Founded in 1996
Baked Alaska at The Rainbow Room, NYC, circa 1970
IN THIS ISSUE
BRISTOL, RHODE ISLAND
By John Mariani
MASTER FRENCH CHEF
JOËL ROBUCHON DIES AT 73
BY John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
WINES I'M DRINKING NOW
By John Mariani
BRISTOL, RHODE ISLAND
By John Mariani
Blithewold Mansion & Arboretum (Photo: Galina Dargery)
There are more famous historic towns in New England, but few possess the small town prettiness of Bristol, Rhode Island, whose territory was once occupied by the Wampanoag Indians and later became part of the vast Plymouth Colony. Being quite a ways off Interstate 95 and without the island appeal of Newport, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, Bristol has managed to stave off tourism overkill and maintain its character, which is based on colonial, 19th century, Gilded Age and pre-war architectural gems and a notable history as a deepwater sailing port where for a quarter century the America’s Cup yachts were designed and built.
For a medium-sized town—only about 21 square miles, half of it water—Bristol busies itself year-round with events and festivals that include most proudly the oldest continuous Fourth of July parade in America: 233 years and counting. Two hundred thousand people show up for the three-hour event (preceded by others beginning on Flag Day, June 14). The line down Main Street is painted red, white and blue and the day climaxes with a fly-over by the Blue Angels.
This month the annual Bristol Harbor Festival will include a blessing of the fleet and a stuffed quahog (called “stuffies”) competition. In September, Raptor Weekend at the Audubon Experimental Education Center will feature two days devoted to eagles, owls, falcons and hawks, followed on September 30 by the Bristol Burger Bash and Bluegrass festival at the Linden Place Mansion. Starting in November holiday events abound, leading up to the Grand Illumination of Hope Street.
The principal attractions on a grand scale include the unique Blithewold Mansion and Arboretum (above), centered by a magnificent but unpretentious 45-room English-style summer manor house owned by the Van Wickles family and surrounded by 33 acres of both local and exotic plants, shrubs and trees that lead down to Bristol Bay. Landscape designer John DeWolf’s original concepts were to incorporate the Colonial Revival and Arts and Crafts movements. The Great Lawn itself encompasses 10 acres, laid out in the late 1890s, followed by the Lord and Lady Burnham Greenhouses in 1901, the Bosquet Rose and Water Gardens (left) and the Rock Garden in the 1920s, with the entire collection made up of 2,000 trees and shrubs and 500 plants. Not even the Newport mansions approach Blithewold in the variety and grandeur of flora of every description.
Linden Place Mansion is a striking “Great House,” whose 19th century owners were among the wealthiest slave traders in the U.S. Today it is a marvelous venue for weddings (my niece was married there) and the 1974 film version of The Great Gatsby used it as a location. It also houses the Bristol Art Museum.
My wife and I stayed within the pastoral beauty of the national historic site Mount Hope Farm, whose 1745 colonial house was owned by Governor William Bradford. It has been dubbed by locals as “the Grand Lady of Bristol” (below), now a non-profit preservation with 12 period guests rooms, in three buildings, set amidst rolling farms and gardens bound by old stone walls. This is also a highly desirable wedding venue at the estate’s Cove Cabin, an Adirondack-style log cabin from the 1930s.
No one with even a vague interest in New England’s maritime history can fail to visit the Herreshoff Marine Museum (below), where the restoration of some glorious old wooden boats goes on slowly and steadily, while in the front of the edifice is an extraordinary exhibition of seafaring dating from1859, when it was a working shipbuilding concern under the Nathanael G. Herreshoff family, who built several America’s Cup contenders. Between 1893 and 1914 Herreshoff designed and built seven of the largest sloops ever launched, and five Cup defenders all won in their year. (It is also home to the America’s Cup Hall of Fame.)
Bristol is not home to many notable restaurants, although DeWolf Tavern (below), located on what was the 1818 DeWolf Rum Distillery on the Thames Street Landing at Bristol Harbor, is a solidly American tavern and dining spot with a considerable number of Indian inflections by Chef Sai Viswanath. Thus, you might begin with steamy, puffy naan breads along with chickpea battered pakora fritters and sweet chili sauce, or local lobster roasted in the tandoor oven. There’s also a vegetable plate of Brussels sprout cornbread hash with cauliflower, mixed bean stew and basmati rice.
More traditional and representative of the big seafood houses that line the New England shoreline is the Lobster Pot, overlooking Bristol Harbor. There since 1929, it’s a big space with two rooms and a menu of all the classics based on what’s freshest in the markets that day, so it’s won its share of “Best of New England” awards over the years.
You can build your own raw bar plate with oysters, clams, shrimps and crabmeat. There’s also quahog clam chowder and a rich lobster bisque, steamers and jumbo lump crabcakes, a very hefty lobster roll with French fries and slaw and a clam roast with grilled artisan bread. Its “classics” include a diversity of lobster dishes, of course, along with baked stuffed jumbo shrimp, broiled scrod, and a baked seafood casserole of fish, scallops, crab, shrimp, clams browned with seasoned breadcrumbs. And there's a whole category of expertly fried seafood.
I think a restaurant of this style, caliber and longevity should have a better wine list, but to feast on seafood there while drinking a glass of La Crema Chardonnay and watching the sun dip below the Bay is as pleasant an evening as one can have in New England.
Despite a strong tourism flow, Bristol has been struggling downtown. As one shopkeeper told me, “It’s tough making a profit selling to tourists. We used to have 38 storefronts along Hope Street, now only seven are occupied.”
In the mornings the options for just taking you’re time and walking through the old streets of town and along Hope Street, its main route, you’ll find bakeries like Angelina’s (good scones and pastries and excellent coffee) and the Beehive Café is always full of locals who come for the brownies, macaroons, Queen Bee chocolate cake and pumpkin pie. There are art galleries and darling boutiques like Grasmere, known for its beautiful preserved flowers.
On our morning stroll, we happened upon the Island Child Care Center in the midst of a graduation, with toddlers trying to stay in double file as they received their diplomas. It was the kind of unexpected event that, after a while, you come to expect in a town like Bristol.
AND A LITTLE NORTH OF BRISTOL. . .
99 Hope Street
Up until two years ago Bristol was home to one of the finest restaurants in New England, called Persimmon, quite a labor of love in a small town by chef Champe Speidel and his wife Lisa. After eleven years they moved the restaurant to Providence (about 20 minutes northwest) to larger quarters (85 seats), with an open kitchen and very popular bar lounge. Now, with its reputation intact and a much bigger pond to draw from, Persimmon is very much on people’s radar when visiting or passing through Providence from the north or south.
Champe, who looks a bit like James Corden, had been a butcher and such a talent is always a great boon to a kitchen, and the Speidels are very committed to local farmers and the bounty of North Atlantic waters.
On a recent visit, my wife began with excellent, puffy focaccia, arancini rice balls in a cream sauce and truffled beignets, all of which we could have made a meal of. A beautiful, silky asparagus soup with smoked ham and duck egg was remarkably light but very rich ($12), and then came “chicken and waffles” made of chicken morsels with slivers of crispy skin.
A green salad was composed of native wild greens in a tangy Green Goddess broth ($9). Canaroli rice was used for a well-rendered risotto with tender creamed leeks, glazed baby onions and green onions ($15). A crispy chicken leg was artfully stuffed with veal sweetbreads and morel mushroom sauce ($19).
Never does Champe blur flavors by adding too many ingredients to a dish. Everything seems perfectly matched for maximum effect. Equally so, desserts like a Valrhona chocolate semi-freddo with hazelnuts ($9) and a citrus custard and cheese tart ($9) aim for a sharp intensity rather then frilly aromatics.
Persimmon is an exceptionally friendly place, casually cast but with a clientele that wears good sports clothes for a night out. The Speidels (Lisa recently had a baby) are as devoted to their cuisine as they are to their guests, and anyone from Manhattan to Maine looking for a superb meal must head North Northwest from Bristol.
Persimmon is open Tues.-Sat. for dinner.
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
1 East 15th Street (near Fifth Avenue)
The term “fine dining” has always been in flux, ever since restaurants were created in France in the late 18th century. For more than a century in America the name applied almost exclusively to French restaurants, but by the 20th century there were culinary deviations at some very grand as well as at some very intimate places where the décor, cooking, management, staff and sense of refinement—even when things got rowdy—defined what it meant to dine out above the level of a diner, a beanery, an eatery or roadhouse.
Today, unfortunately, too many of the inexperienced food media erroneously define fine dining as something stuffy, hushed, old-fashioned in décor and out of touch with “the way Americans like to dine today.” Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, especially in New York, where restaurants of the caliber of Tocqueville are still numerous, however difficult they are to maintain at the same level of excellence they always have. The very best take extreme dedication.
At Tocqueville food obviously plays a major part in fine dining, but it also has as much to do with decor, tablesettings, stemware, silverware, lighting, noise level, courtesy, professionalism and commitment to high standards, which extends to the bar and the wine cellar. You enter a dining room that epitomizes modern elegance, with soft lighting, warm colors, a chandelier set at exactly the right height, golden curtains, textured carpet, long tablecloths, very comfortable chairs and complementary works of art. Women dress well and so do most men. It’s a room made for civilized conversations.
The service staff is always at your beck and call, wanting to know your preferences, happy to discuss wines and food.
Owner and executive chef Marco Moreira (right), who grew up in São Paolo, has long experience in high-end New York restaurants, and while his cooking is soundly based on traditions, his cuisine doesn’t taste quite like anyone else’s. With chef de cuisine Julian Wargnies, he has crafted an à la carte menu whose main courses top out at $48—less than the price of a lone ribeye at a Manhattan steakhouse—and there is a five-course menu at $135 (with paired wines $65 extra) and seven courses for $155 (wines $85 more). Compare those with the three-course $172 dinner at La Grénouille. There is also a Greenmarket Menu at dinner for $69 for three courses.
We began a recent dinner with featherweight gougères and a silky rich terrine of foie gras cuddled in rhubarb and strawberry ($34), and an extraordinary dish that seems so simple yet takes so much deft control: truffled Parmesan grits with a sunny side up egg and house-cured veal bacon ($28). It seems like the most lavish breakfast item ever, but I’d eat it at any hour.
Risotto blended with Meyer lemon, summer squash and a nut butter ($24/$38) had plenty of flavor, though the rice was a bit overcooked.
There are seven entrees, each very distinctive but clearly guided by the same hand. A dish that seems rarely to leave the menu is seared sea scallops paired beautifully with freshly sautéed foie gras, wild mushrooms, fava beans, braised artichokes and a brisk cider vinegar ($46), while lobster poached in butter came with rosemary-flecked potatoes, Tuscan kale and a marvelous reduction of Barolo wine ($48), an extremely rich and completely satisfying dish. There was more foie gras (Moreira is intent on winning you over) accompanied by impeccably roasted chicken and a chicken galantine you won’t find easily elsewhere, sided with Savoy cabbage, a potato mousseline that will put you in mind of Joël Robuchon’s, black truffles and a confit of carrots ($38). He gives a very light smokiness to tender, pink duck breast with caramelized endive and pineapple for sweetness as a foil to the duck juice reduction ($42).
There is a good selection of cheeses ($18), currently from France, Spain, Wisconsin and Vermont, and just five desserts, by Armando Mendez, which include a lovely passion fruit Pavolva meringue with coconut flan ($15); a sweet-sour Granny Smith tart with acacia-honey ice cream ($15); a strawberry rhubarb napoleon of to-the-touch fragility ($15), and two terrific chocolate desserts: a dark chocolate and hazelnut bon bon with hazelnut ice cream ($16), and an impressive textured bittersweet chocolate soufflé with refreshing fresh mint ice cream ($18).
You expect a great and well-chosen wine list from a restaurant of this caliber and longevity, and it certainly ranks among New York’s best. Do not expect bargains.
You need not look far in New York to find refined dining, but at Tocqueville the evolution of such a personal style shows the folly of mere fashion and frenzied invention. Tocqueville is always changing in order to remain wholly itself.
Tocqueville is open for lunch and dinner Tues.-Sat.; for dinner only on Sun.
MASTER FRENCH CHEF
JOËL ROBUCHON DIES AT 73
By John Mariani
Joël Robuchon, who many of his colleagues believed was the greatest French master chef of his era, has died at the age of 73 in Geneva, Switzerland. The cause was pancreatic cancer.
During his 60-year career his restaurants would win 28 Michelin stars—the most of any chef in the world—yet he was, ironically, best known for his decadent butter-rich mashed potatoes (below) rather than for any other dishes he created for any of his kitchens.
Born in Poitiers to a stonemason father and a mother who cleaned houses, he learned to cook from the local nuns and his first job as a cook was at the Mauéon-sur-Sévres seminary in Deux-Sévres. After his culinary apprenticeship, Robuchon was able to travel through Europe cooking at various restaurants, and by the age of 31 was honored with the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France for his contributions to French cuisine. Chefs Gordon Ramsay and Eric Ripert of New York’s Le Bernardin were among his students.
Robuchon’s international fame came in the 1990s with the opening of his Paris restaurant Jamin, which won three Michelin stars, but by 1995 the stress of maintaining the rigorously demanding standards and expense of such a restaurant forced him into retirement at the age of 50. When he did make a comeback he eschewed haute cuisine to open a far more casual-style modern bistro called L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, which had counter service and a global menu. He repeated that formula in New York and Las Vegas, where the MGM Grand also made him an offer he couldn’t refuse to open a very posh, exceedingly expensive restaurant that, with his colleague Guy Savoy’s namesake restaurant, truly brought high-end fine dining to a city better known for flaming desserts and cheap buffets.
Careful not to burn out, Robuchon rarely appeared and almost never cooked in any of his restaurants, becoming more of an overseer of his international empire, usually signing management contracts and stocking the restaurants with brigades of cooks he trained. This year, after closing two Singapore restaurants, he went back into the New York market with another L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in the Financial District.
In the kitchen Robuchon could be a hard-driving taskmaster—Ramsay said Robuchon once threw a plate of poorly cooked ravioli at him—but outside of it he seemed very shy. I recall the story of how driven he was to obtain only the best of the best ingredients available in a city, once refusing perhaps eight out of a dozen baskets of raspberries brought to him for inspection.
I met Robuchon once while he was in New York opening L’Atelier, in an interview conducted through an interpreter, since the master’s English was close to non-existent and my French was high school level. I found he answered questions with little emotion, like someone who wanted to be anywhere else than in an interview. He spoke of how he was trying very hard to find ingredients the equal of those he obtained in Paris and how he really didn’t know the American palate. Working in a union-dominated kitchen eventually compromised Robuchon’s abilities to orchestrate as he wished and the restaurant closed.
But I also remember that, as he stood behind the marble counter, quietly directing his French cooks, inspecting each dish for the tiniest flaw, I enjoyed one of the finest meals of my life. Dish after marvelous dish appeared, some very French, some quite Japanese, with pasta and tapas-style Spanish accents. And plenty of Champagne.
Weeks later I returned to L’Atelier and had one of the more disappointing meals of my life, with little of the vitality and intensity of the one I’d so enjoyed when Robuchon was there.
But Robuchon could not be everywhere and now he is nowhere on earth to be found. He’s only to be greatly missed, for he was a beacon of the grand traditions of French cuisine and a chef who urged his people to go further and taste more, learn new techniques and make trends, not follow them. He was never in the molecular cuisine mode, nor did he much enjoy being a celebrity chef, unless it was together with his friends like other master chefs Paul Bocuse, Roger Vergé, Alain Senderens and others, now also gone. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine another like Robuchon appearing at a time when fine dining is under siege. Fortunately, we’ll always have his books and his recipes and his enduring influence on at least two generations of chefs.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
WINES I'M DRINKING NOW
By John Mariani
Summer, I’m told, will end and the heat will lift, but I’m hedging my bets by drinking a lot of lighter bodied wines and spirits and trying out some well-priced bottlings I’ve never had before.
LES DAUPHINS CÔTES DU RHONE RÉSERVE BLANC 2016 ($9)—Very, very few wines under ten dollars have the charm of this blend of 65% Grenache, 15% Marsanne, 10% Clairette and 10% Viognier from the Southern Rhône, matured two to six months, resulting in a very fresh, lively wine with good aromatics, particularly from the Viognier, and a touch of sweetness. I enjoyed it with pre-dinner nibbles and straight through with a main course of grilled red snapper.
ALPHA ESTATE AXIA RED 2014 ($20)—Although Greek whites are among the best wines for summer, the country’s reds tend to have a lighter body than those of western Europe, and this 50-50 blend of Xinomavro and Syrah spends seven months on the lees to gain structure, but twelve months in oak softens the tannins of the Xinomavro, while the Syrah brings rich fruit to the mix. Very good with lamb, as you’d expect from a Greek wine.
INAMA VIN SOAVE CLASSICO 2017 ($15)—After Bolla had enormous success with Soave in the late 1960s, a tsunami of inferior Soave hit the global market and, with few exceptions, were not worth drinking. Inama, whose family owners date to the 1960s in Soave production, make this fine example without using any oak aging, so it’s as fresh, fruity and sprightly as the varietal can be. At 12% alcohol it’s easy to drink, perfect with sushi.
ÉMILE BEYER PINOT GRIS TRADITION 2016 ($18)—As one of Alsace’s premier estates, dating back to the 16th century in Eguisheim, Émile Beyer has 42 acres of vineyards, one-third classified as Grand Cru. This is a Pinot Gris with good body, a pleasing 13.5% alcohol, and a decided sweetness of style with none of the acrid notes of so many Italian Pinot Grigios. It’s made to chill well and be served with melon and ham or with cheeses and fruit.
SCAIA ROSATO 2017 ($13)—A pale-colored Italian rosé with summery qualities of peaches and pears and a good acidity for balance. Made by the Castagnedi family of Veneto from Rondinella grapes at 12.5% alcohol, it is what a simple rosé should be at a reasonable price, with more aromatics than so many other bland examples.
ARGYLE RESERVE PINOT NOIR 2015 ($30)—Argyle was one of the first Oregon wineries I ever visited, where I discovered that the terroir out there was very promising for growing Pinot Noir. Now, decades later, Argyle is one of the Willamette Valley’s finest producers, and this Reserve Pinot Noir, with 14.1% alcohol, blending grapes from three vineyards, shows the care that goes into achieving such a balance of intensity without being musclebound. And I approve of the screw cap!
PAPA’S PILAR PLATINUM BLONDE RUM ($30)—I suppose the Hemingway Rum Company out of Key West, where Papa Hemingway moored his boat The Pilar, got permission to use the late author’s name for this line, which has a dark as well as a blonde version. Hemingway’s own rum of choice was Bacardi white or, in Cuba, Havana Club. In any case, what I liked about this pale rum, at 92 proof, aged in Sherry casks, is that it has a fine balance between white rum and dark, making it ideal for a Daiquiri, my drink of choice year round.
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.
"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.
restaurants--some good, some glitzy--far
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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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