Founded in 1996
"Marseilles Fish Markets" (1903) by Raoul Dufy
IN THIS ISSUE
EATING AROUND PHILLY,
By John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
THE MUCH IMPROVED BUBBLIES
By Geoff Kalish
EATING AROUND PHILLY,
By John Mariani
READING TERMINAL MARKET
You could spend days and days eating your way through Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market, which not only offers some of those items like the Philly Cheesesteak, scrapple and soft pretzels that originated in the city, but is also a panoply of oyster bars, Amish dairies and Italian salumerias. Nearby are some of center city's best restaurants that also feature a particular kind of Philadelphia hospitality.
135 South 18th Street
Opened in 2011 in the AKA Rittenhouse Square Hotel, a.kitchen (with a.bar next door) is Ellen Yin’s fourth restaurant (one is in Manhattan), and I’ve admired her handiwork since she was at the still-popular Fork. The unappealing name in lowercase does nothing to indicate what a fine contemporary restaurant this is, without anything gimmicky on the menu, and everything that’s there is wrought with intense flavors, via Chef Eli Collins.
The room, opening onto the street, is a stylistic combination of white marble and black steel, with white oak to soften the ambiance. There is counter seating in front of the open kitchen.
Ours was a table for six, an ideal number to allow people to share the generous portions, beginning with the charcuterie ($18) of chicken liver mousse, corned lamb terrine, and pork and olive rillette. Adding a buttermilk Ranch-style dressing to cucumbers and kohlrabi with rhubarb and chili honey ($13) makes all the difference in flavors, while the cheese selection ($16) is composed of varieties you rarely see anywhere.
Informed that the burger was really worth trying, I found the ample but not over-stuffed patty of excellent ground beef with American cheese, a sprightly Dijonnaise mayo and good roll ($18) a winning combination, and the veal flank steak ($22) with baby lettuces and assertive salsa verde made for a hefty lunch item. Of course, it’s always satisfying when you find that a chef really knows how to grill a whole fish so that its exterior has a slight char and the interior is wholly moist and sweet ($24).
Desserts are outstanding, from a Basque pistachio cake ($8) and chocolate hazelnut Paris-Brest ($12) to a light, pretty verbena cream and strawberry confection ($8).
The wines by the glass are well chosen.
Open for breakfast and lunch Mon.-Fri., for brunch Sat. & Sun., for dinner nightly.
130 South 18th Street
How such a wonderful restaurant can have such a silly name is beyond me, but all is forgiven when you enter this 100-seat restaurant with communal tables, located near Rittenhouse Square. (It can get loud, so try to snag a table near the front door.)
This is one of Stephen Starr’s newest creations and one of his most straightforward—no huge statues of Buddha, no gilded bicycles or homages to Mexican wrestlers, no purple alcoves. It’s an American eatery with Starr’s signature hospitality and one of Philadelphia’s most respected chefs, Aimée Olexy (below), who is also at Talula’s Garden and Talula’s Table, where she features a very popular 12-person tasting dinner.
While there is no pretense in the culinary conceptions and no excessive stylization of the dishes, some of them are as refined as one would have found at Le Bec Fin back in the day. Case in point: a green asparagus soup (above) with whipped goat’s cheese and brioche croutons ($13) that was perfect for the season that in another would not have had the integrity of flavor those summer asparagus possessed.
Like the restaurant’s name, there are a lot of way-too-cutesy, wince-inducing descriptions on the menu, like “Eat your veggies,” “feel good plate,” and “turkey MMMelt,” but Olexy doesn’t mess around with her fried catfish and hushpuppy platter with sprout slaw ($22), as good as any you’ll find south of Philadelphia.
Crab and ricotta ravioli ($22) were delicious, though they could have used more crab, in a rich but light carrot sauce touched with fennel pollen. For dessert the “dirt sundae” ($11) with chocolate mousse, crushed cookies and cherry pâté de fruit looked a little like potting soil but was a terrific guilty pleasure.
The wine list, cobbled together by Olexy and sommelier Alexandra Cherniavsky, is sensibly laid out and admirably inclusive, though it could use more good bottles under $50.
Open for lunch Mon.-Fri., brunch Sat. & Sun., dinner nightly.
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
22 E 13th Street (near University Place)
Good as they might be, most Indian restaurants in New York lack a sense of humor. Some, like Junoon and Tamarind Tribeca are as elegant as their counterparts in London; others are part of the casual Indian food cultures around Murray Hill and in Astoria; most are affable storefronts in just about every neighborhood in the city. None is as much fun to go to as Babu Ji near Union Square and N.Y.U.
From outside you see only a bar with a few tables, but upstairs is a two-room dining area. The rear room is darkened and very loud but the main section is well lighted, full of color and the noise level not so onerous. On the white brick walls an old Bollywood movie plays silently, while large photos of festively dressed Indian men and women deck out the other walls. You can even pluck a cold beer from the refrigerator here and bring it to your table.
The party atmosphere is not accidental, for owners Jessi and Jennifer Singh, who also run three restaurants in Australia, named Babu Ji after an Indian figure who functions as a “self appointed neighborhood ambassador who knows everyone and everything that’s happening in the village,” and who “unashamedly indulges in food and hospitality.”
Jessi is a self-taught chef, and his ideas about Indian food balance many traditional dishes you’ll find around town with some smart new concepts that are wholly his. You might want to trust his instincts by going with the $62 Tasting Menu, with matching beers +$24, with wines +$34. Otherwise, go with a foursome or more and order from all over the menu. Surprise will co-exist with comfort food when you do.
selection called “From the Street” should begin
wafers and naan
with chutney ($16) and a pop-in-the-mouth yogurt
kebab ($15) spiced with green chili and
cardamom served over beet and ginger sauce (right).
“From the Pots” is a section that includes “Unauthentic Butter Chicken” ($21) of yogurt-marinated chicken, tomato, ginger, garlic and fenugreek curry that has a richness and creamy texture but not the heaviness of some versions. Short Rib Korma ($25) is a wondrous, hearty plate of tender beef with fresh curry leaves, cardamom, coriander, coconut and cashew curry, while palak paneer ($18) is a cream-enriched spinach curry spiced with cumin and chili. Lentil dals are always found on Indian menus, and Babu Ji’s of split yellow lentils with ginger, cumin, turmeric and coconut milk ($14) has a freshness of flavor you don’t always find in a dish too often left to stew on the stove for hours.
From the tandoor comes a big platter of lamb chops ($26) with cumin-spiced potatoes, raita yogurt and apricot chutney that add measurably to the mild flavor of the meat—pricey for New Zealand lamb. Indian restaurants so often overcook their fish dishes when done in the fiercely hot tandoor, but the nicely charred dorade ($24) at Babu Ji was very succulent, served with a ginger-honey sauce and micro radish greens.
On the side you’ll want to order the aged basmati rice ($5).
Babu Ji offers a number of Indian-spiced cocktails ($14), some that work, some that don’t.
For dessert, the one to have is a stick of kulfi ice cream.
While writing this report, so many of the sensory memories of the food at Babu Ji came rushing back—especially after I’d just returned from nine days in Spain—and Indian food of this caliber is what I’m craving. Plus the place is a lot of fun, if you get a less noisy table, and the service is as affable as you’ll find in Manhattan.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
THE MUCH IMPROVED BUBBLIES
By Geoff Kalish
Guido Bellucchi Estate, Franciacorta
About 20 years ago on a visit to northern Italy’s little known Franciacorta area, I was unimpressed by the quality and value of most of the sparklers tasted, especially when compared with that of the Prosecco region, only 100 miles away.
In fact, while Franciacorta sparklers are made by the same process as used in Champagne (i.e., making a base wine, then adding additional yeast and sugar to the bottle to produce carbon dioxide bubbles), our visit revealed many with a strange, somewhat oxidized bouquet and a too sweet taste. Moreover, at that time one could hardly find a bottle of Franciacorta bubbly at more than a handful of U.S. retail outlets.
That’s all changed. Now I’ve found that the bouquet and taste of a number of sparklers from Franciacorta not only outdo those of Prosecco but rival the likes of many bottles of Champagne —and at a very modest price when compared with that of most bottles of Champagne. Today many more shops nationwide are carrying more than a token brand or two of Franciacorta sparklers.
What’s accounted for this change is multifactored: Since the late 1990s the region has witnessed an emphasis on enhanced quality of viticultural and vinicultural practices —especially a movement in the region to produce the wines organically, with the great majority now “certified” organic, as well as an effort to determine the best growing area for different clones of the Chardonnay and Pinot Nero grapes (the predominant varietals used in these wines); decreased sweetness, or even elimination of the dosage (the liquid that’s added to Franciacorta sparklers when, as in the process in Champagne, the wasted yeast from the second fermentation is removed, a process known as “disgorgement”); and of course some savvy marketing — the combination of which has led to the export of over 12% of the annual production.
To evaluate the result of the effort to enhance the quality of these wines a tasting of 15 currently available for consumers to purchase was conducted at New York City’s The Leopard des Artistes by the Wine Media Guild (a U.S.-based organization of professional wine communicators). To be honest, I didn’t love every one of those tasted, finding a few too sweet and others not rising above the quality of good Prosecco. On the other hand, I found a number of the wines outstanding, and the following are my notes on these with my top choice in each of 7 categories.
Castel Faglia, Dosaggio Zero, Millesimato 2012 ($23)
This sparkler is made of 90% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Nero grapes and, as the name implies, no additional sugar is added to the wine when it’s disgorged. It shows a straw yellow color, a steady stream of rapidly rising bubbles and a delicate, fruity taste with hints of almonds and cinnamon in its dry finish.
Il Mosnel, Extra Brut. Vintage 2013 ($52)
Made from 100% Chardonnay grapes, this wine was fermented in small oak casks over five months with the second fermentation taking place over 3 years. It has a pale yellow color, very fine bubbles and a refreshing bouquet and taste, with hints of vanilla in its finish. One might be hard pressed to distinguish this wine from a top-tier Champagne.
Ca Del Bosco, Cuvee Prestige, Brut NV ($32)
This bubbly is made from 75% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Bianco and 15% Pinot Nero grapes. Fermentation took place in temperature-controlled stainless-steel tanks over five months. In making the final blend, a small amount of “reserve” wine from other vintages was added, with the second fermentation taking place over 25 months. Of note, disgorgement takes place in an oxygen-free atmosphere, so that very little sulfur dioxide needs to be added. It shows a bouquet and taste of peaches and brioche and has a very fruity finish with a bit of vibrant acidity.
Franciacorta, Bellavista, Millesimato, Brut Vintage 2012 ($45)
Made from 73% Chardonnay and 27% Pinot Nero, this outstanding sparkler underwent primarily stainless-steel tank fermentation, with 30% of the grapes barrel fermented. The second fermentation was conducted over 36 months. It shows a pale straw color and a fine stream of bubbles, with aromas and an elegant taste of ripe apples and brioche, with a long memorable finish, that has notes of almonds and vanilla.
SATĖN (A classification unique to the area in which the blend must be made from only white grapes and have a bottle pressure so as to produce a very “foamy” wine.)
Ricci Curbastro, Saten Millesimato NV, Dossagio Zero ($49)
This 100% Chardonnay
wine was fermented in oak and underwent its second
fermentation over 48 months. It has a straw yellow
color, a bouquet and creamy taste of apples and
peaches with hints of fennel and lemon in its
smooth finish. This wine makes an excellent mate
for grilled salmon, veal or smoky cheeses.
Berlucchi, Rosé NV ($29)
Made from 60% Pinot Nero and 40% Chardonnay, this great value from the producer who first made sparkling wines in the area shows a fragrant bouquet and taste of ripe cherries and strawberries, with hints of lemons and limes in its finish. More than just an aperitif wine, it makes great accompaniment to pasta with red sauce as well as grilled branzino or shrimps.
BLANC DE NOIR
Majolini, Blanc de Noir, Brut NV ($56)
While a bit pricey, this 100% Pinot Noir wine, from grapes hand harvested from a vineyard on a hilltop loaded with calcareous soil, represents Pinot Noir bubbly at its best, with fragrant flavors of ripe berries and a taste of berries and hints of dried apricots in its long smooth finish. This is an ideal wine to mate with a wide range of food from scallops to grilled chicken or veal.
WE CAN HARDLY WAIT TO DIG IN!
Noma Guide to Fermentation: Including Koji, Kombuchas, Shoyus, Misos, Vinegars, Garums, Lacto-ferments, and Black Fruits and Vegetables
By René Redzepi
and David Zilber
THINKING OF PIT BULL FRIDAYS
Column Sponsored by Banfi Vintners
Wine is a joy year-round but
in cooler weather one
grape varietal has really taken center stage in
my daily activities – that most Italian of
grapes, Sangiovese, and its ultimate expression
– Brunello di Montalcino.
Recommendations for Celebrating Sangiovese
BelnerO Proprietor’s Reserve Sangiovese – A refined cuvée of noble red grapes perfected by our pioneering clonal research. This dark beauty, BelnerO, is produced at our innovative winery, chosen 11 consecutive years as Italy’s Premier Vineyard Estate. Fermented in our patented temperature controlled French oak and aged approximately 2 additional years. Unfiltered, and Nitrogen bottled to minimize sulfites.
Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino – Rich, round, velvety and intensely aromatic, with flavor hints of licorice, cherry, and spices. Brunello di Montalcino possesses an intense ruby-red color, and a depth, complexity and opulence that is softened by an elegant, lingering aftertaste. Unfiltered after 1998 vintage.
Castello Banfi Rosso di Montalcino – Brunello's "younger brother," produced from select Sangiovese grapes and aged in barrique for 10 to 12 months. Deep ruby-red, elegant, vibrant, well-balanced and stylish with a dry velvety finish.
Poggio all’Oro Brunello di Montalcino Riserva – A single vineyard selection of our most historically outstanding Sangiovese, aged five years before release, the additional year more than that required of Brunello including 6 months in barrel and 6 months more in bottle to grant its “Riserva” designation. Incredible elegance and harmony. Intense with lots of fruit and subtle wood influence. Round, complete, well balanced with hints of chocolate and berries. Unfiltered after 1998.
Poggio alle Mura – The first tangible result of years of intensive clonal research on Montalcino’s native Sangiovese grape. Estate bottled from the splendidly sun drenched vineyards surrounding the medieval Castello from which it takes its name. The Brunello di Montalcino is seductive, silky and smoky. Deep ruby in color with an expressive bouquet of violets, fruits and berries as well as cigar box, cedar and exotic spices. The Rosso di Montalcino is also intense ruby red. The bouquet is fresh and fruity with typical varietal notes of cherry and blackberry, enriched by more complex hints of licorice, tobacco and hazelnut. It is full bodied, yet with a soft structure, and a surprisingly long finish. The Poggio alle Mura Brunello di Montalcino Riserva is deep ruby red with garnet reflections and a rich, ample bouquet that hints of prune jam, coffee, cacao and a light balsamic note. It is full and powerful, with ripe and gentle tannins that make it velvety and harmonious; this wine is supported by a pleasing minerality that to me speaks soundly of that special hillside in southern Montalcino.
SummuS – A wine of towering elegance, SummuS is an extraordinary blend of Sangiovese which contributes body; Cabernet Sauvignon for fruit and structure; and Syrah for elegance, character and a fruity bouquet. An elegant, complex and harmonious red wine.
Cum Laude – A complex and elegant red which graduated “With Honors,” characterized by aromas of juicy berries and fresh spices.
Centine – A Cuvee that is more than half Sangiovese, the balanced consisting of equal parts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Vinified in a firm, round style that easily accompanies a wide range of dishes, this is a smooth and fragrantly satisfying wine with international character, and a perennial favorite at my own dinner table.
Banfi Chianti Superiore – The “Superiore” designation signifies stricter government regulations regarding production and aging requirements, as compared to regular Chianti. An intense ruby red wine with fruit forward aromas and floral notes. This is a round wine with well-balanced acidity and fruit.
Banfi Chianti Classico – An enduring classic: alluring bouquet of black fruit and violets; rich flavors of cherry and leather; supple tannins and good acidity for dining.
Banfi Chianti Classico Riserva – Produced from select grapes grown in the "Classico" region of Chianti, this dry, fruity and well-balanced red has a full bouquet reminiscent of violets.
Fonte alla Selva Chianti Classico – This is our newest entry into the Chianti arena, coming from a 99 acre estate in Castellina, the heart of the Chianti Classico region. The wine is a captivating mauve red that smells of cherry, plum and blackberry with hints of spice. It is round, full and balanced with very good acidity.
Col di Sasso – Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon. Luscious, complex and soft with persistent notes of fruit and great Italian style structure.
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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.
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“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.
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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, ForbesTraveler.com 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
MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET
NEWSLETTER is published weekly. Publisher: John Mariani. Editor: Walter Bagley. Contributing Writers: Christopher Mariani,
Robert Mariani, Misha Mariani, John A. Curtas, Gerry Dawes, Geoff Kalish,
and Brian Freedman. Contributing
Photographer: Galina Dargery. Technical
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