Virtual Gourmet

April 15, 2007                                                       NEWSLETTER


                                                         Still Life 2007 by Galina Stepanoff-Dargery

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In This Issue




by Robert Mariani

         rTraveling northwards along the Antrim Coast of Ireland  in February is a kind of operatic experience. As in a Wagnerian recitative, the dense, sea-blown fogs surround you with a gray, monochromatic sameness, pressing against the windows of your vehicle. The two-lane highway ahead of you unravels just a few feet at a time. The rugged coastline you’re so longing to see is invisible. And then, just as you begin feeling you may never experience light again, the sun bursts through like some glorious aria revealing broad, bright green fields spotted with sheep-colored farm houses. Neat, spiked hedgerows carve the landscape into huge, verdant slabs. For an entire chorus you are bathed in this uncanny golden light and then, just as suddenly plunged back into the oppressive gray again. Just as in opera, the tension and release is exhilarating. I had returned to Northern Ireland for the first time in years, and found it as breathtaking as ever.
    By the time we arrived at our destination in the little village of Bushmills on the northern coast near the spectacular Giant’s Causeway (above) and the ancient Dunluce Castle, the fog had transformed itself into gray rain clouds that hung higher overhead. The smell of the peat fires and the welcoming coziness of the Bushmills Inn 3t(below) made us feel we had indeed arrived at the perfect destination in this region. In addition to a comfy, gas-lit Victorian bar, the Inn boasts a number of friendly little fireplace-ed nooks with armchairs (below), a small “secret library” turret on the second floor overlooking the modest courtyard, and restful rooms with views of the surrounding farmlands.
      In addition to its sepia-colored Victorian bar, The Inn’s equally cozy restaurant offers a wholesome menu of local seafood and meats. “Wee Starters” include dishes like smoked salmon with a little rocket salad; onion soup prepared with--what else?--Guinness and topped with a cheese crouton; goat'a cheese and chorizo bruschetta; cod and leek tartlet; or a pot of prawns tossed in cocktail sauce. I was very pleased with my entreé, the loin of lamb pan-fried and served with a side of tomato and mint compote and a sweet red current jus. In the Irish tradition, side dishes included three different potato creations, all of which were nicely prepared. 3rffOthers around our table praised the Inn’s roast fillet of hake wrapped in parma ham; the Ulster beef sirloin steak char-grilled and served with savory bread pudding and a horseradish and mustard cream sauce; and the blackened tenderloin of pork served on wilted greens and an apple and sage jus.
          The Bushmills Inn is proximate to other local must-sees, like the awe-inspiring Giant’s Causeway cliffs, an extraordinary natural phenomenon just a short drive from the town of Bushmills.  It is a huge expanse of cliffs formed from long, tubular basalt deposits that are so elegantly symmetrical they almost seem man-made though they are the ancient works of volcanoes and erosion, sea and salt.  Also try to visit the 12th century Dunluce Castle (below),  the perfect location from which to explore this ruggedly beautiful region. There are seven world class golf courses in the area too, including the Royal Portrush golf course. And for anglers, the River Bush is within casting distance of the Bushmills Inn’s courtyard, and boat and shore fishing are also available.
      The next morning dawned bright and chilly, and it felt refreshing to walk the few quiet blocks from the Inn up a slight hill to the site of the oldest whiskey distillery in all of Ireland. Whether you’re one of the growing number of Irish whiskey enthusiasts world-wide, or simply curious about the mystique of this ancient elixir, you owe it to yourself to visit the original home of the whiskey that was “born” in 1608, the same year as poet John Milton.7u6r
          Bushmills comes from only one distillery located in the town of the same name, about a two-hour drive up from Belfast. The countryside and coastal views here in this ruggedly beautiful area seem virtually unchanged for centuries.
          If you take the informative 45-minte tour of the Bushmills distillery, you’ll learn that the strong, sometimes overpowering peat flavor that is purposely infused into Scotch whiskys during brewing is absent from Irish whiskey. The result is what many find to be the far softer and more friendly flavor of Bushmills. Several other factors contribute to the uniquely amiable character of the Bushmill line of whiskeys.  For one thing, the barley malts used are air dried, instead of being dried over peat-fueled fires, which results in a softer, smoother overall taste. And only Bushmills is distilled three times, adding multiple levels of flavor in the process.
          Also unique to Bushmills is the fact that all of the barley they use is malted, while most other Irish distillers use a mix of malted and un-malted barley, which yields the more common “Irish pot-still” style whiskey. Bushmills' unique method creates a smooth, balanced, fruity flavor that lies at the heart of all their blends.
          Finally, there are the barrels or casks used at Bushmills Distillery. Only the very best oak casks seasoned with wine or spirit from selected Bodegas or distilleries are chosen: For Bushmills Original Whiskey, bourbon casks are used that contributes a distinctly nose-friendly vanilla note and a quiet, “polished” finish. The Bushmills 10 year old Malt is aged in both Oloroso sherry and American bourbon casks. Expect a subtle opening and a slightly longer finish with some hints of chocolate along the way. The Bushmills Malt 16 Year Old is matured in three different woods and gggggggdelivers a complex honeyed, nutty malti-ness with overtones of Port wine. The venerable and rare Bushmills Malt 21 Year Old opens with a mellow malti-ness laced with notes of wood and raisins, a touch of sweetness and a richly satisfying Madeira finish. To its fans, the $145 price tag will seem a bargain. Black Bush is to many whiskey-lovers Bushmills' ultimate achievement with its amazingly complex flavors that mingle sweet sherry succulence with a mellow malti-ness tinged by a hint of toasted wood and chocolate-y afternotes. As one of the Bushmills brewers poetically describes it, “it floats on the tongue.”
     As a long-time fan of Bushmills' distinctively pure flavors, I’d always considered it something close to sacrilege to mix or mitigate that unique character with anything other than a tiny splash of distilled water or perhaps a solitary ice cube, if absolutely necessary. On my recent visit to the Distillery, however, I was surprised when Colum Egan, Master Distiller at Old Bushmills, averred that he sometimes added a shot of Original Bushmills to a half-glass of ginger ale! And that his wife preferred her Bushmills mixed with equal parts cranberry juice and ice!  I was skeptical to say the least until I tried a taste of the latter and found it remarkably pleasing. The whiskey somehow took the sharp edge off the tangy cranberry juice and the two flavors—the sweetness and the malti-ness--blended beautifully. I strongly recommend this to anyone who is a bit timid about diving right into a straight shot glass or snifter of Bushmills.
      Another surprise I discovered on a visit to Padder’s Pub in nearby Londonderry was “a Warm Bushmill’s." Simply adding about three ounces of warm water to one ounce of Bushmills Original along with a dash of sugar or honey, and floating a thin slice of lemon and a few cloves in a snifter, produces one of the most delicious, comforting beverages you’ve ever tasted. On a chilly, fog-bound afternoon in the convivial gas-lit pub, I think I may have discovered a whole new way to drink my whiskey.


by John Mariani

Dylan Hotel
52 East 41st Street
212- 297-9177
         rrr3It is nothing short of astonishing that, after so many years, so many former employees of the celebrated Peter Luger's Steakhouse in Brooklyn have  left to open their own restaurants, copycatting the Luger's style of sliced porterhouse for two or more people, right down to tilting the hot plate to collect the juices.  The latest in the field is Benjamin Steakhouse in the Dylan Hotel, which is in NY Steakhouse Central, where every block has one--Palm, Palm II, Blair Perrone's, Spark's, Ben & Jack's, Morton's, Patroon, Smith & Wollensky, and others, most of them packed every night with expense account-rich types who seemingly can't get enough of man's favorite food.  (It always puzzles me that the same guy who would balk at paying $36 for a main course, with vegetables, at a French or Italian restaurant, thinks nothing of spending $45 or more for a steak with nothing else on the plate.)
      Benjamin gives the competition a good run for their money, and
owner Benjamin Prevlukaj and chef-partner Arturo  McLeod, both Luger's vets, along with a staff that seems to hail from Montenegro, have given as much thought to hospitality as to the food here, in stark contrast to some of the boorish, rude who cares? attitude you'll find at some other steakhouses where reservations are laughed at and winelists are overloaded with $100+ bottles. At Benjamin you will be cordially greeted by a pretty hostess or two and by Benjamin himself, shown to a table that is commodious and well separated from others, and brought excellent onion rolls and plenty of butter as soon as you sit down.  Would that the bar had such finesse, seeming on two visits incapable of making a decent cocktail with fresh ingredients.
       The winelist at Benjamin is not the biggest among its peers but it is solid and there's plenty under $100 to choose from, with the usual offerings of oversize bottles from California wineries that specialize in such things.
      The place itself is a huge--5,000 square feet, with 175 seats--two-tiered, high vaulted ceiling room formerly known as the Chemists' Club, richly appointed with oak, with a 
lovely ten-foot working fireplace, imposing mezzanine, chocolate brown leather seating,  and  brass chandeliers.
       You open the menu at Benjamin and, since you have chosen to go to a New York steakhouse, you will sigh in the knowledge that all your favorites are here, from the sliced porterhouse (above) to the onion rings, the mozzarella and tomato salad, the creamed spinach, the gargantuan lobsters, the baked clams, the jumbo shrimp cocktail, 4444the cheesecake, and so on and so on.  But in its very mimicking of what has become a standard steakhouse menu, Benjamin has not yet distinguished itself among its competitors, meaning you have to have a particular reason to come here rather than another very similar to it.  As noted, the cordiality, the care from the staff, and the feeling that you need not be a regular or bigwig to get a reservation here that will be honored are all much to Benjamin's advantage. Oddly enough, some men seem to revel in the shabby treatment other steakhouses dole out, almost as much as the regulars do in walking right past their colleagues to a good table.
      Nevertheless, Benjamin hasn't broken any molds, as BLT Steak did a few years ago (but which has gone into a decline of routine) and Craftsteak did last year, to little fanfare.  Playing it safe is not the worst thing in the world when it comes to a genre that is exceedingly conservative, but you've got to give something a bit more out of the ordinary to make one place much more attractive than the next.
       Well, on to the food, sampled on two visits:  Most of it ranked at the same levels as you'll find elsewhere--good meaty shrimp cocktail, ditto for baked clams.  The sautéed crabcakes needed a lot more lump meat to make them stand out,  but the now standard smoked bacon was  juicy and delicious, salty and streaked with layers of fat and lean.  (That night I happened to be dining with Joanna Pruess, author of the book Seduced by Bacon, and she was lapping up this example with glee.) Although overly salty one night I liked the idea of an item called "German soup," made with ground beef, potatoes, and well-browned stock, a dish you're not going to find all over town.
      54A four-pound lobster--just about an ideal size for two people--was steamed impeccably, cracked deftly in the kitchen and brought to the table piping hot with clarified butter, which is sadly not always the case in steakhouses. Grilled tuna, ordered out of duty, was O.K.  The veal chop was flavorful, and the sliced porterhouse, while lacking the intensity of beefiness you find at Luger's, was a fine example of USDA Prime, said to be hand selected by Mr. McLeod.  On another occasion filet mignon came out nicely cooked. The onion rings were seriously addictive, the creamed spinach needed a good dose more of cream, and the German potatoes were like nice crispy hashed browns. Salads, however, were limp and dull.
      The women at our table were swearing off dessert, but we two guys went for a tall hot fudge sundae (what's not to like?) and a flaccid apple strudel we all pretty much ignored.  I applaud Benjamin's making their own cheesecake, not because I don't love the ubiquitous S&S Cheesecake sold in just about every other steakhouse, but because this version had a lovely texture, plenty of vanilla, and a perfect grating of lemon in it. And it did not come in the door frozen.
       In the end, there's plenty about Benjamin to praise and a few things that need work. But they do need to distinguish their restaurant from all the rest of the pack. Well, there is one thing:  For the tidy sum of $1,111 you can order
a dish for five people that includes massive cuts of porterhouse, sirloin, filet mignon, chateaubriand and rib-eye, all on one big plate.  Sounds like fun, though it's still just more of the same.  Benjamin should strive a bit beyond what the competish is doing while never compromising what they all do so well right now. That said, you'll be treated better at Benjamin that at a whole lot of other beef houses around town, and that in itself make it worth a visit.


"Leave your dinner jacket at home.  I've suspected for some time that a dress code doesn't make food taste better. The Spaniards have known this all along, which is why you can eat some of the best meals in the world at Can Roca, and Mugaritz, and Arzak wearing, if you wish, a Gray's Papaya T-shirt."--Wylie Dufresne, 
Spain GoourmetTour.



To celebrate the Year of the Pig, China has released a set of stamps that smell like sweet-and-sour pork on the front and taste like the dish when licked on the back.


* The Vines of Mendoza, a new vinotourism destination in the heart of the Argentine wine country, has opened South America’s first collective tasting room, featuring a wine-dedicated Information Center, with emphasis on local boutique vineyards. Weekly Tasting Room events are Monday’s Wine & Cheese Night, Wednesday’s Winemaker Night (hosted each week by a different local winemaker), and a Friday Espumante Tasting.  The Center also provides bodega and restaurant recommendations, arranges reservations, and tourist info. Visit

* On April 25 Pops For Champagne, Chicago's premier Champagne bar and Jazz Club,  celebrates its silver anniversary by hosting a special 25th Anniversary Gala  featuring jazz piano artist Willie Pickens,  the first musician  to perform at Pops' original Lakeview location 25 years ago.  Pops will be offering four prestige Champagnes for $25 per glass that evening incl. Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 1996; Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 1998; Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle; and Jean  Laurent Blanc De Noirs Library Release 1982, and Chef Andre Christopher will also prepare a  menu  from his raw bar.  Call 312-266-7677;

* On April 26, Mission Hill Family Estate Wines and Long Beach Lodge in Tofino, BC, have paired up for an evening of seaside wining chef Jeffery Young serving a 5-course menu married with Mission Hill wines for $125 CAD ($110 USD) pp.  Room packages include one night accommodation, two winemaker's dinners, and breakfast buffet for two from $499 CAD ($440 USD). Call 877-844-7873 or visit

* On  April 30, in  Chicago, Socca’s Chef Roger Herring will host a 5-course dinner paired with Masi Venetian Wines, incl.  their limited production Grand Cru Amarone Mazzano.  $65 pp. Call 773-248-1155.

* On May 8 Zinfandel Advocates & Producers travel to Austin, to Phoenix on May 10,  and Minneapolis on May 11-12 for tastings. In each city almost 50 Zinfandel producers will offer their wines. In 2008 the 17th Annual Zinfandel Advocates & Producers Festival will take place in San Francisco January 23-26, 2008. Visit
* On May 3, at Guastavino’s in  NYC, Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold  and other current and former Jets players will join with top chefs from  New York Metropolitan Area Restaurants such as NOBU, Osteria Del Circo and Dos Caminos for the Fifth Annual New York Jets Taste of the NFL Benefit presented by the Jets in conjunction with ShopRite and Kraft.  Tix $250, VIP tix $400; Call 212-485-8050. VIP tickets are available for $400.

* From May 10-12 inWashington, DC, The 8th Annual Heart’s Delight Wine Tasting & Auction will  host leaders from the country’s business, medical, and political communities who share a love of food and wine and a concern for the prevention of heart disease. Thurs:  a series of Intimate Wine Dinners in private homes and Embassies, while Friday: Vintners Dinner at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium highlighting the wines of Château Mouton Rothschild, followed by a live auction lead by Sotheby’s Jamie Ritchie. Sat.: tasting of Bordeaux wines brought by Chateau owners and directors, followed by exclusive opportunities to bid on live and silent auction lots, seminars, and gourmet food prepared by world-renowned chefs. Call 703-248-1720;  visit

 * The new Chef's Table offering debuts on Emerald Princess this spring giving a select group the  rare opportunity to enjoy a tour of the ship's galley at its busiest time,  during dinner.  Incl.: pre-dinner cocktails and hors d'oeuvres in the galley, an exclusive multi-course dinner with wine created specially by the chef, a personalized autographed copy of Princess' best-selling cookbook, Courses, A Culinary Journey and complimentary photo with the chef. Reservations for up to 10 passengers on select nights at a cost of $75 pp. Visit

NEW FEATURE: I am happy to  report that the Virtual Gourmet is  linking up with two 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."  To go to his blog click on the logo below:


Tennis Resorts OnlineA Critical Guide to the World's Best Tennis Resorts and Tennis Camps, published by ROGER COX, who has spent more than two decades writing about tennis travel, including a 17-year stretch for Tennis magazine. He has also written for Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel, New York Magazine, Travel & Leisure, Esquire, Money, USTA Magazine, Men's Journal, and The Robb Report. He has authored  two books-The World's Best Tennis Vacations (Stephen Greene Press/Viking Penguin, 1990) and The Best Places to  Stay in the Rockies (Houghton Mifflin, 1992 & 1994), and the Melbourne (Australia) chapter to the Wall Street Journal Business Guide to Cities of the Pacific Rim (Fodor's Travel Guides, 1991). Click on the logo below to go to the site.



MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly.  Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani,  Naomi  Kooker, Kirsten Skogerson,  Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Suzanne Wright. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery,  Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.

 John Mariani is a columnist for Esquire, Wine Spectator, Bloomberg News and Radio, and Diversion.  He is author of The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink (Lebhar-Friedman), The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink (Broadway), and, with his wife Galina, the award-winning Italian-American Cookbook (Harvard Common Press).

 Any of John Mariani's books below may be ordered from by clicking on the cover image.

6y6My newest book, written with my brother Robert Mariani, is a memoir of our years growing up in the North Bronx. It's called Almost Golden because it re-visits an idyllic place and time in our lives when so many wonderful things seemed possible.
    For those of you who don't think of the Bronx as “idyllic,” this book will be a revelation. It’s about a place called the Country Club area, on the shores of Pelham Bay. A beautiful neighborhood filled with great friends and wonderful adventures that helped shape our lives. It's about a culture, still vibrant, and a place that is still almost the same as when we grew up there.
    Robert and I think you'll enjoy this very personal look at our Bronx childhood. It is not yet available in bookstores, so to purchase a copy, go to or click on  Almost Golden.
                                                                                                                    --John Mariani

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copyright John Mariani 2007