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  January 27,   2013                                                                                                NEWSLETTER

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Myrna Loy and William Powell as Nick and Nora Charles in "The Thin Man"


In Old Oaxaca Where the Mezcals Are Made
by Brian Freedman

The Strand
by John Mariani

Notes from the Wine Cellar
Red Burgundies Now Ready to Be Enjoyed Sooner Rather Than Later


                       In Old Oaxaca,
        Where the Mezcals Are Made
                                                                        by Brian Freedman

    Tequila and mezcal, for all their rising stock among the legions of newly-minted mixologists and spirits aficionados across the country, are still frustratingly misunderstood by far too many casual drinkers. Mention them to most people, and chances are you’ll be met with some variation of a comment having to do with college-party hangovers and the fact that they still have a hard time drinking the stuff as a result. This is one of the great shames of our national drinking life, for tequila and mezcal are, when crafted with care, among the most complex, terroir-specific, evocative spirits around.
    Serious cocktail bars have done a great job of incorporating mezcal into their drinks, both classics--like a mezcal margarita--and original ones, like the fantastic Esta Tierra Es Tuya (mezcal, chamomile, and egg whites) at Hop Sing Laundromat in my native Philadelphia. But on balance, it tends to take a bit more convincing to get the uninitiated to tuck into a glass of mezcal than it does with the other major spirits. Years of misunderstanding exactly what it is have had their toll, to be sure.
    So when the opportunity arose to travel to Oaxaca, mezcal’s most famous home in southeastern Mexico, I jumped at it. There’s no better way to understand a wine or spirit than to walk the land where it’s born and to sip it alongside the local cuisine with which it ostensibly evolved, and I’d wanted to deepen my knowledge of this world-class spirit for a long time.
    I was not disappointed. The trip, sponsored by Zignum, an excellent, justifiably successful mezcal producer whose take on the traditional agave spirit is a bit different than others',  was a quick visit, but I was thoroughly charmed by the region itself and gained a delicious new appreciation for one of the great spirits on the market. 
    First, a word on classification. All spirits produced from the fermented juice of the agave plant are technically classified as mezcal. Tequila is a spirit produced from a specific type of agave (the Blue Weber) from specific demarcated zones (most famously in and around Jalisco). Mezcal is the traditional and usually, though not always, smoky spirit most famously from in and around Oaxaca, produced from a range of agave varieties, including Espadin and Mexicano.
    I say usually smoky because Zignum eschews the smoke so often found in Mezcal, focusing more on its honeyed aspects,  particularly in their reposado and añejo, accomplished by cooking their piñas (the hearts of the agave plants) with steam in autoclaves, as opposed to a more traditional smoky fire pit; the result is a spirit that has seen real success in the markets it’s been introduced to. This stylistic variation is a smart move, a way to introduce mezcal to a wider American audience both unfamiliar with it and likely to shy away from an overtly smoky tipple right off the bat. Their bottlings are models of smoothness, and, I think, a very good way for consumers to enter the world of mezcal in particular and agave spirits in general. They’re also wonderful in cocktails, informing the other components of the recipes without dominating them. One of my favorites in Oaxaca was the Pepino y Poleo, a gorgeously refreshing “mezcalini” with Zignum Silver, agave nectar, cucumber, and poleo, a local version of peppermint. ) On the other end of the spectrum are the more rustic examples that you find at various palenques dotting the roads around Oaxaca. These are typically smokier bottlings, often made in hyper-traditional ways, that provide a fascinating and often delicious look into this mysterious spirit.
    A visit to El Caballo Blanco, a family-run operation in Santiago Matatlan, was like stepping into the past, with a deep pit behind the open-sided production area for the cooking of the agave, a stone wheel for crushing the piñas, and an open fire for operating the still (right). These mezcals, with their deep smokiness and intense terroir specificity, are certainly not for everyone, though I absolutely loved them, as well as the range of expressions they embodied.  Their Perla Blanca bottling, an unaged spirit, spoke of smoke and spice, whereas the añejo reminded me of a wood fire in winter, the masculine notes of deep smoke amping up the vanilla from its stint in barrels. One of the more unusual bottlings I tasted here was the “pechuga de pollo,” a mezcal that flavored with, as the name implies, the breast of a chicken, lending the finished product here flavors and aromas of almost medicinal berries and higher toned smokiness than the others.
    Zignum, by way of comparison, produces its mezcal in a far more modern manner and from 100% Espadin agave. Its gleaming new glass-and-steel facility distills their Espadin from Yautepec, outside of Oaxaca, to make a fine, clean distillation, followed by  specifically chosen types of wood for aging--2 to 12 months in American oak for reposado, 18 months in French and American white oak for añejo, which leads to a spirit of remarkable flavor and aromatic clarity. Zignum is just now being rolled out across the broader United States, having begun in February 2011 in Miami, Chicago last September, and New York and LA this year.
    When I told my family and friends that I’d be traveling to Mexico, most of them had a similar response: Really? Are you sure it’s safe? And in all honesty, I wondered the same thing too: Problems from the ongoing drug wars have been a concern for years, and the often grisly violence that captures the attention of the news media makes the decision to visit Mexico an occasionally difficult one. This is unfortunate, because there are plenty of parts of Mexico where you can visit with impunity, where the problems that have impacted other regions of this sprawling country are really of little or no concern now. Oaxaca is one of them.
    Over the course of my stay,  it became abundantly clear that this is a part of Mexico that should be high on the list of destinations for all serious travelers,  a quick flight from Mexico City, and my connections on Interjet,  were excellent. Also, a word of advice if you have a layover in Mexico City but don’t have time to leave the airport: Make sure to stop by Tacañón, an unprepossessing eatery set back from the other more attention-grabbing spots in the food court. To get there, walk up the steps or ramp in the international terminal between Italianni’s Pasta Pizza & Vino and the 7-Eleven. It will be on your left, and it will be one of the best airport meals you’ll have all year. The huarache, anchored by a silky and earthy black bean puree, was distractingly good, a layered, balanced dish that over-performed by every metric. Tacos al pastor were tender and kissed with a hint of smoke, and among the best I’ve had recently.
    Once we arrived in Oaxaca, we checked into the sprawling, lovely Camino Real hotel, a converted convent whose public spaces and rooms are as beautiful and intimately tied to the place as any hotel I’ve stayed in. The central courtyard, with its impossibly green grass and calmly gurgling fountain, provides a lovely backdrop for breakfasts--especially if you sit at one of the tables beneath the arches--that will leave you well stuffed until lunch. Make sure to take advantage of the tamales, which, though dense and filling, demand being consumed in quantity. Also make sure to stay in one night for the guelaguetza, a performance of traditional dances (right) in which the live music, vivid costumes, and transporting choreography make for an utterly charming evening,  with a nice buffet dinner in the sprawling16th century chapel on-site.
    The city center itself is walkable and utterly charming, the colors of the buildings and the energy of the bars and restaurants beguiling, the famed Zocalo demanding you walk through it at least once a day. For an instant education in mezcal, stop by Mezcaleria Los Amantes and explore the range of remarkable bottlings on offer. The evening I visited, a guitar player held sway in the doorway and, after a few samples, I could have sworn the colored lights strung throughout began to move to the rhythm. For a late-night blowout, take the 25-minute walk from there to Café Central, a packed bar with a thumping dance floor and one of the hippest, most unselfconscious crowds around, all moving to the expertly chosen tunes of several DJs spinning everything from old-school American R & B to popular Mexican music.
    Make sure you get enough rest, however, if you’ll be heading out to Monte Alban (below), the awe-inspiring ruins of the ancient Zapotecs. The site here dates to approximately 500 BCE, and walking around the sprawling complex, centered around a football-field-looking expanse of land surrounded by ancient stone structures, should be on everyone’s bucket list. Then, of course, there’s the food of Oaxaca, some of the best and justifiably most beloved of the country. Moles here are every bit as good as you’d imagine, from Chef José Manuel Baños Rodrigues’s filigréed layering of spices at Casa Pitiona (below) to the uniquely sour-edged “mojo de chapulin,” prepared for us at Zignum by Chef Alejandro Ruiz of Casa Oaxaca. As far as those grasshoppers, or chapulines (above), get over the cultural reluctance to consume bugs and tuck in whenever you have a chance. By midway through the first full day in Oaxaca, I’d become fairly addicted to their nutty, sour crunch. With a snifter or glass of mezcal, they are compulsively poppable. And in a rare treat at Casa Pitiona, we were served a sauce of chicatanas, or flying ants that are caught after the first rains force them to leave their nests. Their flavor is somewhere between nutty and sour with a hint of earthiness, and they more than lived up to their reputation as a delicacy.

Oaxaca, then, is a destination that I cannot recommend highly enough, whether you’re visiting for touristic or gastronomic reasons. Smart travelers, of course, will focus on both. It may not boast the beaches of Cancun or the resorts of Puerta Vallarta, but it doesn’t need to. Oaxaca is a wholly unique, utterly wonderful place to visit, regardless of what you’re hoping to get out of it.


by John Mariani

25-27 Broadway
Astoria, Queens


    "So How Does This Work?"
    That's what's printed at the top of the menu at The Strand, a big, no frills smokehouse in the Strand section of Astoria,
which owner Tommy Vasilis and Chef Eric Milley opened in November. "Step 1: SEAT! Grab yourself a seat and lay claim to your spot," which means that the long wooden tables are there for the taking.  There is an affable hostess at the door to explain all this, but you choose to sit wherever you like.  "Step 2: DRINKS! Pay as you go at the bar, whatever is your pleasure," which means you go up to the long bar and order from 16 locally sourced beers, including some of Queens and the Bronx, and 40 liquors--many unique to The Strand--slap down your money, and walk back to your table.  "Step 3: FOOD! Saddle up in line and order your meat by the pound." There are no saddles here, so just get in line and order your food at the end of the bar.  "Step 4: ENJOY! Remember: Drink water. Or not. Whatever."
        These friendly exhortations are meant to convey--if you didn't figure it out upon entering--that this is not a sit-down-and-be-served restaurant, and the food is meant more to resemble that of Texas classic barbecue spots like Kreuz Market in Lockhart, where slabs of meat and sausage are slipped onto butcher paper and consumed with nothing more than a stack of white bread. The Strand is not that restrictive, offering a good deal more, but the emphasis is on the smoked meats, which range, on any given night, hot soppressata, pork salami, pork terrine, pulled pork, pork ribs, lamb leg, beef ribs, short rib, duck pastrami, rib-eye, half a chicken, wings, pork loin and pork belly.  All the meats are dry-rubbed, and while they come with bottled sauces, you could eat them without them and be happy. Meats, as noted,  are all priced by the pound.
    The premises were once a Blockbuster video store (remember them?), with outdoor dining available both in front and behind the main dining room, which is done up with slatted barn wood walls, cement floors, hanging lights, wood-slatted ceiling, and seating for 200. That's it.
    We just asked Milley to pile stuff on our trays and we'd take it from there, having ordered a variety of beers at the bar, served in Mason jars.  Milley brought over a good deal of what's listed above, and to one degree or other, it hit that 'cue spot with admirable panache.  The charcuterie was lavish and very good, with crusty bread and mustards, and the duck pastrami was a triumph, good and juicy, with a fine briny flavor.  Also very good were the beef short rib and the lamb leg. One or two of the meats, however, were less than tepid, which is odd coming out of that smokey oven.
    The Strand also has a fine selection of nightly cheeses like Hudson Valley Camembert, Cabbot Clothbound Cheddar, and Landoff Tomme that goes great with the sliced charcuterie.
    The Strand is a work in progress, and I was not thrilled about the dry cornbread or biscuits that needed to be a lot flakier and not so dense. Some of the side dishes were good but none outstanding, aside from delicious mashed potatoes.
    Brunch has been a big success on weekends, when they do have waiter service. 
    I certainly wouldn't mind having waiters every night, which at the very least adds a personal touch to the cafeteria-style atmosphere.  Their advice would prove valuable.  As it is, you have to be in the mood for following that four-step program, but at the end of the line, you're going to get some good 'cue. With a few more weeks under their belt, The Strand should have everything in synch, sides included.  Meanwhile, saddle up.

The Strand is open nightly for dinner, Sat. & Sun. for brunch. Meats are by the pound.



by John Mariani

Red Burgundies Now Ready to Be Enjoyed Sooner Rather Than Later

     Except for Beaujolais nouveau, Burgundy’s red wines have long been regarded as keepers, wines you buy in the most recent vintage then stick in your cellar until they mature, hoping you live long enough to enjoy them at their peak.
    A few years ago, when the head of the prestigious Domaine de la Romanée-Conti said of the new vintage, “These wines are ready to be drunk very soon,” I asked him how soon that might be. “Oh, in just ten to fifteen years.” Since recent vintages of Romanée-Conti have been selling for above $10,000 a bottle, that seems an awful long time to delay the pleasure of drinking one.
    Fortunately, times are changing in Burgundy, where, on a visit last November, most of the vignerons and winemakers I spoke with scoffed at the idea that their wines should be held back for years and years. While tasting the wines of Château de la Tour Clos-Vougeot, I was struck by how forward a vintage like 2007 was, confirmed by sales manager Claire Naigeon (right), who said, “It is a delicate wine and not a year for keeping.  In two more years the wine will be superb.”
    Technology and innovation does not yet trump tradition in Burgundy, but outmoded techniques have been abandoned in favor of more analysis of terroir to grow healthier vines and to produce wines with more balance fruits and acids that don’t require decades of aging.  Blair Pethel, a rare American who owns a Burgundy vineyard, Domaine Dublère, began making wines in 2004 and believes everything from using organic soil to the gravitational pull of the moon affects his wines. “Once you achieve balance in a wine, it should stay balanced for a very long time,” he told me during a tasting at his small estate in La Montagne. I found Pethel’s wines like 2011 Savigny Les Beaune bright, even sassy, indicative of a wine that will be delicious upon release next year.
    “In the 1990s the style for Burgundy was power and extraction,” said Thibaut Marion, owner of Séguin-Manuel, over dinner in Beaune. “But they did not always hold up.  Now, we are aiming at more finesse and fruit. I hardly ever chaptalize my wines,” referring to the Burgundian practice of adding sugar to grape must to increase the wine’s alcohol level. “The wines are now better, fresher, with concentration of flavors that come together much sooner than they did with the old style.”
    Laurent Drouhin (left), U.S.-based export director for Joseph Drouhin, whose business card reads “L’elegance naturelle des grands bourgognes,” explained to me that while the vinification of the Grand Cru an Premier Cru wines of Burgundy has not changed, “We have never sought to make heavily extracted wines, so ours can be enjoyed a bit younger.”
    Recently Drouhin gave a tasting for a group of bankers who asked what Burgundies would be best for their clients to buy, store, then re-sell as an investment. “I jumped up and told them that is not why we produce wine,” he said. “We want people to drink and enjoy them, not keep them to sell years from now. You can easily enjoy younger Burgundies from the village appellations (right). Even the Grand Crus from Chambolle Musigny can be enjoyed a bit younger, but you're still going to have to wait for a Chambertin to mature fully.”
    Reflecting the trend towards drinking younger red Burgundies, wine-centric restaurants carry a deep selection of recent vintages on their winelists.  At Daniel Boulud’s DB Bistro Moderne in New York, sommelier Caleb Ganzer has more than 50 dozen red Burgundies listed, overwhelmingly from the 2008, 2009, and 2010 vintages, including many Premier Cru, along with a handful of bottlings from the late 1980s and 1990s.
    “Burgundies are all very allocated when you want to grab great wines in current release and try to hold onto them to see how they develop,” says Ganzer. “And the recent vintages deliver so much pleasure now right out of the bottle. People are also looking for more fruit and less earth, and producers are delivering that now.”

John Mariani's wine columns appear bi-weekly in



 Oxford psychologist Kevin Dutton, in his book  The Wisdom of Psychopaths,
did a survey and found that chefs came in ranking ninth most psychopathic,
just after the clergy and before civil servants.


"It sounds like I'm babbling, but after you drive the long, winding lane and dine at the new Bull Valley Roadhouse in Port Costa, you too will talk like this -- in disjointed exclamations of delight. The fried green beans! Did you see the daguerreotypes by the door? There's a golden bull hanging outside! I blame the charming time-lapse feel of the place. Let's start there."--Jackie Burrell, "
Port Costa's Bull Valley Roadhouse exudes retro charm," Contra Costa Times (1/15/13).



 Any of John Mariani's books below may be ordered from

My latest book, which just won the prize for best book from International Gourmand, written with Jim Heimann and Steven Heller,  Menu Design in America,  1850-1985 (Taschen Books), has just appeared, with nearly 1,000 beautiful, historic, hilarious, sometimes shocking menus dating back to before the Civil War and going through the Gilded Age, the Jazz Age, the Depression, the nightclub era of the 1930s and 1940s, the Space Age era, and the age when menus were a form of advertising in innovative explosions of color and modern design.  The book is a chronicle of changing tastes and mores and says as much about America as about its food and drink.


“Luxuriating vicariously in the pleasures of this book. . . you can’t help but become hungry. . .for the food of course, but also for something more: the bygone days of our country’s splendidly rich and complex past.  Epicureans of both good food and artful design will do well to make it their coffee table’s main course.”—Chip Kidd, Wall Street Journal.


“[The menus] reflect the amazing craftsmanship that many restaurants applied to their bills of fare, and suggest that today’s restaurateurs could learn a lot from their predecessors.”—Rebecca Marx, The Village Voice.

My new book--Now in Paperback, too--How Italian Food Conquered the World (Palgrave Macmillan)  has just won top prize 2011 from the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.  It is a rollicking history of the food culture of Italy and its ravenous embrace in the 21st century by the entire world. From ancient Rome to la dolce vita of post-war Italy, from Italian immigrant cooks to celebrity chefs, from pizzerias to high-class ristoranti, this chronicle of a culinary diaspora is as much about the world's changing tastes, prejudices,  and dietary fads as about our obsessions with culinary fashion and style.--John Mariani

"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. 

"Italian restaurants--some good, some glitzy--far outnumber their French rivals.  Many of these establishments are zestfully described in How Italian Food Conquered the World, an entertaining and fact-filled chronicle by food-and-wine correspondent John F. Mariani."--Aram Bakshian Jr., Wall Street Journal.

"Mariani admirably dishes out the story of Italy’s remarkable global ascent to virtual culinary hegemony....Like a chef gladly divulging a cherished family recipe, Mariani’s book reveals the secret sauce about how Italy’s cuisine put gusto in gusto!"--David Lincoln Ross,

"Equal parts history, sociology, gastronomy, and just plain fun, How Italian Food Conquered the World tells the captivating and delicious story of the (let's face it) everybody's favorite cuisine with clarity, verve and more than one surprise."--Colman Andrews, editorial director of The Daily

"A fantastic and fascinating read, covering everything from the influence of Venice's spice trade to the impact of Italian immigrants in America and the evolution of alta cucina. This book will serve as a terrific resource to anyone interested in the real story of Italian food."--Mary Ann Esposito, host of PBS-TV's Ciao Italia.

"John Mariani has written the definitive history of how Italians won their way into our hearts, minds, and stomachs.  It's a story of pleasure over pomp and taste over technique."--Danny Meyer, owner of NYC restaurants Union Square Cafe, Gotham Bar & Grill, The Modern, and Maialino.



FEATURED LINKS: I am happy to  report that the Virtual Gourmet is  linked to 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."  THIS WEEK:

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).

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: Christopher Mariani, 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.

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