Virtual Gourmet

  June 18, 2017                                                                                            NEWSLETTER


Elinor Donahue, Lauren Chapin, Robert Young, Jane Wyatt
 and Bill Gray in  FATHER KNOWS BEST (1959)




By John Mariani

By John Mariani

By John Mariani


There will be no issue next week (June 25) of Mariani's Virtual Gourmet because Mariani will be in France, dining in Bordeaux and Paris, all for the benefit of his readers.


By John Mariani

    In my last gastro-report on Memphis two years ago, I emphasized that the city has a wide array of restaurants well above the down-home style so often associated with cities in the South.  Places like Chez Philippe at The Peabody, River Oaks, Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen and the Majestic Grille can compete with any contemporary upscale restaurants in Atlanta, Nashville or Charleston. 
    As a matter of fact, I was previously so delighted with a brunch at the twelve-year-old Majestic Grille that I returned recently to have dinner there, not least because I adore the look of the reclaimed 1913 Majestic No. 1 movie house with its mix of Beaux Arts and art deco styles.           
     Chef-owner Patrick Reilly and his wife, Deni, have kept the cinematic traditions of the big two-tiered room by having a theater-sized screen showing silent movies throughout the evening. Maybe you could bring your laptop and watch your own, snuggled in a booth.
    The menu aims to please all palates, so you might start off with one of the wonderful flatbreads, very thin and crisp, with toppings like pepperoni and sausage with tomato sauce and mozzarella ($11) or smoked salmon, red onion, spinach, capers, garlic oil and mozzarella ($12) with a  bottle of wine from a list with categories described by style—“Crisp, Bright Whites,” “Aromatic Whites,” and so on. I wish the list were longer for a restaurant of this magnanimity, but there are a good number of wines you won’t find all over town, all at reasonable prices, with most available by the glass, none over $13.
    The Majestic’s chili with mozzarella ($4 cup, $6 bowl) is a robust way to begin, and the Cajun chicken eggrolls with corn, cheddar, goat cheese, poblano peppers, onion, cilantro and Creole mustard is a likable dish to share ($9), as is the fabulous stack of fried onion rings with creamy horseradish dipping sauce ($9) as golden crisp and full of sweet onions as I’ve ever had.  I’m sorry that the crabcake with roasted pepper and caper salad in Creole mustard ($12) is composed of shredded crab rather than lump (which would cost a lot more).
    There are steaks, of course, including a good one-pound bone-in ribeye with lots of fat marbling ($39), served with terrific garlic mashed potatoes or Parmesan fries. Among the specialties is a tender pork tenderloin with a delicious maple cream, sugar glazed carrots, mashed potatoes and tobacco onions ($22).  For dessert I’ll go every time with the array of little jars of tiramisù, Key lime filling, carrot cake and chocolate (left).
    Bounty on Broad in the Arts District is an ambitious new restaurant with a shadowy upstairs dining room and a strong connection to local farms, so Chef-owner Jackson Kramer changes his menu frequently.  When asparagus are in season, he gets the very best, which he grills and serves with a lemon foam, truffle, roasted red peppers and shiitake bacon that all add enormously to the fine flavor of the asparagus ($15).  Jumbo lump crab meat is lashed with crème fraîche, a touch of Sherry, tangy lemon, scallions, buttery croutons for crunch and brown béarnaise sauce ($24), all components melded beautifully.
    Kramer does have a tendency to pile too much stuff on his food, as with his lamb ribs with Moroccan spiced duck fat confit, white beans, Carolina mustard barbecue, and pickle mustard seed ($32), but there’s a lot of flavor to all his food, including a quail battered in chickpea flour and fried, with a deep red sauce of Port wine and shallots over mashed potatoes with beet greens and more saucing of sour redeye gravy, all topped with quail eggs ($28). Whew!
      All the desserts I tried were freshly made (and a real bargain at $10)—a chocolate “nirvana” flourless cake with Nutella cream and toasted hazelnuts; an apple cobbler with pecan streusel and whiskey gelato, Key lime pie with graham cracker crust and gelato, and a Grand Marnier crème brûlée with warm chocolate cookie.
    The Second Line is the epitome of down-home cooking as interpreted by a first-rate chef, Kelly English.  The place has the look of a pleasantly funky gastro-pub complete with amiably cheeky waitresses.  Every dish has been put through a good deal of thought and testing, so the chicken and andouille gumbo ($9) is as good as you’ll find in a Louisiana bayou camp, and the Natchitoches meat pies ($10) are authentically spiced.  The “original” andouille and crawfish dish with Pimiento cheese fries is kind of a gloppy guilty pleasure ($12), and the po’boy sandwiches (right)—especially "The Verno" (named after a local sportscaster) of fried chicken with Swiss cheese ($12)—make for great lunch items.  Catfish was overcooked to a mushy texture but the sauce piquant made it tasty nonetheless ($15).  I like the idea that for five bucks you can add three shrimp or oysters to anything on the menu. And don’t miss the superlative “fancy ass” coleslaw for four dollars, a perfect blend of sweet and sour.
        As much as they are over-hyped in the media, Memphis’s barbecue joints deserve their  applause.  This time I tried out the barebones Cozy Corner (left), opened decades ago by the late Raymond Robinson and still run by his wife, Desiree, who echoes her husband: "He used to say, 'My desire is to serve a few people the best they ever had.'" Well, there’s a whole lot more people than a few each day at Cozy Corner, which is packed with folks from all walks of Memphis life.  They come for the dinner plates of ribs and wings ($6.75-$11.75), the sandwich plates that include that old Southern favorite, BBQ bologna ($4.95), and desserts like very sweet banana pudding and sweet potato pie ($3.49).

    I’d kill for a beer at Cozy Corner but it’s a soft drinks only place, so maybe it’s best to take the ‘cue to your car or truck, where you have a couple of bottles of Wiseacre Brewing’s local Tiny Bomb American Pilsner, and enjoy yourself, take a nap, then drive off.

    Brother Junipers (right) is another down-home place near the university whose plain décor consists of a folkloric mural of what looks like a monastery where Bro. Juniper was a cook for St. Francis of Assisi centuries ago.  The eatery was “born out of a spiritual community in the 1960s. The first coffeehouse opened on Haight Street in San Francisco as an outreach to street people, serving a 5 cent cup of coffee and inexpensive sandwiches.”  Branches opened across the country and in 1999, Jonathan and Pauline Koplin took over Bro. Juniper’s College Inn and opened a bakery next door with a mission of “Baking Bread, Raising Hope.”
    Like several other places in town, Bro. Juniper’s claims to serve the best breakfast in Memphis, but it’s no idle boast. No one will leave hungry, not just because of the generous portions but because the food is so good you’ll not want to leave any behind, from the cinnamon roll pancakes with cream cheese icing ($8.95) to any of the open-faced omelets like the “San Diego” on a bed of sour cream with home fries, sautéed Portobello mushrooms, tomatoes and green onions, bacon, feta and cheddar cheese ($12.95).  All the granola cereals are homemade and the biscuits are really, really good and may be topped with an egg and/or meats ($1.25-$4.95).
     A good amalgam of bar and American café is Huey’s—there are three of them around town—with its liquor bottle wall behind the bar, the widescreen TVs ever tuned to sports events, its red-checked tablecloths, and a menu of burgers and onion rings (left) the equal of those at the Majestic Grill.  It looks like any of a thousand others in the South.  But check out the ceiling, where it’s become quite a rite of passage for customers to hurl toothpicks into the cork covering and hope they stick. I suspect it prompts people who fail to keep coming back until they succeed.



By John Mariani


120 West 41st Street

    The NYC food media are getting a little better at covering restaurants in hotels, as long as there’s a name chef onboard. Ortzi, in the Luma Hotel near Bryant Park, should certainly get attention via José Garces (below), who has built a good-sized empire of restaurants out of his Philadelphia base, where he has the tapas place Amada, a modern Mexican eatery Distrito, even a Japanese izakaya place named Okatshe.  At Ortzi he is playing his strong suit—contemporary Spanish cuisine with New World touches—and, if he isn’t actually on premises very often, he’s done a good job teaching chef de cuisine Michael Han (previously at Bouley and A Voce) to keep his boss's standards high.
    There’s not much to say about the look of the place: an entry bar section generally packed from 6 to 7:30 p.m. opens to a modest dining room with the kind of décor that is difficult to describe because there isn’t much of it. It’s comfortable enough—except for some armchairs that seem fit for an anorexic’s butt—and there is a semi-open kitchen; the light is convivial and the noise level easy on the ears.  The service staff, at least the night we were there, wavered between constant attention at the beginning of the evening to a neglectful lassitude after nine o’clock.
    The wine list is very, very good, especially for Spanish and South American bottlings at fair prices.
    The crudos and conservas offer the most excitement on the menu, beginning with satiny hamachi with piquillo pepper in a bright saffron emulsion ($19).  Bluefin tuna belly, nice and fatty, is dressed with superb arbequina olive oil and caviar that is not too fishy for the mildness of the dish (right).  Platja (fluke) is dusted with chickpea flour and sided with sea beans $$15), while lubina negra (black bass) gets a nice bite from green chile escabeche and mojama, a salt-cured tuna  ($17).  Pulpo (octopus) was cut too thin to have much flavor on its own ($17), but bonito came with an assertive rémoulade and sour caperberries ($16); berberechos (cockles) were made luxurious by a potato puree, pine nuts and hot chorizo ($14).
    There is a jamon del dia (ham of the day), but the one served the night I visited—at $32—was not in a league with the better Spanish hams now coming to this country. The cazuelas main dishes include a very hearty rabo stew of braised ox tail with chickpeas, tomato and a fennel sofrito ($19), and even better was a conejo estofado rabbit stew cooked in Albariño wine with artichokes and flavored with rosemary ($23).  Bacalao (cod) is too often a bore but here the bright snowy fish with its own buttery flavor was enhanced with cockles in a bright green parsley emulsion ($23).
    Alongside was a stellar vegetable dish—a fava bean salad with feta cheese, Meyer lemon, olives and smoked egg yolk ($11)—but the unusual wood-roasted cabbage with anchovy dressing, Manchego cheese and guanciale bacon  ($12) was little but a hard chunk of tasteless cabbage.
    Three of the desserts (all $12) we tried were very good and wholly in line with the style of the menu: Copa caramel, made of milk chocolate cream, caramel foam, Sherry, orange and sea salt; pastel vasco, a Basque custard tart, with apricot, olive oil, and pistachio cream; and a goat’s cheese cream on almond cake with a red wine Caramel and roast of cherries called cuajada.
The reason I’m never jaded about dining out in NYC is because of places like Ortzi, where an expected pleasant meal turns out to be innovative and deliciously different, with big splashes of color and spice.



By John Mariani


    Is a great producer’s Champagne costing twice the price of his regular bubbly really twice as wonderful? This question came vividly to mind at a recent tasting of what are called “prestiges cuvées” (prestige blends), which are the top-of-the-line vintage Champagnes from top-of-the-line producers like Moët & Chandon, Bollinger, and Piper-Heidsieck.
These wines can easily cost $100 and much more, yet the tasting revealed to this Champagne lover that the distinctions between these prestiges cuvées and those same producers’ other bottlings should have been ravishingly evident but were not.  Too often those distinctions were extremely subtle, and some seem to have more to do with marketing decisions and labels than unqualified superiority.
     The fact is, even the so-called Grandes Marques—Champagne’s top producers—got along for 150 years offering just three or four different Champagnes, such as Brut (the driest), a Demi-sec (“half-dry,” which was in the last century the most popular style), and perhaps a rosé, which were always blended to a house style. Now these same producers are promoting ultra-pricey prestiges cuvées with names like Bollinger Grande Année ($159), Veuve Clicquot Grande Dame ($159), Roederer Cristal ($230) and Moët & Chandon Cuvée MCIII at $475.   Are they worth the price in a fiercely competitive market that already offers thousands of  different Champagnes?
    They are certainly beautiful vintage-dated sparkling wines, though to most people’s taste they may not be so much more exceptional than those same Marques’ regular vintage or less-expensive non-vintage Champagnes. It’s not just a question of which vineyards the Champagnes are made from; in fact, only one-tenth of all the vines in the Champagne region (a delimited region of 68,000 acres of vineyards northeast of Paris) are owned not by marques but by merchants, the rest by farmers and cooperatives. Nor are they made from special grapes; by French law, only three grape varieties may be used in making Champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier. And in a curious way, since all Champagnes are blends, and if the Grandes Marques blend their non-vintage Champagnes to be consistent with a house style and their vintage Champagnes only from years of exceptional grapes, how much more can the producers do to make an even better product, which of course detracts from their “lesser” wines?
     Moët & Chandon’s break-out label, Dom Pérignon, introduced in 1937, was the first super premium Champagne, but it didn’t really catch on until James Bond made it famous in the first “007” film, “Dr. No,” in 1962.  Much more recently prestiges cuvées like Roederer’s Cristal have caught on with the music and show business crowd, especially rap singers, so that every Grande Marque now fields a prestige cuvée. A regular Roederer vintage Champagne, like 1996, costs about $60-$80; Cristal from the same vintage runs $230. (Prices in this article may vary at wine shops around the U.S.)
   At the tasting I attended I had a chance to taste a dozen prestiges cuvées and came to the conclusion that, while most were exceptionally fine Champagnes, I was not convinced their prices were justified by comparison to vintage Champagnes and even some non-vintage bottlings from other, smaller producers.  Some, however, reflected a distressing trend towards a hyper-dryness I feel robs the wine of its natural fruit, leaving little to get excited about, like the Lanson “Noble Cuvée” ’89 ($100 bottle), and Veuve Clicquot “La Grande Dame” ’95 ($120).
There is a fashion among some Champagne lovers always to insist that a prestige cuvée needs more age to fully reveal itself. But while Champagnes do change to one degree or another with age, they are not like red wines, which have tannins that require softening to come into balance. Nevertheless, the older vintages I tasted showed particularly well, gaining richness and complexity from a patina of age.  The Dom Pérignon ’85 ($300) was exceptional, with a well toasted bouquet and levels of fruit flavor and acid beneath the bubbles.  Cristal ’96 ($140-$175) gained dimension after the chill was off the wine, but still tasted rather too young,  and I found Deutz Blanc de Blancs “Cuvée Amour de Deutz” ’95 ($160) continued to show the more elegant style of the 1990s, refreshing and promising a long life.  Piper-Heidsieck “Rare” ’90 ($60-$90) was typical of the house style, quite lovely with the kind of ripe fruit I enjoy in Champagne. Marilyn Monroe used to say that a glass of Piper each morning warmed the body.
    Bollinger “Grande Année” ’95 ($85) showed well in a highly refined style that may be too refined to stimulate much discussion. Pommery “Cuvée Louise” ’89 ($110) was very fine, with small bubbles and an almost bittersweet finish.  The Pol Roger “Sir Winston Churchill” ’95, tasted in magnum ($125; $250 in magnum), showed promise and a definite Pinot Noir advantage, but little more at this point. This is a Champagne that needs to age.
    I could not get overly excited by the Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Blancs “Blanc de Millenaires” ’90 ($90), which seemed lackluster, if pleasantly brisk.
    My favorite of the tasting was a Gosset “Celèbris” Rosé ’98 ($140), which, like most rosé Champagnes is rightly proud of its fruit, its good body, and its charm.
    Some of the Grandes Marques seem content to push their prestiges cuvées to the point of ignoring their less expensive vintage Champagnes, which is good for the consumer who believes that a prestige price tag may be more about prestige than true superiority.





As a joke, the Truman Cafe in Melbourne, Australia, combined an avocado with latte, called  an “avolatte" (left), thinking it would be fun to take a hollowed-out avocado and pull a shot directly into the shell, posted as a video on Instagram.  A staff member said, “I think it’s ridiculous. It’s literally coffee in a piece of rubbish.” Nevertheless, the café says the item went viral on the Internet and people immediately started coming in and tried to order the item,  and  social media quickly filled with copycats.


“Jackpot. That's what we thought when we got to Roister. We knew we’d have a good time the instant we arrived—kind of like seeing a good night taking shape the moment you walk into a party. The music is loud, the energy is rowdy and the enormous live-fire kitchen lights up the center of the room. In short, it’s the utter opposite of the calm, measured energy at Alinea—the restaurant that made icons of Roister owners Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas. The duo teamed up with chef Andrew Brochu to create this hyper-casual counterpart, and you can’t miss Brochu holding court at the pass.”--Dine by Tasting Table, Chicago


 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 (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 Photographer: Galina Dargery. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.

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