Virtual Gourmet

  February 17,   2013                                                                                                NEWSLETTER

HOME    |    BOOKS    |    ABOUT US    |    CONTACT

Salumeria, Turin, Italy


                                                                                    WHAT'S HOT IN HOUSTON?
                                                                                            by John Mariani

by John Mariani


            by John Mariani


       The not-always-friendly competition between Houston and Dallas of course includes bragging rights over which has the better food scene, and, despite some world-class restaurants like Stephen Pyles and Fearings, Dallas has been a slacker for a few years. But now Big D is nudging upwards with new exciting restaurants. For the moment, though, Houston can readily claim to have the broader, deeper food scene throughout the city and inside "The Loop"--Interstate 610, easily seen in the view from space above. Here are some of the places currently brightening the gastronomic skies in town.

1100 Westheimer Road

         Chef-owner Chris Shepherd (below) calls what he’s doing at Underbelly “The Story of Houston Food,” which some back east might brush off as beef barbecue and messy Tex-Mex.  Don’t even dream of getting that by Shepherd, a big, muscular guy who has his own in-house charcuterie and butcher’s shop where he breaks down carcasses from his own herds of goats, lamb and steers. He’ll talk your ear off about the contributions the Vietnamese and Koreans have added to the city’s food culture, and will remind you that Houston is the largest port city in the South, hauling in all that is good in the Gulf.
         “It’s not just about remarkable food,” says Shepherd with justified pride, “It’s a story taking shape right before us that will continue to define Underbelly and those that call Houston home. We’re serving the food of locals who live in neighborhoods most people never even see.”  To that end Shepherd is a locavorus extremis, drawing entirely from the bounty of Texas farms and Gulf Coast fisheries—“If it’s got to be shipped in, we won’t buy it”--so you won’t find Maine lobster or Chinook salmon on the menu.  What you will find are dishes--many served family style--made from the least possible number of perfect ingredients: nowhere have I had better, sweeter heirloom tomatoes, served with rich house-made ricotta and tangy slices of wild boar salami.  Moist pulled chicken comes with crunchy cabbage and a shot of pungent Vietnamese nuac mam sauce. Tender goat’s meat is braised Korean-style, served with dumplings.  Flank steak with eggplant, tomato and massaman curry is deliciously well fatted, and snapper with tomato, corn and purslane just sings. And his peaches and cream fried pie with vanilla ice cream is maybe the best American dessert I’ve ever gobbled up this year. Nothing wrong with the vinegar pie--a Midwestern vestige from a time when people lacked citrus fruits in winter--here sided with salt brittle.
    The menu says there are "No appetizers or entrees--just food," but there's clearly a difference between a dish of  market veggies and caramelized fish sauce at $14 and a flat iron steak with bimbap rice at $32. And it's a little off-putting to charge $7 for warm sourdough bread and charred green onion butter, which recalls the old "bread and butter" cover charge of 50 years ago.
For his expansive vision and a local pride that shows in every morsel of food Shepherd sends out, Underbelly is as important as it is delicious.

Open for lunch Mon.-Fri., for dinner Mon.-Sat.  Dishes run $12-$32.

2815 S. Shepherd

 Triniti is certainly one of the most handsome restaurants to open in Houston in a while, taking advantage of huge windows, cracked glass partitions and hanging chandeliers to give it a buoyancy, without any dark recesses among the 110 seats and a Chef's Table that seats 14.  It seems minimalist but in fact every square inch has been thought through for casual cool. With one exception: the booths are set with high, straight-backed wooden benches that seem straight out of one of the sterner backwoods Baptist churches. Otherwise, this is a terrific looking place, and the tables and chairs  have no such discomfort.
    Exec Chef Ryan Hildebrand and Chef de Cuisine Greg Lowry are doing what they call "Third Coast French," which is regional American food with French techniques and menu changes every week. When I was there, I was enchanted with the range of flavors and textures in every dish, from the "mosaic" of corn and shrimp with bacon powder to lobster with corn milk, mustard biscuit, strawberry and kumquats, which somehow escaped masking the delicacy of the main ingredient. The "foie gras breakfast" makes a good case for a dish I'd go for on a Saturday morning with a mimosa: it's a waffle topped with a fried egg and a generous slice of foie gras, along with bacon, pistachio granola, yogurt gel, and spiced honey--brilliant idea (below).  Fluke--an underrated fish--comes with artichokes, carrots, parsley and a rich beurre blanc, while a creamy classic blanquette of veal is served with veal tongue pastrami that adds real dimension.
    You might well consider a cheese course from local artisans, served with spiced and candied nuts, infused honey, cured fruits and housemade jams. But don't skimp on desserts like a fine Key lime pie or macadamia with Kahlúa ice cream, enjoyed perhaps with a glass of tawny Port from a first-rate winelist that goes with this kind of food, which is not easy in every case.
    What  I have here described is not likely to be ingredient-by-ingredient on tonight's Triniti menu (the foie gras breakfast is currently being done with pancakes), but everything is very much a piece of a whole concept of well-integrated global cuisine based on sometimes disparate ingredients that work beautifully together here.  You'll want to come back for the excitement of an menu ever evolving.

Open for lunch  Mon.-Fri., for dinner nightly.

1302 Nance Street

    If you are squeamish about a name that suggests that Chef Justin Yu (below) and his wife, baker Karen Man feature animal innards in profusion on his menu, be assured that Oxheart is the stylistic opposite. Indeed, while this is not a strictly vegetarian place, vegetables play the major role on every plate and when smoked tuna or tête de porc appear on the plate, they almost seem like intrusions. Still, the quality of the ingredients that Yu uses is so demonstrably of the highest grade, whether pods of okra or Texas peaches, that meat and seafood would not necessarily be missed.         Oh, by the way, the name Oxheart refers, according to the menu, to species of carrot, cabbage or tomato, as well as
"The myogenic muscular organ that pumps blood throughout circulatory system in male cattle that have been trained as a draft animal"--a happy thought as you sit down to dine.
The flavors of dishes like his roast summer squash with squash blossoms, mint, and the curry-like spice blend called vadouvan are fascinating.  Heirloom tomatoes are dusted with vegetable ash (the next big trend?), and a soffritto of chard stems (what does he does with the rest?), and slowly roasted okra with marinated seeds, peppers, corn, beans and mint.   That's a lot of fiber, and it would be nice to have a bit more fat in the food here; I can't imagine I’m the only person who has ever left here a bit hungry--I tasted 8 courses-- and certainly far from sated. Even though you may opt for a four-course or seven-course meal, portions for both are small and presentations a bit precious, with lots of tweezers at work on every dish.  There are dishes like smoked blackfin tuna with caramelized tomatoes, shrimp and squid, though I hesitate ever to use the word "twee" because the word itself seems too twee, but I think the sensibility behind Oxheart deserves it.
    Which is not what I would call the atmosphere of the small dining room, which you enter through an industrial door that gives you an idea of what lies beyond.  Oxheart is in Houston's decrepit warehouse district and, given the restaurant's name,  made me think of a location for a “Saw” movie. Once inside, you will be warmly  greeted and seated either at a U-shaped counter of butcher block wood in front of the open kitchen or at one of a few tables whose drawers store the flatware you’ll be using that evening. Beyond that there’s nothing to say about the décor because there really isn’t any. The kitchen is not a show kitchen, and I spent the entire night watching the dishwasher do her job. Above me were ducts wrapped in thick aluminum foil and to the side what looked like an electrical wiring unit. That's about it.  It ain't pretty. And the single rest room is located just a couple of yards from the kitchen. All of which is meant to convey  that "We are only about our food and every other notion of traditional dining is not of interest to us." Oh, hell, it is twee.
     Service is amiable but a bit school-marmish, with lengthy explanations of what you're eating, even though it's all listed on the menu. The wine list, overseen by Justin Vann, is fitted to the food.
    Oxheart is an interesting work in progress and a succès d'estime with the Texas media.  But it's not a restaurant for everyone, just a couple dozen people per night.

Oxheart is open Thurs.-Mon. for dinner. Menus from $49-$79.


3755 Richmond Avenue

    Five decades is an amazingly long time for any restaurant to stay in business,  and it is even rarer when that restaurant gets better and better year by year. Some places just coast on old regulars' expectations for consistency, others have owners who really don’t care to upgrade or change anything beyond the color of the walls.  But Tony’s, which began as a modest eatery in Houston back in 1972, just at a time when Houston began to allow the service of alcohol, evolved into a swanky deluxe dining room all in red and serving excellent continental cuisine; after a move five years ago, it has developed into one of the finest restaurants in America, with in increasing slant towards Italian cuisine of a world-class order, something owner Tony Vallone has proudly accomplished by regular trips to Italy and NYC to discover not just what’s new but what’s worth learning from.
    Vallone then translates that formidable  knowledge into a style of Italian cuisine whose ingredients speak for themselves and whose lightness is testament to their modernity.  No one gets better imported seafood, the best white truffles, the greatest wines from the smallest Italian estates. Few restaurants outside of Europe show the attention to service details and hospitality that makers Tony’s a classroom for anyone who wants to learn the refinements of the business, from the greeting to the service of wine and food, to the way napkins are replaced and chairs held for guests. Everything here is smooth, without pretense, warm without chumminess.  And, of course ,Tony is always there, lunch and dinner (unless he’s at his casual place Ciao) across town.
    There is no question that Tony's menu is Tony Vallone's menu, which he hands over to young chef Grant Gordon (above), now here for about three years, to interpret with extraordinary panache. This means silky foie gras torchon with a Macadamia nut crumple, Texas honey scented with black pepper, and Kaffir lime. No restaurant in America has better or more innovative pastas, yet never do they stray into gimmickry; thus, a plate of housemade orrechiette with provolone, cabbage, mortadella, quail egg and rye
(left) fits  impeccably into northern Italian traditions, while fedellini alla chitarra with bottarga, lemon, and celery hearts (below) is straight out of Sicily, and raviolini with peas, sausage and mint is as Roman as you can get. Sumptuously Ligurian  are the pansôti stuffed with charred corn and dashed with an essence of sage.
     Seafood is exceptionally good here--rarely the case in U.S. Italian restaurants--like Arctic char with black garlic, grapefruit mousseline and a little lime to brighten it all, and Tony's serves lobster with a 40-day dry-aged NY strip that is his idea of surf-and-turf.  Rabbit gets a treatment of pistachio-turnip puree with tangy pickled chanterelle mushrooms.
    On my last visit I was served a much-missed desseert classic--floating island, here with a pineapple crème anglaise and braised pineapple, and, just to remind you this is Texas, wonderfully ripe peaches from Fredericksburg with a prosecco zabaglione.
    I should also menu that Tony's has one of the finest wine cellars in the world. (He might want to delete those passé  Robert Parker number scores from his list, which is the only tacky thing about a very classy operation.)
    Tony's used to be a place with a certain exclusivity about it when it was in the Galleria area, but since moving to these newer quarters, the bonhomie of people of every age who are here to have a celebratory good time is palpable from the packed tables every lunch and dinner. Tony Vallone is a master of his craft, and at a time when so many young restaurateurs and chefs believe that fine dining is gone, Tony's is a reminder that it will be around long after those other trendy places have closed their doors.

Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri. Dinner Mon.-Sat.;  Dinner appetizers run  $12-$21, pastas $14-$16, main courses $28-$68.



240 Central Park South

    Marea, now almost five years old, continues to be an inspiration for those who wish to eat and to cook Italian seafood. The name means "tide," and Chef/entrepreneur Michael White (far left), now with several restaurants on different continents, makes sure that Marea is his enduring flagship.  And still, at lunch and dinner, night after night, Marea is packed with a sophisticated crowd that knows it will definitely get all they pay for, including many unique dishes you'll never find around town.
    It all begins, of course, with the quality of seafood that Chef de Cuisine Jared Gadbaw approves each morning.  I doubt very much there are more than a handful of restaurants around the city that gets the prime choice Gadbaw does, and it shows in its most pristine form in the crudo options, both at the bar and on the main menu, which lists at least a dozen each evening.  The best way to appreciate it all is to go with the very reasonable four-course $97 menu (you'll be getting a few surprises along the way, too), which includes a first course, a pasta, main course, and dessert.
    It's a long menu, perhaps too much so, but the kitchen seems to be able to handle it all with aplomb, from a deeply flavorful brodetto di pesce of Adriatic seafood with clams, langoustine, scallop, prawn and bass to black bass with root vegetables, chard, mushrooms, quinoa and the tantalizing scent of juniper.  If there are bay scallops on the menu, as there are for a little while longer, by all means claim a portion, here done with salsify, fennel, creamy polenta and grapefruit. 
    Pastas are all made on premises, from fabulous gnochetti with ruby red shrimp and a touch of rosemary to pansotti of ricotta graced with pesto.  Tortelli are packed with lobster meat and caramelle are shortrib ravioli in a red wine-soaked sugo and a rich foie gras emulsion--again, you don't find that all over town.
    You may have your fish--a wide variety each night--simply grilled, with olive oil, guaranteed to stir memories of your meals along the Italian Riviera or in Sicily. Few places in Italy, however, serve the beautifully crafted desserts here or the bon bons, chocolates, and coffee cake that come at meal's end, all within that $97 fixed price.  À la carte, main courses run $39-$47, with fish by the pound.
    Beverage Director Francesco Grosso matches White's food with more than 750 selections.
   The restaurant itself, overseen by manager Rocky Cirino, is one of NYC's loveliest--perfect lighting at the bar and two steps down in the dining room, with soft, watery colors, thick linens, and fine silverware and stemware (do ask for one of the wider chairs). You'll be seated cordially and service throughout the evening will be as cosmopolitan as you except from a place of this utter refinement. Yet it is very much a piece of NYC, quite probably a classic in the making, one of those restaurants that, years and years from now, you will recall as among your finest dining experiences in a city with so many impressive options.

Marea is open for lunch Mon.-Fri., for brunch Sunday, and dinner nightly. There is a limited menu at the bar.



Mattel Toy Company has officially sanctioned a Barbie Café in Taiwan,
serving crustless tea sandwiches with  pink flags sticking out of
them and waitresses wearing pink tutus.

OF 2013 (SO FAR)

"I've been in LA on an entertainment project and to see the opening of my friend and collaborator Richard LaGravenese's new movie 'Beautiful Creatures.' I'd never been to an opening before. But quiche has been on my mind, so I've been using travel time to work on some variations of this infinitely variable fat custard tart."--Michael Ruhlman (left).


 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: Miami; Quebec; Utah bobsledding.

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.

To un-subscribe from this newsletter,click here.

© copyright John Mariani 2013