Virtual Gourmet

  June 11, 2017                                                                                            NEWSLETTER


Menu from the Palm Court in NYC's Plaza Hotel (1959)


By John Mariani


By John Mariani



By  Geoff Kalish




By John Mariani

Withers Collection Museum & Gallery

    Two years ago I reported on Memphis in these pages. It took three articles to cover it all, yet that didn’t exhaust the city’s attractions.  So I returned a few months ago to see what I had not seen and eat what I had not eaten.  I suspect I’ll be back sooner than later for more.

    In my last report I focused a good deal on the changing music scene in Memphis, from the re-opening of The New Daisy, now a venue for top rock and roll, country and western, and hip hop; The Memphis Music Hall of Fame  and the Memphis Rock n’ Soul Museum; the legendary Sun Studio, where Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis and Johnny Cash recorded; Stax Museum, operated by Soulsville USA; the W.C. Handy Home & Museum and the new Blues Hall of Fame.

    Had I the time I would visit all these every time I come to town, but there was so much more I hadn’t seen, not least the Gibson Factory Tour, attached to a showroom of Gibson instruments that will make any pro or amateur guitar player’s jaw drop.  Nice thing is, they let you pick any instrument off the wall and just sit down to try it out.

    The tour itself (reservations necessary) brings you face to face with the people who make these classic American instruments, from the intricate process of binding, neck-fitting, painting, buffing, and final tuning, plus a video of the company’s history.

    I also had a chance to visit the humbly named Music Store, which is actually a place stacked floor to ceiling, wall to wall, bin after bin with blues records, from Robert Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt to B.B. King and Guitar Shorty, from Eric Clapton to John Mayer.  Start up a conversation with owner Dr. Malcolm Anthony, “Bluesologist,” and you’ll spend an hour getting a musical education.

    Downtown Memphis is still an amalgam of stunning city architecture like the Sterrick Building (left) and the strikingly modern FedEx Forum, the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association and the Benjamin L. Hooks Public Library.  But it must co-exist with a good deal of wholly mundane architecture and brutally ugly multi-story parking lots.

    Many people don’t know of Memphis’s place in movie history, but a plaque on South Main Street commemorates King Vidor’s production of Hallelujah! (1928) filmed there and the wave of moviemaking beginning in the late 1980s, including The Firm, Mystery Train, Hustle & Flow, The Rainmaker and the Johnny Cash bio Walk the Line.

    One of the places new to me that I was most excited about was the Withers Collection on Beale Street, devoted to the work of Ernest Columbus Withers, a photographer who chronicled all the great leaders and events of the American Civil Rights Movement, as well as the musicians and artists of a period that ranged from the 1940s to 2007.  Many of his photos—among 1.8 million in the collection—became iconic images of their day in the Washington Post, Ebony, Newsweek, and Life, and they are as beautiful, startling, troubling, and glorious today as when they first appeared.   The Withers family oversees the Collection, working to some day have every image digitalized.

    Just outside of downtown is another remarkable place of great historic significance.  It looks like nothing from the outside but a modest-sized antebellum white clapboard house. The lawn is unkempt, the wood needs a paint job.  But above the door is a banner reading “Slave Haven Museum Burkle Estate 160th Anniversary.” Inside, a series of small rooms reveals artifacts from the era of the Underground Railroad, which ran through the property.  Here, from 1855 to 1863, Jacob Burkle, a German immigrant and stockyard owner, risked his life to help escaping slaves by harboring them in the cramped cellar of his home, located not far from the Mississippi.  When the time was right, the runaway slaves ran to the shore to be rowed across the wide river to make their way to northern states. 

    You can go down into the cellar now and see the trap doors and the narrow slits of daylight coming into the room. Upstairs there are photos, maps with the trade routes from Africa, clinical lay-outs of the slave ships, diabolical manuals on the treatment of slaves. And then there is the charming African-American folk art, quilts and memoirs, some for sale.     
    For so peaceful a place it is hard to remember how fearsome it was once, both for the runaways and for Jacob Burkle himself, knowing he could suffer the same fate as those he sought to help get to freedom.

    Move beyond the city center and Memphis’s Shelby Farms Park—once a penal farm—seems far away from the downtown bustle, although Memphis is rarely thronged with people or traffic. Set on 4,500 acres of recreational land, with 50 acres devoted to a buffalo herd, the park is actually five times the size of New York’s Central Park.  Pine Lake, within a forest, has a treetop adventure by which you can swing and climb through the forest on more than 40 crossings of rope ladders and net bridges. There are horseback riding trails and pony rides, an off-leash dog park, and 20 lakes for boating. 

    I also visited the growing Pink Palace Museums, which holds a section on Tennessee history and artifacts, the Sharpe Planetarium and 3D Theatre, the Lichterman Nature Center, and the superb Mallory-Neel and Magevney historic houses.

     And then, there’s Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home, once a 14-acre farm, purchased by the entertainer for $102,500 for his family in 1957.  He lived there until his death in 1977, and the mansion was opened to the public as a museum in 1982 and in 2006 acquired National Historic Landmark status.

        I happened to be passing through Memphis a week after Elvis died, and I remember the stone walls, as now, splattered with graffiti, one of them reading, “Elvis is not dead, He’s Just On Tour with God.”  Later I got to visit the house and found it garish beyond imagining. 
But on my most recent visit I came to realize that Graceland—even its name—can be anything anyone wants it to be.  Some may see it as the ultimate in Country Kitsch, others as a significant example of 1960s-1970s Populuxe interior design, from its strong colors of pink and purple and its gilded furniture to the Jungle Room with its indoor foliage, heavy carved armchairs and oversized teddy bear.

    Others may see it as testament to a life of sheer excess—whatever Elvis wanted here, he got, and his entourage was omnipresent. TVs blared in every room. And still others might see it as the American Dream realized in Technicolor. 

    The museum section of Graceland is certainly testament to Elvis’s global idolization and his achievements in music, from the dozens of gold records and photos with U.S. Presidents to the various onstage outfits that grew more outlandish—and larger—as The King grew older.  You see the famous photos of the young heartthrob getting his hair cut in the Army, posters from his films, the pictures of Priscilla Presley from their wedding.

    Only a cynic will find Graceland distasteful in the sense of being repellant, for whatever else it is, it was a house and a home and a retreat from a world of pop celebrity that could be truly distasteful and demanding of a fantasy Elvis had to live up to every day away from Graceland.

    After Graceland, you might want to head over and take a walk by twilight over Big River Crossing (below), which spans the Mississippi. Opened just last autumn, it was once a rusting train trestle and now the river’s longest pedestrian and biking bridge, connecting Memphis to Arkansas.  And if you stand there when a train whistle blows, maybe you can still hear an echo of Elvis singing “Mystery Train.”


Train train rolling down the line,
Train train rolling down the line,
Well it took my baby
And left poor me behind.


By John Mariani



    Choose any detail you like at random.  The softened butter in a small ramekin, replaced after each slice of bread you eat. The fineness of the bread selection itself.  The exceptional thinness of the wine glasses. The way no guest rises up from or sits down in a chair without being assisted by a staff member—any of them. The civilized level of sound in the beautiful dining room. The warm welcome by the coat check woman and immediate seating by a host never absent from his podium. The lighting, which at first seems low, then, as your eyes adjust, is soft and warm.  The thick white double tablecloths and chairs so comfortable you comment on them. The amuse that arrives with your Champagne or cocktail.  The pacing of the meal and the ballet of staff delivering each dish and pouring sauce on it a moment later.  The helpful advice from wine director Aldo Sohm and his four sommeliers.  And at evening’s end, the sincere goodnight from a staff hoping and happy that your evening was perfect.                                                  Photo: Nigel Parry

    Such details add up to what true fine dining involves in 2017, and it is precisely what you find at Le Bernardin, now three decades into its reign as NYC’s finest restaurant.  Opened by Maguy Lecoze (right) and her late brother Gilbert in 1986 (he died in 1994), now with her chef-partner Eric Ripert (above), Le Bernardin first brought and has always maintained a refined glamour that has never changed or faltered, despite the slackening of standards elsewhere in NYC.  True, a rube could get away without a jacket but would feel foolish being the odd man out.  Women look forward to going to Le Bernardin as much for the opportunity to dress up as to dine well.  And the staff, both men and women, are themselves impeccable in their dress, even if black shirts, ties and suits are too somber for such a joyous place.

    Upon opening, Maguy Lecoze managed the room and set the style while Gilbert revolutionized seafood cuisine, not just in NYC but everywhere in the world, proving that excellence of product and minimal but carefully thought-out preparation produce magnificent and consistent results.  The miracle is that, after Gilbert’s passing, Ripert has developed entirely his own ideas for Le Bernardin’s menu but never betrayed the ideals the Lecozes set more than thirty years ago, so that any dish you will enjoy tonight could well have been on the menu in 1986.  The evolution still puts Le Bernardin at the forefront of innovation in the second decade of the 21st century.

    Ripert was born in Antibes, so the flavors of the Riviera are rife in his cooking. But he has widely expanded his repertoire via global travel, so that a service of American caviar on filet mignon comes with kampachi lightly smoked (left).  A single sea scallop is barely cooked, its texture almost raw, its flavor sweet, to which deeper notes are added from bone marrow and baby turnips, with an enriching calamansi-butter sauce  (right).

Poached halibut (below)—easy enough to be dull—takes on all the summer flavors of asparagus, peas and fava beans with a woodsy morels casserole, a dish in which every element seems perfectly suited to every other one, as in a well-composed suite.

    Next came monkfish (below)—easy enough to cook into a chewy sponge—pan-roasted quickly and set on fideos, the very thin Spanish spaghetti made with squid ink, to which is added a spicy chorizo sauce. Striped bass is baked—you’ll notice that every technique of cooking seafood is employed—with spaghetti squash and a green papaya salad with a ginger-accented red wine sauce that might have come straight from the best kitchen in Shanghai. 

    By this point in the meal my wife and I were content with all the savory courses, but before dessert we could not resist ordering several superb cheeses served at the perfect temperature and ripeness.  Then came a yogurt tinged with citrusy candied Buddha’s hand and something called “scorched cheesecake” that tasted a little like a really great Smores, and a cooling yogurt sorbet. Last was a blackberry corn custard with frozen corn meringue and blackberry mezcal-laced sorbet.  Of course, there were petits fours and chocolates.

    It is no wonder that Le Bernardin is always full, both at lunch and at dinner, and guests are still arriving at 10 p.m.  So when an ignorant member of the food media sniffs that this style of dining is dying in NYC, dare him to get a reservation on short notice at Le Bernardin.  

    Indeed, reservations are requisite, but as the staff is eager to tell you, the bar-lounge just inside the door does not take them and has its own abbreviated menu. But, if you ask for anything on the dining menu, the answer is a smile and an assurance that you may have it.  (Ripert and Lecoze also opened Aldo Sohm Wine Bar just across the building’s breezeway, a more casual spot with a menu of small plates.)

    And for all this kind of excellence, you do not pay an outrageous price.  A three-course lunch is $87, a four-course dinner $150,  and an eight-course tasting menu $180, with wines $270.  Compare those with similar menus in Paris, like Jules Verne, where a five-course a meal runs 190 euros, six courses 230 euros; or twelve courses at Arpège at 390 euros; and at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant in Le Meurice, an appetizer alone of langoustines is 135 euros, while chicken with mushrooms and celery runs 175 euros.  Next to these, Le Bernardin seems a bargain. (Michelin has awarded all these restaurants its highest three stars.)

    And in the end, Le Bernardin is still very much a NYC restaurant in its rhythms and amiable hospitality of a kind you won’t find in Paris. Even at 5:30, guests feel pampered and dine at their leisure.

    All this takes an enormous amount of hard work and attention to detail, the kind you can only really find if you look for it.




by Geoff Kalish

As we enter summer, consumers often face retail wine shop shelves stocked with a seemingly endless array of bottles of pink plunk—only few of which mate well with the fare of the season. And searching through the remainder of the store usually reveals a sea of reds and whites, many bold cabernets and oaky chardonnays, more appropriate for hearty cold weather fare. Fortunately, lurking among the wares are some well-priced gems, well suited to harmoniously marry the flavors featured  in warm weather like chilled shrimps and scallops and charcoal grilled meats, fish, and fowl, as well as dishes featuring fresh tomatoes.


And from a series of recent tastings, the following listing (by type of fare) is offered as an aid to consumers in ferreting out some widely available worthy choices for summer.


Recommendations to accompany popular summer “outdoor gathering” fare, like guacamole and salsa with chips, crudité accompanied by ranch dressing dip and bruschetta and even Caprese salad. 


2016 South Coast Winery Tempranillo Rosé ($16)

Grapes for this wine hailed from California’s Temecula County and were fermented and aged in stainless steel. It has a fragrant bouquet and slightly sweet taste of strawberries and raspberries and a hint of citrus in its finish.


2016 Triennes Rosé ($18)

This dry, fruity wine from Provence is a blend of primarily Cinsault grapes, plus Syrah, Grenache and Merlot. It has a bouquet and taste of strawberries, with notes of peaches and a dry, refreshing finish.


Recommendation to accompany shellfish, like shrimp, lobster, scallops and grilled mild-tasting seafood such as striped bass, grouper and halibut.


Château Carbonnieux Blanc ($35)

This blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon from the Pessac-Léognan region of Bordeaux shows a bouquet of fresh herbs and a hint of new-mown grass, with a well-integrated taste of cooked apples and grapefruit and a vibrant finish.


St. Innocent Freedom Hill Vineyard Chardonnay ($26)

From Oregon’s Willamette Valley comes this Montrachet-like 100% Chardonnay that’s fermented and aged (11 months on its lees) in old French barrels. It has a pale yellow color, and a bouquet and smooth taste of apples and pears, with a lingering finish that has hints of ginger.


Recommendations to accompany grilled chicken, as well as flavorful seafood like   tuna, swordfish, salmon and Arctic char.


2015 Jordan Chardonnay ($32)

Made from 100% Russian River Valley night-harvested Chardonnay, this dry, crisp Chablis-like wine was fermented in stainless steel (47%) or new French oak barrels (53%), aged for two months on its lees and another six months in 100% new French oak. It has a bouquet and taste of cooked apples and ripe pears with a vibrant, memorable, lingering finish of exotic herbs.


2015 Millbrook Chardonnay ($18)

This wine was produced in the Hudson Valley using 100% New York State Chardonnay grapes that were partially barrel-fermented, with 50% of the wine aged in barrels for seven months. It shows a bouquet and taste of apples and tangerines and a crisp finish with a lingering taste of caramel.


Recommendations to accompany hamburgers, grilled steak, pork and lamb, as well as duck and blue-veined cheeses.


2012 Antiche Terre Amarone ($26)

This bargain-priced and not over-the-top (15% alcohol) wine was made in Italy’s Veneto area by the traditional Amarone method from a blend of Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara grapes allowed to raisin (to concentrate their sugar content) before fermentation and 18 months of barrel aging. It shows a rich bouquet and taste of ripe plums, cherries and raspberries with a smooth, lush finish.


2014 The Chocolate Block ($27)

This flavorful South African wine was made from a blend of grapes (71% Syrah and smaller amounts of Grénache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Viognier) grown in the Swartland region of the country. It has a bouquet and taste of blackberries and cherries with a lingering finish containing hints of dark chocolate.


2012 Cantine di Ora Amicone ($17)

Made primarily from Corvina grapes allowed to raisin for a while, this wine was fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged in large French oak barrels for 8 months. It has a fruity bouquet and easy-drinking taste of ripe plums and raspberries and a smooth finish with a hint of toasty oak.



Central Jail Restaurant in Bangalore, India, has booths in chained-up jail cells and guns hanging from the ceiling,  with “Most Wanted” posters plastered on the walls. Waiters are dressed either like fellow prisoners or guards.  The menu, however, is not based on prison food but offers instead  Asian dishes, including Chinese, Thai, and Indian.


The Vibey Retreat: If Olmsted didn't do so much so perfectly, it would be that cute-to-11 Brooklyn restaurant we might have loved to hate. Instead, on a foggy night the week before Christmas, we found ourselves dopey in love—surrendering all cynicism in its ridiculously picturesque garden, wrapped in a folksy blanket, uncharacteristically giggling as we dumped the last of the rum into the thermos of housemade Swiss Miss.”—“Best Restaurants in America 2017,” Food & Wine (June, 2017/)


 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: NEW ENGLAND SUMMER

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 (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, Gerry Dawes and Brian Freedman. Contributing Photographer: Galina Dargery. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.

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