Virtual Gourmet

  April 26,  2015                                                                                             NEWSLETTER

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Greta Garbo in "Queen Christina" (1933)



by Marcy MacDonald


By John Mariani



by Marcy MacDonald

        When 15th century Conquistadores sailed into Cozumel island off the eastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, they were within spyglass distance of the clifftop fortress of Tulum, one of the last city-states of the Maya people. Today, Tulum is at the epicenter of the Riviera Mayan foodie revolution, and Cozumel is an off-shore runner-up, particularly for traditional Yucatecon food and sophisticated international classics. The near-desert peninsula, which became a tourist mecca by design in the late 1970s, is a great place to jet ski, snorkel, scuba dive, swim, sail, ride horses, speed down a jungle zip line, or take one of the hundreds of tours to nearby modern beaches and faraway ancient archeological sites.          
     There are beaches galore, some natural, most part of a $70 million recovery project, although some of the man-made beaches feel a little like white sand sprinkled over cement. Stick to the north end of any beach for REAL beach (as opposed to the man-made dust jobs).  The relatively calm waters of the Nichupte lagoon boast water toys and games.
      Hotels range from the only nudist resort on the beach, the Hidden Beach Resort au Naturel Club, which has 42 rooms, to the fully clothed El Dorado Maroma Beachfront Resort, which has 72 suites and gourmet cuisine. There are all-inclusive, spa-centric resorts like Grand Velas (below) further along the Caribbean. Restaurante Frida in the Grand Velas features a modern take on ancient Mayan delicacies complemented by more than 85 brands of tequila. You can even sample a tasteful $1,000 Tequilas Premium Clase Azul popsicle with gold flakes. At Grand Velas, tequila is practically served as a kind of health drink.  The hot CoCo Bongo is the place to be seen — you and 3,000 other revelers — and the exclusive Bling is open after 6 p.m. Try the terrace bar and some sushi. 
If you're unclear about what to expect, remember that the 'all-inclusive' resorts have come a long, long way since they specialized in "hot-and-a-lot" cuisine and watered down drinks.  As a paradigm, take a close look at Sandos, the very loose chain of high-quality Spanish resorts that seem to have covered every base on the 'real' Mayan experience -- or as real as it can be away from the 15th century.
        As I flew over the peninsula, it was obvious that things had changed greatly since the 1970s, when Sheraton's big, beautiful resort had big, beautiful rubber buckets catching rainwater dripping from the high ceiling onto the luxurious, highly polished stone onyx floor.  I had considered the importation of the all-inclusive resort idea to this once-virgin part of the world to be be a huge mistake.  No longer. The bright coastal water is the same piercing turquoise, the beaches that impossible white that makes teeth look dull by comparison, and the peninsula is now a greenbelt destination for ecologists worldwide.
          Yucatan is literally lined with resorts and the businesses that thrive on them, both "duty free" and almost free. Just nine miles (and about as many minutes) from Cancun airport, the Sandos Luxury Experience Resort stands tall -- they're all tall -- at the water's edge.
       When Sandos resorts invited me to the Yucatan, I jumped at the chance to return to Mexico.  Our family had lived, however briefly, in Guadalajara when my father and Uncle Charlie had a factory there that produced Charlie's inventions, which never earned either of them a peso before they went broke.  Still, it developed in me a taste for Mexican food, including several kinds of explosive hot sauces, drink and celebrations.  Tequila, the product of blue agave, was born in Guadalajara, so at least that introduction wasn't necessary on this trip.  Today, there are hundreds of tequila and mezcal celebrations throughout the Yucatan, announced regularly in many of the 13 daily newspapers on the peninsula.  
                  Naturally, upon arrival at Sandos, we were handed a glass of something tropical and tasty and brought by elevator to the Club level of the resort while luggage was distributed to our enormous rooms (above)--mine was the size of a mini bowling alley.  Checking in was painless as not only do the hotelistas register you and encourage you to try all of the small plates of food surrounding you, Club rules seem to include alcohol throughout most of the waking hours. Room service is available around the clock with an international menu that includes everything from Mexican cheeses to cold -- and hot -- cuts of meat.
      We were wined and dined that evening at St. Trop (below), one of the resort's outdoor oceanside restaurants, where every nationality of food is ready and waiting.  A band played everything from the blues to "La Bamba." Preambles to spa treatments include drinks in St. Trop (right), where a variety of tequilas and margaritas taste as genuine as those at Tequila Central, aka: Guadalajara.  Cerveza flows from spigots and cans.  Waiters soon weigh the table down with samples of everything on the menu. 
At lunch the next day that amazing sea dazzled the eye and lapped against the shore while a band played tunes ranging from Broadway to Badass, beebop and "La Bamba."  The lunch menu offered a variety of snacks, salads, sandwiches and pizza (try the prawn pizza for a nice, new, not rubbery taste) selections, all in sizes ranging from 'bite-size" to "monster." Expertly mixed frozen cocktails with fresh fruit juices (the strawberry margarita went down like a smoothie), beers (XX is a favorite among visiting Southern Californians), and assorted drinks (the right temperature but not the right accent for a gin and tonic) were served by waiters who didn't seem to expect the tip we left.
         If I'd had a doggie bag, I would have used it just to collect the remains of the chicken and habanero (pow! zoom!) quesadilla and a couple of the nice, rolled up little non-greasy pork taquitos and fresh guacamole  in case a midnight snack was required. But the Sandos staff had other thoughts. A tap on the shoulder reminded me that a 90-minute Spa appointment had been booked, beginning in about five minutes. 
        As I headed into the Spa, I felt as if I should be banging a tambourine or doing the twerk as I passed the musicians.  As the fragrance of hibiscus overwhelmed me at the thick glass door, I floated into the women's locker room.  Spa Master Erika Lara welcomed me and took my medical/esoteric history. 
     Once the spa door had closed, the outdoor sounds became inaudible enough to hear inner peace trickling in.  A quick shower and wrap in a bathrobe so thick I practically bounced when I went for a little read in the waiting room with a glass of cooling hibiscus tea that went straight to my head.  I was about to do the sensible thing -- nod off -- when Theresa, the tiniest Mayan woman with the biggest hands I'd ever seen, called my name. The Spa mistress already had a long list of my ailments and she and the masseuse chatted in dialect as I finished reading about an upcoming U.N. meeting on conservation just down the coast.  For an hour and a half this tiny woman solved the problems of my universe. Sciatica: temporarily painless.  Torn rotator cuff: newly relaxed and loosened.  Her touch was so true that she practically massaged me under my vertibrae to ease the nerve pain.  At the end of it, I willingly tipped her 20% of the bill and would have tipped more if I'd been intelligent enough to bring more cash, but in a cashless society, one does what the cashless do.  We recuperated in another room with hibiscus tea and strawberries dipped in dark, dark chocolate -- an ideal healthful food from the people who invented chocolate centuries before they devised a written language.
        Ready for a nap, I dressed for dinner instead, and met the other suddenly healthy revelers for experimental, molecular drinks upstairs in the Club Bar (left), where Manager Julio described how the barristos arrived at their presentations, from Sergio's Watermelon Manhattan to a Coconut Cream and beyond.  Ordinary guests find the intimate lobby bar, Bar One, presents much the same in a glam and cozy atmosphere surrounded by contemporary art and late night musical entertainment.  But up in the Club, we, the chosen few, begin to try a wide range of beverages surrounded by other Club members, just as surprised as we were at the concoctions.  Those who have sampled molecular food (invented by the most famous chef in Madrid and duplicated by the French chef at Sandos) either love or hate combos like frozen foie gras coated in dark chocolate and dripping with calories.  Fascinating combinations constantly being reworked.


    If you actually want to experience something of the Yucatan that isn't just on a day trip (and doesn't include dropping a single star from your five-star resort), consider Sandos' all-inclusive in the jungle: the Caracol Eco-Experience Resort (below)in the province of Quintana Roo, en route to Playa del Carmen.  The key is the location.  This is far beyond a well-organized, vertical Spa experience, but a real slice of the jungle at the water's edge, safe enough for the weakest links in the family or extended family.
       What makes this an Eco-Resort is that they're actually working with the environment to innovate and improve their footprint in the jungle (check with the United Nations to see when they plan another visit to the Yucatan in their sustainability efforts).
      There were ancient Mayan altars set up with special food displays (see photos and recipes) of authentic Yucatecan delights. Demonstrations of preparation and food sampling extends to tours of the various kitchens; these chefs demonstrate everything from ice and vegetable carving to preparing special cuisine that will never taste quite right north of the border.
        The Sandos Caracol Eco Experience is a very, very green experience. In the resort's effort to reduce their ecological footprint, they attempt to promote sustainable practices among guests and suppliers. They practice water and electrical energy conservation and operate a wastewater treatment plant.  They compost, and produce substrate for their Mayan garden ("Ka 'anche") to cultivate medicinal plants and vegetables (like the Mayan medicinal and mythological trees, the ceiba, chaca and chechen).  Indeed, they have an onsite nursery that features reproduction programs for palm trees and endangered species. Ninety-nine of the rooms are deemed 'green' rooms and feature furniture of certified local wood, solar panels, high efficiency air conditioning, LED lighting, and water recycling.  Their guest transport system is powered by solar panels. They've even received an award from the Rainforest Alliance.
    There are more than 60 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, et al.  Signs everywhere warn revelers not to feed the monkeys or the ducks on the properties. There's even a Cat Cafe. One morning ducks found a way out of their enclosure, next to the deer enclosure, and marched to breakfast, where one actually wagged its tail at diners, who are ever tempted to feed them everything from brioche to bacon.
Monkeys now have their own charity on the Yucatan Peninsula: Con Mono Maya, which identifies existing populations, works with stakeholder to maintain their habitats and to educate the populace (particularly children and well-meaning, but destructive tourists) about the plight of monkeys and their importance in the ecosystem, as well as to support human communities that come into conflict with wild monkey populations, principally the primates Geoffroy's spider monkey (left) and the black howler monkey.  Vets on the premises tend to all of the animals, feral and domesticated.
         There are so many different taste treats -- from Las Mascaras  Mexican restaurant (very foreign) to the Riviera, a Mediterranean restaurant perched on the coast.  The Moko Mori Art (below) is food art. Don't miss the shrimp with strawberries before you move on to the rest of the Mayan Riviera and the Sandos property Argentinians prefer: the Playa Car, heading towards Playa Carmen.  You start realizing that the reason you recognize the staff at a Sandos resort is that they appear in the resort advertising, so the chef you see in the ad is the one you see cooking in front of you.  They even have their own version of the Cat Cafe and a selection of wines from the Médoc, to make their South American cousins feel at home.  Chef Vincent conjures up a tuna tartare, followed by sprouted okra, a portobello, coconut, a black truffle and toasted 'ashes'.  The kitchen tour shows the place to be extraordinarily clean, and a cooking lesson is de rigeur. 
       Love the place? Want to stay?  Head for the third of Sandos' properties, Playacar near one of the world’s best reef-dive sites.  A high reef off  the shore provides a beautiful underwater landscape.  Years ago, the Mexican Navy blasted a hole in the reef around Cozumel so that cruise ships could have easy access to both Cozumel and Cancun.  When it was discovered that this effort had helped kill the reef, the Navy sank three old warships to begin a new reef and re-plant it with corals.
         This is the picture postcard shot the United Nations sought for their eco conference.  Make room for purple cactus (medicinal); chicle (don't chew in public); the totopas that aren't tortillas; the ceiba tree of life, and the Ixtabai living within the tree -- all are at the heart of "the land of the remembered" in the Yucatan. 


By John Mariani

Redeye Grill
880 Seventh Avenue

        Monday night in New York.  Most Broadway shows are dark. People don’t go out that much after the weekend. A lot of restaurants take the day off. But, this being NYC, many don’t and most of them do great business on the first day of the week.
    Take Redeye Grill, opened 20 years ago, which almost always has a crowd; which is even more impressive when you see the size of the place. The main dining room is built around a very lively bar with a shellfish display, and its signature item of décor is a revolving copper sculpture of  “dancing shrimp” above the entrance.  An 88-foot mural by artist Red Grooms wraps around the room with scenes from both NYC and California, whose food styles are evident on the menu. There is live entertainment in Red’s Lounge.  The Living Room is marked with eight paintings by Mark Kostabi.  There are also five private dining rooms.
        The whole place is designed to dazzle you, for the first time or the tenth. Restaurateur Shelly Fireman of the Fireman Hospitality Group, which also operates Café Fiorello, two Brooklyn Diners, Bond 45, and Trattoria dell’Arte, has a knack for not just giving people what they want to eat but to do so in an environment that is always fun and always tied to nearby entertainment venues, such as Carnegie Hall, the Theater District and Lincoln Center.  Visitors staying in midtown hotels may already know of the restaurants from guidebooks but will undoubtedly hear about them from the concierges, who get consistently good feedback from guests.
        Corporate Executive Chef
Brando de Oliveira has long experience in top international restaurants like Milan's Antica Osteria del Ponte and Charles Palmer’s Aureole in NYC. The on-premises exec chef is Jawn Chasteen, and he’s canny about timing his cooking with the service staff  because he knows he’s got a hungry crowd out there.
    The size of the menu is commensurate with the size of the restaurant, from New England clam chowder ($14) to sushi, from very good guacamole ($22) to true--though very expensive--veal schnitzel à la Holstein ($58), with a fried egg on top of its crisp, buttery crust.  Also crispy is a salad of burrata cheese and heirloom tomatoes ($20).
    Of course, the shellfish here is a main draws, as much for their abundance as for their array. Oysters come in daily varieties, Alaskan King crab legs ($35) are big and meaty, and tuna and avocado carpaccio ($23) is excellent.  The jumbo lump crab cakes get a shot of chile aïoli ($22).  You may go for the yellowtail jalapeño sashimi plate, but I urge you to try the Okinawa sushi—shrimp, blue crab, tuna, lobster or mushroom tempura rice and sautéed in a ginger-chile sauce served over warm super-premium tamaniski rice ($19-$29).
     The Dover sole (market price) here is one of the best in the city—very well fatted, impeccably juicy, and served with a toasted almond beurre blanc.  After such wonderful seafood, you might treat yourself to one of the fine steaks here, which are dry-aged for 28 days and carved in house.  They are first-rate, especially the superb bone-in New York strip ($57) weighing in at 16 ounces.   (Have you noticed that the once standard one-pound strip steak has been shrinking down to 14 ounces around town?)  Steak toppings offer an aged Gorgonzola and a good-to-see-again green peppercorn sauce.
    Side dishes are generous, from servings of Brussels sprouts to a one-pound baked potato (below) that our table of three could not finish.  It reminded me of how wonderful a simple baked potato can be, split open to steamy splendor, needing nothing but plenty of good butter,  salt and pepper.
    You can imagine the largess in the dessert department, though I don’t think either a banana cream pie or Black Forest cake will win any kudos for originality.
    Brunch is a very big, lavish deal at Redeye Grill, offering everything from apple-cinnamon pancakes ($21) and a traditional English breakfast ($24) to Chinese lobster breakfast ($29) and caviar with poached eggs and smoked salmon ($35).
    Redeye Grill’s wine list is getting an update and it needs it.   All of this is well orchestrated by affable general manager Fabien Lepaître (ask him for wine selections), and maître d’ Carlo Mariani (no relation).
    Redeye Grill is set up for enjoyment and a giddy sense that you are definitely in the core of the Big Apple.

Redeye Grill is open for lunch Mon.-Fri., dinner nightly, and brunch Sat. & Sun.



Richard Moore, owner of the Lobster Pound and Moore restaurant in Nova Scotia posted a Facebook message that, “Effective as of now, we will no longer allow small screaming children.”  Immediately inundated with responses from outraged parents, Moore deleted the message, explaining, “I chose the wrong words to convey a message I didn’t want. I love kids and would have them if I could. I shouldn’t have used the word ‘screaming’ but should have said something like, ‘Lil’ diners having a moment.’”



A 77-year-old Italian grandmother known as "Mrs. Rosetta" ended up in the ER alongside her son, her two grandchildren, and one of their friends after serving them hot chocolate that she'd purchased  in the 1980s. The woman was not charged with a crime.



 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: 5 MYTHS ABOUT FREQUENT FLIER PROGRAMS

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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