Virtual Gourmet

  January 1,   2017                                                                                             NEWSLETTER



Part One

By John Mariani


By John Mariani


By Mort Hochstein


Part One
By John Mariani

    Now that Houston has received the ultimate compliment from the Great Arbiter of All Taste on All Things, David Chang, as a city with good restaurants, let me say he’s a little late to the party.  Houston has been one of America’s best food cities for at least two decades now, and it gets better every time I go back.  (No surprise that the city’s modernist/molecular experimenters have either retreated or, in the case of  the eccentric Oxheart restaurant, due to close. Houstonians are just not that into microgreens.)
       Here’s one classic and one new place that make a strong case.

3755 Richmond Avenue

    For 30 years I have returned again and again to Tony Vallone’s namesake restaurant in Houston, and in all those visits I doubt I’ve ever had the same dish twice.  Even back in the 1980s, when Tony’s was a red-walled society and celebrity dining venue and Tony himself was in a tuxedo every night, the basic menu was always appended with new dishes based on what was to be found in the local market or flown in from Maine, Seattle, San Francisco, the Outer Banks, or the Adriatic.  So,  while others were content again and again to order Tony’s justifiably famous osso buco or flambéed desserts, I always just asked Tony to feed me, and I’ve never been less than amazed at what was brought to the table.
    Tony’s began as a modest eatery in 1965, then evolved from a red sauce standby into a continental cuisine restaurant, and by the 1990s  into one of the finest Italian restaurants in America, with one of the foremost wine lists anywhere. Tony still makes frequent trips to New York and to Italy to see what’s new and how what was old is being refined, then, passing all his research on to his chefs—some of whom he invites along with him—while allowing them their own personal stamp, which always has a little Texas swagger in it.  And behind all that is Tony's wonderful wife Donna (right).
        The latest incarnation of Tony’s (its third) is as modern and at the same time as timeless as any in Houston, with an arched dining room with a high, skylighted ceiling,  a 12-foot, free-form sculpture—“The Three Graces” by Jesús Moroles—an intimate “Wine Library Room” with a spectacular Venetian glass chandelier, and a wine cellar that seats 60.   The award-winning wine list itself holds 20,000 bottles and 1,100 labels, all priced quite decently. 
    The current chef is the immensely talented Kate McLean (left), a Houston native and the first woman to hold that position at the restaurant, having risen from sous-chef.  While this is clearly Vallone’s restaurant and he has tremendous input as to everything that goes on the menu—he bounces from tables to kitchen all night long, checking everything—McLean has a clear charge to make Tony’s ideas into real dishes of quality and elegance.  Every dish looks as if could not be more appetizingly presented.
    In the past I’ve allowed Tony to kill me with his kindness, pleading with me to have “just a taste,” “a half portion,” “you don’t have to eat it all,” “you must try this.”  I go along and I end up happier and wiser about Italian food than when I sat down.  This last time, however, I asked him to go a little easy, which is not Tony’s idea of a good time, but he held back.  A little.
    First up were two superb pasta dishes—ravioli ascolani ($15) came stuffed with meat, nutmeg, golden raisins, walnuts and sage, graced with pecorino romano, and gnocchi ($12), made from buttery Kennebec potatoes, cooked in the oven with red Sicilian olives and Parmigiano-Reggiano (below).  In their simple flavors, all buoyed by perfect ingredients, the pastas display yet again what Italian food’s enduring appeal is—to be satisfying while being enthralling.
    Turbot is not a fish that travels well from Europe, and I registered that concern to Tony, but he promised a flawless product, which it was, just kissed with dry gin, with an incorporation of baccalà into a light tomato sauce with juniper berries to mimic the gin. The fish ($33) was served with a 2012 Massolino Chardonnay ($70). Next was a Milano salad of burrata, aged prosciutto, radicchio and sweet figs ($19). 
    America has some of the greatest veal anywhere, and Tony’s is as fine as any: the center cut of Provimi veal ($56) was graced with lemon and sided with watercress, cured heirloom carrots and dusted with rosemary, while luscious Colorado lamb chops ($68) joined it on the plate, with al dente vegetables that included fava beans, eggplant. A Wyoming-raised center cut elk chop ($64) with fava beans, eggplant and jus was a magnificent presentation.  Those meats were well married to a 2010 Torre Fosca Brunello di Montalcino ($120).
       Other restaurants in Houston might do similar dishes but none does it better, more succulently, with more natural flavor.
    For dessert there was an impeccably light apricot soufflé served with  caramel sauce and a tot of grappa ($15).

    Tony once long ago asked me to collaborate on writing his memoirs—he’s got more than almost any restaurateur in America—but as yet, he hasn’t slowed down long enough to sit down and get them on paper.  I’m still hoping he will, and I’m still hoping I’ll get to help pull them all together: Tony Vallone and his restaurant are unique parts of American gastronomic history and need commemorating.

Tony's is open Mon.-Fri. for lunch and dinner, Sat. for dinner only.

1800 Post Oak Boulevard

    Not too long ago in the vast, somewhat awkward two-level space of what is now La Table, a noted French chef was serving up a mongrel cuisine inelegantly coined as “French-Texas,” which showed the chef at his best with the former and wholly out of touch with the latter.
     Now,  amiably reconfigured as a more contemporary space, with its staircase lined with fashion and design books, La Table is easily the prettiest and most civilized restaurant to open in a long while in too-proudly-casual Houston.  The tables are generously broad, with thick white tablecloths and good place settings; there is space between the tables, and the sound level allows conversation to be as it should be.  Downstairs there’s a more casual bistro named Marché.
    A native of Morocco, Chef Hassan Obaye (right) put in his time at Michelin-star restaurants in Bordeaux and once owned a French-inspired Moroccan restaurant in Tangiers.  Most recently he was at The Four Seasons Hotel in Houston, and I sense that he has a sure instinct as to what the city’s real gastronomes want to eat, and it’s not French-Texan cuisine.  He toes a very classic line at La Table, showing the rigor of learning pure technique and passing it on to his brigade.  And it is wonderful to see tableside service restored; more on that later.
    La Table has the usual selection of raw bar items (a seafood plateau for two is $46 per person), and a well-worth-ordering selection of flatbreads, crispy and wonderfully varied, from tomato and mozzarella ($14) to yellowfin tuna with crème fraîche aïoli ($18).
    It’s good to find a chef willing to bring back a good consommé du jour ($12) to a modern menu, while the lobster bisque with lobster flan ($16) is ideal in winter.  Seared fresh “Prestige” foie gras comes with seasonal fruit ($29), and it’s so comforting to see a cheese soufflé back on a menu like this ($21), now done with parmesan emulsion and porcini mushrooms (below).  Lavishing bordelaise sauce and Parmesan emulsion onto mushroom ravioli ($19) is also a marvelous new idea.
    A section of eleven dishes “simply seared à la plancha” depends wholly on the excellent quality of the seafood and meats, which include Idaho rainbow trout ($38) and Colorado lamb chops ($55), and then there are the tableside (for two) dishes deftly carved with judicious flair.  These include a caramelized ribeye with caramelized onions, mushrooms, richly buttered potato purée and a peppercorn sauce ($55 per person); a Parmesan-crusted rack of lamb with spicy caponata,  potato purée, and lamb jus ($55 pp).  Always a pleasure to see, the carved roast chicken (below) with its golden skin comes with a rendered pinto noir sauce, wild and button mushrooms, onions, seasonal squashes and potato purée ($45 pp).
    I hope that the service staff has by now ameliorated the problem I faced that evening this fall, which was that while all the carving and plating was going on, the other dishes, like a poached 1.5-pound lobster with spicy green curry, roasted tomatoes, and baby bok choy ($55), and a yellow fin tuna with roasted Mediterranean vegetables, potatoes, green beans, olives, and lemon preserves ($45), grew cold.
    There is more flair in the grand chocolate soufflé for two ($24). Well worth applause, too, is the traditional poire belle Hélène with dark chocolate sauce, vanilla ice cream and almonds ($14), and the dense but moist opera cake with chocolate ganache, almond sponge cake and Arabica coffee sorbet ($14).
    Of course, what would a restaurant named La Table be without a selection of cheeses (three for $14)?
   Care has been put into a superbly comprehensive, 30-page wine list by wine director Michael Peltier and served with finesse by Sommelier Xavyer Burroughs, but mark-ups can induce a wince: Non-vintage Veuve Clicquot Rosé at $145, when you can buy it in a store for $55? Or Peter Michael Ma Belle Fille at $295 versus $95?  Nicely made cocktails run a reasonable $8-$13.
    As fine a city as Houston is when it comes to first-rate restaurants, examples like Tony’s and La Table are still few and far between.  So, while the former still maintains the highest standard of all, La Table is evidence that Houston’s fine dining scene is coming into somewhat better focus.




By John Mariani

Photos by Liz Clayman
31 Union Square West (off Fifth Avenue)
212- 675-9500


    Many gastronomes, including myself, feel that the best restaurants tend to be the smallest ones, preferably run by a chef whose dedication to his kitchen and guests is all consuming, from the minute he orders his provender to the moment he turns off the lights after service.
    But notice I said “tend to be,” because a restaurant like the 225-seat Blue Water Grill proves that there is no impediment to excellence when a restaurant is very large—this one on three floors—and that, in fact, there can be a real benefit in having the clout of buying the best available from purveyors, who cherish the enormous sales to such operations. While there is much reverence shown to the sushi chef who serves only twenty people each night after buying only a few pounds of the first-rate  product, a chef like Blue Water Grill’s Chris Meenan has the commitment and the cash to buy a great deal more of what’s best in the market and to prepare it with integrity.  Such a large-scale operation also takes the strategic and tactical skills of a field marshal.
    Since its recent rehab, BWG’s menu is now admirably shorter, and they’ve added a swanky 85-seat jazz lounge and oyster bar downstairs called Metropolis (where I have not eaten).  I like being on the mezzanine level, which is quieter than downstairs, where it gets loud by 7 o’clock. I also like looking out over the space of this former bank building interior, all sheathed in white marble.
     BWG has three meat and poultry items, but seafood is clearly the heart of the matter.  There are some non-piscine apps you should try: The clams Casino flatbread with roasted peppers, bacon and baby onions ($19) is meant to be shared, or gobbled up, and such a confection is a bright idea much more savory than those dull clam pizzas of New Haven.  Also terrific is a classic leeks vinaigrette with minced preserved egg yolk and a tangy-hot mustard sauce  ($13), a dish that deserves wider presence in restaurants. The lobster bisque ($12) has been on the menu for a long while for good reason: Laced with cognac cream, it has velvety richness and true depth of flavor. Not recommended, however, are the “smoked mushrooms in paper” (at a pricey $18), because what you taste is mainly smoky paper.
    There are five sushi rolls here, including a somewhat large and overwrought but good Union Square roll with crab, hamachi, mango and apple ($15).  The pumpkin agnolotti with crushed amaretti cookies, brown butter and sage ($18/$26) is a seasonal dish.  Every bit as good, very light and fresh was farfalle with blue crab ($20/$32).
    Fine scallops are cooked gently and done à la grenobloise with brioche, capers, and lemon butter ($32), and I found the Alaskan black cod marvelously enhanced by a porcini mushroom crust, smoked eggplant and a truffle emulsion ($23/$35), while “lobster Milanese” ($42) was a fine idea, lightly sautéed and crisp, with succotash—a dish that should be better known after a long absence from menus--and a drawn butter vinaigrette.
    Desserts are just as well thought through as the rest of the menu, especially the warm sticky toffee cake with pineapple and a maple walnut gelato ($11).  Almost as delicious is the chocolate mousse with Oreo crumble ($13) and the warm apple crisp with Mexican cinema gelato ($11).
    Under beverage manager Richard Breitkreutz, formerly of Eleven Madison Park and Craft, there’s an ample beer list, ranging from $7 to $14, and a significant commitment to spirits and dessert liquors, including 20 Scotches and a dozen Cognacs.  The wine list is extensive, with 25 half-bottles available.  As mark-ups go in NYC, BWG’s are not at all outrageous: A
Saint-Émilion Château Faugères 2011 is listed at $100, while $40 in a wine shop, and it’s good to see a fine NY State wine on the list at $48—Cabernet Franc, Paumanok Vineyards, North Fork, 2012 ($25 in a store).
    BWG is a grand space, a lavish place to dine yet without pomp, and its sheer gregariousness is part of the fun dining there.  But the best reason is the quality and consistency of the food, a testament to the great historic dining halls like Grand Central Terminal’s Oyster Bar.  Now, at 20 years of age and with a spanking new rehab, BWG is shining brighter than it ever has.

Open for lunch Mon.-Sat., for dinner nightly, for brunch Sun.




By Mort Hochstein


        When attending the Kosher Food and Wine Experience it would help to be Jewish  and it would be even better if you understood the rules of kosher that govern wine and food service, particularly for observant practitioners.
    Most of the crowd at the annual Kosher Food and Wine Experience fall into that  group, and so they are not surprised when a server turns his back on a thirsty supplicant and pours wine from a bottle you cannot see. Those who know the law understand this is to prevent you from seeing the bottle and somehow contaminating its kosher status. And, if you want a second pour, that won’t be possible immediately;  you’ll have to come back later with different or freshly rinsed stemware.
      Those glasses, by the rules of the rabbis, must be individually rinsed in cold water before being put to use, even when they’re fresh from the glass factory. The people who sponsor the KFWE send a team to a local mikvah to rinse new glasses individually. A mikvah, for the uninitiated, is a humble pool offering spiritual support to observant Jews. It’s not for swimming.  In fact, participants must take a cleansing bath before immersion in the mikvah.
      For wine to be kosher, it has to contain only kosher ingredients, which means that from the crushing of the grapes to the bottling, the wine must be handled only by Sabbath observant Jews. In ancient times, wine was sometimes associated with pagans and idol worship, and the rabbis created rules to prevent Jews from consuming wine that might have been associated with an idolatrous offering.  So they created meshuval wine, juice that had been cooked to such a high degree that it lost all character and became so off putting that even idol worshipers would shun it. They ruled that only meshuval wine could be served to a Jew by a non-Jewish server. Fortunately, modern technology has taken the sting out of meshuval wine and it is perfectly palatable these days, no matter who the server may be.  
    Kosher Food and Wine Experience is an annual celebration of kosher food, wine and spirits. There are KFWEs in New York and other cities; NYC’s is sponsored by Kedem, the nation’s major producer, importer and distributor of kosher wine and spirits.  Vendors and buyers, restaurateurs, caterers and journalists cram a huge hall on the Hudson River in lower Manhattan in the daylight hours and the public is invited to come and fress, meaning drink and eat, possibly to excess, in the evening.
     The simple guideline is for consumers to step up to the counter and eat as much as they want, or as much as the server will give them at one time.  Attendants are much more generous on the foodlines, and there is no prohibition against coming back for second helpings.
        The choice of food is interesting. On my visits, I focus on smoked salmon and  exotic seafood such as whitefish and herring in all their tasty formulations. I am not looking for hamburgers (always popular), but I am happy to find a sliced steak or skewered lamb. Oddly enough, with opportunities to try all sorts of exotic meats and other kosher delicacies, there are always crowds lined up for pizza.
    And, says Kedem V.P. Jay Buchsbaum, cholent is one of the most popular dishes. Cholent is true mother’s food, aka mommaloschen. It’s a slow-cooked stew, with any kind of meat and beans, and other vegetables, placed into a low-temperature oven on Friday to be served the next day, because observant Jews do not cook on Saturday (Shabbos). Again, with all sorts of rich and expensive delicacies to be had for the asking, this peasant dish attracts long lines of devotees.
        Kosher Food and Wine Experience also has become a dating occasion for many young people. 
   This year’s events will occur in  Paris,  Jan. 31,  London, Feb. 1, Tel Aviv, Israel Feb. 6, New York City, Feb. 13, Los Angeles, Feb. 15.
     The advance sale for NYC  has already been brisk and Kedem expects to entertain some 3,000 thirsty and hungry patrons, eager to spend about $125 for an evening of all-out eating and drinking. Gabriel Geller, Kedem executive in charge of quality control, says many of the consumers return every year. One major buyer orders 250 tickets at a shot, presumably for family and clients, and many others, Geller reports, buy several dozen at a time.



The Japanese company Fake Food Hatanaka has introduced the idea of fake foods as fashion accessories, called ii-Fake Hatanaka. You can now buy hair accessories like tsukimi soba with raw egg, spaghetti and meatball, and a lettuce-wrap; salami and shrimp earrings; and orange cake boots.

FOOD WRITING 101:  If you insist a restaurant is "achingly, rhapsodically sincere,"
don't ever do it again.

“It’s a shame, the way we’ve weaponized the word `authentic.’ Somewhere along the line, the term once used to revere honesty and tradition turned sinister, a cudgel wielded by those who would enforce culinary conformity. So radioactive that it’s stored in a lead-lined vault, the concept may not even be relevant anymore. Chris Bianco cringes when it's uttered, insisting instead that what he truly wants is for his food to be sincere. Tratto, Bianco’s newest restaurant and greatest success, is achingly, rhapsodically sincere.”—Dominic Amato, “How Many Stars for Chris Bianco’s Tratto? (How Many You Got?)," Arizona Republic (10/4/16)


 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 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, Geoff Kalish, Mort Hochstein, and Brian Freedman. Contributing Photographers: Galina Dargery. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.

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