Virtual Gourmet

  January 14, 2018                                                                                            NEWSLETTER




By John Mariani


By John Mariani


By Geoff Kalish



By John Mariani

Meritage, St. Paul


    Minneapolis’s food scene has received far more attention than St. Paul’s from food media seeking news out of the Midwest, with much of the attention focused on the return of hometown boy Gavin Kaysen to open the oddly named Spoon and Stable.  Yet there is a great deal more happening in both cities, not least in Asian and African eateries. 

    I’m sad that so many of the old-time restaurants that once reflected the Twin Cities’ immigrant heritage are gone, like Ernie’s Scandinavian and Nye’s Polonaise—though Black Forest Inn lives on—but you can get a taste of the cities’ culinary depth at the huge Midtown Global Market (right), whose stalls manifest just about every ethnic cuisine you’d seek, from Holy Land Grivery, Butcher Shop & Deli and Taqueria Los Ocampo to Moroccan Flavors and Hot Indian Foods.

    During my time in the Twin Cities I ate splendidly from morning till night. Here’s what I liked, and what you may want to try if you’re going to next month’s Super Bowl.




410 St. Peter Street

St. Paul



    Meritage, whose named refers to a union of “merit” and “heritage,” looks very close to a true Parisian brasserie, modern while wearing its original 1919 décor well.  Chef Russell Klein, a native New Yorker, and his wife, Desta Maree, from Mississippi (below), who as Wine Director oversees the wine program and school, are celebrating the restaurant’s tenth anniversary, and for the past two years the restaurant has won MSP Magazine’s “Reader’s Choice as the Best Restaurant” in the Twin Cities. That kind of accolade is owed not just to the quality of food at Meritage but to the comfort and cosseting guests receive upon arrival, during dinner and at departure. It is palpable that the Kleins love what they do. And Russell's training at New York’s La Caravelle and Bouley is evident in every dish.

    It’s a beautiful space, beginning with an oyster bar and moving into a high-ceilinged room with tilted mirrors, tile floors, an effusion of flowers, and lantern chandeliers.  It’s the kind of place to celebrate something as much as a favorite spot you go to when you need a bistro-fare fix.

    I let Russell cook whatever he wished for me. Dish after dish emerging from the kitchen had exactly the right look that revered French classics should have, but more important were the superb flavors involved, from an intense onion soup gratinée ($12.50) as good as any I’ve had in Paris to a shooter of billi bi ($4), a creamy saffron-scented mussel soup not much seen on menus any more but deserving of a return to eminence.  A puff of foie gras ($3.50) made for a good amuse.

    I then moved on to impeccably cooked, juicy sturgeon roasted in duck fat  with sweetbreads, celeriac, wild mushrooms, apple and a beautiful red wine reduction ($37).  Then came another French classic that was once ubiquitous on menus and is now in recession: Tournedos Rossini, that over-the-top layering of rare filet mignon with seared Minnesota foie gras in a lush Madeira sauce and a shower of black truffles ($68).     
    Like many, I grew so tired of this continental cliché always being so poorly made, but Meritage’s version revived in me everything that made it so wonderful in the first place.  You might as well also order the piping hot frites ($9.50) and share them at the table.  Every dish here is beyond generous.

    For dessert the almond sponge-and-chocolate opera cake is the way to go (left).

    One of the great joys of my job is finding places like Meritage where I least expect them, so that I can say with little fear of contradiction, this is easily one of the finest French restaurants in the United States.




2726 West 43rd Street


Photos by Bill Phelps


    On my first bitter cold night in Minneapolis, this warm, 50-seat gastro-pub was just what I needed, a place to slump into a booth and chat with owner-chef Steven Brown about the food scene in town, which is thriving in the casual sector, where price is a prime consideration in people’s choice of where to eat.

    Tilia’s success has as much to do with its drop-in atmosphere and very friendly young staff as with a menu aiming to please a wide range of people, from those who just come for a cheeseburger—a towering edifice with tiger sauce mayo, griddled onions, cheese and dill pickles ($13)—and a local beer called Surly, to those who begin with a striped bass crudo with avocado, pistachio and lime ($15) and a delicious, creamy chicken liver mousse with a fried baguette ($10) and a bottle of wine.

    Sadly, Tilia has no liquor license, but it does have a dream list of well-chosen wines under $70, with a multitude by the glass.

    The best of the pastas I tried were plump agnolotti stuffed with butternut squash, sage, sorghum and blue cheese ($25), but I winced at Brown’s sprinkling fennel pollen on that simplest of Roman pastas, cacio e pepe ($19). Most of all I liked the pan-roasted chicken thighs, a nice meaty portion, that retained its pan juices, along with polenta, baby onions, olives and the sweetness of figs ($27).
     The desserts ($7-$9) I tried—butterscotch pot de crème, honey cake with crisp apple, and a chocolate tart with pretzel, smoked salt and caramel—were perfect for a freezing night when you want to linger at Tilia as long as you can.




602 Washington Avenue South




    Minneapolis hasn’t a heck of a lot of good restaurants open for lunch, so it’s easy enough to see why Zen Box Izikaya is always full. Beyond its convenience, however—and it’s near U.S. Bank Stadium—the real draw is the tantalizing Japanese and Asian food and the engaging personalities of wife-and-husband owners Lina Goh and John Ng, who opened Zen Box in 2012 with a riot of colors, Japanese calligraphy and Japanese toys arrayed along the counter. 

    Lina is out front, greeting, coaxing, making sure you’re happy, and John and his crew are turning out a broad menu that ranges from excellent tuna poke ($11.50) and a ramen box ($13-$14) to all kinds of novel ideas like avocado tempura with a spicy mayo ($8) and fabulous Korean-style short ribs with skewered tofu ($6). One of the most rightly popular dishes is the chasu yaki ($8.50), a bowl of thick, succulent pork belly with onions and ponzu sauce.

    Everything is beautifully and colorfully presented and most dishes can happily be shared; the low prices mean you can order up a storm with friends and still not feel light in the wallet.  It would be easy enough to eat at Zen Box twice a week and it might still take a month to work your way through the entire menu. And every time you come through the door, Lina will be there to welcome you back.



261 East 5th Street

St. Paul



    Located in what’s called Lowertown, Saint Dinette is devoted largely to a small plate menu, though, as you might imagine, plates in Minnesota are quite a bit larger than they might be on the coasts.  And the ingredients themselves are gathered largely from the region from the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes to the Mississippi and down to Louisiana by Chef Adam Eaton. 

    One of the best dishes I had all last year was the bone marrow (right), which of itself is a nice idea but by adding corned beef, sauerkraut, Russian dressing and Swiss cheese ($12) to it, it becomes a tantalizingly delicious concept. There is so much on the menu that delivers big flavors, from tender octopus with patatas bravas, piquillo peppers and the acidic bite of aïoli ($14) to first-rate fried chicken—Nashville style, but not overpoweringly hot ($18)--with crisp skin that doesn't fall off the meat.  Have a well-made cocktail and nibble on the charred shishito peppers (below) made like a Caesar salad with bonito flakes ($8). The pappardelle combines with a lusty venison and wild boar ragù ($15).  The Midwestern staple of bologna and American cheese and pickles is cute idea but not a very savory one ($11).
welcome-back cream cheese-frosted carrot cake ($8) was a delight and not overly sweet. Then again, who'd argue with the suggestion of flapjacks with vanilla butter and Canadian maple syrup ($8) for dessert?
To put it simply and admirably, Eaton is a damn fine cook--which is every bit as important as being an overseer chef--who never overdoes the seasonings and makes new ideas from old ones come alive.

    From the outside, through tall windows,  Saint Dinette looks like a place to have a fine meal without fuss. The decor is minimal, semi-industrial and gray, but the sunlight at daytime and shadows at night give it a duality of style and ambiance.  Inside the  care taken by manager Laurel Elm and owner-partner Tim Niver make this a place you’ll tell others about and want to bring them back to.


By John Mariani

50 East 86th Street


        A good family-owned French bistro is a pleasure at any time of the year, but right now, with the winds of winter whipping their way through every body and soul, the idea of pulling open the door of a warm, cozy spot like Demarchelier puts most other restaurants out of mind.

    Since 1978, originally on Lexington Avenue but for the past 25 years located a mile north on East 86th Street, Demarchelier has been a fixture of the Upper East Side, and, according to our waiter, probably 70 percent of the clientele on any given night are locals and regulars.  Most who come through the bistro’s red door are greeted by name.
    They come for the bonhomie, the cordiality and the honest cooking that have always been the hallmarks of a place that looks plucked right from Montparnasse, from its crimson façade and awning and butter yellow walls and lace curtains to its brown banquettes, brass railings and tilted mirrors. Owner Eric Demarchelier’s Picasso-Miró style paintings hang on the walls (his brother is fashion photographer Patrick Demarchelier) and you are likely to be greeted by his daughter Emily, who serves as the genial manager.

    So, you hang your coat on a hook and sit down to a table set with linens topped with white paper.  You get the menu and wine list right away and find a slew of apéritifs, wines by the glass—which include a good number of Bordeaux Supérieurs and Cru Bourgeois—beer, even cider. A very French waiter named Philippe tells you the night’s specials, and soon the cold weather is a distant memory as you break off a piece of good bread.

    The menu has changed little in four decades; it is a compilation of bistro classics that never go out of style, only out of fashion, and each night there are additions that Chef Marc Tagournet creates from the day’s market.

    These are the kinds of dishes now made with ingredients far superior and far fresher than in 1978, when white mushrooms were all you could find and foie gras came out of a can.  Now a chef can find an array of goat’s cheeses, excellent herring, and fresh foie gras (left), and Tagournet puts them to good use. His torchon of foie gras is creamy and very flavorful, served with what seems half a loaf of toasted bread.  The pâté de campagne in a flaky crust is moist and textured ($12.75).

    There is always a “quiche of the day” ($13.50), which is almost always a quiche Lorraine, and it’s the kind of dish you recall with fondness from years ago, when it was the quintessential brunch dish. But my favorite dish on a bitter cold night was an impeccably made fondue (below), just the right temperature, just the right texture, made with white wine and three cheeses of varying intensity, including Comté, Gruyère and Emmental.  It’s another dish that has faded in popularity, but not at Demarchelier, where it sets a standard for rich, gooey goodness. It comes in a half ($21.50) or full portion ($38.50), and the four of us at our table couldn’t stop sticking our bread-spiked long forks into the molten mass until every last lick of the fondue was gone.

    There are four beef cuts, steak tartare and two burgers offered, and my friend ordered steak frites with a grilled ribeye ($34.50), beautifully cooked, with both Béarnaise and peppercorn sauces; the frites showed how forty-plus years can add up to perfection.

    Jumbo sea scallops ($38) of fine quality came with baked leeks and a moutarde à l’ancienne. A special of the evening was snow-white filet of cod with a pea puree that unfortunately had little flavor.

    As at any true bistro, there are dishes served only one day a week—couscous, cassoulet, bouillabaisse, and so on. On the Wednesday night I visited Philippe told us as soon as he gave us the menu that the night’s canard à l’orange had gone fast—it was only 7 p.m.—with only one portion left, which I immediately claimed. It came crisp and had a not-too-sweet orange sauce (rather than a cloying glaze) but the meat was not very hot and had a slightly liverish flavor; perhaps ordering the last duck of the evening wasn’t such a great idea.

    I asked our server to choose four desserts, and every one was yet another reminder of French bourgeois home cooking: three fat profiteroles ($10; left), a slice of decadent chocolate mousse  cake ($10.50), a well-wrought crème brûlée ($8.75), and—what a surprise!—crêpes Suzette au Grand Marnier ($975), flamed with flourish right on the plate.

    Before going to Demarchelier, I plucked a 1979 guide to French restaurants in NYC from my files; there were a hundred of them, including once popular, now closed bistros like Les Sans Culottes, Frère Jacques, and La Cocotte. The guide described Demarchelier thus: “For the young and lovely, the lively bar and terrace tables are favorite places to see and be seen.”
A lot of Demarchelier’s old-time regulars are no longer so young and lovely, although many of the present generation that pack the place are, and it is no longer a “see and be seen” sort of place.  Instead, it is a place to bask and be pampered, a link to an authentic style of French bistro that is now making a comeback in NYC, with the opening last year of Little Frog and a re-opening of La Goulue. Any young chef or restaurateur seeking a template for what a bistro really is should pull back that red door at Demarchelier and find out.

Demarchelier is open for lunch Mon.-Fri.; dinner nightly; brunch on Sunday.





by  Geoff Kalish

                                                                "The Night They Invented Champagne" from Gigi (1958)
                                                                  with Hermione Gingold, Leslie Caron and Louis Jourdan

    With the rising popularity of pink wines as well as bubbly it’s no wonder that most retail shops are well stocked now for pre-Valentine’s Day sales, especially rosé Champagne (the real stuff from a demarcated area in France).  Moreover, many of  these bubblies offer enjoyment not only as romantic toasts but also as mates for a wide range of fare.

    There is, however,  many a clunker out there, generally too fruity and/or lacking enough refreshing acidity to provide pleasure as a toast or with all but sweet desserts.  So, as a guide to consumers, culled from a series of tastings, particularly one held recently by NYC’s Wine Media Guild (an organization of professional wine communicators), the following are my comments on ten widely available, top-notch rosé Champagnes for Valentine’s Day.


Collet Brut Rosé ($48)

Made of 40% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot Noir and 5% Pinot Meunier, this non-vintage bubbly is a great bargain. It shows a fresh, yet delicate bouquet and taste of peaches and raspberries, with hints of honey in its velvety finish – perfect to pair with flavorful cheeses and grilled seafood.


Henriot Brut Rosé ($57)

Fashioned from 50% Pinot Noir, 45% Chardonnay and 5% Pinot Meunier, this non-vintage bubbly has a bouquet of raspberries and a taste of black currants and lime, with notes of anise in its elegant finish. It makes a good mate for pasta with white sauce as well as chicken and duck dishes.


2006 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Brut Rosé ($185)

One of my all time favorite bubblies, this effervescent wine contains 85% Chardonnay and 15% Pinot Noir. It shows a lush, ripe cherry and cranberry bouquet and taste with hints of toasted hazelnuts and orange peel and a lush, silky finish. This wine makes a perfect mate for lobster or langoustines and should be drinking well for another 10 years.


2011 Louis Roederer Brut Rosé ($70)

This bubbly was made from 63% Pinot Noir and 37% Chardonnay, with a quarter of the wine fermented in oak casks. It shows a lively bouquet and taste of strawberries and peaches with hints of orange in its finish and marries well with flavorful seafood like swordfish and tuna.




Deutz Brut Rosé ($55)

This  non-vintage bubbly, from 75% Pinot Noir and 25% Chardonnay, has a bouquet and taste of ripe berries that starts sweet and finishes on a fresh, crisp note. It pairs well with smoked seafood and blue-veined cheeses.


Lamiable Grand Cru Brut Rosé ($43)

Flavors of strawberry and ginger dominate this almost ruby-colored non-vintage sparkler made from 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay that has a vibrant, memorable finish ideal for toasting and snacks like pretzels and nuts.


Alfred Gratien Brut Rosé ($46)

Made of 45% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Meunier and 15% Pinot Noir, this  non-vintage example shows a bouquet and taste of raspberries and grapefruit with notes of ginger in its finish. It marries well with zesty ethnic fare like Mexican, Korean and Sichuan Chinese specialties.



G.H. Mumm Brut Rosé ($75)

Perhaps a bit pricey for a non-vintage sparkler, this non-vintage bubbly made from 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay shows a bouquet and taste of strawberries, peaches and hints of black cherry in its vibrant finish that mates particularly well with shrimp, clams and scallops.


2004 Ruinart “Dom Ruinart” Brut Rosé ($235)

Made from 81% Grand Cru Chardonnay and 19% Pinot Noir, this classy wine features a distinctive bouquet of fading rose petals and a taste of wild berries with hints of exotic spice and a crisp, but long lasting taste – perfect to match with creamy cheeses and delicate seafood dishes.


2006 Veuve Clicquot Grande Dame Rosé ($286)

A bit pricey, but the grapes (53% Pinot Noir and 47% Chardonnay) all hailed from top name Grand Cru vineyards. It shows a bouquet of wild strawberries and some ripe cherry, with an elegant taste of cherries and cranberries with a satiny finish. Drink this bubbly with shrimp specialties and caviar.


And finally, for those unwilling to pay the price for rosé Champagne, there’s an excellent bottle of Italian Rosé available – 2013 Rotari Rose DOC Trento Sparkling Wine ($17) -made  from 25% Chardonnay and 75% Pinot Nero by the same method as for Champagne.  While it’s not as delicate a true Champagne, and its flavors don’t linger as long as those of most of the wines discussed above, it offers a fragrant bouquet and taste of apples and raspberries with notes of grapefruit in its vibrant finish. It is well suited to use as a toast and marries well with grilled seafood, pasta with red sauce and veal.




Whole Foods Markets in New York and Los Angeles is now selling "faux sushi rolls"
called Ahimi, made by Ocean Hugger Foods, whose CEO David Benzaquen says the process removes the "grassy, sweet, and slightly tart flavor from raw tomatoes," resulting in a mass combined with soy sauce to taste like raw tuna.


“The famed Catania Market is represented in miniature, Bronx-style, with eels galore and platinum-toned anchovies, giant mussels and craggy oysters, not to mention a Shakespearean repertories’ worth of cephalopods. (Ink, too.)” --Hugh Merwin, "The Absolute Best Seafood Markets in NY," New York Magazine (11/29/17).



 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 (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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