Virtual Gourmet

  March 13, 2016                                                                                             NEWSLETTER


"Irish Peasant Family Discovering the Blight of their Store" by Daniel MacDonald  (1847)



By John A. Curtas

By John Mariani



Part One

By John A. Curtas 

    It is impossible not to fall in love with Alsace. Once you see it for the first time, resistance is futile. Once you taste and drink its many delights, stroll its cobblestone streets, and walk among the candy-colored, half-timbered houses, you might as well resign yourself to a life-long love affair with Franco-German France. Alsace is a region, but it is also a culture: a battle-born civilization of freedoms hard won, peoples cross-pollinated and gastronomic traditions firmly entrenched. It also happens to be one of the most delicious places to eat and drink on the planet.
    Alsace is also a place of contradictions, and more than a little schizophrenia. Wars have been fought for centuries over this fertile farmland. Germany -- never a bashful sort when it comes to staking a claim -- has always considered the Vosges Mountains to be the natural border between it and France. The French--by nature more accommodating--have always maintained that the Rhine River is nature's way of separating the two countries, and besides, they say, we like our white wines fuller, more aromatic and alcoholic than you do. So, to each his own choucroute. (These differences in taste, which are taken very seriously in these parts, have thus been the basis for those dust-ups known as the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, WWI and WWII, or at least that's the way I like to think about it.)

     As a result of changing hands -- between two countries of very different personalities, not to mention sauerkraut -- five times in eighty years, there is a certain split personality in Alsace that I find glorious. Call it Teutonic efficiency mixed with French joie de vivre, if you will, but never, ever make the mistake of calling anyone there German, even though they all have names like Klein, Becker or Weinbach. "We are French!" they will say proudly, in French, with a German accent, and they will scowl (in that friendly/bemused French way) if you dare suggest that a spätlese Riesling from the Mosel is even in the same league as a Grand Cru Tokay Pinot Gris. And don't even think about comparing the charcuterie of the two countries in polite company.

    I like to think of Alsace as very, very French with a few German accents, and from the gingerbread architecture to the love of white wine to the gingerbread itself, you can revel in the similarities while enjoying the differences. All of which you can drink in when you are strolling the streets of Strasbourg.

      You begin in Strasbourg (above, right), of course, because it is both the capital of Alsace and the gateway to the wine country. But this international city is also a gastronomic gem in its own right.

    The best place to start your Alsatian education is in the Petite France section of the old city, and the best place to stay when doing so in Le Bouclier d'Or (left), a four-star hotel perched right on the edge of all sorts of gastronomic delights. Turn to your right as you exit and you will find yourself right in the heart of the most picturesque part of the city; turn a gauche and you'll be on a street filled with shops featuring all sorts of local delicacies, from the great cheeses of Alsace (Tomme, Cantal and Munster) to the local pain d’épices, baked into giant loaves weighing as much as a cinder block.

    Cross the canal that circles the old part of the city and walk a few blocks and you'll find yourself smack dab in front Au Pont Corbeau (below), a local favorite for its cuisine Alsaçienne and wine list chock full of small, local producers at gentle prices. Just like Alsatians, we eschew the avant garde when we're here, opting for choucroute garni and tripes à la mode, both of which were as soul-satisfying and of-their-place as food can get. (Contrary to what you might think, tripes à la mode does not come with ice cream.)

    After lunch, it's best to walk around, do some shopping, take in a museum, and visit the Strasbourg Cathedral with its single spire (the tallest in the world until 1874) and the technological marvel that is its astronomical clock. The clock is really more of a primitive calculating machine than a clock, but its 60-feet height, intricate beauty and advanced, 19th Century technology make it a wonder of artistry and engineering.

    If all that sightseeing doesn't make you hungry, I guarantee that a stroll down the Rue de Orfèvres will. Here you will find the upscale Frick-Lutz, (below) and various other traîteurs, confectioners and sellers of Alsace specialties.

     The regional delight not to be missed is foie d'oie, silky, delicate, almost pink-hued goose liver, more refined than the earthier, amber-colored duck livers you find in America, and, to my taste, more compelling. If gazing upon a black truffle-studded loaf of this food for the gods doesn't make you hungry, then I suggest you retire to the ascetic monastery whence you came.

    By now it should be getting close to dinnertime. You can pop into almost any restaurant in the Petite France quartier and be assured of having a good meal of local specialties; there's even a few newer places popping up with menus that hint of young chefs spreading their wings, e.g., 1741, Umami, but traveling to Strasbourg in search of the cutting-edge is like going to the Royal Philharmonic for some Philip Glass. Where we like to get a healthy dose of old Alsaçienne is at L'Ancienne Douane, whose name literally translates to "Restaurant at the Old Customs," located as it is in an ancient structure that dates to 1401. Located directly on the canal, L'Ancienne is the perfect place to while away a summer's day watching the boats go by as you tuck into hearty platters of  jarret gratiné,  a knuckle of ham with grated Munster cheese that's the size of a small football, or a tête de veau sauce ravigôte (veal head).

    Speaking of football, the choucroute here -- garnished as it is with six separate meats, including two types of bacon and three different sausages -- could stymie an NFL linebacker. In chillier seasons, the cozy, wood-paneled dining rooms are the perfect places to drink in the local atmosphere and sip local wines, all  served in those gorgeous, green-stemmed glasses.

    But man does not live by choucroute alone, and a couple of days in Strasbourg means a chance to revisit the gastronomic institution that is Au Crocodile,  a restaurant that hasn't lost its fastball, no matter what the Michelin Guide says. This venerable establishment held three Michelin starts between 1989 and 2002,  but no longer holds any, much to the chagrin of former chef/owner Emile Jung, who compared the loss of a star to "a pain that eats at our hearts and that has killed our spirits."   He sold the place to chef Phillipe Bohrer in 2010, and all we can hope is that Bohrer, like Alain Senderens at Lucas-Carton in Paris and others, has decided not to play the Michelin game anymore,  preferring instead to cook food his way, without constant fretting over Frette linens or other frippery -- details  that must be fussed over if the coveted stars are to be maintained.

    Michelin inspectors are infamous for their fussiness and, more recently, their trendiness, so Au Crocodile's decidedly old-school charm might cost it a few points, but there's nothing overtly stuffy about the food or the service.  The service was warm and welcoming, and the food was à point and all you could hope for in a fine French meal: gorgeous foie d'oie (right), roasted lobster with corral butter served with a fricassée of vegetables, and a pigeon de la ferme "Théo Kieffer" that was La Cuisine Français in all of its subtle-yet-intense glory.

    Being no stranger to Michelin-starred establishments, we left our meal here scratching our head. If this place doesn't merit at least one star, then something is amiss in the world's once respected food guide. Regardless, if this is what no-star cuisine tastes like in France, then we could die happy eating nothing but. Bully for you, Monsieur Bohrer! Stay the course and keep on cooking, and we'll keep on coming to Strasbourg.

Part Two will appear next week.




By John Mariani


1048 Third Avenue (corner of East 62nd Street)



    Just three months old, and despite one change of chef and a re-casting of the menu, Theo’s has emerged as one of the best seafood restaurants in Manhattan.  That it is owned by a good-looking 21-year-old Greek named Theo Katsihtis (his father is in the upscale café business) makes it all the more remarkable and lends the spacious, swanky restaurant a youthful vibe, which includes a DJ later in the evening.  The interactive open kitchen (with a few counter seats for a tasting menu each night) adds light and some dramatic cooking pyrotechnics. The waitstaff is fleet-footed and very attentive, as is Theo himself, who visits all the tables to make sure all goes well.

    The high ceilings, shades of gray and silver (despite what the photo above shows), antique acid-etched mirrors, slate-topped bar and tables set with tulips and votive candles make a stylish, comfortable ambiance, perhaps a bit more like Las Vegas than the East Side of Manhattan. Of course, there is the requisite long list of “signature” cocktails ($14), and the adequate wine list has a number of bottlings at decent prices that go with the kind of food served. 

   While Theo’s is described as a “Mediterranean restaurant,” the menu now includes a number of meat dishes that don’t quite fit that description. But, by sticking with the seafood, you will have no doubt that Theo and Chef Nicholas Poulmentis are trying to stay true to their commitment to seafood, from the array of East and West Coast oysters (market price), glistening in a splendid presentation, to a Spanish brown turbot, a species that almost never shows well in transport across the Atlantic but that here is as fine an example as I’ve had in NYC. 

Poulmentis, from the island of Kythria, had been Executive Chef at Kellari Taverna, and the TV show “Greek Kitchen,” so you know where his heart lies.

    You’ll receive small popovers instead of bread; unfortunately, ours came dried out, with no butter on the table. 

To begin, my party enjoyed a lovely carpaccio of octopus dotted with caviar, and skewered grilled shrimp that had a good briny flavor to them. Light, generously proportioned lobster and citrus salad came with creamy avocado, frisée, fines herbs and red leaf sorrel ($22).  We had a choice that evening of either Manhattan or New England clam chowder ($17), and I thought the latter would be a better test of the chef’s talents.  I was rewarded with a textbook version of what New England chowder should be: creamy but not thick, seasoned but not over-spiced, with the right amount and size of tender clams with diced purple potato, bacon, celery leaf and purple shiso. Equally impressive was a pretty dish of crab and ricotta gnocchi ($24), al dente as they should be, with a touch of aji amarillo pepper, basil and a little paprika for color.

    I have already mentioned the fine turbot, whose excellence was clearly due to its freshness; it was a special, indicating it was the day’s catch, not always on the menu. A tuna steak ($28) was nicely cooked and rendered but lacked fatty flavor and richness.    But a Dover sole  (left) revealed just how delicate a difference there is between a too-meaty, overcooked example and the tender, juicy, buttery one at Theo’s, where all the plates are heated to keep the food warm, essential for a fish like sole that is best filleted at the table.  I prefer to perform that function by myself, and the kitchen smartly removed the boney edges, which facilitated the flesh to come off the spine with ease.  I haven’t had Dover sole this good in this country in quite some time.  Also, at $48 it was a bargain by comparison with what you may pay elsewhere in NYC.

     Prices for meat dishes at Theo’s can be very high, however, almost as if they’d prefer you didn’t order them. And it is a shame, given the high quality of the rest of the ingredients on the menu and given his Greek background, that Katsihtis is serving inferior Australian lamb.

But even the French fries ($9) were close to the way they make frites in Europe, triple fried and cooked through, golden brown and crisp outside. Brussels sprouts ($9) were all right but nothing special, as if the chef felt he had to have them on the menu without really wanting to.

Desserts ($11-$14) were far from the usual: rosewater-flavored panna cotta; avocado semi-freddo with cream caramel and crushed pistachios;  and gold-foil brushed chocolate cake with layers of chocolate soufflé and vanilla semi-freddo; and an English pie called banofee, with caramelized bananas and a waffle cup.

    My friends and I were gone before Theo’s got into its post-nine p.m. swing, but while we were there, the noise level was wholly conducive to good conversation, and it’s worthwhile to have one with Theo himself. Within seconds you’ll sense how proud he is of what he’s trying to accomplish here, and his youthful exuberance is as fetching as the conviviality of a night at Theo’s.


Theo’s is open for dinner seven nights a week; Lunch is served Mon.-Fri. ; brunch Sat. & Sun. 





Inside Edition reporters visited 28 restaurants, including   Red Lobster and Nathan's in the Coney Island, ordering  dishes supposed to contain lobster, then sent the meat off for DNA testing, finding that 35% of the samples had cheap fish substitutes like whiting or pollock.  At Nathan's, the lobster-salad sandwich was all whiting.  Red Lobster's lobster bisque turned out to contain either cheaper langostino or a mix of part langostino, part lobster.  Red Lobster responded that the bisque has several types of fish because lobster's seasonality "can fluctuate," so that soups lacking any lobster at all what termed  "what we call 'the luck of the ladle.'"





“Honestly, I didn’t think our Mediterranean vacation could get much better.”
—Patrick Scott, "Adventure Travel Takes the Plunge,” NY Times (2/14/16).




 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." 

Eating Las Vegas JOHN CURTAS has been covering the Las Vegas food and restaurant scene since 1995. He is the co-author of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants (the fourth edition of which will be published in early 2016), as well as the author of the Eating Las Vegas web site: www.eatinglasvegas. He can also be seen every Friday morning as the “resident foodie” for Wake Up With the Wagners on KSNV TV (NBC) Channel 3  in Las Vegas.


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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