Virtual Gourmet

  MAY 17,  2015                                                                                             NEWSLETTER


"Tables for Ladies"  (1930) by Edward Hopper


By John Mariani


By John Mariani


                        FOOD, BEAUTIFUL FOOD! 

                                                                            By John Mariani

    Last week in New York magazine’s Grub Street food section, the editors asked more than 100 chefs to plate their most beautiful dishes, to be photographed to “look as drop-dead gorgeous as possible.”  The editors “were looking for splendor, eye-popping precision, and the kinds of dishes that remind you what happens when very smart, hyper-talented people spend every waking moment thinking about ways to push things forward.”

    The results were stunning, though many were gussied up beyond what the chefs actually create in their restaurants.  Many had edible flowers or made the food ingredients look like flowers; one looks like a bird’s nest  (Aquavit, NYC, left), made from a brownie and blueberry sorbet; some foamed and bubbled; many were overwhelmed by the plate or bowl itself; one (Elizabeth, Chicago) was presented on a found deer skull; and some looked a lot like road kill.

    There are many books and whole magazines devoted to this kind of food art--which is not the same as food as art, which I discussed in an article some weeks ago--and chefs comb them for ideas and inspiration, in the long tradition of creating extravagant dishes that goes back to the Renaissance, when four-and-twenty black birds baked in a pie really were set before the king.  In the 18th century, showpiece foods were used for one-upmanship among the aristocratic class--200 dishes spread over two days of feasting--and in the 19th, Marie-Antoine Carème established the standards for haute cuisine with his elaborate pièces montées for his benefactor Talleyrand (right).

    Extravagance never left haute cuisine, although in the latter part of the 20th century elaboration and showmanship--like flaming cherries jubilee at the table--gave way to a simpler beauty, whereby the main ingredient was the focus and the surrounding drips and drops of sauce and arrangement of baby vegetables soon became a cliché of la nouvelle cuisine. (Except for a handful of modernists, Italian chefs care little for gorgeous presentations, allowing the food itself to rouse a powerful desire to eat it with dispatch.)

    This all led me to thinking about the role of beauty in food presentations, for beauty and taste are not at all the same thing.  I’ve had hundreds of beautiful dishes that tasted dull and I’ve had very humble dishes that were dauntingly delicious. Exquisitely mounted dishes can be like exquisitely decorated Christmas presents whose recipient exclaims, “Oh, this is just too beautiful to open!” and whose contents may not be nearly as impressive as the wrapping, just as so many gorgeously dressed women might better stay that way all night.

    The whole idea of beauty in food is illusory, of course, because the most unadorned dish may be as appealing and sensual-looking as something far more extravagantly decorated.  The naked porterhouse on a thick plate, the golden Dover sole drenched in butter, the simple bowl of bucatini all' amatriciana (left), and a slice of cherry pie à la mode can send shivers down the spine and cause the mouth to water.  The photo below is of nothing more than scoops of Carvel vanilla ice cream with Eclipse coffee syrup, yet it seems at once both completely decadent and charmingly childlike.  The response of most people to the dish would probably be, "Oh, that looks so good!"

    And that’s one of the problems with artfully plated food: It looks very beautiful but does it really look delectable?  If you actually have to wonder what in God’s name the dish is, or need it explained to you in a 45-second spiel by an idolatrous waiter, has the wow factor overcome the taste factor?

    Such dishes also take an amazing amount of time to plate, usually with tweezers and espresso spoons in hand. The micro-greens are placed just so, the exact number of pin dots of sauce set at intervals on one side of the plate; a puree is smeared into a squiggle; ingredients are set on billowing dry ice; sprigs of things that are not supposed to be eaten shoot up from the plate; dustings of something or other stretch to the rim; a dozen or more items are composed on one plate—all of it taking time, while the hot food gets tepid and the cold food gets warm.

    More often than not, the tiny bits and pieces and dribbles and dots amount to nothing in terms of taste.  How, for instance, are six pin dots of a sauce supposed to influence a whole quail that has been marinated, seasoned, grilled, sided with a puree of sweet potatoes and doused with chives and nasturtiums, with a smoking pot of ash on the rim? 

    My first rule of good cooking--and plating--is that everything on the plate should be edible, and, second, that every element truly enhance the flavor of the dish instead of being merely decorative, like the silly slice of twisted orange they put next to pancakes at a hotel breakfast.  Back in the 1950s at Chicago’s Pump Room, restaurateur Ernest Lessing Byfield used to say, “We serve almost everything flambé in that room. It doesn’t hurt the food much.”  And Robert Benchley quipped of the restaurant, “Any minute now they’ll be bringing in the manager on a flaming sword.”    

         Such flourishes used to be called--or were--gimmicks: the “spinning salad bowl” at Lawry’s Prime Rib in L.A.; the Polynesian ceramic cocktail glasses with flowers  and paper parasols at Trader Vic’s in San Francisco;  the baked Alaskas with sparklers in them carried around the room at Antoine’s in New Orleans; the spider web sauces on oversized Villeroy-Boch plates at every nouvelle cuisine imitator; and, of course, the ridiculous Viennese dessert tables displayed at weddings and on cruise ships.  All for show, and if taste was there, too, all the better.   

    Recently I dined at L’Épicure, the elegant, Michelin three-star restaurant at Le Bristol in Paris, and, while every dish I had was very lovely, none of the plate decoration was merely for the sake of dazzling the guest.  Even the most extravagant dish--a poulet de Bresse steamed in a pig’s bladder--was not only based on classic tradition (en vessie) but on the idea of intensifying the flavor of the chicken.  That it came to the table looking like a balloon mounted on its own sterling silver platform was duly impressive, but when the bladder was cut open, the aroma was almost inebriating.  The tender chicken breast was then sliced and simply plated with its sauce, followed, after further cooking in the kitchen, by the dark meat.  Everything was delicious, everything on the plate was meant to be eaten, and the showiness of the presentation merely a wonderful, even amusing, backdrop to a superb dish--every morsel and soupçon meant to be enjoyed.   
     It was not, then, the presentation that made this a three-star dish, it was the quality of the ingredients themselves, cooked to perfection, served at the right temperature, with nothing on the plate to interfere with, or distract from, the essential goodness of the best chicken in France.

       Now, take a look at these two beautifully composed dishes, which were not part of Grub Street's 101 photos.  These are by a fellow who calls himself Chef Jacques Le Merde, and if you look closely, you'll find that the ingredients used are,  “Dunkin Munchkins, Birthday cake with Oreo soil, Snickers Haché, Shamrock Shake Fluid gel and Moose Tracks ice cream quenelle” (left) and “Hawaiian bagel bites, Cheetos, Baby carrot & Ranch purée, small vegetables and Chipotle Oil” (right). Of course, "Jacques Le Merde" means "Jack Shit.
    So, dear chefs, bring on your flourishes, gussy up your plates!  But please, let’s not forget the reason you became a cook in the first place--to make people happy with what they eat, not just with what they behold.


By John Mariani

21 Ninth Avenue (entrance on13th Street)

    I had my reservations about visiting Catch, the huge three-story seafood restaurant in NYC’s Meatpacking District. In fact, it was its huge-ness—275 seats, plus a new addition of 70 seats on the redesigned roof— that put me off dining there ever since it opened several years ago. I simply couldn’t believe a place of this size or capacity (800 dinners a night) could possibly obtain and carefully cook enough first-rate seafood day after day.  (The owners, the EMM Group, have just debuted a branch of Catch in Dubai.)
    After shedding my biases, however, I did go to Catch and was amazed to find that I enjoyed--from appetizers through main dishes and sides--some of the best of their kind in NYC, served with aplomb and at a pace that went against any notion I had of a mass feeding frenzy after six p.m.
    You’ll spot Catch by the whale-sized metallic bass sculpture crashing through the restaurant’s brick building.  But finding the entrance to Catch, whose address is 21 Ninth Avenue, is no easy task--it's on 13th Street--and the stance of the imposing, though cordial, doorman may suggest that you are about to enter one of those socially rabid food halls where the amount of beer and booze consumed would blunt guests’ taste buds.
        You ascend in a grim elevator and exit onto a vast but very attractive room  (above) of natural wood, exposed brick and mosaic tiles, with industrial lighting set at a level whereby you can ogle the eye candy everywhere in the room. The room is very loud.  There’s a sushi counter where a brigade of knife-wielding cooks work their craft.   
    The reception by very attractive hostesses exemplifies grace under pressure, with lots of bulky men and sassy women making their demands at a high decibel level.  Our request for a somewhat less loud section was met with a suggestion we dine on the new outdoor terrace, set beyond another room that was taken by a far more boisterous company party.  But our table outdoors (above) was a delight, overlooking the bustle of the Meatpacking District below, now home to other huge restaurants and high-style boutiques.  It was a perfect New York evening, with a pale blue sky fading to violet and orange along the Hudson River and the top of the Freedom Tower glistening in the distance.
    The waitstaff, in khaki shorts, move at a daunting pace without breaking a sweat, and they are very helpful with a long, segmented menu, plus specials.  One of those was a lustrous, subtly seasoned hamachi crudo (sashimi) as delicious as any I’ve had in NYC; six slices of yellowtail topped with pickled ginger, bell pepper, white ponzu and finished with sesame oil that warms the fish slightly.   There is a selection of oysters (market price) and a $49 sashimi plate chosen by the chef.  There are also sushi rolls and a must-try dish of crunchy rice cakes with tuna tartare, wasabi and tobiko ($16-$22).  The lobster rolls here—two of them ($20)—are of the cold meat variety, and though they weren’t really bulked up with lobster chunks, they were fine renditions of this New England classic.
  One of the most popular items on the menu, justifiably, is the generous plate of scallop gnocchi with black truffles and parmesan ($22), which belies the commandment that cheese should never touch seafood.
    Among the simpler grilled dishes, I recommend the swordfish for its perfect succulence and meatiness ($30) and a whole branzino worth every penny of its $69, for it easily serves two people.  Its skin was lightly crisp and gave way to moist, flaky flesh inside, with sautéed shiitakes, artichokes, pequillo peppers, oven-roasted tomato vinaigrette and pine nuts. All grilled items offer  a choice of sauces, from spicy tomato to mango-pineapple salsa. Good sides include cauliflower ($9) and truffle fries  ($10).
    It would seem to go against all reason to order a steak at a place like Catch, but I’d heard that I would be surprised by its comparison with the best in NYC, so we went for it--a big, impeccably cooked dry-aged, bone-in Colorado ribeye ($85) that our table of four greedily went at with enormous gusto.  It was indeed a terrific piece of well-marbled beef.   So often an afterthought in seafood restaurants, this steak proved conclusively how serious Catch and Executive Chef John Beatty are.
    Beatty has experience running operations of this size, including the frenzied Buddakan and the (now closed) Kibo Japanese Grill, so he has clout in the market to get the high quality he wants.
Pastry Chef Thiago Silva does big, gooey desserts commensurate with everything else at Catch, including a chocolate extravaganza called the Hit Me ($13).

 There is, of course, a cocktail program, and, even though Catch gets a high-octane, big spending crowd, the prices for drinks are well shy of the most expensive places in town, with most cocktails $14-$16. The wine list, with recommendations for “raw,” “cooked” and other options, is remarkable for its size and selection, with both reasonable and high mark-ups. A $20 Livio Felluga Pinot Grigio 2013 in the store shouldn’t cost $72 at Catch.  The more prestigious “Captain’s Stash” wines actually have lower mark-ups, like a $200 Peter Michael “Les Pavots” 2011 that the restaurant sells at $390.
    So, whatever kept me from going to Catch for so long was my loss. For its size and its brash ambiance, it has a good downtown vibe, but for its seafood, Catch would be a stand-out anywhere in the city.

CATCH is open daily for lunch and dinner.




Edgar Antillo, co-owner of Rubbin' Butz BBQ in Milliken, Colorado, posted a window sign that read "White Appreciation Day! June 11th. Because all Americans should be celebrated!!" when all white people would get 10 percent off their bill.  "We have a whole month for Black History Month," said Antillo, who is Mexican-American, "we have a whole month for Hispanic Heritage Month, so we figure that the least we can do is offer one day to appreciate white Americans."



"Of all the potential perils of rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon — dehydration, drowning, dramas of various kinds — I went head-to-head with the smallest: a beetle in my ear."--Daniel Asa Rose, "Beetle Juiced," American Way Magazine (April 2015).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Illustration by Yuda Onoda           


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

   I'm proud and happy to announce that my new book, The Hound in Heaven (21st Century Lion Books), has just been published through Amazon and Kindle. 
     It is a  novella, and for anyone who loves dogs, Christmas, romance, inspiration, even the supernatural, I hope you'll find this to be a treasured  favorite. The  story concerns how, after a New England teacher, his wife and their two daughters adopt a stray puppy found in their barn in northern Maine, their lives seem full of promise. But when tragedy strikes, their wonderful dog Lazarus and the spirit of Christmas are the only things that may bring back his master back from the edge of despair. 


“What a huge surprise turn this story took! I was completely stunned! I truly enjoyed this book and its message.” – Actress Ali MacGraw

“He had me at Page One. The amount of heart, human insight, soul searching, and deft literary strength that John Mariani pours into this airtight novella is vertigo-inducing. Perhaps ‘wow’ would be the best comment.” – James Dalessandro, author of Bohemian Heart and 1906.

“John Mariani’s Hound in Heaven starts with a well-painted portrayal of an American family, along with the requisite dog. A surprise event flips the action of the novel and captures us for a voyage leading to a hopeful and heart-warming message. A page turning, one sitting read, it’s the perfect antidote for the winter and promotion of holiday celebration.” – Ann Pearlman, author of The Christmas Cookie Club and A Gift for my Sister.

“John Mariani’s concise, achingly beautiful novella pulls a literary rabbit out of a hat – a mash-up of the cosmic and the intimate, the tragic and the heart-warming – a Christmas tale for all ages, and all faiths. Read it to your children, read it to yourself… but read it. Early and often. Highly recommended.” – Jay Bonansinga, New York Times bestselling author of Pinkerton’s War, The Sinking of The Eastland, and The Walking Dead: The Road To Woodbury.

“Amazing things happen when you open your heart to an animal. The Hound in Heaven delivers a powerful story of healing that is forged in the spiritual relationship between a man and his best friend. The book brings a message of hope that can enrich our images of family, love, and loss.” – Dr. Barbara Royal, author of The Royal Treatment.


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,  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. Editor: Walter Bagley. Contributing Writers: Christopher Mariani, Robert Mariani,  Misha Mariani, John A. Curtas, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Andrew Chalk,  Dotty Griffith and Brian Freedman. Contributing Photographers: Galina Dargery,  Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.

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