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  April 7,  2013                                                                                                NEWSLETTER

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by John Mariani

by John Mariani

Notes from the Wine Cellar 

   Washington Wines Go Big but Not Better
by John Mariani


                                      NEW ORLEANS
                                                                    Part One
                                                                                                   by John Mariani

    As much as New Orleanians try to sustain William Faulkner's remark that "The past is never dead. It's not even the past," the city has moved on from the disaster of Hurricane Katrina in every significant way, not least in a slew of new restaurants that break the Creole mold but also in older restaurants that have been refreshed and renewed, now better than ever. 
    A recent trip to the Big Easy proved this meal after meal.  Here's my two-part report on all that's going on down there.

417 Royal Street

    Having been honored to be a speaker at the annual Tennessee Williams festival for the last several years, I look forward to so many of the activities and performances at the event, not least the dinner at Brennan's for many of the speakers, actors, and directors who appear at the festival.  This year my tablemates include actors Don Murray,Brian Batt, and Judith Chapman, and playwright 
John Patrick Stanley, along with one the Festival's prime movers, TV producer and show host Peggy Scott Laborde.
    Seated in one the beautiful upstairs private dining rooms at Brennan's, which has been a premier restaurant in the French Quarter since 1946, we were served with that well-honed mix of Southern hospitality and smooth professionalism by a staff for whom no request is more than a few moments away from being granted.
    We all chose from the menu, which is large and appended with seasonal specialties, and though I know it well, I found myself biting my lip trying to decide among old favorites and dishes I'd never had before.  I began with a well-made daiquiri, followed by white and red burgundies poured with a mighty degree of what they call lagniappe. My first course was a crispy, fat-bellied softshell crabs--they call them busters here-- whose every morsel was a sweet delicate marvel, topped with lump crabmeat and crunchy pecans, accompanied by slices of garlic bread.  There was great gumbo and the justifiably famous turtle soup, and I could hardly refuse the hearts of palm salad impeccably dressed with a tangy vinaigrette. 
    I must have taken advantage of New Orleans crabmeat three times at meals before getting to Brennan's that weekend, but I cannot resist the stuff, since there is nowhere in the U.S. that you'll find it better, bigger or fresher. So redfish Perez was my entree choice, lavished with crabmeat and topped with a delectably rich Hollandaise sauce, served with string beans.
     Dessert, of course, included Brennan's signature bananas Foster, created here in the early 1950s and named after a favorite customer. It was flamed with rum and banana liqueur at the table by my favorite waiter, Ron, whose ease of preparation of the dish was a beautiful thing to watch, the flames roaring to the ceiling, the flash of light, and the simmering and aroma of the pan.
     Pay no attention to recent rumors of Brennan's demise. It's still a family business, the wine cellar is still one of the best in the South,  and Chef Lazone Randolph, who began here in 1965, is a demanding steward of Brennan's culinary traditions.

Brennan's is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. A four-course dinner is set at $48, with à la carte available.

Windsor Court
300 Gravier Street

    I've happily been  a frequent guest of the Windsor Court Hotel during the Tennessee Williams Festival, for it is easily the finest and best-run deluxe property in the city, located across Canal Street and adjacent to Harrah's Casino.  All day long you see limos, town cars, and expensive European cars pulling into the walled entrance, where a staff snaps to their duties with balletic grace. Inside the stunning lobby, which functions as a place where ladies lunch and business people take quiet meetings, you are first greeted--almost always by name--at a desk manned by at least two concierges; to the right is the check-in desk. 
    The rooms at the Windsor Court have excellent views of the city and the Mississippi, and they are sumptuous without any whiff of being overly plush.  The Club floor is where you can have a splendid breakfast, read the papers, and use the computers while everyone else is just waking up.
    On the second floor is a highly civilized, extremely comfortable bar (right) that goes late into the night, with a first-rate trio performing between the bar and the Grill Room, itself an elegantly romantic space with impeccable lighting. This year I had brunch on Sunday morning, and it was wonderful to see again beverage director Sarah Kavanaugh (below), who came aboard after Hurricane Katrina and rebuilt the wine list, which had been decimated, up to 800 labels and 4,000 bottles, one of which, a German Riesling, I enjoyed with my breakfast of fried chicken and waffles, once a Southern specialty reserved for small eateries, now becoming a breakfast fixture in fine restaurants like the Grill.
    I actually began with a plate of fresh, seared Hudson Valley foie gras with date puree, a delicious bacon beignet, and apples pickled with vanilla. There was also a shooter of white bean and kale soup that was a good pick-me-up.
    The new chef here, Kristin Butterworth, is showing how finesse can be added to downhome flavors in a dish like truffled chicken salad po'boy with romaine lettuce, pickled onions, roasted tomato, and addictive herbed French fries.
    There are a lot of ways to enjoy Butterworth's broad range: à la carte, the dinner runs $13-$18 for appetizers, $28-$47 for main courses. There's a vegetarian tasting menu at $85; an 11-course "Chef's Ultimate Tasting Menu" at $245; and Sunday brunch and Polo Club Lounge menus.

    The Grill Room has always had a surer sense of sophistication than almost any other restaurant in New Orleans, and for a romantic night out or a restorative weekend lunch or brunch, its charms are very hard to exceed.

Mr. B's Bistro
201 Royal Street

    Of all the restaurants in the French Quarter, Mr. B's has, for more than two decades, been the best example of how Creole culinary traditions and contemporary cuisine can not only co-exist but flourish within an atmosphere that is 100 percent Big Easy swing.  It is hard for me to imagine anyone not having a swell time at Mr. B's, whose managing partner, Cyndy Brennan, is from another branch of the Brennan family.  From the day it opened, there was no doubt that Mr. B's was a breath of much-needed fresh air in the Quarter, whose restaurants had grown gray, even moribund, going through the motions of making the same dishes the same way from the same ingredients, even if they were frozen.
    Mr. B's changed that in one fell swoop, gathering to its kitchen the very best that was available from the Gulf and applying cooking techniques that preserved the essential flavors. Sauces were a bit lighter but richer; gumbos were never muddy;  fish was grilled over a wood fire;  pastas were a novelty; even the bread pudding, while retaining all the decadence of others, managed to be fluffier, airy, textured.
    In all that time, nothing has changed that kind of dedication, and, under veteran Chef Michelle Rainey, here since 1992, everything is constantly being refreshed, so that Mr. B's is the one restaurant in New Orleans I can pretty much guarantee everyone, no matter what his idiosyncrasies, prejudices or expectations, will thoroughly love.
    On my last meal there I dined with the city's formidable food critic Tom Fitzmorris, whose knowledge of the culinary history of Louisiana is daunting, and if he tells you that any dish is not faithful to the flame, believe him.  That notion did not pass his lips during our long lunch, which began with gumbo ya ya--a paragon of the form, made with chunks of chicken and plenty of andouille sausage.  Mr. B's barbecued shrimp (left) is listed as a signature dish with good reason: the shrimp here are always fat and the cooking careful.  This can be a very, very heavy, easily overcooked dish, which owes its origins to Pascal's Manale restaurant in town.  It was never actually barbecued but comes swimming in a garlic-rich butter sauce.  Mr. B's makes this dish perfectly, with succulent shrimp, excellent butter, and just the right amount of pepper.  Into that wondrous sauce you dip good French bread. Bliss comes next.
    For our main course we had delicately fried soft shell crabs with more white crab meat lumped on top, served with creamy corn macque choux, peppers and milk, finished with lemon butter. If you order the "Bistro Seafood Trio," you'll get seared jumbo scallops and grilled shrimp with a stoneground grits cake topped with goat's cheese and jumbo lump crab meat finished with a smoked tomato butter sauce.  Now, tell me if you've ever heard of anything that sounds more delicious than that.
    Save a little room for that excellent bread pudding, which is gilded with an Irish whiskey sauce.
    No one leaves Mr. B's hungry and everyone leaves smiling.  

Mr. B's Bistro is open for Lunch, Mon.-Sat.; Sun. Jazz brunch; Dinner nightly. Dinner appetizers run $9-$13, main courses $24-$38.

Houmas House
40136 Highway 942
River Road
Burnside, LA

    A little over a half-hour's drive from New Orleans, along the bucolic River Road, Houmas House stands as a testament to what true passion and plenty of money can do in the South.  The 23-room mansion and gardens were bought and restored to impeccable historic conditions by Kevin Kelly, and every square inch of the interior is museum quality.  You could easily spend hours here just looking at the artwork, the wallpapers, the furniture, and the green landscape surrounded by ancient oak trees outside. You can imagine how many weddings are celebrated here.
    The restaurant on premises, called Latil's Landing and headed by Chef Jeremy Langlois, is a kind of reverie of what manse owners back in the 1820s might have feasted on, if they had access to the same high quality of ingredients Langlois has to work with. I'm sure foie gras was not on the menu back then but it is here, served with raspberry and a white balsamic vinegar glaze and white truffles in season. The regional touch is evident in a rabbit and andouille gumbo, while a rack of lamb is marinated in Community coffee and served with a potato puree spiked with assertive horseradish.
    This is a form of sumptuous dining that is rare anywhere and in the South still makes perfect sense as well as an impression that visitors express with a strong of of superlatives that begin with, "Oh, My God, this is so beautiful!" After a meal here, you might be coaxed to staying overnight in one of the gorgeously appointed rooms upstairs, wake up the next morning, and wonder if it's all been real.


Two Places to Get Nostalgic About. . . .
    One of my favorite continental-Creole restaurants, Broussards (left), opened in 1920, is closing after decades of serving as a beacon of good taste and European service, led by the Preuss family.  Its courtyard is one of the loveliest, its effusive tablesettings a signature, and the use of great ingredients nonpareil.  I will be among thousands who miss this level of civilized dining in  a city of increasing casualness.
    The city has been up in arms this past month over the sale of the building that houses Tujague's, one of the Quarter's oldest restaurants, dating to the 19th century.  Always rough around the edges and possessing a scruffy antique charm in the bar, Tujague's was beloved by many, though I never counted myself a fan of the hum-drum cooking there.  There are some stirrings that the new owner will not turn it into yet another t-shirt shop, so keep your fingers crossed.nd I'll keep you posted.

NEXT WEEK: Part Two--Mariza, Dominique's, 'Revolution, SoBou. . . and a Tribute to Galatoire's


by John Mariani

318 East Sixth Street

    When I was 18 and on a student's budget, I tasted my first Indian food, at a place on Sixth Street in East Greenwich Village, then a scruffy neighborhood with a few storefront ethnic eateries where décor came way down the list of attractions.  From the first whiff of steaming naan bread and the first sip of mulligatawny soup I was hooked, and a few months later on vacation to London, I must have eaten Indian food five out of seven days. A full meal never cost more than a pound.
    So it was with a certain nostalgia that I returned to East Sixth Street to eat at a new Indian restaurant named MalaiMarke (three doors down from that first Indian eatery)—which means “extra zing”  whose décor and service shows just how far Indian cuisine has come from the curry house era when every dish seemed made with the same three sauces.
    Calcutta-born Shiva Natarajan, who also owns Bhojan, Dhaba and Chote Nawab,  and partner Roshan Balan, owner of Chola, is setting a higher standard than most of his competitors in the Village,  here specializing in kebab cookery. Spices are moderated at Malai Marke, when tradition dictates, though you can order various dishes according to your own heat tolerance.  The name of the restaurant means “extra cream,” a dash or dollop of which is added to most dishes, enriching them while providing another level of flavor to the spices.
    It’s a nice-looking place,. quite comfortable, with a counter on one side of the restaurant, walled off from the main dining area, and a glassed-in open kitchen typical of Indian restaurants.  Bollywood music plays at a decent decibel level.  Service is courteous, but it took a good long while for dishes to come to the table on the busy night I visited.
    Begin with those kababs—chicken malai or murgh haryli with green masala marinade—juicy and fun to eat.  I found some of the small plates less savory than I’d hoped. Samosas were starchy in their filling, and ragara potato patties with chickpeas, yogurt and chutneys somewhat bland.  But the gobi karare of smoked cauliflower and onions was a winner, the texture of the vegetable perfect, the seasoning ample. Best way to test out the tandoori dishes is the fine mixed grill.
    I was impressed by most of the main courses I tried, which included luscious lamb madras with coconut, dry red chilies, and curry leaves. Mushroom mattar with green peas was very good, too, but my raves go to the saag paneer with spinach and cheese and the mattar paneer of peas  and cheese in a creamy tomato sauce—two outstanding vegetarian dishes.
    Of the meat dishes, phall was new to me—a British-style lamb curry with green chilies and a wallop of habaneros.  Subtle this was not, delicious is surely was. I also liked the chicken dhanewali biryani, though at $14 the portion was not overly generous. The wonderful Indian breads are all here. Order the garlic naan.

    The desserts at Malai Marke did not seem much different than those found around town, but neither were they too sweet and tasted fresh.

     It was fun to get back to East Sixth Street after all hose years and to see that both the neighborhood and the restaurants have graded upward.     Now those Indian restaurants have been joined by Kuboya Japanese, Minca ramen,  Buenos Aires and others.  And in the restaurant biz, competition of all sorts makes for better food.


Lunch and dinner daily.  Small plates $4-$9, main courses $1-$20.


                                     Washington Wineries--Bigger Is Not Always Better

by John Mariani

The Columbia River
photo from Washington State Wine Commission    

A recent trip to Seattle gave me an opportunity to re-assess my estimates of the wines of Washington State—second largest premium wine producer (after California) and a $3 billion industry. Having always had high regard for a few estates like the pioneering Château Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest, my experience with so many Washington wines has reminded me of Winston Churchill’s assessment of a colleague, that he was “a very modest man [with] a lot to be modest about.”
    Washington has had wine grape plantings since 1825, and today the state has 750 wineries and 13 approved appellations. But as a modern viticultural region its history only dates to the 1970s, when strides were made in producing consistently good vinifera like chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot in the Yakima and Columbia River Valleys. Since then, there has been a good deal of experimentation with other varietals like riesling, semillon and syrah, and some of the state’s very best wines are late harvest dessert wines. Rieslings in particular have compared variably with those in Alsace and New York State for their balance of fruit and acidity.
    But Washington has always prided itself on intense, highly tannic, high alcohol wines that show well in their youth but often lose brightness and complexity as they age.  This, I’m sorry to say, was even more prevalent among the wines I sampled in Seattle and upon returning home than I recall in years past.
    The most salient example was a Woodward Canyon Old Vines Dedication Series #28 Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($75) from Walla Walla. With a whopping 16.5 percent alcohol, it was all full-tilt tannin and new oak, and after just half a glass, I found nothing distinctive about it except for its one-dimensional character. After five years this monster should have loosened up but hasn’t.
    The same winery’s Artist Series #18 ($45) was only 15.8 percent alcohol but still felt like a blow to the palate rather than a pleasurable wine beverage, despite a bordeaux-like blend of cabernet franc, merlot, petit verdot, and syrah in with the cabernet sauvignon.
    Quilceda Creek Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, is a much-ballyhooed cult favorite that sells in stores for between $300 and $400. At 14.9 percent alcohol and a decade old, it was a blockbuster but wholly one-dimensional, and that dimension was one of tannin.
    I did find relief from the brash alcohol levels with a well-fruited Seven Hill Merlot 2007 ($22) whose softness was due to the varietal, while an inexpensive cabernet sauvignon from Chaz Point 2010 ($18) showed round levels of fruit and a pleasing lushness that went very well with a veal chop over dinner.
    There was also a good mix of strawberry-like fruit and cherry flavors in JM Cellars Tre Fanciulli 2007 ($35). It’s a judicious blend of 67 percent cabernet sauvignon, 19 percent merlot, and 14 percent syrah, this last boosting the elegance of the wine. At only 14.4 percent alcohol, it shows how the terroir of the Columbia Valley, whose south-facing slopes get a great deal of solar radiation, can produce power within a velvet glove.
    Among the rieslings I drank while in Seattle, I very much enjoyed a citrus-bright Efeste Evergreen Vineyard 2011 ($17) that was an ideal match with cold shellfish.
    Washington vintners have a knack for quirky names for their wines, like Boom Boom, Livewire, and Kung Fu Girl. This last, a riesling by Charles Smith, is a crowd pleaser at about $10; it makes no pretensions other than to show off good apple, melon flavors and a little sweetness that makes it a fine aperitif. Smith says that he “
focuses on the way people generally consume wine today: immediately. The intent was (and still is) to create wines to be enjoyed now, but with true typicity [sic] of both the varietal and the vineyard.” His motto is “It’s just wine, drink it.”
    Wine is a lot more than that, certainly, but many Washington vintners should step away from thinking that a bigger wine is a better wine.

This article first appeared in  Bloomberg News.


 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 won top prize  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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