Virtual Gourmet

  February 22,  2015                                                                                             NEWSLETTER

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"The Oyster Lover" by Honoré Daumier (1836)


By John Curtas


By John Mariani

by Andrew Chalk



By John Curtas

    Oscar Goodman--the man, the myth, the martini mob mayor--is not exactly my cup of tea. It's not like we have ever had any sort of feud.  We’ve never squared off in court, despite both being practicing lawyers in Las Vegas for decades, and we barely knew each other until he ran for mayor in 1999. As a politician, he became obliged to get to know everybody, and as a person who respects thoughtful, human dignity, I was obliged to avoid him and his ever-present martini glass as much as possible.

     When I first arrived in Las Vegas in 1981, Goodman’s reputation as a mouthpiece for the mob was already well established. As that career was winding down, Goodman did not want to go quietly into that good night, or feet first like many of his clients. Had it not been for his desire to stay in the spotlight in his later years, this highly visible  criminal lawyer would have retired with a legacy of getting rich by representing a murderer’s row of model citizens with names like “Fat Herbie,” “The Knife,” “Ace,” “Lefty” and “The Ant.”

       As various inconvenient circumstances (prison, murder, witness protection) befell his paying customers throughout the '80s and '90s, Goodman saw the handwriting on the wall. But exhibitionist/egomaniac that he is, he couldn't resist another chance to be on stage, and thus was his political career launched fifteen years ago.  That career, from 1999 to 2011, was audacious on many levels. To say he had a blast as a three-term Mayor of Las Vegas would be an understatement. To say he got away with enough guffaws, gaffs and gasps to sink a thousand political ships would also be overly modest. No one saw him smoking crack in a hotel room, or  running over people in City Hall, but it's a fair bet that his boozy, impolitic behavior---he told a fourth grade class his hobby was drinking martinis--would have had any other politician in America thrown out on their ear.    

      Not Oscar though. Acting the clown just made him more popular, and you’ve got to hand it to someone who can seduce a landslide majority of    the people to vote for him, in three consecutive elections. (Local law prevented him from seeking a fourth term.) No doubt Oscar Goodman could talk a tadpole out of a mud pond. What he can't do is run a restaurant.

         And he doesn't even try to. Whatever licensing deal he has with The Plaza Hotel and Casino has nothing to do with his culinary skills or restaurant business acumen. He is unabashedly in it for the ego, the money (which he doesn't need), and one more chance to enhance his big-shot status. He probably also enjoys eating and drinking for free, and always getting a table with his name on it, but take it from me, it doesn't take much in Vegas to accomplish that.

       When I first heard of the gimmicky concept for Oscar's Beef Booze & Broads three years ago, I was less than impressed, and said so.   My meals there were, to be kind, underwhelming. About a year and half ago, I stopped by for a quick bite and noticed that the place had rounded into form--the service smoother, the staff more professional, and some dishes (especially the beef) were more carefully cooked. Even with these improvements, though, nothing about the place showed me that it belonged on even the second tier of Vegas’s great steakhouses.

Were it not for the entreaties of executives at the hotel to come check it out again (and give them my honest opinion), I might never have given hizzoner, or his steaks, a second thought for the rest of my life. But as a favor to them, I went, ate and was pleasantly surprised by some dishes, blown away by others, and seriously disappointed by a few.

      The strong points--the service, decor, bar--have only gotten better, and some menu weaknesses have been ironed out (the bread and butter much improved). The meat may not be Japanese A-5, but it is B+ to A- American steer, and they know how to handle it on the grill. Where Oscar's deserves demerits, though, is in the careless execution of the lesser dishes, and for something vague and inchoate that's missing from the formula: It's a feeling, an emotional response to the food that is strangely absent, and a room that evinces more corporate calculation than nostalgia and charm.

     A great steakhouse is equal parts attitude and appetite. Steakhouse fare is iconic American restaurant fare. We invented the steakhouse and still do the best ones on Earth. If you want to see what the early ones looked like, plan a pilgrimage to  Peter Luger's (est.1887) in Brooklyn, where the 19th century beer hall ambiance remains as untouched as a  Grover Cleveland diet book. The best ones are in New York City--where the genre first took hold--and whether they are sleek and new, or hallowed and ancient, they reek of beefy masculinity so strong you could cut the testosterone wafting about with a knife. 

     America's second best steakhouse town is Las Vegas. The great ones have a swagger about them that is palpable--sort of like a certain gin-loving ex-mayor we know. In Oscar's case, as you can see, much of the food is not oh and ah worthy. Take the crab cakes (right). They are perfectly fine, plump with more backfin than lump meat, but lightly bound with a minimum of filler. They sit somewhat forlornly on a big white plate, flanked by two schmears of sauce that lack in both volume and piquancy. There is nothing wrong with these crab cakes, but they won't have anyone leaving the joint saying, "Damn, I can't wait to come back for those crab cakes."

     The same could be said of the shrimp cocktail--big and juicy and plenty shrimpy, but also looking like they were thrown on the plate as an afterthought.

       Truly terrible was the creamed spinach (left), looking and tasting like barely wilted greens swimming in milk. The Caesar salad looks right but tastes as if lemon, anchovy and garlic had never made its acquaintance. It's not a bad salad; it's just a bland salad.

       On the plus side, the Alpine Village Famous Chicken Supreme Soup makes up in flavor what it lacks in appearance. It also tastes exactly like the original (if our 25-year-old taste memory serves). All that's missing is the bathtub-sized bowl of raw veggie crudités that used to be on every table at the German restaurant on Paradise Road.

      The mac n' cheese is a thick, gloppy, cheesy delight (if you love such things), as were the au gratin potatoes. And the veal chop is terrific, not the quality of the one at Picasso, but as good as you're going to find in town, for about ten bucks less than is charged on the Strip. That bone-in rib eye is no slouch either, and a bargain compared with what you'll pay two miles to the south. The same can be said of all steaks here. They're so good that anyone who even thinks of ordering fish or chicken should have their head examined.

     The wine list is short, but well chosen, with plenty of bottles under $100; try finding that at the Wynncore.

     Just about the time those delicious cuts were erasing all memories of the Caesar and spinach, the desserts showed up and laid an egg. There was an apple thing laden with globs of cornstarch and a tiramisu thing that looked like snowball cupcakes. I should’ve quit while I was ahead.

     So-so vittles or not, Oscar--the man, the restaurant, the boozy, spotlight hogging politician--is clearly ahead of the game. The popularity of all three incarnations remains high, and even on slow weekday nights this place will still be half full.

     Patrons from all over the country book tables in hopes of getting a glimpse of the Mob Lawyer Mayor. Maybe some of his odd charisma will rub off on them (they hope). Maybe Oscar’s will be a once-in-a-lifetime, only-in-Vegas experience. Maybe his steakhouse will be everything Goodman the man is: outrageous, over-the-top and one-of-a-kind.

     Instead, what they will find are some very good steaks served amidst hits and misses on the menu, in a room that ought to feel like a stage set in the movie of Oscar Goodman’s colorful life, instead of a fancified hotel dining room with a domed ceiling at the foot of Fremont Street.

And when it comes down to it, that’s really the problem with Oscar’s. For a steakhouse in a steakhouse town named after a guy with chutzpah and personality, it has none of one, and very little of the other.

      Oh, the irony.


In The Plaza Hotel and Casino

1 Main Street




By John Mariani


Chelsea Market
75 Ninth Avenue

    The diversity of restaurant styles in NYC never ceases to amaze me.  Once upon a time the city’s ethnic restaurants fit into pretty standard categories—haute cuisine classic French, Italian-American, Sichuan and Hunan, teppanyaki, and so on.  But the variations on all genres keep NYC first among American cities, as this week review shows.

    The maze of eateries in Chelsea Market is like one of those “Laughter in the Dark” rides at amusement parks where you turn a corner and are surprised by what pops into view: Amy’s Bread, Bar Suzette, Buddakhan, Doughnuttery, The Green Table, l’Arte de Gelato, Morimoto, One Lucky Duck, and The Lobster Place.  At this last, some of the city’s finest seafood is sold, and attached to the market is Cull  & Pistol Oyster Bar, a slip of a seafood restaurant where exec chef David Seigal is going way beyond the typical seafood menu.

    A cull is a lobster that has lost one of its claws, a pistol one that’s lost both, and in addition to a wide variety of oysters written on a blackboard (right), there are some delightful lobster dishes like lobster pho ($19) with vermicelli noodles, mussels, hake, chili, coriander, mint, lime, and bean sprouts, as well as a fine rendering of a Maine-style lobster roll (below) made with chilled lobster salad with mayonnaise and scallions, or Connecticut Style, warmed in lobster butter and lemon with  mayonnaise toasted top split bun accompanied by excellent French fries (market price).

    Seigal grew up on the shores of Long Island, during college worked on a fishing boat, and became  an accomplished sports fisherman. His culinary cred comes from stints at Jean-Georges, Bouley, and top-tier restaurants abroad before returning to NYC to become chef at Mercat and now at Cull & Pistol, where his menu changes daily, wholly dependent on what’s fresh in the Lobster Palace next door--which must be every chef’s dream.  With this cornucopia of raw product he creates dishes like baby octopus braised in tomatoes with blue corn grits, oregano and olives ($16) and one of the best pasta dishes in NYC--bucatini carbonara with sea urchins,  whitefish, and bacon lardons ($15 to $21).  Everything just clicks into place.   

    There is a nightly salt-baked whole fish done simply with lemon, thyme and garlic marinade ($27) and his miso-glazed hamachi collar with a mushroom dashi, scallions, honshimeji mushrooms, and yuzu koshu oil ($24) shows his global reach.  You can also have a Clambake Dinner for Two ($79), teeming with a 1.5 lb lobster, mussels, shrimp, chorizo, corn on the cob and fingerling potatoes, served family style in a rich shellfish broth.  

     The premises are dominated by a long, very popular metal-topped counter in front of a spanking white tile wall.  Here people slurp up their Wellfleets, Apalachicolas, belons, and other nightly species. Opposite is a brick wall lined with tables and hanging light bulbs.  The waitstaff is extremely knowledgeable about the night’s offerings, and the wine and beer list is crafted to go with Seigal’s seasonings and components, and most wines are under $50.  By comparison, the desserts like pear galette and a chocolate-peanut butter semifreddo  ($9) are all right if nothing unique.

       Cull & Pistol is always a happy place, loud, as you might expect, but not ear-splitting,  and by being as small as it is, the guarantee of freshness and creativity is evident in every dish.  


Open every day for lunch and dinner.





By Andrew Chalk


    Provence. The word conjures up fields of lavender and sweeping hillsides of vines set against craggy stone backdrops and mountains immortalized by Cézanne and Picasso. Since the 1989 publication of Peter Mayle’s classic A Year In Provence and the movie version called "A Good Year" (right) the region has also stood for a certain bucolic lifestyle set in a land of nature’s bounty. 
    Part of that bounty is wine, and the wine of Provence is rosé. Almost 90% of region's production goes to produce the pink or salmon colored beverage. Latching onto a global trend toward more rosé consumption, Provence production has grown at a steady 10% a year for the past decade and Provence now accounts for 5% of world rosé production. France is the largest market, where rosé is now more popular than white wine, and the U.S. is number two. Together, they account for just under half of the region’s output. Among rosé producing areas of the world, Provence is in the top tier. 

    Perhaps it was the growing popularity of Provence rosé that led Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie to purchase an estate there and release its wine, Château Miraval, which received positive expert reviews. While Hollywood producer Scott Rudin may consider her “a minimally talented spoiled brat,” she and Brad were hands off, leaving the winemaking to one of France’s most respected winemakers, Famille Perrin

    Provence is 100 miles wide, stretching from Nice to Aix-en-Provence and from the Alps to the Mediterranean sea. Both the climate and the soil change as one moves around the region. The French classify the best designated wine regions as AOP (Appellation d’Originé Protégée). AOP delimits an area of grape production, sets rules regarding which grapes can be used, and sets production standards, such as maximum permitted yields. Beyond knowing the producer itself, it is the consumer’s best guide to a wine’s quality. In Provence there are three AOPs, reflecting three distinct growing areas within the region. Côtes de Provence  (literally, slopes/hills of Provence), Côteaux d’Aix-en-Provence (hills of Aix-en-Provence) and Côteaux Varois en Provence (hills of the Var in Provence). You will see Côtes de Provence wines most of all as it accounts for 72% of total AOP Provence production. 

    All of the rosé wines are made from some blend of four key grapes: Grenache, Cinsault, Mourvèdre and Tibouren. Additionally, Syrah, Counoise and Cabernet Sauvignon are sometimes used. The method of production is to crush the grapes and let the juice macerate with the skins just long enough for the color to turn pink. At that point the juice is run off from the skins into tanks to ferment into wine.

    Fortunately, more and more of the best wines are becoming available in this country. Here are some that I can recommend. Most will be 2013 vintage, with the 2014s appearing later in the year.


Caves d’Esclans, Les Clans, Côtes de Provence. $65

These folks are extremely proud of their wine. Hence the pricing at about three times everybody else. This is an elegant wine. However, it is down to your palate to decide whether it is worth it.


Domaine Houchart, Côtes de Provence. $15 (below)

Bargain example of Provence wine. Some Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend. The Cabernet Sauvignon give this wine the grippy backbone associated with Cabernet-based rosés. Fruity rather than terroir-driven.


Mâites Vignerons de la Vidaubanaise, Le Provencal, Côtes de Provence. $15

Another bargain. Made from 50% Grenache, 20% Cinsault, 20% Carignan and 10% Syrah fermented separately for maximum varietal fruit extraction. The bottle is the traditional Provencal flute à corset. This wine has a complexity beyond what its price would lead you expect.


Château de Berne, Terres de Berne, Côtes de Provence. $20.

Glorious salmon color. Made from 50% Cinsault, 40% Grenache and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. The distinctive square bottle belies a wine that scored 90/100 points in The Wine Enthusiast. The pinkness of the color differs from the wines above. Light, herbaceous nose and raspberries in the mouth. Plus, more oomph than the pale pink color would lead you to expect.


Domaine de Rimauresq, Rimauresq, Côtes de Provence - Cru Classé. $24.

Barely tinted pink, this wine is a blend of all four core varieties, plus Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and the white grape Rolle (the French name for Vermentino). Light, with raspberry, melon and floral notes. Chalky minerality.


Commanderie de la Bargemone, Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence. $19.

This wine uses 6% white varieties (Sauvignon Blanc, Ugni Blanc and Rolle) as well as the standard red grapes. Robert Parker gave this wine 90/100 points, noting its “pretty notes of mineral water, melon rind and orange blossom . . . .” I would concur and add reference to the limestone mineral backbone.






A tip-off to police in Anambra, Nigeria, led to the discovery at the hotel restaurant  of two human heads wrapped in cellophane  AK-47 guns and other weapons were also seized.  One local told the  Osun Defender newspaper: "I always noticed funny movements in and out of the hotel; dirty people with dirty characters always come into the hotel." A local pastor said they sold human meat at the price of 700 Nigerian nairas (about US$3.56).



"The building that houses Santina, the charismatic new restaurant from the Torrisi crew, is a gleaming glass box tucked under the High Line, like a festive sock drawer for twinkle toe delight. It’s filled with brilliance, bright blues and more shades of pink than a skin flick.  . . Through hidden speakers, the tinny Italian classics of the ’50s and ’60s clamor like an unchecked 3-year-old. There are palm fronds in bright pots and Sambuca above the bar in neat Warholian lines. Even the waiters, in their Rod Laver sneakers, virginal white pants and SoBe-hued polo shirts seem extruded through a super-saturated Insta-filter.--Joshua David Stein, "Bringing the Tastes of the Mediterranean to the Shores of the Hudson," NY Oberserver (2/3/15).




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

   I'm proud and happy to announce that my new book, The Hound in Heaven (21st Century Lion Books), has just been published through Amazon and Kindle. 
     It is a  novella, and for anyone who loves dogs, Christmas, romance, inspiration, even the supernatural, I hope you'll find this to be a treasured  favorite. The  story concerns how, after a New England teacher, his wife and their two daughters adopt a stray puppy found in their barn in northern Maine, their lives seem full of promise. But when tragedy strikes, their wonderful dog Lazarus and the spirit of Christmas are the only things that may bring back his master back from the edge of despair. 


“What a huge surprise turn this story took! I was completely stunned! I truly enjoyed this book and its message.” – Actress Ali MacGraw

“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.

“John Mariani’s Hound in Heaven starts with a well-painted portrayal of an American family, along with the requisite dog. A surprise event flips the action of the novel and captures us for a voyage leading to a hopeful and heart-warming message. A page turning, one sitting read, it’s the perfect antidote for the winter and promotion of holiday celebration.” – Ann Pearlman, author of The Christmas Cookie Club and A Gift for my Sister.

“John Mariani’s concise, achingly beautiful novella pulls a literary rabbit out of a hat – a mash-up of the cosmic and the intimate, the tragic and the heart-warming – a Christmas tale for all ages, and all faiths. Read it to your children, read it to yourself… but read it. Early and often. Highly recommended.” – Jay Bonansinga, New York Times bestselling author of Pinkerton’s War, The Sinking of The Eastland, and The Walking Dead: The Road To Woodbury.

“Amazing things happen when you open your heart to an animal. The Hound in Heaven delivers a powerful story of healing that is forged in the spiritual relationship between a man and his best friend. The book brings a message of hope that can enrich our images of family, love, and loss.” – Dr. Barbara Royal, author of The Royal Treatment.


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:

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,  Misha Mariani, John A. Curtas, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Andrew Chalk,  Dotty Griffith and Brian Freedman. Contributing Photographers: Galina Dargery,  Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.

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