Virtual Gourmet

  February 5,   2017                                                                                            NEWSLETTER

Joan Collins, Conrad Hilton, Jr., Zsa Zsa Gabor, and friend
at the Hollywood premiere of the film "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison"  (1957)



By John Mariani


By John Mariani



 By John Mariani



By John Mariani


    As someone who lives in a winter snow zone (the southern part of New York State), I share a love-hate relationship with Mother Nature that by this time in February tilts towards the latter.  So it is difficult for me to imagine the deprivations of far snowier, bitter cold climes of the northern and western parts of the state, where snowfalls are measured in feet rather than inches.
    Syracuse is located in the northeast corner of New York’s Finger Lakes region and won the Golden Snowball Award for the most snowfall in the state from 2002 to 2011, with an average of ten feet per year and the distinction of being the city in American that gets the highest annual snowfall.  Yet my stalwart friends in Syracuse simply shrug when I ask them about being continuously under assault by blizzards, explaining that, like all cold weather people, from Kodiak to Kennebunkport, they are so used to it and plan so well for it, that it’s just part of their daily lives.  Snow falls, plows come through, you dig out and get on with your life without whining.  That done within hours of a snowfall, the natives
have come up with myriad things to do during the winter, whose record temperature was -26 degrees in 1936.
    In fact the city has proclaimed itself the “
official home of the misunderstood season.”  Of course,  the Syracuse University basketball and hockey seasons are in full swing, and Labrador Mountain ski park is just 30 minutes away, with 22 slopes.  Art museums and galleries are respite from the cold and warming to the soul.
    Many of the Finger Lakes wineries are open throughout winter for tastings and tours, at a time when the vineyards are dormant and winery owners have more time to spend with visitors.  (For info: )
    Since clearing the streets of snow is a given in Syracuse, a downtown walking tour is a capital idea—a slow stroll will take under two hours—not least because the city has some impressive historic architecture, built on the wealth created by timber, salt, potash and nearby crop lands, all easily shipped on the Erie Canal and a network of railroads.  Indeed, in many ways Syracuse was a true gateway to the west at a time when it was still pretty wild.  Water is still drawn from Skaneateles Lake, considered one of the cleanest in the country.
    Begin your walk in the wide-open Clinton Square (above), anchored by its 1910 Soldiers & Sailors Monument dedicated to those who died in the Civil War, surrounded by a reflecting pool used in winter for ice skating.  The Third National Bank Building, done in a rust-colored Queen Anne style (on the left in the photo of Clinton Square), and the Victorian Gothic-style Syracuse Savings Bank (in the middle of the photo of Clinton Square) are joined by the limestone Gridley Building (on the right), the Romanesque City Hall (right), and the newly restored Hotel Syracuse; once one of the grandest hotels in America, opened in 1924, it is now a Marriott-managed property.
    The restoration not only polished clean the hotel’s magnificent interiors (right), it unveiled a
40-by-6-foot mural depicting 20 key events during the first 100 years of Syracuse’s history, which had been ignominiously covered over with mirrors in the 1980s.  Now it looks rapturous, showing in vivid colors events like the discovery of salt springs near Onondaga Lake, and the formation of the Iroquois Confederacy.  The Grand Ballroom is once again magnificent, while all the white-and-gray bedrooms, now 250, down from 600 (average rate $300 per night) have been completely modernized with the most up-to-date amenities.
    You can get a palpable sense of the hotel’s history simply by enjoying a cocktail in the clubbish Cavalier Room off the lobby, while a more contemporary look marks the restaurant Eleven Waters (right), a sunny American bistro serving everything from an excellent onion soup gratinée ($7) and the locally beloved Syracuse salt potatoes ($7) to luscious merlot wine-braised short ribs with mashed root vegetables ($19) and a main course of hearty macaroni and cheese ($14) made with New York cheddar and Gouda, tomato bacon jam and grilled chicken.  The spiedie chicken Cobb salad with buttermilk dressing ($12) is bountiful and very good, and all dishes are listed with suggested New York State wines by the glass.
o appreciate a Syracusan’s sense of winter, it’s worth quoting the line from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem “The Snow Storm,” of how
“the housemates sit /Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed /In a tumultuous privacy of Storm.”  Or John Greenleaf Whittier’s “Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl” on the end of the  frigid ordeal:    

                We felt the stir of hall and street,
                The pulse of life that round us beat;
                The chill embargo of the snow   
                Was melted in the genial glow;
                Wide swung again our ice-locked door,
                And all the world was ours once more!



By John Mariani
Photos by Mario Diaz

CUT By Wolfgang Puck
Four Seasons New York Hotel Downtown
99 Warren Street (near Greenwich Street)


    There is no question that Austrian-born chef-entrepreneur Wolfgang Puck was one of the central figures in what was christened “New California Cuisine” back in the 1980s.  Based in Los Angeles, he first made a splash as chef at the ultra-trendy celeb haunt Ma Maison, then as chef-owner of Spago, whose casual chic and grill-centered cooking was an enormous boost both to Los Angeles dining and to American gastronomy.
    Puck also had an impish look and a Schwarzenegger-style accent that made him bankable at a time when chefs were emerging as stars, and he was enormously successful in being bankrolled to open restaurants, pizza chains, packaged foods and TV shows under Wolfgang Puck Worldwide Inc.  But, despite his worldwide ventures, except for an Express eatery at JFK Airport, Puck has shied away from NYC, a city known to send celeb chefs packing after a season.
                                                                                                                            Photo by Amanda Marsalis
    So, much was expected from CUT By Wolfgang Puck, a branch of the original steakhouse in Beverly Hills that won universal praise, including my own naming CUT the best new restaurant of the year in Esquire for 2006.  The NYC operation, in the Four Seasons Downtown Hotel, is the sixth CUT in the chain, including those in Las Vegas, Singapore and Bahrain, no two looking alike, and this newest is 180 degrees in atmosphere from the sunny, spacious original. 
    The NYC restaurant’s doors open to a clamorous bar with intensely red neon lighting to your right--and I have not altered the photos' color--and a modest-sized 82-seat dining room on your left (private dining lies beyond).  The room has its windows blocked out; the dominant color is black, with glaring red accents; the chairs are a boudoir purple; the curtains shiny gold; on one wall is written, sounding like a particularly lame line from Fifty Shades of Grey: "Sometimes you know it in your head, the chef whispered. Sometimes you feel it in your stomach, she smiled, buzzed."
    The service staff, under the very affable  general manager Louis Smeby, is as attentive as possible, even when the  place fills up around eight o’clock—when ninety percent of the guests seem to be men who, once they’ve doffed their jackets, cause the noise level to soar to just shy of ear-aching, bolstered by piped-in rock music. Indeed, the whole atmosphere seems intended somehow to express a NYC power crowd’s self image,  but instead looks a lot more like a posh steakhouse in a Lake Tahoe casino resort.
    But you come for the steaks, and to a list of about 16 different cuts, Puck has added an admirable swathe of first courses, salads, side dishes and desserts, pretty much a Xerox copy of the Beverly Hills restaurant (also in a Four Seasons hotel).
    But first, as at the Morton’s steakhouse chain, a waiter comes by your table brandishing outrageously expensive wagyu beef, all wrapped in white napkins that make these heavily marbleized cuts look more like Spam than beef.  And since wagyu and Kobe beef, or whatever restaurants choose to call such cuts, have now become as widely available as Idaho potatoes on steakhouse menus, this presentation is a tad twee.  A couple of morsels, served to us as compliments of the house, tasted very much like the grease that oozes out of a fatty steak.
    There is a fine selection of breads and guests receive a peppery gougère to pop in the mouth. I also enjoyed both the lustrous tuna tartare ($23) and beef tartare ($21), beautifully presented in two tiers of a polished wooden box.  A lobster and blue crab “Louis” cocktail ($24) had a fair amount of the latter but mostly shreds of the former in a sticky tomato-horseradish sauce.  Thinly sliced veal tongue ($18) came with artichokes in a soupy sauce of too-tangy lemon and salsa verde.   The best of the starters was a generous bowl of delicate tortelloni stuffed with sweet pumpkin and liberally tossed with sage butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano ($18), a dish the best Italian restaurants in town would be proud to serve.
    Our table tried three cuts of meat and one seafood dish, avoiding the wagyu at $25 per ounce (six ounce minimum).  The 20-ounce bone-in New York sirloin ($58), aged 28 days, was excellent and impeccably seared and cooked at 1,200 degrees, the meat with an assertive beefy flavor.  Not so, though, a mushy bone-in ribeye, also 20 ounces ($59), which had very little beef flavor at all. It was simply bland.  Double lamb chops with a cilantro-mint raita yogurt ($58) were of excellent quality,  from Elysian Fields in Pennsylvania.
    Most disappointing was a roasted Dover sole meunière with preserved lemon and parsley ($58).  While appending the meaningless term “Dover” to common sole is supposed to suggest a nice, fat, thick fish, the example at CUT would hardly qualify. It was a small specimen, fairly tasteless and lacked the extraordinary lavishing of butter that this classic should have.
    Pureed Yukon Gold potatoes ($10) and French fries ($10) were good, but broccoli di rabe ($10) was chewy and needed oil and garlic. Cavatappi pasta with “Mac & Cheese” ($14) will win no points for savory complexity.
    Zairah Molina’s sumptuous desserts show something of the old Puck verve: a perfect chocolate soufflé with crème fraîche (left), roasted hazelnuts and gianduja ice cream ($14) and rich, buttery Seckel pear and almond-oat crumble with Armagnac date ice cream ($12).
    CUT has an excellent, if high-priced, wine list (not on its the website) with wines by the glass $12 to $36, and the now requisite signature cocktails, running a whopping $18-$25; beers start at $9.
    At the end of a night at CUT you should come away saying, “I have just had the best steaks ever,” but that wouldn’t be true.  They are only the most expensive steaks, and the décor will do nothing to convince you that this is downtown Daddy Warbucks-Goldman Sachs-Jamie Dimon NYC.  Classy is not a word that leaps to mind.  CUT  looks more like a place where the color commentators at ESPN would hang out in Bristol, Connecticut. 

Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner.




 By John Mariani

    The alchemy that goes into making a wine in a personal style can too often be a decision by committee, creating a wine built to sell to the widest possible audience.  Going against the grain is not always good business when you’ve got to sell thousands of cases of sauvignon blanc in a market flooded with grassy, sweet examples.
    But that’s the maverick approach Ehlers Estate winemaker Kevin Morrisey has taken with sauvignon blanc and other varietals.  He begins, like most winemakers, by separating lots, vinifying the grapes, aging them in oak barrels, and then blending them. But at this last stage in the annual process, Morrisey shuts the door to his office and begins the delicate blending of what will go into the bottle.
    “I spend countless hours going through endless components,” Morrisey told me over dinner in New York City. “And all the time I’m listening to sixties and seventies rock—Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, the Stones.  I’m looking for finesse.”
    Odd choice of music when you’re contemplating for finesse, I observed, but there’s no arguing with the results. Ehlers’ sauvignon blanc is to my mind the finest made in California, or anywhere else outside of the Loire Valley.
    “I’m looking for what I call the ‘It’ factor,” he said, “and I have to do it alone.  Symphony orchestras cannot improvise, like rock musicians do.  A good doctor has to look at and speak with the patient, not depend on lab notes for his diagnosis.  Too often California winemakers are science geeks. I’ve always asked ‘Why can’t California sauvignon blancs have the elegance of good Sancerre?’ and that’s what I aim for in my wines.”
    Morrisey (right), who looks like the youngest brother in a family of Harrison Ford and Willem Dafoe, came to Ehlers after working for five years at Stags’ Leap as of 1998, then with legendary winemaker Tony Soter at Etude. Prior to that he’d had a career in cinematography, worked in France and married a French-German girl. Only at the age of 35 did he decide to pursue the study of wine at UC Davis, following up with an apprenticeship at France’s illustrious Château Pétrus.  In 2005 he returned to Stags’ Leap as head winemaker.
    “I had the best job in the world at Stags’ Leap,” he said. “They pretty much left me alone, but the corporate structure was always changing—they had five CEOs in thee years.”  (Stags’ Leap, established in 1893, is now owned by the huge corporation Treasury Estates of Australia.)  “When I got the call from Ehlers, I was very indecisive, until a friend of mine said, ‘Kevin, they’re handing you a winery.’ I tasted all their wines and found them to be a revelation, clearly showing the individual terroir. I also liked that their estate was 100% organic and farmed using Biodynamic™ practices.” Morrisey took over as winemaker at Ehlers in 2009.
    The estate, located in St. Helena in the Napa Valley, comprises 42 acres planted with Bordeaux varietals. Founded in 1885 by Bernard Ehlers, it is now owned by the Leducq Foundation, a trust established by Jean and Sylviane Leducq (above with Morrisey) in 1996.  The two French entrepreneurs and philanthropists saw potential to make Bordeaux-style wines at the Ehler estate, releasing their first vintages in 2000.  Small production and allowing the wines the time to mature were as important as turning a profit, even if that meant making wines that ran counter to the market-driven Napa Valley wine industry, where bigger wines so often win awards as better wines.
    The vineyard is divided into five main blocks, based primarily on soil type, and 25 sub-blocks, with six different clones of cabernet sauvignon planted on multiple rootstocks, seven sub-blocks of Merlot, four of cabernet franc, two of sauvignon blanc and a block of petit verdot.  The vineyard’s microclimate has mornings cooled by fog, full sun at midday, and, as the afternoon progresses, they are cooled down by valley breezes.
    Ehlers Estate makes seven wines, several of which we tasted during our dinner at CUT steakhouse, including that superb Sauvignon Blanc 2015 ($28), which does indeed remind me of some of the finest Sancerre, like Domaine Gérard Filou’s Sancerre Blanc “Silex.”  Fruit and acid are here in perfect equilibrium, crisp, more floral than grassy.
    This was followed by a charming 2013
Merlot, with 5% cabernet franc ($55), whose velvety smoothness and layered structure shows just how well Morrisey learned his lessons at Château Pétrus, not least how well such a wine will mature over the next decade. The 2013 Cabernet Franc ($60) was his way of proving this second-tier varietal has its own dimension and virtues.  The 2013 vintage of the “1886” Cabernet Sauvignon ($110)—the “1886” commemorates the estate’s first vintage—is a typical Bordeaux blend of 85% cabernet sauvignon, 8% cabernet franc, 5% merlot, and 2% petit verdot, and, at 14.2% alcohol, is proof that California need not produce high alcohol red wines that give little indication that they can age well.  Ehlers’ cabernet sauvignon is now tightly knit and the tannins need to release their grip to allow the merlot to soften the wine, while the franc and the petit verdot will add fruit and spice.
    After meeting Morrisey and listening to how he is happiest when working hardest in that private room of his, the music pumping in the background, I can imagine him singing along with Lynyrd Skynyrd, “
Ain't no cell phone towers, you won't catch me online./Workin' with my hands for hours, is how I spend my time./And I don't stand in line for coffee, It ain't my cup of tea./Out here in the country we got everything we need.”




In Rockaway Beach, NY,  Whitney Aycock (left), nicknamed the" Pizza Nazi," was arrested in December, for allegedly cutting a hole in the wall of his former restaurant, Whit’s End, and absconding with its oven, although it belonged to the new tenant, the Playland Motel home.  Mr. Aycock contended he was "helping a friend" by cutting the hole, then using  a forklift to load the $15,000 Stefano Ferrara oven onto a flatbed truck.  He was charged with criminal mischief.


"2017 Is the Year of the Square Pizza" by  Robin Raisfeld and Rob Patronite,  NY Magazine (1/10/17).



 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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