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FEBRUARY 16, 2014                                                                                                                     NEWSLETTER

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Shirley Temple (1928-2014)







                     WHAT'S NEW IN AUSTIN?
                                                                              By John Mariani

    There has been more than a little media attention paid to Austin’s food scene recently, after years of neglecting this booming Texas city as a place you might drive through for a BBQ stop before heading to Houston or San Antonio.  Of course, the food scene in Austin goes hand in hand with its far more established music scene, and the downtown nightlife along Sixth Street has managed to buoy the city’s official slogan “The Live Music Capital of the World” as well as its self-absorbed mantra “Keep Austin Weird.”
         Austin’s food scene feeds mightily off this energy and, while the city can hardly claim to have any uniquely great restaurants, there is a lot to love, yes, including a few good BBQ places.  Here are some of the new spots now getting well-deserved attention.

clark's OYSTER BAR
1200 W 6th Street
Photos by Casey Dunn


        I was a big fan of Perla's, Larry McGuire's and Thomas Moorman's seafood restaurant, which hit all the right marks for freshness, simple cooking, color and casual appeal (it was one of my “Best New Restaurants of the Year” when it opened three years ago).  So I was happy when the duo debuted the smaller, even cozier, Clark’s in the fall of 2012 in West Austin.
         There is of course an oyster bar on the premises, made of marble and pecan, within a long slip of a bright white room with tree-shaded outdoor tables too.  (Reservations are taken only for six people or more.) On any given day there might be a dozen species of the bivalves, served with horseradish, cocktail sauce, mignonette, Saltines and lemon.   The cold bar also offers fresh-as-morning shrimp or crab Louie with a crisp Iceberg lettuce salad, and a big and beautiful plateau of shellfish--oysters, clams, prawns, mussels, and crab--along with a selection of overpriced domestic and European caviar.
         Even far from New England, I can never resist a lobster roll, and Clark’s is a good one, with plenty of lobster, served with cole slaw, pickles and a heap of crisp French fries.  There’s even a velvety New England clam chowder here, and San Francisco cioppino comes heaped with fish and garlic toast.  Though I wasn’t thinking of ordering a burger here, it was urged upon me by regulars, so I went for it, happily rewarded with freshly chopped beef with tangy sauce gribiche, Gruyère and more of those excellent fries.
    This is a cunning place, the staff exceptionally friendly without being palsy, so you know they’ll coax you into a little dessert. Go for the s’mores bread pudding or the maple bourbon pot de crème, better than any you had as a child.  Austin can get hot and humid in summer, but on a twilighted evening, with a cold longneck or bottle of Chablis on ice, there are few nicer places to eat in town right now.          

Clark’s is open for lunch Mon.-Fri.; dinner nightly, brunch on Sat. & Sun; Appetizers run $4-$21, main courses $21-$32.


1204 W Lynn Street

          Jeffrey's has long been one of Austin's institutions, dating back to  at least two decades.  And, like most institutions, it needed a complete facelift and a refreshed menu, which it has received from the same McGuire and Moorman who own Clark's above.
         Now the place is warmly lighted, the bar intact but swankier, the artwork a fine mix of western motifs and abstracts, and there is an impressive wine cache room where you can hold an intimate private party. The wine list itself is truly impressive, probably the best in town, along with an equally daunting spirits list.  Prices, though, are formidable by the glass: a glass of 2012 Venica & Venica Pinot Grigio costs $15 here; a whole bottle in a wine shop runs under $20.
         Indeed, Jeffrey’s prices for a lot of things are as high on the hog as you can go in Austin, with 50 grams of Israeli caviar at $240, a pan-seared veal ribeye running $56, and a 16-ounce bone-in strip $70.  (At NYC’s Palm One, the nonpareil strip costs $50, and in free-spending Las Vegas Charlie Palmer Steak charges $54 for the same cut.)  Jeffrey’s is using very good Prime beef, but the price discrepancy stands out by comparison.
         Breads are baked on the premises.  For starters there’s finely textured foie gras terrine, as well as seared fresh foie gras on French toast with roasted pineapple and a fennel salad.    Lobster on top of blini with crème fraîche gained nothing from a dab of bland caviar.  Blue crab cake was all big, sweet lump crabmeat, not too firmly packed, roasted quickly and served with corn, tomatoes, Serrano chile, wild arugula, and, gilding the whole thing, a marvelously rich Béarnaise sauce. Texas Akaushi (wagyu-style) beef was chopped into a robust tartare, with a quail egg, capers, and Parmesan chops but the addition of tasteless summer truffles was an ill-advised afterthought.
         I applauded the excellent, firm-fleshed oven-roasted halibut with oxtail ravioli, shishito yogurt, baby artichokes and a stew of summer vegetables that just skirted being too much of a good thing.  Lobster Thermidor is a dish you rarely see anymore, and Jeffrey’s version does nothing to demand its return: though piled up with spinach, Mornay sauce, breadcrumbs, lemon and Thai chili butter and sautéed escarole, the lobster hadn't the flavor to carry all that was heaped upon it.

        The selection of steaks and cuts--some with side dishes--is vast, from eight to 16 ounces of Texas Akaushi ribeye to Niman Ranch and Branch Family West Texas dry-aged beef.  Despite its price, I thoroughly enjoyed the beefy, mineral flavor and yielding texture of the strip steak, aged for 28 days, though a ribeye, also aged that long, curiously lacked fat flavor, despite its being a more marbleized cut.
         Accompaniments include nicely rendered baked orechiette pasta and melted cheese with charred scallions and breadcrumbs, and excellent wood-roasted radicchio and endive drizzled with a little caramel--a great idea.  Yukon gold pureed potatoes needed enrichment with butter.
         I’m very glad Jeffrey’s has been brought back to life.  Austin deserves a place for the big splurge, and now it looks and tastes a lot more like 2014.


Jeffrey’s is open for dinner nightly; Appetizers $6-$24, main courses $38-$75.



The Four Seasons Austin
98 San Jacinto Boulevard
512- 478-4500

     The Four Seasons Austin is one of the earliest of the hotel chain's units outside of Canada, and, after various renovations, it is still the finest in the city, from the greeting to the care taken with every request.  The rooms are large, the bathrooms too, and all the amenities in state-of-the-art order.  It hits the right balance of upscale luxury and comforting hospitality. And, like most Four Seasons hotels, they put a lot of attention into their food service, trying not so much to fill a niche as to appeal to a wider audience. 
     So, while there are several southwestern items on the menu at Trio, the hotel's highly colorful, very casual ground-floor restaurant, it also offers an array of first quality steaks and chops, as is requisite in Texas.
I only had occasion to have lunch at Trio, but I was very happy with the offerings, beginning with a lightly grilled chicken sandwich on herbed focaccia, with crisp apple, a thick slice of bacon, and Texas Gold Cheddar, dressed with a lemon-and-thyme scented aïoli, and a choice of steak fries or house salad. I also enjoyed an abundance of Gulf shrimp--jumbo, if not downright whale-like--with various mixed fresh vegetables and quinoa.
    At night the menu expands to dishes like tuna tartare with avocado and sesame dressing; homey chicken and dumplings with a chicken confit in consommé; grilled Texas quail with creamy grits, a bite of shishito peppers and a bacon emulsion. Gulf redfish comes with curried butternut squash puree, kale and chili.
         I also need to note that the wine list at the restaurant is not only very good, broad and deep, but unlike most restaurants around Austin, it has a fine selection of the better Texas labels, well worth trying, like the Duchman Family line.

Trio is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily; Dinner appetizers $11-$75, main courses $27-$52.

1600 East Sixth Street

      There's been a great deal of ballyhoo in Austin about Paul Qui (left) winning top honors in the ninth season of "Top Chef," that egregiously awful torture chamber of a TV show in which contestants are asked to perform idiotic culinary tricks that bear no resemblance whatsoever to what actually goes on in a restaurant kitchen.  Nonetheless, Qui, formerly at Austin’s finest sushi restaurant, Uchiko, was the winner, so applause is due, as well for him being honored by the James Beard Foundation as Best Chef in the Southwest in 2012.
    Such kudos do not seem to have affected Qui’s demeanor, for he seems to have weathered it all with his ego intact, and he is a genuinely affable gentleman.  But the expectations for his restaurant were such that Austinites and the media stormed the place from the day it opened and the crowds have not dissipated--which is annoying, mainly because Qui takes only “limited reservations.”
    The premises are handsome--all wood and stainless steel, so the sound of casually-but-well-dressed people screaming to be heard is hardly enhanced by the throbbing of the playlist here. Everything here is handcrafted, including the ceramics, and much has been made about all the careful stylistic touches, from serving surfaces to multi-colored knives.  And, of course, there are a lot of tattoos on the kitchen staff. 
    The website has a four-minute video (with almost no printed info of a kind a potential guest might like to have) that ends with Qui pronouncing his restaurant like “nothing else in the world.”  I was, then, prepared for some very special food, but, sadly, after seven courses, my primary reaction was that I was very hungry.  Qui’s cuisine is extremely light on fats, without compensation from other sources.  So, although much of what I tasted was enjoyable--chawanmushi ribbon fish with hash brown, ham and egg custard and chanterelle--the flavors were so subtle that they became refined to the point of blandness.  Qui seems so hesitant to add more than a tweezers-ful of an ingredient that they don’t really register in a dish like his sunomono of lemon cucumber, sea weed, dill and Parmesan water (this last a ridiculous conceit).
    He names one dish in honor of the great French chef Michel Bras, but I can't imagine why: it is simply chilled eggplant garlic dashi soup and vegetables, which I can’t imagine Bras would have any interest in serving his guests. “Rabbit 7 ways” didn't add up to much--and it was one tiny rabbit--and after six courses, my friend and I were literally discussing going to Austin’s best pizzeria, The Backspace, after dinner, when a delicious butcher’s cut of beef shank arrived and made a decent dent in our appetite.
    Assuming you can get a table, you can have a pleasant time at Qui à la carte, though it’s tough to imagine doing so to the point of satiety.  The whole enterprise is admirable, and I’m sure Qui himself believes he is providing a unique experience to Austin. I feel strongly that most people will enjoy themselves here, but in the end, the degree of satisfaction is in the eye of the diner.

Qui is open Mon.-Sat. for dinner; Small plates $8-$18, large plates $18-$46.                                                                                                                                       


By John Mariani

Fabio  cucina italiana
214 East 52nd Street (near Third Ave.)

         The question of culinary “authenticity” pits purists against progressives, with the former insisting that the food of a region--Sicily, Bavaria, Provence, Sichuan, Louisiana--should be treated with high respect and attention to hundreds of years of tradition; the latter shrug and say, “Hey, if it tastes good, who cares if it’s authentic?”   I share the progressives' acceptance of change, but I am equally adamant that the corruption of traditional foods comes at a cost to cultural identity.
        Nowhere is this truer than with Italian food, whose American interpreters seem to feel that it’s easy enough to make, so why not pile on more stuff and make it one’s own?  Largely this is a view held by those who have never set foot, or trained, in Italy, and, by and large, it shows in the cooking.
           On the other hand,
Fabio Hakall (below), whose father was Egyptian and mother Sicilian, grew up in Rome and had a thorough grounding in the cuisine of that international city, working at two of its best restaurants, Ambasciata d’Abruzzo and Matriciana. While not every dish on the menu of his new namesake restaurant in NYC is Roman, it is all based on the traditions of vera cucina italiana, which means the best ingredients in the simplest renderings.
        The restaurant, set on three levels, is very beautiful, bright with Italian primary colors--red and olive green--with good ceiling spot lighting, very comfortable modern furniture, a live tree, and a stone wall etched with culinary sayings in Italian.  Tables are well set, and Fabio is always there to tend to guests. However, the insistent, all-Andrea Bocelli-all-the-time soundtrack has to go.
         Fabio frets over his guests, offering to make them anything within reason off the menu.  No need, of course, for the menu teems with enticing dishes, beginning with unusual antipasti like hearts of carciofini (artichokes), either grilled or fried, and a wonderful tart piled with snow white, sweet crabmeat, served with pineapple-mango dressing (below). His fried calamari get an assertive dose of cherry peppers and spicy tomato sauce, and his minestrone is Genoese style, with pesto and barley.
         I sampled three pastas, and main portions are generous: fettuccine alla Fabio is made with housemade pasta with veal, porcini mushrooms--not dried shreds but good fresh slices--and black truffles. Bucatini all’amatriciana--a Roman classic--is superbly crafted here, with pecorino cheese and pancetta bacon.  And he makes a risotto with black truffles that you smell coming from the kitchen, heaped on Parmigiano--one of the best I’ve had in NYC.
         Fabio also knows precisely how to cook Mediterranean fish like spigola (sea bass) in the oven, finished with a lustrous lemon sauce.  His filet mignon in a Cognac reduction is all right, but doesn’t shine among the rest of the dishes. 
         In a city of good to excellent tiramisùs, Fabio’s is among the winners, as is his ricotta panna cotta custard with a vanilla sauce splashed with spumante wine.
         The wine list is little more than adequate, only about 40 selections, and it could use more small estate Italian bottlings. And prices are high. A 2011 Mastroberardino Greco di Tufo in the store will run you about $20; here it’s $65.
         Fabio Cucina Italiana has a casual sophistication about it, quiet enough for romance or business, and everyone looks good among this décor and lighting.  Put yourself in Fabio’s hands and he’ll create a meal for you of a kind you might well have had in the best restaurants in Rome, not on the Via Veneto, but around the Vatican or in Trastevere.  His food tastes the way it should because it’s made with a respect for tradition that will never go out of style.

Fabio Cucina Italiana is open for lunch Mon.-Fri., for dinner nightly;  Antipasti $10-$18, pastas $19-$32, main courses $26-$34.




By John Mariani

         When you grow grapes to make wine in California, the mention of  “D4” can wither you on the spot. “D4” is the classification used by the interagency U.S. Drought Monitor for dry spells so intense they occur fewer than once in 50 years. And despite last week's torrential downpour, it didn't make a dent in the problem.
      With more than 98 percent of California land now considered at least abnormally dry, such reports are terrifying to every farmer in the state, but in the wine industry, where irrigation is critical to raising healthy, bountiful grapes to be made into prestigious wines carrying $100 price tags, such a drought has no precedent.
         California’s reservoirs now contain only 39 percent of their combined capacity, which last month forced officials to cut to zero the amount of water local authorities would be allowed to draw from the series of reservoirs  that supply 750,000 acres of the state’s farmland.
         The drought has begun to cause vines to ripen early (September to October is when harvesting occurs).  Vintners are cutting back vines and planning fewer plantings, and the equation between the amount of water and the crop yield is one to one: if you have 80 percent less water, you will produce only 80 percent of the normal crop.
        In order to understand what is going on in California vineyards, I interviewed Doug McIlroy, director of wine growing at Rodney Strong Estates in Sonoma County.
         “Potentially, without rain it could be severe for those who rely on water from reservoirs that only have surface water to fill them,” he said. “If they fill their reservoirs with well water, they should be able to get along, [but] those with shallow wells potentially will be impacted as they go dry, or if their Water Rights are curtailed by the state of California. For those left without sufficient water this year yields could be significantly impacted without sufficient rain in the coming months.”

The photos at the right, from NASA, show the variance in snow and greenery in California since last year.

    Fortunately, many growers rely on wells rather than reservoirs in Sonoma, fed by the Russian River (now at 36 percent capacity) and Dry Creek (now at 65 percent). Having planned in advance for drought years, McIlroy feels Rodney Strong’s vineyards are in fair shape, but many growers who supply some of their grapes will be impacted without significant rain. “If it doesn’t rain, we certainly see some loss of production for 2014 and potentially for 2015.”
         I asked McIlroy about a proposal to truck water into the vineyards, and he replied, “It would work only for very small vineyards, and even then it will be expensive.”
    Many vintners I’ve spoken with in California, South America and Europe have serious concerns about the demonstrable effects of global warming. “It was the long-lasting heat wave of 2003 all over Europe that made us realize something was going on,” says Axel Heinz, director of production for Tenuta dell’Ornellaia winery in Tuscany. “The weather is now getting more and more extreme and unpredictable, with sudden heat spikes, long-lasting drought periods and violent and unpredictable rainfalls.”
    Such spikes make it difficult for winemakers to adapt quickly. When grapes get too much heat and not enough water, they develop off flavors and lower acid levels, higher alcohol levels at earlier stages, and become more susceptible to sunburn and disease. Wine grapes actually shut down their development when the temperature becomes intensely hot.
    Unlike so-called “broad acre” crops like soybeans and wheat, “wine grapes are really a ‘niche crop’ that can only been grown in certain areas,” says Dr. Gregory V. Jones, professor and research climatologist in the Department of Environmental Studies at Southern Oregon University. “The issue today is, when we talk of global warming, we talk about humans’ contribution, which is occurring at a much faster rate than in recorded history. What we used to consider a one-in-50-years drought is now more commonplace.  The extreme heat of 2012 in the U.S. was a one-in-1,600-years event.”
     McIlroy agrees: “Most climatologists reporting on the current drought say that it is something that historically happens in California, even though [this one] could be the worst in living memory for California.”
        Fortunately, Rodney Strong’s vineyards, whose founder, in 1959, retired from a career as a professional dancer to become a vintner, has long been committed to being certified in the California Sustainable Winegrower’s Alliance, and, through solar power (left) and other practices, has actually lowered its carbon impact to zero.
         Every sensible vintner is hurriedly devoting time, money and research into combating the climatic uncertainties of the near future. “Drought-tolerant rootstocks are already used in low-water areas,” says McIlroy, “But they only help so much. There is work at University of California Davis being done to improve the options.” Yet, even if the drought ends this year, he warns, “the state most likely won’t see much relief without an above average year next year, or a normal pattern returning for more than a year.”




The TSA's list of “notable incidents,” includes the report that at Hartford’s Bradley airport, the Advanced Imaging Technology body scan found a .38 automatic loaded with eight rounds in an ankle holster of one passenger attempting to board.  At Boston’s Logan airport, officers discovered a fully disassembled 30-30 rifle concealed within the lining and taped to the straps of a checked bag, and in Cedar Rapids, Iowa,  an automatic handgun loaded with 10 rounds was found hidden beneath the lining of a carry-on bag. In total, 1,813 guns were found in carry-on luggage at airport checkpoints last year (81% were loaded) an increase of 16%. This is a stupefying statistic, since if


"As any pseudo-intellectual can tell you, some questions are best left to the confines of the dorm room. Questions like: `What is art?' `Does art imitate life, or is it the other way around?' or `Why are these cookies my friend sent me from Denver making me appreciate Rothko more?' "--Zachary Feldman, "Saul Dazzles on Plate and Palate," The Village Voice.


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

The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink by John F. Mariani (Bloomsbury USA, $35)

Modesty forbids me to praise my own new book, but let me proudly say that it is an extensive revision of the 4th edition that appeared more than a decade ago, before locavores, molecular cuisine, modernist cuisine, the Food Network and so much more, now included. Word origins have been completely updated, as have per capita consumption and production stats. Most important, for the first time since publication in the 1980s, the book includes more than 100 biographies of Americans who have changed the way we cook, eat and drink -- from Fannie Farmer and Julia Child to Robert Mondavi and Thomas Keller.

"This book is amazing! It has entries for everything from `abalone' to `zwieback,' plus more than 500 recipes for classic American dishes and drinks."--Devra First, The Boston Globe.

"Much needed in any kitchen library."--Bon Appetit.

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: SIX THINGS TO LOVE ABOUT SYDNEY

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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