Virtual Gourmet

February 21, 2010                                                                   NEWSLETTER

                                                                        Chef Daniel Boulud. Photo by Owen Franken (2008)


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In This Issue


by John Mariani




By John Mariani

      It’s easy enough to describe what makes certain cities’ food scene distinctive—New Orleans, Santa Fe, Miami, and San Francisco are good examples—but when it comes to Denver, I can’t really puzzle out what makes the city’s vibrant gastronomy unique.  Instead, I find that year by year Denver has not just kept up with the general trends in American food but has developed local talents whose particular styles of cooking would be applauded anywhere in America.
      It seems that just about every Denver restaurant opened in the last few years is baking its own breads, rolling its own pastas, and grinding out its own charcuterie.   There are good sushi, vegetarian, and steak restaurants, and a slew of new winebars.
     There are not, however, too many “classic” Denver restaurants still around; two that continue to flourish are certainly well worth a visitor’s time.  One, The Buckhorn Exchange (left) has been around since 1893 and is as much a museum of western artifacts as a restaurant specializing in game, from buffalo and alligator to rattlesnake and Rocky Mountain oysters, along with terrific T-bones and “Gramma Fanny’s pot roast,” on the menu since Buffalo Bill, Roy Rogers, and Ronald Reagan ate here.
       The Palace Arms,(right) festooned like a Gilded Age hall within the Brown Palace Hotel (1892), is as perfect for a blow-out celebratory dinner as for a quietly romantic one. This is sumptuous dining, with a great winelist in support: don’t miss the Colorado bison “Rossini” with foie gras, truffles, and Swiss chard, or the Colorado loin of lamb with fennel, orange, Marcona almonds, preserved lemon glaçage, and salsify.
      Though not in that historic league, Restaurant Kevin Taylor, in the beautiful downtown Hotel Teatro, has for ten years proven its namesake chef/owner a standard-setter for fine dining in the city. The dining room has a refined western polish, with regional genre paintings, and the downstairs wine room is a splendid spot for a private dinner, which might include orange-lacquered Muscovy Duck breast and confit with Brussels sprout leaves, toasted farro, and a honey-orange gastrique, or roasted Broken Arrow Ranch venison with barley risotto, garlic spinach, grilled pears, and sauce au poivre.
       If I had to choose a more modern exemplar of Denver Dining that pretty much sums up the cozy, amiable style of the city it would be the seven-year-old Mizuna (left).  The name implies it is Asian, but this moderately sized, soft yellow dining room with open kitchen features a menu with all that is wonderful in American gastronomy, coalescing many sources and several food cultures in dishes that range from Hudson Valley foie gras with spring onions, a plum mostarda, and toasted bread, to rosy roast squab with black truffle vinaigrette, melted Brussels sprouts, and crispy parsnips.  Mizuna serves a terrific “macaroni & cheese” generously studded with lobster meat and ennobled further with mascarpone cream cheese.  Chefs Frank Bonanno and Tony Clement offer Florida grouper with house-cured chorizo sausage and potato stew along with perfectly cooked lemon sole with candied fennel ratatouille, fried eggplant, and a sweet-tangy balsamic brown butter.
       Indeed, Bonanno is a local culinary hero, who also runs Luca d’Italia, Osteria Marco, and Bones.  I dined happily at the last two on my latest trip (I loved Luca d’Italia for its hearty Italian food on a previous visit) and was especially impressed by Bones, which doesn’t sound at all Asian, but is splendidly so—a mix of snail potstickers, sushi, and noodles, all served in a spanking white little room on a corner just outside of downtown.
       Bones is a very friendly, drop-in kind of place, with a happy hour, Asian cocktails, and very nicely priced wines.  Go with several friends and you can rip through the whole menu—nothing costs more than $17—from the steamed pork belly buns and the roasted bone marrow to seared hamachi in a truffle velouté with crispy mushrooms, and steaming soba noodles with rare ahi tuna, summer squash and a grapefruit ponzu sauce. There's also an impressive sake collection (right).
      Osteria Marco is a sprawling subterranean restaurant with a broad bar, rustic wood tables, brick walls, and an atmosphere that encourages sharing dishes, starting off with house-made charcuterie and cheeses, grilled ciabatta bread with a slathering of pesto, parmesan, and balsamic vinegar, and baked mozzarella melted over little gnocchi potato dumplings. The best dish I tasted was a huge sirloin of Colorado lamb with goat's cheese-laced potatoes and a red pepper agrodolce--great dish! I also enjoyed the meaty seared sea scallops with cannellini bean ragôut, orrechiette pasta and fresh herbs. Oddly enough, the kitchen really botches the pizza crust here, which is more like a breadstick than the pliant, charred, bubbly crust you expect.

    The main courses are enormous, and if you’re in town on Sunday, order the succulent roast suckling pig. Otherwise they have a massive grilled Colorado lamb sirloin with goat’s cheese potatoes and red pepper agrodolce you don’t want to miss—a steal at $21.
      Somewhat similar in style but far more personalized is Rioja, set in a 19th Century building on Larimer Street. It’s an extremely popular, familial, very colorful Mediterranean restaurant run by Chef Jennifer Jasinski and  and g-m Beth Gruitch (right), with sous-chef Dana Rodriguez, all of whom are clearly ecstatic when their regulars come back and newcomers choose Rioja for the first time.
      As is becoming the norm in American dining, Rioja gathers the very finest ingredients available—artisanal cheeses, organic produce, special coffees—and Jasinski embellishes them with finesse, obvious in a dish like her quince tortelli with pine nut brown butter, juniper gastrique, and arugula, and her grilled, mustard-brined chicken with a chopped salad.  All pasta are made here, and dessert chef Eric Dale turns out glorious sweets that defy you not to gobble them up before anyone else does, like his butterscotch pudding in phyllo cup with almond toffee and crème fraîche caramel.

  Colt & Gray, which Denver Magazine food writer Stacey Brugeman, described as a “Nantucket-chic-meets-mountain-lodge dining Room,” is where chef–owner Nelson Perkins, formerly of New York’s trend-setting Blue Hill, and chef de cuisine Brad Rowell (left), last at New York’s Spotted Pig, turn out food too easily termed “honest,” for there is exceptional expertise in every dish here, from the fabulous pumpkin soup with pepitas, cocoa oil, and spiced crème fraîche to the garlic-soaked chili prawns with coriander-cashew pesto and avocado citrus salad. The herb-crusted rack of lamb with glazed lamb belly, Brussels sprouts, and mascarpone-polenta gives all the evidence you need to know that you won’t eat any better anywhere in the west.
     Colt & Gray's winelist is chosen for the moment, that is, with plenty of bottlings under $50 and they are all selected with care.
       On the other hand, the new, tellingly named restaurant Root Down manages to meld good traditional flavors with New World attitude.  It’s set within a former 1950s gas station—very cool, shadowy lighting—in the burgeoning Highlands neighborhood and gets its name not from a seed catalog but from the 1960 jazz musician Jimmy Smith’s song “Root Down (And Get It),” which the restaurant’s website explains as, “Lyrically, the term means to return to the root of the song and get back to the basics, which is exactly what the restaurant hopes to do—the fundamentals with a twist.”
      You will have to endure listening to your server explain every item on the menu in breathy testament as to its being organic and vegan friendly and how they are nice to farmed fish, but don’t let that get in the way of enjoying some very good food here, including zucchini and roasted poblano soup with chile-lime and pumpkin seed oil; satiny seared scallops with hearty plantain hash, lemon-habanero tartar sauce, and crispy leeks; and some remarkably good veggie burger sliders on a challah bun with curry sauce with roasted red pepper jam, sprout salad, sweet potato fries, Awesome, dude!
      How, then, to describe Denver’s dining scene? With a few punchy adjectives—solid, serious, comfortable, very personalized.  And as good as it gets.


Prices reflect an average for a three-course dinner, before, wine, tax, and tip, for two people.

Buckhorn Exchange—1000 Osage; 303-534-9505; $120.

Palace Arms—Brown Hotel, 321 17th Street; 303-297-3111; $140.

Restaurant Kevin Taylor—Hotel Teatro, 1106 14th Street; 303-820-2600; $130.

Mizuna--225 E 7th Avenue; 303-832-4778; $90.

Bones-- 701 Grant Street; 303-860-2929; $80.

Osteria Marco— 1453 Larimer Street; 303-534-5855; $80.

Rioja--1433 Larimer Street; 303-820-2282; $100.

Colt & Gray-- 1553 Platte Street;  303-477-1447; $100.

Root Down—1600 West 33rd Avenue; 303-993-4200; $100.



Gramercy Park Hotel
2 Lexington Avenue

    It's taken a while for restaurateur Danny Meyer to open another Italian restaurant since his first bellwether Union Square Cafe. After launching Gramercy Tavern, Tabla, Eleven Madison Park, The Modern, and Shake Shack, and realizing that New York needed no more French restaurants, Meyer went back to his professional roots.  No, not his family roots--he is a Jewish kid from St. Louis, Missouri, and wanted to grow up to be a baseball player.  Along the way he did spend two years in Rome as a tour guide, where he fell in love with the cuisine, and Maialino (a nickname, "little pig," and pun on Meyer's name) is his homage to Rome, right down to the blue-checkered tablecloths. The tile floor is set to evoke the floor of the Pantheon.
     Maialino is set within the Gramercy Park Hotel, which formerly had a short-lived Chinese restaurant in the space, and
Rockwell Group designed it to look like a rustic trattoria in Trastevere, with a lovely view of the park, reclaimed oak wainscoting and wooden beams, weathered and industrial metal details, antique mirrors, and a collection of art, some commissioned from Robert Kushner. There is a bar up front where you can just drop in without a rez, get some antipasti or pasta and a glass of wine.  There is also a cantina whose  exterior resembles an apothecary/wine storage case, and also stores the restaurant's produce.  In the center of the restaurant is "Maialino’s cucina," featuring a salumi, cheese and antipasto station on one side, and a coffee, dessert and bread station on the other.  The all-Italian wine list, by Wine Director Stephen Mancini, has about 85 labels, with 18  available both by the glass and quartino. There is something at every price category, carefully selected.
   The chef at Maialino is Nick Anderer (left), formerly sous-chef at Gramercy Tavern, and he did some extensive research in Rome to sharpen his chops for reproducing the flavors of the Eternal City's vibrant restaurant scene.  He is not trying re-invention here; rather he is aiming at the most authentic food he and his staff can muster.  That begins with excellent charcuterie, including salame from Berkeley, as well as imported salumi and cheeses.  This goes with the breads baked in the dining room oven, though oddly enough, ours came to the table cold one night.
     Suckling pig's foot is a creamy and decadent starter, served with beans and celery, while tripe with mint and pecorino is as good as I've had anywhere in the U.S.--a rare thing given the few restaurants that serve tripe. Fried artichokes come with an assertive anchovy bread sauce, and lamb sweetbreads with radicchio and walnuts.
     The menu is just about the size it should be, not too large, enabling pastas to be done al dente and properly, with the right balance of cacio e pepe to go with nicely  firm tonnarelli; pacccheri are slathered with guanciale and black pepper, and the carbonara at Maialino is excellent--creamy with velvet-like egg cooked by the pasta, with bits of crisp guanciale.  There's real spice in the  tomato sauce of the bucatini all'amatriciana, and malfatti (below) involves juicy, fatty suckling pig meat with the taming taste of arugula.
     Main courses are very hefty, so watch how you order here. Abbacchio alla cacciatore is braised baby lamb splashed with Frascati wine, and pollo alla diavola is impeccably crisp and juicy with a crunch of ground black pepper and come pickled chili.  The maialino itself--suckling pig--is for two or three people and there's plenty of it, its skin mahogany colored and crisp, the flesh well-fatted beneath. There are also some fine vegetables here, like the simple spinach with olive and lemon and the beans with escarole.
       Pastry Sous Chef Jennifer Shelbo, formerly of Gramercy Tavern, turns out desserts equal to what precedes them, including a homey torta alla nonna.
      As with all Mayer's restaurants, hospitality is key to Maialino's success, and snafus are taken seriously and addressed immediately.  The place is jammed right now and reservations not easy to come by--though you can just drop into the bar--so the staff has its work cut out for it and they seemed pressured the night I dined there.  But come early or go late, and things will be a tad smoother. Whenever you come to Maialino---for a bite or a full meal--you'll come away satisfied in  the same way you would in Rome.

Maialino is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily.  Breakfast: $1.50 to $14; lunch and dinner: salumi and antipasti, $4 to $32; pastas, $13 to $17; lunch: main courses, $17 to $24; dinner: main courses, $23 to $32 (maialino al forno for two or three people is $72).



Toledo, Ohio, police arrested a 24-year-old woman named Melodi Dushane who  punched through a McDonald's drive-through window because Chicken McNuggets weren't available.  She pleaded not guilty to a vandalism charge. . . . Meanwhile in Kansas City, Missouri,  19-year-old Alesha McMullen (below) was charged with trashing a McDonald's because she was unhappy with her cheeseburger. In a video, she is seen  throwing a sign and a water dispenser over a counter, then shoving three cash registers to the floor. Police say McMullen said her order was prepared wrong and the restaurant refused to give her a refund. To watch video, click here.


“Consider the dragonfly,” said Nithakhong Somsanith, erstwhile prince of an old lineage in Laos. On a warm day in the ancient royal capital of Luang Prabang, the two of us were seated on the wood veranda of a French-colonial villa. Nearby, in one of the many collect ponds that demarcate neighborhoods in this city of 103,000, a squadron of iridescent insects dive-bombed a cloud of pesky gnats."--Guy Trebay, Laos: Asia's New Cultural Hot Spot, Travel & Leisure (February 2010).


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 Feb. 21 in NYC, Tom Colicchio and Natalie Portman will co-host a fundraiser at Colicchio & Sons to benefit The Hungry in America Project. Joining the co-hosts are actresses Julianne Moore and Kelly Rutherford, as well as host committee members, including chefs Rocco DiSpirito and Michael Schlow.  Please see below for more details.  Thank you for reading & considering! $250 each for General Admission or $1000 for the VIP reception. Visit  All contributions are tax deductible, and The FEED Foundation will furnish you with written confirmation of your donation.

* On March 2nd in Brooklyn, NY, Restaurant Saul presents a 5 course Wine Dinner, the 3 Terroirs of Pinot Noir, with special guest Wine Expert Tony DiDio. $125pp call 718-935-9844.

* On March 4, 2010 in Beachwood, OH, Moxie, the Restaurant hosts a six-course dinner featuring creative cuisine by award-winning Executive Chef Jonathan Bennett paired with Quintessa Wines.  $125 per person plus tax and gratuity.  Call 216-831-5599.

* On March 6, Morton’s The Steakhouse  in Buckhead, GA,  is hosting an Adobe Road Wine Dinner, incl. 4 courses of Chef Tony Ballester’s cuisine paired with wines from Adobe Road, along with guest appearances from NASCAR driver Bobby LaBonte and Adobe Road Winery Owner and CEO of TRG Motorsports Kevin Buckler.   Guests will also have the chance to win two garage passes to the NASCAR race at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 7.  $150 pp.  Call   404-816-6535.

* On Mar. 8, in NYC, Greenwich House will celebrate it’s Eighth Annual Taste of Greenwich House, featuring more than 20 restaurants and a celebrity book signing by Food Network’s Ellie Krieger, a silent auction, specialty beverages and cocktails, and even a massage. $250 for VIP tickets, $100 for general admission. Call 212-991-0003 ext., 402.
* On Mar. 11 in Mashantucket, CT, Tom Colicchio will host a beer dinner at his award-winning restaurant Craftsteak at MGM Grand at Foxwoods. Colicchio’s 5-course tasting menu will be paired with specialty beers from the Brooklyn
Brewery, and brew master Garrett Oliver will also be on hand to discuss the menu and beer selections. $150 pp. Call 860-312-7272.

* From Mar. 12-23 in Melbourne, Australia, the 18th Annual Melbourne Food & Wine Festival will celebrate the quality produce, talent and lifestyle that continues to shape Victoria’s culinary landscape, incl. the World’s Longest Lunch, with more than 1,200 guests sitting down to a meal served on a 1,300-foot long table along the Yarra River banks. Prices vary by event. Visit

* On May 14-16 in Anderson Valley, CA, the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association will host their 13th annual Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival, featuring 40 wineries, live music, local foods, educational events, winemaker dinners, and more. Tix available starting March 15 at  Grand Tasting: $95 pp. Call 707-895-9463.

On March 18-21, 2010 in Walland, TN,  Blackberry Farm will host Hospice du Rhone.   André Brunel of Les Cailloux in Châteauneuf du Pape, France, and Chris Ringland of Chris Ringland Wines in the Barossa Valley of Australia will headline, along with  Paul Lato of Paul Lato Wines and Scott Hawley of  Torrin Wines, both in California.  Joining these amazing wine producers will be Chefs Sondra Bernstein and John Toulze of the girl & the fig in Sonoma. Call 800-557-8451.

* Froim March 19-21, at various sites in Boca Raton, FL the Boca Raton Historical Society presents Boca Bacchanal Winefest & Auction, featuring vintner dinners in private residences created by an international array of  chefs and vintners, silent and live auctions, a  reception and multi-course dinner at the Boca Raton Resort &Club, food and wine tastings and a wine seminar. Call 561-395-6766 X 101.

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 2010