Founded in 1996
IN THIS ISSUE
DINING OUT IN ST. LOUIS
By John Mariani
HOLIDAY GIFTS FOR THE GOURMET
By John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER
A Perfect Christmas
Outing at the
NY Botanical Garden Train Show
then Lunch on Arthur Avenue
By John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
JOEL GOTT WINES
By John Mariani
DINING OUT IN ST. LOUIS
By John Mariani
With only 318,00 residents St. Louis has a vibrant dining scene that, as in every American city, goes from high to low, from posh to prole, and just about every ethnic stripe can be found around town, not least near the University and Delmar Loop. The area called The Hill is still largely Italian-American, as are the restaurants, and the casinos have added the usual steakhouses and chain eateries.
There are some overwrought restaurants like Vicia, where a meal of bland mini-courses can go on for hours, and Sidney Street Café, whose complicated dishes are a drag in more ways than one. But this week let me speak of the high side of the city’s gastro-scape, one brand new, one as revered as any in the Midwest.
410 Market St, St. Louis, MO 63102
Two of the finest restaurants in America are called Tony’s—one in Houston owned by Tony Vallone, and one in St. Louis owned by Vincent Bommarito and his family, whose paterfamilias was named Tony. Both restaurants are now better than ever in their long histories.
The St. Louis Tony’s began as an Italian bakery, evolving into a restaurant in 1946 as Tony’s Spaghetti House, then Tony’s Steak House. Tony died in 1949, but his son Vincent, just graduated from St. Louis University High School, took over the operation as “headwaiter,” with his sister as hostess. Today, after many decorous changes and occasional shifts of location, Tony’s thrives and Vince is still there every day while his son James, along with a cadre of long-standing staff (Ken Bollewark has been manager of the dining room for more than 30 years) has not just maintained the restaurants’ eminence but continuously improved every aspect of food, service and wine. The adjacent Anthony’s Bar remains the city’s top power lunch.
The main dining room at Tony’s is stunning, with its soft, civilized lighting, sound buffering and wall of wines from around the globe. Tony’s has its own butcher, Herbie Cray, and all the breads are made on premises. The china and wineglasses are of first quality, double tablecloths are soft and thick, and there are even Sterling silver wine holders that must weigh 50 pounds, salvaged from the days of the great luxury liners. The dining room staff exhibits the same sense of refinement and manners as any great restaurant in the U.S.—genteel, professional but with a welcome sense of Midwestern hospitality. Vincent, as ever, is a demanding but amiable presence who never misses a fork out of place or the need for a new napkin.
I first dined at Tony’s back in the 1980s and have never found the restaurant to stand still. The menu changes with the increase of better global ingredients, seafood is flown in three times a week and both old favorites (they still use the original meatball recipe) share space with along with dishes like seared sea scallops with black truffles ($15), fettuccine with duck confit and wild mushrooms ($16), and chicken with black olives, grapefruit and fennel ($24). I recently enjoyed one of the finest renditions of beef carpaccio with arugula and truffle oil ($15) I’ve ever had.
There are seven pastas, four cheeses, seasonal specials and tableside-prepared desserts, including warm zabaglione over strawberries ($13) and bananas flambé ($13), all accompanied by a stellar list of trophy wines, small vintners and many bottles under $70.
If you want to know what drives Tony’s and keeps it at the top of St. Louis dining, ask if you can go into the kitchen. There, on one wall is a very large sign, with one word: PRIDE. And there’s your answer.
Open for dinner Mon.-Sat.
Four Seasons Hotel
999 North Second Street
The Four Seasons Hotel, connected to the Casino, has the chain’s requisite posh, but now it has one of the city’s most exciting—and quite unexpected—restaurants. Cinder House is a leap of faith, for this is an upscale South American restaurant by James Beard Award-Winning Chef Gerard Craft using wood-fired meat techniques to cook his food, and the results are unlike any I’ve had outside of Chicago in the Midwest.
Craft is executive chef and owner of Niche Food Group in St. Louis, now with four restaurants: Taste by Niche, Brasserie by Niche, Pastaria, and Sardella. Cinder House, opened late last year, draws on his local celebrity and Craft, working with exec-sous- chef Michael Fricker and drawing on Craft’s memories of his Brazilian nanny named Dia, who taught him how to make dishes like feijoada ($32), the traditional black bean stew chock full of pork and sausage, braised beef, kale and chimichurri (below). I’ve had muddy messes called feijoada, but Cinder House’s version is as delicious as it gets.
You begin here with pão de queijo ($12), an irresistible, puffy cheese bread made with tapioca flour (left), and the appetizers include succulent lamb ribs ($16) with soy, lime and mango honey—kind of daring for a bar-b-q rich town like St. Louis. Piri piri chicken ($28) has assertive spicing and seasoning, along with manioc polenta and grilled scallions, while moqueca ($30) is a seafood variant on feijoada—snapper, prawns, octopus and lobster in a coconut milk broth with fingerling potatoes confit and vegetables.
Of course there are wood-fired steaks—four cuts, from $36 for a bavette to a $56 16-ounce ribeye—and although you really don’t need side dishes, you’ll love the potato puree with olive oil and thyme ($9) and the leeks with crème fraîche and “house fry sauce” ($9).
In style and substance Cinder House scores equally with desserts like a traditional flan ($9), a churro fritter ice cream sandwich with goat’s cheese ($7), and a fabulous rice pudding with toasted almonds, cinnamon streusel, caramel sauce and strawberries.
The dining room itself is hotel large, with glass
walls overlooking the patio and bar that
themselves overlook the Mississippi River, a good
spot to sip a caipiriñha cocktail made with
Inside, coffee-colored leather chairs and blue tufted banquettes soften the hovering high ceiling and tables devoid of cloths, which seems more fit for breakfast than dinner.
Cinder House adds measurably to the St. Louis dining scene in a brilliantly novel way. In an upcoming article I’ll write about the city’s down-home fare, but there’s some real gastronomic clout in this big Midwest town you don’t want to miss.
Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
HOLIDAY GIFTS FOR
By John Mariani
If it is indeed better to give than to receive, the best thing about giving gifts to gourmet friends is that there’s a good chance they will share them in one way or another—a dram of whiskey, a glass of wine, a recipe from a good cookbook. Here are some quite special items I can imagine your friends loving and using as soon as possible.
MADE IN COOKWARE—New lines of cookware appear annually, but at my house, where my wife is the Queen of the Kitchen, we still use an array of old iron skillets for most of what we cook. But testing out this new American-made (Austin, Texas) line by Made In it surprised both of us for living up to its claims. For one thing the stainless steel is bonded five times with aluminum and an alloy inside has a high nickel content that fights rust and maintains the utensils’ shape, which allows for a consistent, overall cooking surface. The handles are designed for weight and balance, and the Universal Lid ($42 on sale) is a fabulous invention: made of silicon-coated stainless steel, this one lid has three different-size bottom lips, allowing it to fit a variety of pots and pans without heat loss and water run-off. And for the holidays they’ve added a gold color to the line, and a gift any cook would die for is their superb eight-inch chef’s knife, made in France, hammered from a single rod of nitrogen-treated, premium metal (on sale for $76).
GLENDALOUGH MIZUNARA FINISH SINGLE MALT IRISH WHISKEY 13 ($110-$120)—Odd, isn’t it, that Japanese whiskeys have gained so much repute over the past five years that European distilleries now look to Japan for inspiration. In the case of Glendalough’s Irish whiskey, the single malt spirit was aged in bourbon barrels for 13 years then finished in Mizunara oak puncheon barrels that mellow out the whiskey and give it vanilla, coffee, honeyed notes. Apparently Mizunara oaks in Hokkaido are an expensive rarity and have to be 200 years old before conversion into an aging barrel. The whiskey emerges at 46% alcohol. This is not an Irish whiskey your friend is liable to have on his shelf, so it will make an excellent gift.
BOWMORE VINTNER’S TRILOGY 27 YEAR OLD PORT CASK FINISH ($520)— At this price the person you give this superb Single Malt Scotch had better share it with you, and often. This limited edition is the third, and for now, final expression Bowmore’s Whisky Vintner’s Trilogy matured twice at their No. 1 Vaults. It is first aged for 13 years in ex-bourbon barrels, then for 14 years in Port pipes. It is non-chill filtered and bottled at cask strength, 48.3% There’s a definite caramel undertow on its way to a very smooth finish, offering up complex layers of nuttiness, nutmeg and an ideal amount of smokiness for an Islay. (By the way, you can find it for less than the listed price above.)
PIERRE FERRAND SELECTION DES ANGES ($150)—Cognac has been somewhat out of the limelight since the emergence of the single malts and bourbon phenomenon of the last decade, but this beautiful 30-year-old Cognac should be on every connoisseur’s shelf of fine spirits. The eaux de vie used are all from the 1st Cru de Cognac, specifically the Grande Champagne Cognac appellation, known as the “Golden Triangle.” The name “des anges” refers to the so-called “angel’s share” of Cognac that evaporates through the barrels as it ages. The bouquet is subtle with flowers, and immediately on the palate there is a burst of elegant flavors, leathery, toasty, full of herbs and spices, a lovely expression of how Cognac is its own distinctive spirit.
LA REINA OF
Patricia Quintana, 72, the chef and author whose work elevated the image of Mexican cuisine, died last Monday at her home in Mexico City.
La Cocina Es un Juego (1979) was her first book and was followed by 28 books. A prolific columnist, “Pati” was among the first to ferret out the varieties, folklore and secrets of regional cookery of Mexico, and her work was widely influential, not least in restaurants in the American Southwest.
Born in Mexico City, Quintana studied at L’École Lenôtre in Paris, working with master chefs like Paul Bocuse and Michel Guérard. When she returned to Mexico she became one of the country’s very few acknowledged chefs in a male-dominated profession, despite the critical presence of women in home kitchens. The Mexican Ministry of Tourism appointed her culinary ambassador.
I had great respect for Quintana’s work long before I met her, somewhere in the 1980s, and when I did come to know her I was enchanted with the vitality of the woman, her sheer energy and serious purpose. I dined at her Mexico City restaurant Izote, opened in 2001, which she ran until 2013, when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the disease that took her life this week. I’d ask Pati a question and found her to be a walking encyclopedia who speaks and cooks from her heart.
I remember vividly the dishes she sent to the table that night: little quesadillas filled with huitlacoche and sopacito of refrito beans and four distinct salsas; zucchini flowers drifting in a light broth, with rice and avocado; roast snapper with pumpkin seeds and strips of mild poblano chilies; a deep dark mole called Chamorro Revolucionario barbecue, succulent, deeply flavored pork cooked in a banana leaf.
The flavors of all these dishes, unlike those in so many Mexican restaurants both in Mexico itself and north of the Border, were complex, diverse, never repetitive, always with textures and underpinnings of spice, and always very personalized.
Over the course of my travels, I’ve found that there are chefs I respect, chefs who dazzle me and chefs I love. The last are very few in number but Patricia Quintana is at the top of that short list.
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
A Perfect Christmas Outing at the
NY Botanical Garden Train Show
then Lunch on Arthur Avenue
Nowhere in the world are there so many places of international renown during the holidays than in New York, from the Radio City Christmas Spectacular and its Rockettes to the dazzling Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and skating rink, from Macy’s windows to the top of the Empire State Building, where Tom Hanks meets Meg Ryan in “Sleepless in Seattle.”
But one of the grandest sights of all for a family outing is at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, now holding its 27th annual Holiday Train Show (through Jan. 21). Set in the vast Enid A. Haupt Conservatory amidst thousands of plants and trees, dozens of wonderful model trains chug beside 175 city landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge, Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick’s Cathedral and One World Trade Center, as envisioned and created by Paul Busse and his Applied Imagination company. All the buildings are constructed from natural fauna—birch bark, ferns, ivy, lotus pods, acorns and cinnamon sticks. Children are mesmerized by the winding trains and trolleys and adults astonished by the architectural fidelity of the buildings and the mounting of bridges and trestles fifteen feet above the ground.
Its popularity is such that entrance is timed to fifteen-minute intervals, and it is wise to book tickets in advance on line. Also, on Bar Car Nights in the Pine Tree Café, adults can enjoy drinks at one of the seasonal bars, gather round fire pits in the Leon Levy Visitor Center, watch ice-sculpting demos and sing along with dueling pianos and roving a cappella groups.
The great thing about the Botanical Garden is its location right across from the Bronx Zoo and adjacent to the Belmont neighborhood of Fordham, a vibrant five-block long Little Italy known as Arthur Avenue. This is where local boy Chazz Palmintieri based the book, movie and Broadway show “A Bronx Tale,” the Bronx of Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra, Jake LaMotta and Julius LaRosa, and where Dion Dimucci and the Belmonts invented doo wop music.
It’s also where you’ll find some of the most convivial Italian restaurants in the city. One of the oldest is Mario’s, (left) begun as a pizza window in 1919 and still run by the fifth generation of the Miglucci family, who maintain an unwavering consistency, not just with the nonpareil pizzas but with superb linguine with clams, tender potato gnocchi in a bright tomato sauce, and tiny pink lamb chops you pick up by the bone to eat, called scottaditti, which means “finger burners.”
Across the street is a bright, cheerful trattoria named San Gennaro, whose chef-owner Gennaro Martinelli works outside the traditional menu with dishes based on what’s freshest and seasonal in the nearby markets, so if there are crayfish (right) or softshell crabs available, you’ll find them there. Housemade ravioli are graced with a ragù, and his spaghetti alla carbonara, with egg heated by the pasta itself, is textbook perfect.
return often to Tra di Noi,
whose sunny dining room with the requisite
red-checkered tablecloths is the setting for
chef-owner Marco Coletta’s generous, highly
personalized cooking. Regulars ignore the printed
menu in favor of the blackboard specials, which
might include fusilli with
fava beans and rigatoni in a spicy amatriciana
buco may be the best in the area.
street Paciullo runs Fiasco,
another pizzeria, this one serving a thin-crust
style, and the rest of its menu is terrific, too,
from grilled octopus with beans and capers to
lasagna made with short ribs.
Six days a week all the avenue’s stores are open, selling fresh noodles and ravioli at Bugatti’s, superb seafood at Randazzo’s and Italian treats like panettone Christmas cake at pastry shops on every block. The aromas from the bread stores and cafes in the cold holiday air can make you swoon.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
By John Mariani
No one driving north on Napa Valley’s Route 128 can miss the old sign that reads Taylor’s Refresher, a roadside stop dating back to 1939. But the occupant of the land is Gott’s Roadside, founded in 1999 by brothers Joel and Duncan Gott, who out of nostalgia kept the old sign everyone knew. The stand is always busy and people know they’re getting an unusually high quality of hamburger, French fries, onion rings and milkshakes, sourced from the best beef, dairies and vegetable purveyors in the state. There are now seven Gott’s Roadside stands (including one at San Francisco International Airport).
Three years earlier, Joel Gott, who grew up in the wine industry, founded his own winery with his then-girlfriend Sara, buying fruit from the best growing regions in California, Oregon and Washington. That is not a unique concept in western winemaking, but it puts the now sacrosanct idea of terroir into question.
Twenty years ago you’d be hard put to find the word “terroir” in an English or American dictionary, though among wine aficionados it has been the go-to word to describe a very large or very small viticultural region with distinctive characteristics of soil and climate. Terroir is a passionate religion to the French, who have been carving up their parcels of land to identify the geological, sometimes mysterious, composition of the soil that gives a particular vineyard’s wines a particular taste.
When the California wine industry boomed in the 1970s, terroir still sounded like a foreign idea, not least because the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma threw into question how much micro-climates and levels of limestone and clay really mattered in a vast region where good wine seemed to just seep out of the ground. By the ‘80s, however, terroir was a buzzword for California wineries, which gave them the more mundane term “blocks” plus numbers, and serious viticultural studies out of the University of California at Davis showed that there were indeed plots more suitable to certain varietals than others.
So, back to Joel Gott, with whom I had dinner at New York’s new Four Seasons restaurant. Gott has that amiable California way of talking, using words like “neat stuff” and describing how he “feels like I’m six or seven years old again whenever I look at a yellow and green tractor.” For Gott terroir is where you find it, leasing all his vineyards from nine blocks in California and the Northwest, “always trying to stay ahead of the rolling ball.” He has other wineries ferment some of his bottlings and stores his barrels at Ranch Winery in Napa. He partnered with Roger Scommegna and Charles Bieler on the Three Thieves brand and in 2005 with the Trinchero Family Estates to expand his market coverage.
“It’s all this crazy coordination that makes it fun,” he says, working with a small staff of eight. “To me it’s like a Rubik’s Cube: There are a million different options to making the best wine. Ten percent of the choices get screwed up in the winery, and we’ve made some losers. But we ask ourselves, do we want to take a risk in a vineyard we love? For instance, we only make 126 cases of Grüner-Veltliner because we wanted to see if we could make a good one.”
As a result, Gott’s range is very wide, from Rosé of Grenache ($18) and Unoaked Chardonnay ($15) to simply labeled Washington Red Wine ($15) and a best-selling Sauvignon Blanc ($12). Only a few, like his Oregon Pinot Noir ($25) and 14 Cabernet Sauvignon ($53) are priced higher.
Over the course of the dinner we tasted some of Gott’s wines right next to some famous French bottlings, “for fun.” Comparisons showed that while there were differences in flavor, there were far more marked differences in price.
“We want to make wines with acid that go well with food,” he says, “and we want them to taste clean, vibrant. And we keep the price of our wines so that someone who buys a bottle feels he stole something because the wines taste far pricier than they are. We are unique in being up against big companies making brands, not wine.”
Given his success by being unorthodox, I asked if companies and entrepreneurs seek to invest in his winery. “All the time,” he says, “but we have some good bankers who loan us whatever we need. So, I’ll meet a potential investor at Gott’s Roadside and, if he has nothing else to offer but money, I just say, “Thanks very much for coming over. Here’s a milkshake.”
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.
“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.
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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,
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and Brian Freedman. Contributing
Photographer: Galina Dargery. Technical
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