Virtual Gourmet

December 27,  2009                                                                 NEWSLETTER

                                                             HAPPY NEW YEAR!


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In This Issue

ISLE DE FRANCE--ST. BART'S by John Mariani




Isle de France--St. Bart's
by John Mariani


     Because it's not  easy to get there, it is all the more alluring.  St. Barths (or St. Barthélmy or  St. Bart's, hereafter SB) is tiny, and uncrowded, a bump in the Caribbean, about a ten-minute flight from St. Martin's or an hour's ferry.  I recommend the former if only because the panorama around you is stunningly beautiful and also because the landing, on a strip that seems about two football fields long, is quite an experience, the little plane brought up short just as you think it's about to go into the drink on the other side of the island.
        Once through Customs (pretty quick) and a shot of complementary rum, you are off to your hotel--you and the other affluent few who have nabbed one of less than 170 hotel rooms on the island (there are some small villas and maybe you have a rich fiend who can put you up). 
Beach-side accommodations are the most likely to be found in St. Jean, Lorient, Cul de Sac, and Flamands. The issue of needing to be very rich to afford to buy property on the island is a moot point here, but hotel rooms can be had below $500 per night, depending on the season, or, if you take one of the villas at the well-named Le Sereno resort (right), up to $20,000 (high season, of course). I did not lounge about in one of those villas, though I dined in one, but I was nevertheless happy to be a guest and see how one-tenth of one-millionth percent of the world lives in such high style.
     Which is not to say flamboyant style. SB is not Las Vegas or Atlantis in the Bahamas, and this is an island overseen by France, so good taste rules over kitsch, and there is a certain restraint in the architecture here. The main town, Gustavia, has also been saved from unbridled commercialism in its tackier forms; instead there are lots of small restaurants--about 80 of them (check out www.stbarth-restaurants-association-org), boutiques, and souvenir shops that are colorful and glittery but never gauche.
     Even though it's a very small island, unless you have the bicycle legs for its steep ups and downs, you'll need to rent a car (there are ten agencies), a small car, for roads are not built for stretch limos, even if the arriving Russians would prefer them. And, of course, you will have the advantage of being able to park, then jump  into the sea. The island is encircled by fourteen white sand beaches, and, given the small number of visitors even in high season, they are pretty empty; all are free to everyone; women may go topless but nudity is not considered chic.
     SB is definitely a place people go to get away from it all, not to play golf (there is only a driving range), though fishing and water sports are a draw. No swimming with dolphins or turtles, though. Few children around. As for culture, the refreshingly candid SB website states, "The people of St. Barths have been too busy surviving droughts, hurricanes, and austere isolation to develop a very elaborate cultural tradition." So, that's that for museums and the arts. Which is all right with visitors like myself who prefer to check in and rest up, with the occasional stretch of the legs down the beach, daiquiri or cold beer in hand.  And while French is the official language, just about everyone at the hotels, restaurants, and stores speak English, which makes sense since Americans make up to 80 percent of SB's tourists.
     The reclusive Le Sereno,
at the east end of the island on Grand Cul-de-Sacre, recently renovated and re-designed by Parisian Christian Liaigre, is a modest-sized resort with 37 suites and villas that even when full is never going to seem crowded. My room (left) was spacious, on two levels, and overlooked the blue water and green low mountains in the distance. The villas, of various sizes and number of bedrooms, like the grandest shown below, are very special indeed, with every amenity possible. They do not play loud music anywhere on the property, the staff, mostly French but with a few internationals, could not be better informed, more cordial, or more helpful--all virtues that, as anyone who travels the Caribbean knows, are iffy propositions.  The spa is a very fine one and the spa treatments, which for me included a massage with warm sea shells, may be enjoyed in one's room.  The bathrooms, by the way, are minimally beautiful--dark wood, fine amenities, plenty of room, and the bathrobes are thick and easy to lie down in. By the way, there is complimentary limo service from and to the airport.
Restaurant des Pêcheurs (below) here is open to the air (which rarely budges above the mid-80s), and, again, you won't be crowded in with scores of other people.  Mostly white, with a dark slatted ceiling and pleasant bar, the place is quite casual--though tablecloths at night would be very welcome--and the staff, in shorts and t-shirts, sets the tone of dress. You can also sit outside, which is delightful at lunchtime.
     The menu here has considerable more range than you usually find around the island, and it is resolutely French in style but includes Caribbean flair and a few American items for those who must have their grilled sirloin. This being a French island, the kitchen takes a lot more care with their ingredients than do most Caribbean hotels, and you can be sure the fish is always fresh, including those that bulk up la
soupe de poissons frais des Caraïbes en croûte. La salade de langouste de St Barth en carpaccio d’asperges fraîches is a refreshing lobster salad with a carpaccio of asparagus, and I recommend the excellent terrine de foie gras de canard maison.
     When assured of the freshness of Caribbean and Gulf fish, the only sensible thing to do is to have it simply cooked, not overly elaborated. Here you have your choice of it being oven-
roasted, salt-baked, grilled, or sautéed in butter à la meunière with  daily vegetables, risotto, or a lush gratin of potatoes.  At lunch much the same menu is offered, along with some tasty shrimp tempura and lobster ravioli.  And, this being a French place, they have impeccably ripe cheeses, too.
      The winelist is less inclusive than I would have thought, the wineglasses thicker than I would like. And, of course, this being SB, prices for all food and wine is expensive.
        Off premises, among those 80 other restaurants, casual rules and bathing suits seem almost de rigueur at lunch.  One of the nicest places to enjoy it is right at the water's edge at Dõ Brazil (below), at the end of a narrow block at Shell Beach. It is one of those eateries that seem to welcome children, and the striking, rustic Caribbean graphics--including a lot of skull and crossbones--make this an unpretentious, very friendly place to go, kept that way by the extremely amiable owner Caroline Bigand.
      You  might begin with a trio of soups--gazpacho with basil and cucumbers, laced with crabmeat; chilled melon with lychee and ginger; and cucumber glacée--or chicken tempura with a sweet chili sauce.  There is both a lobster and a chicken club sandwich, the expected hamburger, various fillets of grouper, tuna, and sea bass, and some delicious barbecued pork ribs.  For dessert, have the crème brûlée.
       The funny thing is that at lunch, Americans with those anemically weak US dollars can run up quite a bill, with fettuccine with lobster going for 27€ and seared tuna steak at 28€, while at dinner all first courses are priced at 12€, main courses 20€, and desserts 10€--much easier on the budget.
     I also had a chance to dine one evening at a place that has been around for a long, long time, Maya's (left), located in Anse de Public. Twenty-five years ago was opened by an American and his French wife and chef, Maya, and it has drawn plenty of Americans for its simple food, which incorporates flavors of the Caribbean and whatever people currently like to eat.  Thus, you may begin with a fish soup or a Creole pumpkin soup or risotto with asparagus, then move on to a grilled red snapper or rack of lamb, ending off with a tarte Tatin or "Maya's famous chocolate cake," which is deservedly so. Starters run 17€-19€, main courses 30€-34€--a lot of money for good, if unremarkable fare.
       But if you travel to SB thinking about the expense of it all, then this may not be your kind of place.  The whole Caribbean is always more expensive than it seems it should be, and the strong euro doesn't help on a French island.  But if your object is complete relaxation, white beaches unbothered by hordes of tourists and cookie-cutter hotels, then SB will fill your bill, literally and figuratively.



by John Mariani

    Before going any further and writing to me asking, "But what about. . . ?," please note that I say NEW restaurants, meaning that to be considered, they have to have opened in the past year.  A change of chef does not mean it's new.
     There have been some splendid, fine places that have opened, with rich architectural detail, along with many very casual places whose food makes up for a lack of polish.  On the other hand, there has been a real dumbing down of the basic niceties of dining, e.g., bare tables (not always wiped down), slovenly dress on the tattooed waitstaff, bad lighting, and deliberately high decibel levels and "chef's music mix" unconducive to a civilized night out in NYC. Plus, these little casual joints are charging uptown, swank prices and will easily run you $100 for two people.
That said, it's been a terrific year for NYC restaurants, despite--perhaps because of--the recession. Re-trenching, re-configuring, downscaling, and utilizing the best from the lesser cuts, ingredients, and wines (meaning less reliance on foie gras, caviar, truffles, and prestige cuvées) has given menus a much broader appeal.
So what were the best NEW restaurants this year in NYC? In alphabetical order:

Apiary--60 3rd Avenue; 212-254-0888; --One of NYC's most consistently fine chefs, Scott Bryan presents his very personalized menu of dishes priced to sell, with a  three-course dinner at $35. The charming space is intimate, not too loud, and the service excellent across the board.

-717 Fifth Avenue; 212-207-1902; --As chic as you might expect for a restaurant within Giorgio Armani's flagship store, it is also one of the elegant new Italian restaurants closest to what you'll find in Milan, Florence, and Rome these days, and the prices are not bad either. NB: While the consulting chef is the same as when I visited, there is a new chef in the kitchen.

--135 West 42nd Street; 212-319-1660--Like Oceana below, Aureole ended its long tenure on the east side to move west, a bisected restaurant that is a casual bar upfront and a refined dining room to the rear.  Chef Christopher Lee's cooking carries on the Aureole tradition with a modern uplift in ideas and presentations.

A Voce Columbus Circle--
Time-Warner Center, 10 Columbus Circle; 212-823-2523; --Offshoot of the first A Voce downtown, this one uptown is in the same vein but has its own menu, via Chef Missy Robbins (who's at both places), a bit more posh, and a grand view over Central Park.

Bedford Post Inn-
-954 Old Post Road, Bedford, NY; 914-234-7800; --True, this is not in NYC but actors Richard Gere and Carey Lowell have done a splendid job with an historic structure and in hiring a great chef, Brian Lewis, who makes this Westchester County, NY,  inn (with rooms) a destination that deserves all your attention.

La Fonda del Sol-
-Vanderbilt Avenue & 44th Street; 212-867-6767; --A reverie of a restaurant originally opened in 1961 by Restaurant Associates, this 21st century version in the MetLife Building, with Chef Josh DeChellis, takes Spanish and Latino food to the higher heights of the genre without lapping over into extreme cuisine.

Ed's Chowder House--Empire Hotel, 44 West 63rd Street; 212-956-1288; --Chef Ed Brown, of "81" uptown, has fashioned this happy space across from Lincoln Center into an old-fashioned seafood restaurant with his own personal commitment to the best of everything. Great before or after theater, too.

Locanda Verde
--379 Greenwich Street; 212-925-3797. Andrew Carmellini's got his own place downtown, and it's bursting at the seams with people lured by the aromas from the open kitchen, the delicious regional Italian cooking, and the very fair prices for food and wine.

-240 Central Park South; 212-582-5100--You need not take my word on Marea, since my son cooks there, but it's tough to ignore an Italian seafood restaurant by Michael White that this year has garnered two Michelin stars, three NY Times stars, three New York Magazine stars, and made the Best New Restaurant lists for Bloomberg and GQ Magazine.  Enough said.

Minetta Tavern--113 Macdougal Street; 212-475-3850--A very old Greenwich Village Italian joint has been turned into the hottest ticket in town, thanks to Keith McNally's way of attracting both the celebrity and foodie crowds.  Good, solid bistro cooking, with outstanding beef. Still, as in all McNally;s restaurants, they will be very cordial on the phone when they tell you they have no tables for weeks.

Oceana--1221 Avenue of the Americas; 212-759-5941--A big move west and a big room to fill, Oceana is doing modern seafood with flair and attention to the best ingredients possible under Chef Ben Pollinger, and the Livanos family and Paul McLaughlin who own the restaurant are making sure everyone is very happy.

Onda--229 Front Street; 212-513-0770--Exciting Latino food in a casual, comfortable setting along one of the loveliest hidden streets near South Street Seaport. Chef Raymond Mohan doesn't miss a note when it comes to spice, flavor, and texture.

-105 Reade Street ; 212-406-1900--Big platters of lusty Puerto Rican food, a sparkling and fun atmosphere, and modest prices make this a place to go with a bunch of amigos who love to eat and revel in good times.

SHO Shaun Hergatt
--The Setai New York Hotel, 40 Broad Street; 212-809-3993-- A very beautiful Asian style underpins both a classic and a thoroughly modern take on French and Asian cuisines via Aussie Chef Shaun Hergatt, who makes a visit way downtown a destination. It is all a testament to good taste, fine dining, and a good reason to go south of SoHo.

Sora Lella
--300 Spring Street ; 212-366-4749; --A big welcome to this NYC branch of the Rome original, serving big-hearted Italian food with gusto and at the right price for the area and the age.

Vermilion--480 Lexington Avenue; 212-871-6600; --Rohini Dey and  Executive Chef Maneet Chauhan have done at Vermilion for Indian cuisine what Michael Psalikis did at Anthos for Greek and Gilbert Lecoze at Le Bernardin for French seafood.  A stunning new restaurant on two levels with food unlike any you'll find in NYC. Great cocktails too.









Four waitresses at NYC's Café Habana filed a lawsuit alleging that the owner forced them to share tips and denied overtime pay, as well as being “subjected to a heavily sexually charged environment in which they were required to dress in a sexually provocative manner, asked to take pictures scantily clad, and subject to degrading sexual harassment.” The plaintiffs allege that they were pressured to pose suggestively for the annual “Habana Girls” calendar.


"There are two kinds of culinary travelers who end up on Bali: ones who don't flinch at spending hundreds of dollars for a bottle of Rioja at a trendy Asian-French fusion restaurant, and those who are obsessive about going as local as possible, searching out the most authentic Balinese meal, a box of Immodium A-D always at their side."--Gisela Williams, "The Flavor of Bali, at Roadside Stands," NY Times (12/20/09).


Guidelines for submissions:  QUICK BYTES publishes only events, special dinners, etc, open to the public, not restaurant openings or personnel changes.  When submitting please send the most pertinent info, incl. tel # and site, in one short paragraph as simple e-mail text, WITH DATE LISTED FIRST, as below.  Thanks.  John Mariani

* On Jan. 5 in New York, NY Emporio restaurant will give you a second chance to celebrate Christmas with an evening of fun holiday festivities.  At midnight (on Jan.6) “La Befana”, a witch in Italian folklore equivalent to Santa Claus, will stop by the restaurant with free gifts for all guests!  Baby socks filled with homemade biscuits, candy and chocolate.  One lucky guest will receive a gift certificate from the restaurant.  Call 212-966-1234.

* From Jan. 10-Feb. 4, in Yosemite Valley, CA, The Ahwahnee hotel’s celebrated Chefs' Holidays returns for its 25th year with cooking classes and demos,  behind-the-scenes kitchen tour, and a 5-course Gala Dinner in The Ahwahnee Dining Room. This year, 29 top chefs will converge for 8 sessions. Special all-inclusive lodging packages available for $998 for two nights and $1307 for three nights at The Ahwahnee and for $694 for two nights and $793 for three nights at Yosemite Lodge at the Falls. Call 801-559-4949 or visit

* On Jan. 15-17 in Half Moon Bay, CA, The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay presents the 2010 Fire and Wine Experience, featuring workshops on making your own wine, wine blending and s’mores creation. Two Silver Oak Cellars dinners created by chef Xavier Salomon, a champagne flights lunch, and Sun. brunch highlighting four winemakers from the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains are also featured. Dining event prices range from $110 to $265, incl.wines. Call 650-712-7040.

* From Jan. 15-31, the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau's (SFCVB) popular “Dine About Town San Francisco” restaurant promotion returns for its 9th year. Two-course lunch menus are $17.95 while 3-course dinner menus are $34.95.  Reservations at  Call 415-391-2000.

* From Jan. 17-22 in San Diego, visitors can find amazing deals at top restaurants from downtown’s Gaslamp Quarter to the beaches of La Jolla and Coronado  during the 6th annual San Diego Restaurant Week, with 3-course,  dinner menus for $20, $30 or $40 per person at more than 180 participating restaurants.   The full list of participating restaurants, their menus and special San Diego Restaurant Week gift cards for use at participating restaurants are available for sale online.

* On Jan. 17 in Napa, Chef Ken Frank of La Toque Restaurant will host his 2nd annual Truffle Camp, incl. 5 meals, hands-on cooking classes with Chef Frank, a farm tour, exclusive winery tour and barrel tasting, wine pairings, and 3 nights of luxurious lodging at the Westin Verasa. Each guest will also be sent home with a truffle “goodie bag.” $1,800 pp., $3,000 per couple. Call 707-257-5157.


NEW FEATURE: I am happy to  report that the Virtual Gourmet is  linking up with four excellent travel sites:

Everett Potter's Travel  Report

I consider this the best and savviest blog of its kind on the  web. Potter is a columnist for USA Weekend, Diversion, Laptop and Luxury  Spa Finder, a contributing editor for Ski and  a frequent contributor to National  Geographic Traveler,  and Elle Decor. "I’ve designed this site is for people who take their  travel seriously," says Potter. "For travelers who want to learn about special  places but don’t necessarily want to pay through the nose for the privilege of  staying there. Because at the end of the day, it’s not so much about five-star  places as five-star experiences." 


Eating Las Vegas is the new on-line site for Virtual Gourmet contributor John A. Curtas., who since 1995 has been commenting on the Las Vegas food scene and reviewing restaurants for Nevada Public Radio.  He is also the restaurant critic for KLAS TV, Channel 8 in Las Vegas, and his past reviews can be accessed at Click on the logo below to go directly to his site.


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).

Family Travel Forum: The Family Travel Forum (FTF), whose motto is "Have Kids, Still Travel!", is dedicated to the ideals, promotion and support of travel with children. Founded by business professionals John Manton and Kyle McCarthy with first class travel industry credentials and global family travel experience, the independent, family-supported FTF will provide its members with honest, unbiased information, informed advice and practical tips; all designed to make traveling a rewarding, healthy, safe, better value and hassle-free experience for adults and children who journey together. Membership in FTF will lead you to new worlds of adventure, fun and learning. Join the movement.

Family Travel Forum

All You Need to Know Before You Go

nickonwine: An engaging, interactive wine column by Nick Passmore, Artisanal Editor, Four Seasons Magazine; Wine Columnist,;;


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

 John Mariani is a columnist for Esquire, Bloomberg News, 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.

My 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. It was 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

© copyright John Mariani 2009