Jeff Bridges, Steve Buscemi and John Goodman in "The Big Lebowski" (1998)
IN THIS ISSUE
FORT LAUDERDALE GROWS UP
By John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
Why Bordeaux Matters
By John Mariani
FORT LAUDERDALE GROWS UP
Kaluz Restaurant, Fort
Fort Lauderdale may never shake its image as the most iconic Spring Break city after being portrayed in Cinemascope in the 1960 movie “Where the Boys Are,” in which Connie Francis, Yvette Mimieux, Dolores Hart, Jim Hutton, George Hamilton and other young stars spend 90 minutes trying to succeed in, or ward off, sexual conquest.
Although the city never exploited its nefarious image, it made money from it while enduring the annual debaucheries on its beaches and in its motels. But, as the “scene” got more and more decadent with each succeeding decade, the local leaders and police began cracking down on the excesses, while trying to create a Fort Lauderdale that was a far more inclusive vacation destination for grown-ups and families the other fifty weeks of the year.
Indeed, anyone who visits Fort Lauderdale other than during Spring Break will find a city intent on boosting its arts and culture, which range from the burgeoning Museum of Art to the 35-acre Bonnet House Museum & Gardens. The strip known as Las Olas makes for a good stroll for food and boutiques, and there’s always the fine white sand beach and the blue water beyond. The IGFA Fishing Hall of Fame & Museum is here, too, and a whole lot of gastropubs and breweries, like the cavernous Funky Buddha Brewery Tap Room, which you may tour.
On a recent trip to Fort Lauderdale, I tried to find various aspects of the city’s gastronomy, starting with checking into the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort at North Beach (left), which manifests a judicious balance of luxury and relaxed style, all its rooms with balconies overlooking the ocean.
It also has one of the best restaurants in Florida, which should not come as a surprise, since upscale hotel chains in the U.S. have really put their money where their mouths are, at least in their premier restaurants. Here it is called S3, whose name derives from “Sun, Sea and Sand.” The restaurant is part in and part outdoors, with a fire pit on the patio. The menu consists of what used to be called Fusion Cuisine, but it also draws on the ideas of Flor-ibbean food cultures, so that you might begin with some stellar sushi and sashimi (below) with guacamole components, an array of fanciful specialty rolls (below)—try the Red Dragon with crispy shrimp, crab, avocado, mango and tobiko--or goat’s cheese croquettes crusted with almonds and served with red chili guava.
This is a nosher’s menu, so bring friends and share dishes like the paella-style seafood heaped with chorizo, shrimp, clams, mussels and scallops with fregola grain, or the Vietnamese chicken wings, a terrific, zesty item with peanuts and a green papaya salad. Ricotta gnocchi in a fennel leek fondue with peas and shiitakes was a canny rendering, and shortribs with smoked calabaza puree showed a good deal of spark and imagination. The baked macaroni and cheese (below) needs no imagination, just a big fork and spoon.
From the wood-fired oven comes a smoky, coffee-rubbed skirt steak, nicely chewy and very juicy, with yucca and hot chimichurri, A lot of people will spot the brisket sliders with mustard BBQ sauce and chow chow on the menu and just go for it.
As I said, you could just order plenty of these small plate dishes and be very happy with cold beer or a good wine, but there are also large plates, like marinated lamb chops with chickpeas, tomato, feta, olives and lemon or a beef ribeye with a cippollini mushroom ragôut, that show a Mediterranean drift.
Another of Fort Lauderdale’s more lavish restaurants is the huge Kaluz, set on the Intracoastal Waterway. The glass-walled restaurant, with Argentine owners, draws a glamorous crowd on the prowl, starting at the patio bar. In fact, you can sidle up to the mooring side of the restaurant, hop off your yacht and join the throng of women for whom a well-earned tan is as requisite stiletto heels.
Kaluz tries hard to be everything for everybody. You want sandwiches? There are several burgers and a chicken club. Salads? Eight of them, including Thai noodle and shrimp with coconut and peanuts. The seared tuna sushi (below) is very good and generously proportioned (market price).
They serve first-rate Bell & Evans roast chicken with herbs and parmesan mashed potatoes ($17), so why do they buy inferior Australian rack of lamb? And, while the NY strip steak ($39)—a 16-ounce Sterling Silver Premium Choice--had plenty of beefy flavor, and a loaded baked potato, there’s little to be said for the flavorless and boneless 14-ounce prime rib. The Bar Harbor crabcake ($32) with remoulade was good and generous enough, but the advertised “jumbo lump crab” was in short supply in the cake I had. The best of the desserts, as you might hope in Florida, is the Key lime pie ($8)with a delicious graham cracker and pecan crust.
There’s a modest wine list, but the “Captain’s List” is where the most interesting, and expensive, bottles reside.
At the opposite end of the city’s diningscape is Hot & Soul, a small storefront—and one that’s very easy to miss within a strip mall—that since opening in 2013 has really won the hearts and appetites of the locals. But now the word is out among visitors, so owners Christy and Mike Samoy (below) work very hard to meet expectations with a big menu appended by blackboard specials.
Hot & Soul is the kind of place where you get plenty of both, and the soul comes from the fervid commitment of the couple to cook as they like without cooking anything people won’t crave after trying it.
My friends and I ate from all over the menu and, had we not filled up so greedily on the “Gnaughty Gnocchi” with oxtail meat, tomatoes, basil and assertive pecorino, and the hearty Gumbo Yumbo of chicken and hot andouille with rice (below), we might have eaten everything on the menu.
The Manchego cheese mushroom toast with sherry cream was a delight, and a simple salad was as refreshing as any I’d had last summer—Bibb lettuce, arugula, tomatoes then at their peak, sweet onion, hearts of palm and a sherry mustard vinaigrette.
I also loved the Holay Mole made with pork shoulder, red rice, pinto beans and a finely shredded jalapeño slaw.
We forced ourselves to try two wonderful desserts—dulce de leche custard with candied cashews, caramel toast, and banana jam and dark chocolate pistachio and sea salt bark drizzled with extra virgin olive oil.
Hot & Soul delivers on all that it promises, which seems at first modest—as are the two idiosyncratically decorated rooms—but the food takes a lot of skill, a lot of creativity and a whole lot of soul.
The maritime décor in what is a 1925 house, the rich colors, and the conviviality of the room, ringing with the sound of people having a very good time, is the backdrop for dishes you really can’t find anywhere else. The coffee is good and the cups big. The ingredients are obviously the finest owner Rodney Eli, Kansas born, can obtain. Its milk is not homogenized, so it retains the cream, on the top; the bread is made for them right down the block; sausage is made in-house; eggs come from free-range chickens; the maple syrup is from Vermont, costing $70 a gallon. So prices are higher than at an IHOP or a Waffle House, but O-B’s food is worth every extra penny, especially Chef Aaron Johnson’s now famous buttermilk pancakes ($12), which overflow the plate. They are puffy and moist, cooked in a cast-iron skillet till golden brown and speckled. A variant is the delightful, well textured corn pancake ($14).
You can build your own omelet ($14-$16), and, this being the South, they make big, beautiful biscuits covered with pork sausage gravy; and this being Florida, they serve oven-baked mahi fillet with eggs, Yukon gold potatoes, and cheese grits on toast ($15). You can bank on the mahi being unstintingly fresh, the potatoes buttery, and the grits glistening hot from the pot on toast made from good bread.
O-B is an original, and I’m glad Eli hasn’t cloned it. For, even if the food were as good, nothing else would be quite the same.
Oh, and Eli’s playlist of the best songs of the ‘60s and ‘70s, played softly, makes a breakfast here like a breakfast at home when you’ve got your favorite station on the old transistor radio.
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
461 West 23rd Street
to believe Chef David Pasternack opened the West
Side seafood restaurant Esca fourteen years ago
and that it is still going strong for its
deceptively simple preparations with an Italian
with the opening of Barchetta (“little boat”) with
partner John Meadow of LDV Hospitality, he moves
the marker closer to the Italian Mediterranean.
By all means start with the crudi, raw fish of a kind Pasternack was among the first to bring to New York. They are pristine examples of the day’s market offerings, best appreciated in a tasting of six, in two flights ($28), which may include vermillion snapper, mahi mahi, red albacore, bluefish, and oysters.
The antipasti range from crisply fried bianchette ($16), little silver fish you eat like French fries, to raw baccalà ($18), made from Spanish salt cod—and the salt was overpowering—with delicious wild mushrooms and watercress.
Primi are pasta dishes, which were surprisingly not winners: ravioli puttanesca’s spicy tomato and saffron ($22) wiped out the flavor of the tuna belly, and tasty bavette noodles ($23) had very little of the jumbo lump crab meat promised, with wild onion flowers and toasted breadcrumbs.
The main seafood courses were all as expected from the man who wrote the fine cookbook Young Man and the Sea (2007): true Scottish salmon, velvety and light in flavor came with wild arugula and pine nut pesto ($26), while a blackened kingfish steak with succotash ($27) had real gusto to it. Orata (sea bream) comes whole, with capers and rosemary ($28), exactly as you’d have it at a trattoria on Capri, and spigola nero ($28), black bass, was just as simply—and admirably--done, with crispy potatoes.
There are also three non-seafood dishes on the menu.
For dessert I loved the almond tart with yellow peaches; a budino chocolate cake with pink peppercorns and tequila-laced cream, a fruit crostata with vanilla gelato; and a butter cream caramel gelato with sesame brittle (all $12).
I find the prices at Barchetta remarkably modest considering the quality of seafood served, and it is to Pasternack’s credit that his long familiarity with the mongers rewards him and his guests with first quality ingredients.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
WHY BORDEAUX WILL ALWAYS MATTER
By John Mariani
If, as I do, you drink wine every day of your life, the number of outstanding bottlings versus the decent, drinkable ones and the ones poured down the drain is fairly small. But when one of those outstanding bottles comes along—and they are not always the priciest of wines—they are often a reminder of something fundamental about wine, something you might have discovered when you drank your first great wine long ago.
This wonderment was brought into sharp focus the other night when I poured a 2005 Château Lassègue Grand Cru Saint-Émilion ($150), an estate on the Dordogne River’s Right Bank (left), near the pretty town of Libourne.
I chose it to accompany a grilled veal chop, and from the first sip I was set back on my chair, almost wistfully, because I knew I was drinking not just a great red wine but one that is as expressive as any in Bordeaux of a varietal flavor, complexity, and the beneficent workings of climate, soil and time.
It reminded me of the time, back in 1967, when a college friend and I pooled our resources to by a bottle of Lafite-Rothschild for seven dollars, then a not paltry amount of money for a red wine. I remember clearly that I was tasting something I had never tasted before, a wine that summed up what wine truly is—a confluence of natural and human factors and the coincidence of the right winemaker being at the right terroir.
The Lassègue was like that, a quintessential Bordeaux, the kind of wine that defines not just a region but a standard for cabernet sauvignon-based blends. The binding tannins had loosened, the merlot had done its softening work, and the other grapes brought nuance in every sip. This is what a red wine should taste like—not a fruit bomb, not a massive, tannic explosion, not a high alcohol wine made solely to win beauty contests.
The estate, dominated by a 17th century chateau, is very old but had gone into some decline before Americans Barbara Banke and the late Jess Jackson, along with Pierre and Monique Seillan, bought these 60 acres of south-southwest-facing vineyards. They took a decade to restore the château’s architecture while pouring money into reviving the vineyards, implementing new trellising, drainage, cover crops, state-of-the-art equipment, and new cellars for aging the wines.
Seillan, a Gascon, also put into action his “micro-cru” philosophy, by which each vineyard block is divided into small micro-crus according to soil types and terroir. Seillan even handpicks the oak trees from 15 specific forests to craft his aging barrels. The estate’s vines average from forty to fifty years old, with a yield no more than thirty-five hectoliters of fruit per hectare.
I asked Seillan (below) some questions that will affect the Bordeaux wine market in the future.
The evolution of viticulture is more evident than in winemaking. Today, we have a better selection in the vineyards, because we are all selecting out the clusters. As a whole we are no longer pushing production and are focused on lower yields and better quality. For instance, we may employ early leaf-pulling after bloom, to improve the ripening of the crop
Because of global warming, the brix is higher so there is no longer the need for chaptalization. But if global warming continues over the next 30 years, we will see changes in the terroir. It is important to note that in Bordeaux we would have a terrible time dealing with the effect of global warming—the driest terroirs would be in critical condition, and we would have to reconsider techniques like irrigation similar to California.
This totally depends on the nature of the wines: simple Bordeaux or first growths? Top growths have an unpredictable pricing attitude. About 5 percent of the production in Bordeaux is classified as First Growths, and the pricing is always led by this group. Of course, many factors go into the pricing: quality of the vintage, then currency rates, the international demand, and the opinion of the most influential media.
4. Does China seem to be a future market for his wines or do they only want to buy the Premier Crus?
Absolutely, this is a market that is interested in our wines. Right now Château Lassègue does not have distribution, but we have had success in the past with Vérité. As China progresses and develops as a market we expect to see the potential and interest increase.
AN ODD WAY TO BEGIN
AN ARTICLE ON ARUBA
been in the lobby of our hotel in Oranjestad,
Aruba’s capital, for only a few minutes when the
Dutch territory’s Arcadian `One Happy Island’ front
was shattered by a desk clerk whose petulance hit me
like a left hook straight to the temple. As she
delivered the rules and regulations like a stern
lecture, scolding my daughter and me for the simple
offense of standing before her, my mind drifted back
home to New York City. There I was, at Mendez Boxing
gym, and there she was, standing in place of my
favorite heavy bag.”—Raquel Cepeda, “On an
Island Hunt for Pieces of My History,” NY Times
(Aug 17, 2014).
Gina and Pat Neely, the hosts of the Food Network's "Down Home With the Neelys" and owners of Neely's Barbecue Parlor in NYC, the Upper East Side, announced that they will divorce after 20 years of marriage. People reported the pair's split by noting that in the past year Gina went on the "weight-loss challenge" sponsored by George Foreman Grill, while Pat did food and cooking videos with Family Dollar.
A BIG ANNOUNCEMENT!
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“He had me at Page One. The amount of heart, human insight, soul searching, and deft literary strength that John Mariani pours into this airtight novella is vertigo-inducing. Perhaps ‘wow’ would be the best comment.” – James Dalessandro, author of Bohemian Heart and 1906.
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❖❖❖FEATURED LINKS: I am happy to report that the Virtual Gourmet is linked to four excellent travel sites:
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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, ForbesTraveler.com and Elle Decor. "I’ve designed this site is for people who take their travel seriously," says Potter. "For travelers who want to learn about special places but don’t necessarily want to pay through the nose for the privilege of staying there. Because at the end of the day, it’s not so much about five-star places as five-star experiences." THIS WEEK:
Eating Las Vegas is the new on-line site for Virtual Gourmet contributor John A. Curtas., who since 1995 has been commenting on the Las Vegas food scene and reviewing restaurants for Nevada Public Radio. He is also the restaurant critic for KLAS TV, Channel 8 in Las Vegas, and his past reviews can be accessed at KNPR.org. Click on the logo below to go directly to his site.
Tennis Resorts Online: A 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).
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