Virtual Gourmet

  April 10, 2016                                                                                             NEWSLETTER


"Hemingway at La Floridita, Havana" by Leslie Saalburg


By John Mariani


By John Mariani



By Geoff Kalish


On Wednesday April 13 at 7 PM at the Westchester Italian Cultural Center in Tuckahoe, NY, John Mariani will give a convivial talk on "The Enduring Presence of Mamma in the Italian Kitchen." A light reception is offered prior to the beginning of the presentation from 6:30-7 PM. Members: $20, non-members $25. For details click here:


By John Mariani

    Louisville has always had a commendable number of restaurants of every stripe, from the one-of-a-kind Seviche to the modern Proof on Main, from the wonderfully old-fashioned Pat’s Steakhouse for the fried chicken and T-bone to The Brown Hotel, where the Hot Brown sandwich was invented.  But on a recent visit it became clear that Louisville’s restaurant scene has expanded to join the quantity and quality of those mid-South cities like Nashville and Charleston.  Young chefs, new neighborhoods and a demand for first-rate ingredients has brought life back downtown and in the city’s residential neighborhoods.  Here’s where I ate happily.


The Brown Hotel
335 West Broadway

  The Brown Hotel, opened in 1923, is certainly Louisville’s most historic and majestic caravansary, and, after a recent $12 million rehab, it has never looked better, starting with its spectacular lobby (left) and leading to its very spacious rooms done in period detail and appointed with every modern amenity.  (The rambling Muhammad Ali Suite is particularly grand, with evocative photos and memorabilia of the great boxer.)
    It’s also relaxingly quiet for a big city downtown hotel.  And for all that, The Brown still is home to Louisville’s finest restaurant, The English Grill (below), whose dark oak paneling, lead glass windows, tracery ceilings and equestrian paintings transcend being merely historic by virtue of their polished beauty, with a cordial service staff to match.  Executive Chef Joshua Bettis, who’s worked everywhere from Killarney Park Hotel in Ireland to Montelucia Resort in Paradise Valley, focuses as much as possible on Kentucky resources but readily seeks out the best he can find anywhere.  Thus, he gets beautiful sea scallops, which he serves with a sunny side-up quail egg and rich Béarnaise, “Benedict style,” along with lamb bacon ($14).  There’s a crab cake on the menu, good and meaty and with minimum binder, served with creamy celeriac remoulade ($13).  A classic Caesar salad ($11) is dexterously prepared tableside, an artful display I always welcome.

     Bettis also does another old-fashioned dish, lobster Thermidor, abundant with lobster meat removed from the shell and lavished with cream and a touch of sherry ($52). The trick with this dish is to not overcook the lobster or overpower it, and Bettis’s version is as fine as any I’ve had over the decades.
    There’s Kentucky-raised wagyu-style Angus filet ($54) I found far more bland than I’d expected, but the amount of flavor in a grilled double-cut Kentucky pork chop ($36) was extraordinary, showing why American pork can be superlative when it retains its natural fat. 
    For dessert there is a spiced brioche rum pudding ($10), but don’t hesitate on choosing the signature item here—“Chocolate Striptease” (right)—whose meaning eludes me but whose combination of milk chocolate mousse, espresso steam cake, and salted caramel, then flamed with Bacardi 151rum ($10) is as much a hoot as it is a grand dessert.
    The English Grill has one of the city’s best wine cellars and, as you might hope, an excellent selection of bourbons, including two vintages of the celebrated (if over-rated) Pappy.
    Too many people save an evening at The English Grill for a special occasion, for while it is very special indeed, it is also a place to appreciate the true and enduring genteel charms and hospitality of Louisville  at its finest. 

Open Mon.-Sat. for dinner.




1076 E. Washington Street

    The name derives from an old grocery, dating to 1875, once called Gunkel’s, known as much as a Louisville gathering place as a place to buy provisions. As a new restaurant it is easily as convivial, and its décor pays a rustic homage to the space’s origins, with expanses of brick walls, weathered exposed wood on the ceiling, marble tables, and a tile floor, along with very comfortable banquettes and a very popular bar up front.  It does get loud with the sound of people enjoying themselves immensely, not least upstairs in the music lounge, and they could bring up the lighting a bit.
    Owners Jon Salomon, Patrick Hallahan and chef Bobby Benjamin have managed to keep a balance between casual surroundings and serious food, and they’ve kept the wine list at very decent price points, with about half the bottles under $50.
    There are the expected burgers and sandwiches ($14-$18) and the trendiest of vegetables—a Brussels sprout salad ($10) and kale salad with beets ($9)—as well as two very good pasta dishes—fettuccine with wild mushrooms, bacon, goat’s cheese, a little lemon zest and a judicious dusting of herbs ($14), and first-rate, perfectly textured potato gnocchi with mushrooms and parmigiano ($9 as a side dish).  
Two of the entrees I tried showed the kitchen’s adept timing with cooking a beautiful rainbow trout (right) with fregula, charred onions and peppers with creamy avocado ($24), and sweet diver’s scallops with parsnips, fried leeks, and a delicious orange butter (below) to bind it all together with a little sweet-and-tangy counterpoint ($27).  Adding the flavor of white anchovies to an otherwise well-cooked roast chicken ($28) was not, however, Chef Benjamin’s best idea, unless you enjoy chicken that tastes fishy and sour.
     That night, at least, hand-cut French fries ($6) were surprisingly limp.
     All the desserts are sumptuous, from a fine cheesecake to a hefty but not too heavy bread pudding and a juicy berry crumble—great endings with which to enjoy a nightcap from the bar.
      You can tell that the owners of Butchertown Grocery had a distinct idea of what kind of place it should be, which might well have been a mess of clichés.  But the pieces all fit as they should and the place has great charm and seriously good food and drinks.  If you’re visiting Louisville, people will surely tell you about it.  

Open Wed.-Sun. for dinner; Brunch Sat. & Sun. Live jazz on Saturday.



2300 Lexington Road

    Le Moo, with a name that makes it sound like a dairy bar or hipster cheese monger, is actually a very big deal steakhouse in Louisville.  Half Las Vegas hype and half risqué French salon, it is all designed to impress the hell out of you, and your capacity for instant swank will determine just how much fun you have.
Owner Kevin Grangier, a branding and p.r. professional, had a success in 2010 with The Village Anchor bistropub, and he was determined to give his native city a steakhouse that deviated from the decorous norm.
    Replacing a long-time restaurant favorite named KT’s, Le Moo was gutted and transformed with huge chandeliers, bordello-like draperies and secluded tables—including a Louis Vuitton booth, all done up in old luggage sheathing—and the requisite stuffed Texas longhorn head above the entrance.  The bar offers 30 different cocktails and the wine cellar stocks 1,200 bottles, with many labels under $50.
    The focus of the menu here is on 14 different cuts of steak, all arrayed behind a glass counter, including ribeyes ($39-$89), New York strips ($39-$96) and filets ($42-$78), available as Choice, Prime or dry-aged bone-in.  They also list “Grade 8 Wagyu Prime” from an unnamed American source, but I can’t find any reference to a grade beyond “5” listed by the American Wagyu Association.  
These steaks come with a choice of half a dozen sauces, or perhaps a Maytag blue cheese crust, and three potato renditions, including a huge stuffed baked Idaho, layered with Parmesan and cheddar cheeses, smoked bacon, butter, sour cream, and sea salt ($6)—one of which could serve four people. If a potato can seem magnanimous, this one surely is. There’s also braised collard greens with country ham ($5).
       The menu goes on a while from there, from beef stroganoff with sour cream ($22) to a vegan cassoulet ($17) and a whole lot more.
       So you go to Le Moo with expectations of good steaks, but once you get there you become part of an entertainment.  It’s said, “You can’t eat the furniture,” but you can dine well while luxuriating on it at Le Moo.   

Lunch Mon.-Fri., Brunch Sat. & Sun., Dinner nightly.



2868 Frankfort Avenue

    The whole idea of a casual breakfast or late afternoon sit-down to a pastry and hot coffee must be the universal daydream of all who rush through their lives fueled by coffee from a dispenser and a donut.  So the lovable Blue Dog Bakery is where you go when you want to savor your take-out pastries and coffee at home or at work or, better, to bask for a while in the pleasures of going slow on premises.
    As their website states, “Artisan breads are made to be eaten,” meaning that a loaf that owners Bob Hancock and Kit Garretts and their staff take two days to make right deserves to be enjoyed when it’s ready, not the next day, which seems obvious when you taste it. They list their baking schedule, too: baguettes Tuesdays through Saturday, brioche Friday and Saturday, cranberry walnut on Saturdays, and much more. Of course, you know right away they’re using the best local ingredients, unbleached and organic flour, sourdough and so on. 
The front counter is also piled high with big
cookies, tarts, muffins and scones, along with breakfast quiches and house-made granola.
    But there’s much more to Blue Dog than just the city’s best baked goods. For brunch you can have eggs on levain bread with Serrano ham, spinach and Parmesan ($9); sandwiches like saltimbocca with Serrano ham, chicken, smoked mozzarella and peperoncini ($9); salads for lunch, and wonderful tartines and pizzas on excellent crusts, including poached egg and bacon pizza ($12) and a s
ardine tartine with Great Northern bean puree, capers, scallion and chilies ($11). 
    Plan on taking your time at Blue Dog.  You’ll want to linger. 

Open Tues.-Sat.




By John Mariani

BENOIT alain ducasse New York
60 West 55th Street (near Avenue of the Americas)

    One hundred and four years ago, a butcher named Benoit Matray opened a Paris bistro (left) on the Rue Saint Martin that bore his name and the promise, “At Benoit, food and drink just like at home,” which was quite a compliment to the bourgeois mamans of the fin de siècle.  Later on, the words changed to “At Benoit you eat like a king!” suggesting that this quintessential bistro, with its carved wood,  copper bar, tiles, red banquettes and engraved glass went up-market—even more so after Alain Ducasse bought the place in 2005 from the third generation of the Matray family.
    Thankfully, one will find that the original Benoit still has pretty much the same look and menu it has had since before World War I. Under Ducasse,  Benoit has sprouted branches in Tokyo, Osaka, and NYC, where it took over the beloved La Côte Basque in the spring of 2008.  The Manhattan operation, looking very Parisian indeed, had its growing pains but eventually settled into the look and feel of a bistro that has been around for decades.  (NYC has quite a number of venerable old bistros, including Cherche Midi, Chez Napoleon, La Mangeoire, and Montmartre, all with similar menus.)
    Today, as you enter the New York Benoit (right),
through a revolving door, to your left is a handsome, jaunty, very popular little bar, both before and after theater, serving a light menu and an array of aperitifs.   The large main dining room is done up in golden-blond wood, tile floors, wall scones, bright tablecloths, and big mirrors, with enchanting trompe l'œil cloudy blue sky above you. The good lighting allows you to see everyone in the room—neighborhood regulars, theater people and theater-goers, and real live visitors from France, as are many of Benoit’s staff.
    I’ve been to Benoit often as it’s evolved, but my most recent visit was preceded a few weeks prior by one during which just about everything, from greeting to service to food, was so lackluster that I thought either the chef had changed or the staff was on the last week of their work visas.  It was with real relief, then, that I returned two weeks ago to find everything as it was at its best. 
Perhaps buoyed by a very favorable NY Times review, the staff, now under Guillem Kerambrun (who also oversees the beverage program),  displayed a buoyant French ésprit and the food overall had returned to good form.  I was, of course, happy to see Philippe Bertineau still the chef, after stints at the Hôtel du Palais in Biarritz, Restaurant Lucien Vanel in Toulouse,  Restaurant  Daniel in NYC,  Payard Pâtisserie & Bistro, and, most recently, at Balthazar.
    The menu toes the sacrosanct Parisian line, starting off with hors d’oeuvres (left) like good and garlicky cod brandade; rich and creamy pork rillettes; and a crisp, fatty pied de cochon with tartar sauce, and more. A choice of three ($14) makes for a good starter, five ($19) just enough to be shared by two people.
     But first there is the lagniappe of puffy gougères, hot and riddled with  Gruyère cheese, along with excellent bread and butter; brioche toast comes with a starter of duck foie gras terrine with rhubarb chutney ($28).  And don’t fail to order the Alsatian tart flambé lavished with abundant sweet onions and smoky morsels of bacon. 
It’s absurd to think Bertineau would craft anything but a textbook perfect onion soupe gratinée (below; $14) or delicious fat escargots swimming in a garlic-parsley butter ($14).  Odd then that an expensive (at $29) cookpot of lobster with spelt, chestnut, wild mushrooms and baby kale could be so lackluster, the lobster overcooked on two occasions, the sauce bland.
      Main courses have been winnowed to a basic ten items, as in Paris, with daily specials.  One of the consistent favorites here, from the old La Côte Basque—once removed from Benoit’s menu then put back after people clamored for it—are the quenelles of pureed pike with an exceptionally rich, silky Nantua sauce on fluffy rice pilaf ($28). Of course, there is roast chicken, now available for one ($27) or two ($52), all very succulent and buttery and perfumed with rosemary, though the skin was somewhat flaccid that night, served with a haystack of piping hot, thin French fries (which you should order whatever else you opt for). 
Cassoulet ($34) was hearty enough, but should have had a better, crackling crust.  The bistro staple of filet mignon was of very generous size, perfectly cooked outside and in and ennobled with the classic peppercorn sauce ($46) that makes this less-fatty cut so much more flavorful. The special of the evening was tender white halibut, napped in a citrus-flavored reduction.
    Perhaps it is an affectation of mine, but among the desserts I would have enjoyed having the finely grained baba, laced with excellent Armagnac and whipped cream ($12), to be lighted on fire—it’s fun and doesn’t hurt the dessert. But Jean-LoupTeterl’s chocolate soufflé with vanilla ice cream ($12) could not have been better, and the very fragile vanilla millefeuille (left; $12) is possibly the best in NYC and would compete well with any in Paris.
    Benoit’s wine list is far more extensive than most bistros even think of having, and there are some good bottles under $50. By the way, every Tuesday this month offers Le Cochon ($39), slow-roasted suckling pig, which is so popular it’s wise to call in advance.
    So I was made happy again by my return visit, and I realized that so much of the appeal of Benoit is its surroundings and its élan, the kind of place that at its best reminds you of everything there is to love about French bistros and everything you come to expect in a city where the best is always available.  And I hope the entire staff keeps their Green Cards and stays put here forever.

Benoit is open daily for lunch and dinner.  A la carte, but with special prix fixe lunch and dinner.





By Geoff Kalish

        Located about an hour-and-a-half car ride north of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alexander Valley is the largest of Sonoma’s designated viticultural areas. And, while once a prime place for growing grapes used for jug bottlings, the area is now home to some of the best producers of U.S. wine.  One of those producers is the Alexander Valley Vineyards.
        Originally part of the homestead of the valley’s namesake Cyrus Alexander, this property was purchased in 1962 by Maggie and Harry Wetzel, who planted and sold premium grapes until 1975, when they built a winery and began making and selling their own wine. Today, the third generation of the Wetzels continues to be active in the winery with production up to 170,000 cases a year—about 80% red. And, while their very popular, easy drinking, fruity Sin Zin ($20) is a top seller (23,000 cases per year), they make other top-notch Chardonnays and reds—particularly Pinot Noir and a red blend called Cyrus. 

A Sampling of Recent Releases 

2013 Estate Grown Chardonnay ($28)—This FiftyBest recent Gold Medal winner showed a bouquet of lemons and pineapple, with a bright crisp flavor of apples and pears. 

2013 Estate Pinot Noir ($28)—This FiftyBest Gold Medal winner had a bouquet of dried apricots and cherries with a taste of currants and plums with a hint of strawberry in its smooth finish. 

2010 Cyrus ($53)—This Bordeaux-like blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec showed a fragrant bouquet and taste of cassis and ripe berries with a complex taste of fruit and oak and a long finish with a touch of tannin. 

Alexander Valley Vineyards
8644 California Highway 128, Healdsburg
707 433-7209

Open for tasting daily 10 a.m.–5 p.m. (except major holidays). Cave tours are conducted daily at 11a.m. and 2 p.m.



A law student named Saima Ahmad in the U.K. claims she suffered a "monetary and emotional" loss after buying an eight-pack of Kit Kats that were "missing their crunch," insisting that the candy's maker, Nestle should give her a lifetime supply of Kit Kats as compensation. "I wouldn't rule out taking this further if Nestle do not apologize or compensate me adequately," Ahmad wrote.


“You may or may not remember the first time you tried cold pack cheese spread. I do. I remember it like one remembers a first kiss, first joint, or first shot of liquor: totally foreign, slightly confusing, and worth another taste. What was this stuff, I wondered as I gazed down into the little plastic tub, one of my grandma’s stubby cocktail spreaders plunged into its surface like a flag on the moon.”--“Exploring Cold Pack Cheese Spread” by Brett Kell, Edible Milwaukee (Winter 2016)


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

   The Hound in Heaven (21st Century Lion Books) 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 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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