 40-something gals packing the comfy chairs in the lounge and the large, L-shaped bar.
       Giada's fame may be getting them in the door, but it's her recipes that are keeping everyone riveted to their plates. Recipes like a pasta e fagioli soup takes this time-worn warhorse and gives it a whole new personality with small, tubular ditalini pasta, cannellini beans and finely diced carrots, all suspended in a first-class broth. Or a black truffle pizzette: so crispy, chewy, so rich and intense you will wonder how so much flavor can be packed into so small a triangle. Vegetable dishes like artichokes two ways (roasted and deep-fried), will have you re-thinking your attitude towards healthful edibles, and her pastas, like farrotto–a risotto-like dish made with farro and morels--will have you wondering how something so sumptuous can leave you feeling so light. The same holds true for the side dishes: the peas with parsley, pancetta, pecorino, crispy polenta and sweet corn with spicy sausage show real attention to detail and are more than worth the $10 price tag.
     For a pièce de resistance, you can hardly do better than Giada's whole roasted chicken for two with cacciatore sauce (below, right), consisting of a good bird, properly roasted, with the cacciatore portion served as a separate sauce, rather than the braising liquid in which the clucker was swimming as it cooked. Some might prefer the wetter version, but we found this one just perfect.
In keeping with this "less liquid is more" philosophy, Giada likewise
believes that Americans over-sauce their pasta (and she's right),
so, she pretty much goes in the opposite direction with her rigatoni vegetarian Bolognese--something of an oxymoron for a sauce that's supposed to be meat-based--barely flecking her toothsome noodles with bits of vegetables, and making the dish no less delicious for it.      
    About the only offering we tried of ho-hum quality was a mascarpone and tarragon shrimp dish that looked and tasted like something straight out of a corporate kitchen--having none of the flavor, pop or dazzle of the
rest of the menu.     Speaking of dazzle, her signature spaghetti with lemon, shrimp and basil bathes good noodles in a creamy sauce that perfectly sets off the shrimp, while making you wonder why more pasta dishes don’t incorporate a citrusy tang like this one.

    Much has been made in the local press about Giada's burning through chefs because she couldn’t find a good one. At present, she has settled on
corporate toque Kurtess Mortensen to execute her recipes, and he and his crew are bringing their “A” game. Whether this quality control continues over time remains to be seen.  Vegas celebrity chefs–at least the non-French ones--have a nasty habit of disappearing after all the opening hype dies down, except for photo ops once a year, but for the time being, you won’t find better Italian food anywhere in town.
Prices start at $8-$15 for appetizers, salads and soups, with pastas
running $24-$30 and entrees going for $34-$78 (porterhouse for two). The wine list is typical for Vegas: unfocused, overpriced and all over the map. (Don’t blame the sommeliers, they’re just following orders.)

In The Quad
3535 Las Vegas Blvd. South

    At the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, the frosted-tipped one has ventured out on another gastronomic limb with another partner (this time Caesars Palace) and a management deal that (he promised!) would "bring the awesomeness." And here’s a surprise: it kinda does. In fact it's pretty darn good by upscale, bar food standards.
     After the lambasting his Times Square restaurant took from the New York media last year, it appears Fieri (and his management team) have decided to step up to the plate and show the culinary world what they’re capable of. And what they’ve done is deliver good pub grub with libations to match to put right up there against every other gastropub in Las Vegas.
       Before we get to the food itself, a word about the menu: much has been made of its contrived breathlessness over ”awesome pretzels,” "righteous" burgers and "head spinning" wings. Tastemakers, language police and fashion mavens love to point to such hyperbolic frippery as further proof of the gullibility of the unwashed masses, which, in turn, has hastened the demise of American literacy, humility in menu writing, and the fall of Western civilization in general.
        Still, we didn't find the
hyperbolic huckstering any worse than what you get at Applebee's, and unlike T.G.I. Fridays, or Chili's.
        Before you get to the food, however, you will first notice two things about the restaurant: one, it's packed; and, two, it has an inside-outside vibe that will make you want to pass the afternoon tossing back cold ones from a good beer list, and engaging in some  people watching.  While you are watching the human parade going by, you will may find yourself coming under the spell of Fieri's faithful rendition of chicken street tacos--lip-smacking versions of Mexican street food as interpreted and upgraded by a professional chef. They tasted of grilled chicken, rather than white, shredded nothingness, and with a topping of house-pickled onions, were as fresh and balanced as one of these little pockets can be. Likewise, the Asian chicken wraps contain deeply flavored minced chicken along with moist, peppery Thai skewers and several sauces that made no apologies for being made by a bunch of white guys. The only clinker in our first lunch here was a 'Triple B' burger so smothered and infused with blue cheese that the meat could've been armadillo for all we could taste. As overwhelming as the construct of that cheese-fest was, one of its brethren–the bacon mac-n-cheese burger–was a thing of beauty. A good, hand-formed burger gets topped with applewood smoked bacon and a compressed mound of mac-n-cheese that could easily stand on its own as a great side dish. For the record, we’re no fans of mile-high, over-stacked, ground beef sandwiches, but this one–packed on a gorgeous brioche bun–is a vertical ode to excess.
       Speaking of respect, no self-respecting, celebrity-chef-exploitation restaurant would ever think of not bragging about its chicken wings, and the ones here actually taste like Fieri learned a thing or two in cooking school at UNLV (or from delving into diners and dives all over America for the past few years).  Lovers of the little flappers will love to hear that the four offerings here are stellar variations on a theme, with the Fireball Whiskey Wings not being quite as incendiary as the name would imply, but the brining and roasting comes through with every bite  The blue cheese sauce, called (ouch!) blue-sabi on the menu, is a nod to Buffalo, NY. Equally good are the "Parmagedden Wings," looking like little popsicles of chicken parm, which come with a very decent, house-marinara sauce.
     The fressers in your crowd will no doubt swoon over the Big Dipper--a behemoth of shaved, smoked prime rib served with crispy onions on a huge garlic torpedo roll. It's about as subtle as a Game of Thrones plot point, but no less excellent for it. There's even a nod to healthier eating among all these heart-stoppers, with four large salads--the "Guy-Talian Deli" version full of plenty of cheesy, meaty and tangy, with decent (albeit domestic) prosciutto and provolone  used to good effect.
     Desserts are what you would expect: large and in charge. Fried ice cream the size of a softball or a slab of cheesecake the size of a dictionary comes to your table and seems perfect for the room, the clientele, and a palate by then overwhelmed by the take-no-prisoners spicing of the menu. None of these concoctions will win any culinary awards, but they echo the homey, rib-sticking sensibilities of Fieri's show. One would
have to be the ultimate humbug to not enjoy them on their own level.
     And pretty much, that's what Fieri and his investors are asking of you: Take our restaurant on its own terms, as an homage to all the diners and dives that made the Big Guy famous, and we will show you a good time with some good food. That's all this restaurant is supposed to be and that's all it is. Maybe Pete Wells should give it a try.

The sandwiches are huge; the platters, salads and desserts are meant to be shared; and everything on the menu is priced between $13-$20.  Open daily for brunch, lunch and dinner.


By John Mariani


15 West 44th Street (off Fifth Avenue)

   The look of American steakhouses has changed measurably from the time when they all looked exactly the same--scuffed wood floors, scuffed yellow walls, scuffed leather booths, and really bad paintings. 
    These days, however, you might find a new steakhouse done up like a New York Yankees fantasy (NYY Steak) or like a swanky boudoir (Prime in Las Vegas) or Victorian western saloon (Del Frisco’s in Dallas).
     Certainly one of the most distinctive designs is Strip House in New York, with three locations (and one in Vegas), all sharing the same raffish look of very crimson red walls hung with original Studio Manasse prints of 1930s burlesque stars.  (Women seem to have looked a bit different in those days.)   This was the winkingly risqué décor of the original Strip House in Greenwich Village and is that of the new West 44th Street location in a neighborhood crawling with steakhouses--Palm, Spark’s, Wolfgang’s, Bobby Van’s and more--all going all out to attract the same free-spending macho clientele. 
    Strip House, on the other hand, is clearly committed to making women feel just as welcome as their male counterparts. Indeed, the restaurant is run by a management and staff whose corporate name, BR Guest Hospitality, rings very true.
      Executive corporate chef Michael J. Vignola, whose c.v. includes stints at Aquavit, The Modern and other high-end restaurants, is in charge of making sure there are no surprises for regulars who trek between Strip Houses.  So the menus don’t differ much from one another, except for a few specials, and they really don’t differ much from the sacrosanct formula of steakhouses elsewhere in the city; so it is in the quality of the ingredients and their preparation that the differences show, as well as in the reception at the door, which is warmly cordial--not always the case elsewhere.
         It’s a big place--upstairs and down--but the kitchen keeps pace. The wine list is geared to the kind of food served at a steakhouse: lots of big reds and white Burgundies.  Mark-ups seem to run about two-and-a-half times retail, but there are some good buys on the “Sommelier’s Selections” list, with Dominus 2007 going for $375, which is only about $15 more than you’d pay in a store.
         The food overall is as good as the best steakhouses in NYC, and better than many that cut corners. Oysters (six for $19) were excellent; spicy tuna tartare ($19) with chopped avocado, cucumber, radish sprouts and a shot of wasabi (above) was full flavored and not in the least watery; the roasted bacon ($18) was as expected--irresistible as ever--and a lobster bisque ($14) had both lightness and richness on its side, with fine lobster flavor and pearl couscous for texture.
         A special one evening was a pâté, whose taste was livery and whose flaccid crust was a far cry from what you’d find in a good French bistro almost anywhere.  The one real disappointment of the evening was a steamed three-pound lobster (market price), though it wasn’t the crustacean’s fault: asked if we wanted the meat to be taken out of the shell, I assented and soon realized that was a  mistake only because after the deed was done back in the kitchen, while the steaks were being cut and plated, the lobster meat got lukewarm and dried out by the time it was served.  Next time I’ll ask for the waiter to crack the shell at the table then have at it with my fingers.
          Strip House’s true claim to a significant distinction from its creditable competitors is that the cooks pay a lot of attention to getting a serious char on the outside of the meat, no matter how rare, medium or--God forbid!--well done you might order it.  Impeccably seasoned, the steak, whether it’s a ribeye ($48-$55), a tomahawk (below),  New York strip ($49), a porterhouse ($55), whatever--will arrive seared and almost crispy, something I so often have to beg for in other steakhouses and rarely get what I crave.  Our table of four sampled a number of cuts, and every one had the right char and the right interior temperature.
         There isn't much argument on this point, for this is the only way  a great piece of beef should be rendered. So it is to Strip House’s credit that they knock it out of the park every time.
         The chain prides itself on its sides and they are very good--asparagus, creamed spinach with black truffles, buttered mashed potatoes and twice-baked gratin potatoes ($12).  The “whipped potato puree” ($8) is not worth the effort; it's soupy.  But you’ve got to go with the goose fat potatoes ($12), which are worth every guilty bite. Their desserts have a lot of heft, not least the signature chocolate cake ($16), though it’s really only another mile high version of those thousand-layer cakes steakhouses seem to mount without much thought of density or moistness.  No matter how many people at your table, you’ll take the cake slice home.
         One more thing about Strip House I applaud.  On the menu is written “As a courtesy please take phone calls outside.”  Not every guest is going to pay attention--not to mention those tables of women with their iPhones at the ready in the big loud dining room--but it’s an attempt to bring back a time when civilized behavior precluded such things.  People used to know without being told.

Strip House Midtown is open nightly from 5 PM.




By Mort Hochstein

        It was a perfect summer day, not a cloud in sight.
       A gentle breeze sent waves rippling through the field of barley. And if you listened closely, the rustling sound could have been a musical riff.  From the deck at Hillrock Estate distillery (above), we had a picture postcard view of greenery, whispering battalions of grain and, on a rise overlooking this bucolic scene, a restored 1806 mansion.
        Craft distilleries, like artisan beer breweries, are sprouting up in many parts of the country. Hillrock Estate, about an hour's ride north of NYC, is a little under three years old and, even at this early stage, is turning out fine bourbon, rye, and single malt whiskey. It is easy to see why entrepreneur Jeffrey Baker chose the lush farmland of New York's Columbia County for his venture. This gorgeous site, near the town of 
Ancram, is far off the well-traveled roads that lead north to the tourist attractions of the Berkshires and west to Albany, the state's capital. This is getaway weekend country for the Wall Street crowd and the horsey set, though there are few signs of equine activity in the manicured fields surrounding the distillery, visitor center, malt house and granary.
Baker proudly describes his distillery as “field to glass,” meaning that farming, malting and distilling are totally integrated on site. He is particularly proud of the malt house, which revives an ancient procedure seldom seen in contemporary distilleries. Malted grain is a vital element in beer and whiskey, providing enzymes needed to convert the grain's starches into sugars and to break down proteins that yeast transforms into alcohol.
Malting involves steeping grain in water for several days to allow it to absorb moisture and start to sprout.  When the grain is nearly 50% liquid, it is spread out on a malting floor (above), where it is raked by hand and constantly turned around for about five days until it is air dried.  This calls for considerable manual labor.
On my first trip to Scotland many years ago (Ancram is named after a town in Scotland) I saw malting floors at many distilleries. They are a rarity now, having been supplanted by more advanced forms of drying, usually conducted at facilities designed for large-scale malting. Baker's artisan approach called for the first malting floor to be built in the United States since Prohibition.  It is then distilled in copper stills (left).
Hillrock uses the solera process, traditionally employed to create sherries, ports, brandy and some Scotch whiskeys. The solera is a stack of casks where small amounts of mature whiskey are drawn from the lowest barrel and replaced by an equal measure of younger whiskeys flowing in steps from the stack. There is never an empty barrel and the average age and complexity increases over time as the younger whiskey matures on its downward journey.
Hillrock’s Solera Aged Bourbon ($86), which is finished for five weeks in 20-year-old Oloroso Sherry casks, is the first Solera aged whiskey to be made in the United States.
        Dave Pickerell, previously with Maker's Mark Distillery, is master distiller for all Hillrock products. Though he spends most of his time at Hillrock, he is also master distiller for George Washington’s Distillery at Mount Vernon and consults for other producers. In addition to 
the Solera Aged Bourbon, Pickerell’s current Hillrock portfolio includes a Double Cask Rye ($90), Estate Single Malt ($100) and George Washington’s Rye Whiskey ($50). Hillrock's line is technically available only in NYC, but several Manhattan retailers carrying the line can make ordering and shipping arrangements.
Pickerell has been in the business for three decades and is a man of strong opinions, one being that American whiskey is the world's best. "It goes from moonshine all the way up to refined, ultra-premium bourbons and ryes and everything in between. Not only do we have the history and tradition of big boys that have refined the whiskey-making process for hundreds of years, but we also have an incredibly large and vibrant craft community that is taking all of this knowledge and expanding it in new directions.  I think we’re moving out of `just give me vodka,’ and the cocktail culture is a part of it. People want to be stimulated, the want to taste all kinds of interesting forms."

        Change comes rapidly these days, particularly among the “big boys” Pickerell cites.  Jack Daniel's, the Tennessee whiskey that cannot legally be called bourbon--and vice versa--because of its unique mellowing procedures, lists nearly three dozen line extensions, and continues to experiment, a recent innovation being honey-flavored bourbon.
Jack Daniel's was first to register during the early 1860s, when the federal government began regulating and taxing whiskey, and its plant in Lynchburg, Tennessee, is America’s oldest registered distillery, listed on the National Register of Historic Places (below).  Its popularity soared in the '80s and '90s when Frank Sinatra embraced it.  The singer plugged Jack Daniel's unashamedly and rarely appeared without a bottle of Old Number 7 ($22), which he referred to simply as “Jack,” nearby.
Capitalizing on the relationship, the distillery created a special Frank Sinatra bottling (below) that jumped off the store shelves so fast that it could not meet demand.  Originally sold only at the Jack Daniel's visitors center and at airports, Sinatra Select ($175) is somewhat more available now, though it's a bottle that store owners often keep under the counter for favored customers.
        While his competitors switched to less time-consuming methods of making whiskey, Mr. Jack, as the distiller was known, stuck with his charcoal-mellowing process, mellowing the spirit through ten feet of charcoal derived from hard sugar maple. That made Jack Daniel's whiskey three times as long to produce and about twice as expensive, but it also gave it a smooth, refined character. Mellowing this way changed the product enough that the government gave it a special designation as “Tennessee Whiskey.”
Display cases at the Visitors Center in Lynchburg are lined with limited run and anniversary bottlings, as well as experiments with new flavors. Many have been produced to meet the demand for something new and different or something striking enough to draw public attention, like Tennessee Honey ($22) or Tennessee Fire ($22), tasting something like cinnamon candy.
Travelers can tour the Jack Daniel's plant by calling the visitors center at 931-759- 6357.  Tourists are also welcome at Hillrock, though there is no formal program, except during an occasional open house. Call 518-329-1023.  .




Eleven servers and busboys filed a lawsuit against 
Ji Sung Yoo, owner  of  NYC's Kum Gang San restaurant, alleging they were forced to work 18-hour shifts with no overtime, attend Sunday church service conducted at the restaurant, pick cabbage at a NJ farm, and face "humiliation, termination, and threats of blacklisting and deportation." Mr. Yoo was also alleged to tell his employees to  "drop on their knees and beg for his forgiveness, or leave" if they did not attend farm days. The workers say they had to mow the lawn, do laundry, shovel snow at Ji Sung Yoo's house, and help his son move.


A highway in North Yorkshire, England,  was blocked in both directions when  a truck accidentally overturned and dumped its  load of instant mashed potato mix all over the pavement, causing unsafe driving conditions when the instant potato mix started expanding into mashed potatoes (right).  Police initially treated the potatoes with chemicals to attempt to freeze them, which did not work. The fire department was then called out to try to blast the mashed potatoes off the road with high-powered hoses.


 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.

"This book is amazing! It has entries for everything from `abalone' to `zwieback,' plus more than 500 recipes for classic American dishes and drinks."--Devra First, The Boston Globe.

"Much needed in any kitchen library."--Bon Appetit.

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,  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: PATAGONIA

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. Editor: Walter Bagley. Contributing Writers: Christopher Mariani, Robert Mariani,   John A. Curtas, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Andrew Chalk,  and Brian Freedman. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery,  Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.

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