Virtual Gourmet

  DECEMBER   20,  2015                                                                                             NEWSLETTER


"Christmas Dinner" by J.C. Leyendecker (1904).


Part Two
By John Mariani

Ben & Jack's Steak House
By John Mariani

By John Mariani


Part Two

By John Mariani

Jackson Square


       The idea of re-opening the old, abandoned Brennan’s in the French Quarter was not without its doubters.  For, as venerable as the old place was, there were detractors who had seen it slide after Katrina, and some questioned whether it needed to come back to life at all. It was a relic of another time, when the name and the nostalgia for “Breakfast at Brennan’s” kept the fires burning.  Family dissents didn’t help, followed by fiscal problems, and by 2012 it looked like the dowager was going to be re-habbed by a developer for some other use.
     Thank heavens, then, for another Brennan, from a side of the family whose feud with another side of the family had for decades been a depressing, wheezing saga. Here is not the place to go into all that, but, if anyone were to revive Brennan’s, it was to be Ralph Brennan (along with partner Terry White), already the very successful scion who runs Ralph’s on the Park, The Redfish Grill, Napoleon House and several other restaurants around the city. 
    The refurbishment, which went fairly fast, restored every inch of Brennan’s so as to retain both its historic architecture while bringing everything up to a brilliant standard of fresh décor and impeccable service.  The main dining room, with its orangerie lattice-work and murals, and the brightly colored private rooms are now among the most stunning in New Orleans, and the great wine cellar is now re-positioned, safe and sound, and very beautiful.  (The wine mark-ups are hefty, but not out of line with competitors’ prices.) And since New Orleans is a town famous for its own brand of sassy Southern hospitality, Brennan’s is a template for dining out in New Orleans in 2015 and well beyond.
    Chef Slade Rushing figures mightily into that hospitality, for there’s nothing he won’t do to make a guest happy, displayed in a menu that keeps all the old favorite signature Brennan’s dishes, from its rich turtle soup with grated spinach and the juicy braised pork grillades with Georgia cheddar grits, eggs over easy and Creole spices to eggs Hussarde of  housemade English muffins, coffee-cured Canadian bacon, a rich Hollandaise and the lagniappe of a Marchand du vin sauce, ending off with the restaurant’s famous Bananas Foster flamed tableside ($8).
    It’s a big menu with plenty of options for breakfast ($39), lunch ($38) and dinner à la carte.  The blue crab rémoulade with shaved jicama, avocado, and mango vinaigrette ($13) is one of the very best in the city, and they’ve added a terrific barbecue lobster with Creole spiced butter, lemon and a sprinkling of thyme on a toasted baguette ($19). 
The reduction of sauces here is a monument to classic rigors, evident in a Steak Diane filet with potato confit, baby carrots and brandy mushroom reduction ($28).  The only disappointment on the day I dined there was a rabbit Rushing of fried Mississippi rabbit whose breading fell off and with meat without much flavor, saved somewhat by the creamed collards, eggs over easy and zingy pickled pork jus ($28). 
    Unlike the still disappointing Antoine’s, Brennan’s proves that you can bring back the past with even more pleasure than you might have remembered, while at the same time making it all seem brand new.



800 Tchoupitoulas Street

    No reader of this newsletter need be reminded of the importance of what Emeril Lagasse did for New Orleans and American cuisine.  As the chef who followed the late Paul Prudhomme at Commander’s Palace, Emeril pioneered new Creole cuisine with enormous panache, or as would become his mantra “kicked up a notch.” He was also the first to open in the city’s once run-down Warehouse District, now largely gentrified because of Emeril’s benediction.
    When Emeril’s flagship opened in 1990 I ranked it as the best new restaurant of that year, and some of the original dishes are still on the menu, including the barbecue shrimp with little
rosemary biscuits and fresh chives.  Today Chef de Cuisine David Slater and his crew are maintaining all that Emeril set in motion a quarter century ago.
    Everyone now knows how Emeril became an enormous media star on the Food Network, to the point where many, including myself, believed he’d lost touch with all that made him a masterful working chef.  Far too many management contracts followed for restaurants that opened with fanfare and expired (he currently has twelve operating under his name), and a few years ago Emeril sold his entire empire,  including books, to Martha Stewart.
    In retrospect, I think that was a good thing for Emeril, who has stepped back a bit and re-engaged with his original restaurant, whose redecoration includes some much-needed soundproofing.  From what I was told by his service staff, Emeril is very often at his namesake restaurant, not just as a face out front but as a chef tweaking everything, every day he’s there.  You’re not likely to find him merely bounding out of the kitchen roaring, “Oh yeah, babe!” or “Bam!”
    So my meal was as close to as I remember my first at Emeril’s twenty-five years ago, its flavors and largess intact, its wine list better than ever, all with perhaps a bit more refinement. So I had some of the old dishes and some of the new.  First off was an excellent duck and andouille gumbo, assertively seasoned but not so much as to take away from the duck meat’s flavor. The amuse that night was tuna and pork belly on lettuce. Also delicious was the housemade andouille and boudin sausage with braised collard greens, onions, whole-grain mustard and Worcestershire sauce ($10). 
Not particularly Creole, and unnecessarily trendy, was a platter of burrata, beef carpaccio and tomato  ($17),  and you’ll find the inevitable kale salad, here happily enlivened with blue crab, pickled Fresno chilies, boiled peanuts, watermelon, radish, Parmesan, crisp sweet onion and a citrus buttermilk dressing ($10).  Crab and corn dumplings with escarole and scallions was a good middle course. The andouille-crusted drum fish ($29) was judiciously married to some grilled local vegetables, shoestring potatoes, glazed pecans, and Creole meuniére sauce ($29), and there was much to love about a grilled pork chop with caramelized sweet potatoes, tamarind glaze and green chili mole ($32).
     But in some of the main courses I tried I found too much adornment and heavy-handed interaction of some first-rate ingredients. A char-grilled beef ribeye with summer squash, vermouth mushrooms, onions, collaborative chili, and a bagna cauda with Worcestershire butter and roasted marrow ($43) was just way too much of a good thing, so the ribeye got lost.  So, too, Duck Milanese was smothered by Louisiana field peas, succotash, oven-dried cherry tomatoes, grilled peach salad, truffle jus and pecorino ($35), which was more than any main ingredient can bear up under. So many sweet glazes and caramelized vegetables and fruits can easily blunt savory flavors.
    Which, of course, can be forgiven in extravagant New Orleans desserts like banana cream pie, s’mores, and peanut butter pie ($6-$10). 
    Sommelier Ray Gumpert still stocks a magnificent cellar, with
1,800 selections and 13,000 bottles, not only one of the largest but one of the most carefully selected in America.
    To paraphrase the title of one of Emeril’s TV shows, the essence of his cooking is the man’s open-hearted spirit, for he is a true believer in generosity in every form (he’s been one of the most dedicated donors to local charities, even before Katrina), and that includes the education of both the public and his cooking staff.  Emeril so raised the image of chefs and American cooking that he is part of the very fabric of what makes New Orleans a movable feast. 

Lunch Monday.-Friday; dinner nightly.



By John Mariani

255 Fifth Avenue (near 28th  Street)

       To paraphrase the refrain from the Beatles song “Eleanor Rigby,” all the happy people, where do they all come from?  If you wish to know one answer, set foot in Ben & Jack’s Steakhouse in the NoMad neighborhood of Manhattan and be prepared to see a full house of people who are clearly enjoying themselves to the hilt.  Most customers are men—this is a steakhouse—but there are women, too, who feel completely at home in an atmosphere so cordially convivial.
    That begins with the greeting and solicitude provided by owners (and cousins) Ben and Jack Sinanaj (with two siblings, Harry and Russ, along to help them run the place), whose immigrant story of going from busboys to upscale restaurateurs, with stops at Manhattan Grille and Peter Luger along the way, is testament once again to the American Dream come true.  Ten years ago they opened the first Ben & Jack’s (currently closed but due to re-open next year) and their second six years ago, and they have devoted themselves to the religion of the NYC steakhouse, by which the best available ingredients are handled with the utmost respect, simplicity, and consistency, which is far more difficult than it appears when you’re serving thousands of meals every week, all overseen by
Executive Chef Admir Alibasic.
    The restaurant, convenient to Madison Square Garden, has two bars—cocktails are excellently made—a long dining room and five private dining spaces, at this time of the year particularly popular.  It’s a classic steakhouse look—ocher-colored walls, dark wood, sturdy chairs, white tablecloths, a wine wall.
    The menu doesn’t differ much from the entrenched Peter Luger model, but it’s more wide-ranging, with far more appetizers and salads, soups, and even a pasta section.   On my recent visit we began with some of the best breaded, fried calamari (above) I’ve had in NYC; what seems so easy to do actually requires a very fine quality of calamari, breading with its own flavor, and a perfect frying temperature to keep that breading intact and every single one of the calamari tender.  Ben & Jack’s version is perfection.  A rafter of oysters were in peak condition, and yellowfin tuna tartare had plenty of flavor. A bacon wedge salad with tomatoes, abundant blue cheese crumbles and Roquefort dressing had a nice icy crispness to the lettuce.  The only disappointment was a crabcake so packed with breading and so devoid of lump crab meat that it was like eating a clump of wet white bread.
    It goes without saying that the USDA dry-aged Prime beef is why people come here, and the sliced porterhouse for two (right) and a very well-marbled, very juicy ribeye  had exactly the char I asked for while remaining perfectly medium-rare within, and that char makes a big difference.  I also ordered a four-pound lobster, streamed and cracked but left in the shell, and it was a very meaty critter indeed, accompanied by a big bowl of clarified butter.  (By not having the waiter de-shell the lobster, the meat stays warmer.)
    Side dishes in a steakhouse can mean the difference between a good one and a great one, and at Ben & Jack’s they succeed across the board, not least with their mixed platter of very crisp, wholly greaseless cottage fries and onion (left), both full of flavor on their own, not from the oil.  A portion of sautéed spinach was almost generous enough to justify a tab of $11.95.
        Desserts do nothing to differ from so many other steakhouses that, like Ben & Jack’s, ship theirs in, but the cheesecake is the way to go.
       The wine list is, obviously, richest in red wines, particularly American, but with some fine Italian offerings as well.  The white wine list needs bolstering.
    It seems impossible not to enjoy yourself immensely at Ben & Jack’s, especially since the two men whose names are on the door and their cousins are there to make sure you do;  after all, there are no such people as Smith & Wollensky, Peter Luger is long gone, and too many other steakhouses are now chains with names like Ruth’s Chris and Palm.  You go to Ben & Jack’s, they get to know you, they want you back, and they’ll have your cocktail ready by the time you open the menu.


Open for lunch and dinner daily; Appetizers and Salads: $3.95 - $20.95; Steaks and Seafood: $30.95- $42.95; Sides: $6.95 - $11.95; Desserts: $9.95  Prix fixe at lunch $29.95. 






By John Mariani

    Far be it from me to perpetuate the idea that Champagne is only for holidays, business deals, weddings and World Series wins, but the December holidays are upon us and drinking a good Champagne seems almost requisite. And to my mind there is none better or more celebratory than rosé Champagnes, which once had a reputation for being “the pink stuff.”
      In a historic sense, rosé Champagne is something of an anomaly, for the goal of a Champagne maker is to produce as fine a white wine as possible, even when using black pinot noir grapes. Rosé wine, still or sparkling, can be made by macerating the red grapes at pressing to achieve color, and it's tricky business that van easily go wrong. Champagne is that rare appellation that allows rosés to be made by blending in red wine, and today 90 percent of the rosé Champagnes are made this way.
      Despite rosés’ perky image, the top Champagne producers have for some time now put the same diligent efforts into their rosés as into their blanc des blancs and prestige cuvées, and the astronomical prices can be about the same. But there are now so many superb rosés in the market selling for well under $100 a bottle that the idea of spending $200 and more for a vintage rosés seems a bit excessive these days.
      Also, I find that so many of the top-of-the-line roses are deliberately made to be bone dry, which I think robs them of the component of fruit that is essential to any wine, sparkling or not.  Thus, I found Nicolas Feuillatte Palmes d’Or Rosé Brut (the 2005 vintage runs about $150) more than austere, even a little soapy.
   Nicholas Feuillatte Brut Rosé non-vintage ($40), unlike the 2002,  is a sleek, gorgeously constructed wine with perfume and ripeness. If this is a workhorse Champagne, it’s from very fine stock indeed.
    The two rosés that make me happiest, at any time of the year, are, first,  Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Brut Rosé (2005 is $175), a favorite of James Bond in the Ian Fleming novels, both for its exquisite, silky color and its judicious balance of fruit and depth of pinot noir flavor, though I think it's getting drier every vintage; and second, but equally enticing, Charles Heidsieck Brut Rosé Reserve  ($70), a non-vintage, with deep salmon-pink color married to floral, almost rose-like notes, with a good ballast of citrus in tandem with the fruit. It's got definite heft, owing to using 20 percent seven or eight year-old reserve wines in the final blend and maturing the wine for three years.  I enjoyed it with a fish of coddled eggs and white truffles recently--a match made in culinary heaven for the holidays.
      I will admit to being in thrall to Perrier-Jouët’s 2004 Fleur de Champagne Brut Rosé, whose signature style has always been to balance fruit and citrus flavors with enormous finesse. Unfortunately, it sells for $200-$300 a bottle. 
    A much more palatable price for a very fine non-vintage Champagne is Drappier Brut Rosé ($60) made from 100 percent pinot noir, using the saignée  ("bleeding") method, by which some of the red wine is macerated for three days to become more concentrated and ferments separately to produce this full-bodied rosé.
      G.H. Mumm Cordon Rouge Brut Rosé non-vintage ($50-$65)—good old Mumm-sy, the Champagne you always see in movies being splashed about. Its former predictability has evolved into admirable consistency in a style that has depth and celebratory sparkle.
      Bruno Paillard Rosé Brut Première Cuvée non-vintage ($60-$75)—The charm of this pretty rosé is in its adaptability to so many foods, from lobster to chicken, from smoked salmon to light desserts, and its high color is a joy in itself.
      Henriot Brut Rosé non-vintage ($50-$60)—If you expect fruit in a rosé, Henriot delivers gushers of it, which makes it a fine aperitif to kick off the evening and ideal with holiday sweets and cookies, even dark chocolate.
      Louis Roederer 2009 Brut Rosé ($60)—Absolutely luscious, downright creamy, for me is the very essence of a rosé Champagne.
      Ayala Brut Rose Majeur non-vintage ($50)—Since Bollinger bought this small estate in 2005, it has improved greatly with a style in direct contrast to Bollinger’s staid, classic austerity. Ayala is a light-bodied Champagne that everyone should enjoy a glass or two of before dinner but perhaps not enough body for afterwards.




As part of its global strategy Domino's Pizza is launching  several locations of the chain in Italy, beginning with the city of Milan, with four by year's end. "No major American pizza brand has successfully entered the market," the president of Domino's International clarifies. "We're going where no major pizza brand has gone before." Indeed,  Pizza Hut  has  said, wisely,  "Italy does not fit with our global brand story." Domino's says the Italian recipes were created to fit Italian tastes.




“How can big-deal fancy-food French restaurants perpetuate themselves in a time that is kind neither to fancy (as opposed to fantastical) nor, really, to French food?” –Adam Gopnik, “Gabriel Kreuther,” The New Yorker (Nov 6, 2015)


Sponsored by Banfi Vintners


By John Fodera,

     I can't think of a better descriptor than Towering Elegance.  To me, it relates both strength and grace.  Forte con calma.  I've been a lover of SummuS for well over a decade now and have tasted every vintage produced several times over.   It's a wine produced in only ideal vintages and one which encompasses the true essence of the Super Tuscan concept. 
    Sourced from hillside estate vineyards on the southern slopes of Montalcino, the vineyards that produce the fruit for Summus sit between 120-250 meters above sea level. The Sangiovese vines are at the highest altitude while the Cabernet and Syrah vines are lower. The varying altitudes allows ideal maturation for each variety, a concept that is especially important in retaining Sangiovese's aromatic character and maintaining its fresh acidity.
    The three varieties are vinified separately in Castello Banfi's specialized hybrid oak/steel fermenters and then aged in custom French barrique separately for 12 months.  Once blended, aging continues in oak for another 8-10 months before 6-12 months final bottle aging.
    Recently, we opened the latest release from Castello Banfi.   The 2011 SummuS is without question, one of the greatest SummuS I've ever tasted.  It hits on all cylinders.  Each varietal in the blend asserts itself individually, yet each joins the overall harmony in a way that doesn't dominate. 
    In the glass, the wine is a deep, blackish purple.  The aromas are frankly, luxurious with crushed black fruit, fresh flowers, tobacco, sage, spice, and mineral.  It's so attractive to smell.  On the palate, the Sangiovese takes center stage right now - a trait not usually encountered by me in young SummuS, where the Cabernet seems to dominate in its youth.  Bright flavors of black cherry, sweet pipe tobacco, roasted coffee, and fennel are penetrating.  The texture of the wine is silky smooth - velvety with graceful powerful grip behind it all.  Again, Forte con calma.   Long, flavorful, elegant finish.  Absolutely love this.  96 points. 
    As you can see from the above photo, we paired SummuS with a toasted fennel seed encrusted boneless pork roast and the match was absolutely heaven.  The fat in the meat elevated the fruit in the wine and the fennel in each was the perfect compliment.  A 100-point pairing.  





 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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