Virtual Gourmet

  August 20, 2017                                                                                            NEWSLETTER


"The Spice Mixer" (1637) by Paolo Antonio Barbieri, known as "Guercino"


Part Two
By John A. Curtas


By John Mariani


By John Mariani


Part Two

By John A. Curtas


    Barbecue is the great equalizer. It's the only American food that inspires $70,000 cars to line up next to $700 trucks to get the good stuff. It is also the only food that can inspire yours truly to hit the road at 7 a.m. to make a one-hour drive to a speck of a town called Lexington, Texas, to have barbecue for breakfast. Even after making that bleary-eyed trek through foggy Central Texas flatlands, we were still late to the party, a party that commences but once a week at 8 a.m. at Snow’s. That party goes on until the meat runs out (pretty darn fast, usually around noon) so arriving early is a must.
    Snow's has been the place to get Central Texas 'cue ever since both Texas Monthly and Calvin Trillin proclaimed it the best Texas barbecue in the world.  Not bad for a joint that's only been in business since 2003 and is only open for four hours a week. If the holy grail of barbecue is brisket, then Snow's obviously calls on a higher power to achieve a heavenly bark and out-of-this-world succulence. The ribs were so smoky they should come with an FDA warning, and the loose-packed, wrinkled-skin, jalapeño sausages also stopped us in our tracks.
     Making the pilgrimage to Snow’s is pretty much a must for barbecue hounds these days, and if there's a first among equals among Texas barbecue hounds, it is Daniel Vaughn. As barbecue editor of Texas Monthly, he spends most of his waking hours thinking and writing about Texas ‘cue. And there he was, sitting right across from us at Snow’s.
    Forty-five minutes goes very quickly when you're chewing the fat with someone like Vaughn, and in between him stopping to do star turns with
80-something pit mistress Miss Tootise Tomanetz, we got to quiz him on all the media phenomenon that has made Franklin's in Austin so of-the-moment, where three-hour waits are common for a plate of brisket, he had a ready answer: "Aaron (Franklin) brought Central Texas barbecue to the big city, and his biggest contribution was making it consistent. When you go there you always know you're going to get an excellent brisket that's as good as the last time you were there." 
    We both agreed that the rise of social media has had a lot to do with Franklin’s popularity ("FOMO - fear of missing out," he called it), and that San Francisco (from where he had just returned) is to barbecue what Tony Bennett is to bull riding.
    We finished at Snow’s around 9:30 and needed to reboot our digestive systems for our next conquest, so the 40-minute drive over to Louie Mueller (right)—family owned and operated since 1949—was the perfect respite before our second barbecue breakfast.
    Like Smitty's the day before, Louie Mueller looks like a dump, or at the very least a set with creaky screen doors, weathered furniture, and old tractor signs on the walls from an old black-and-white movie. But inside it is quite pleasant, in a 1950s time warp sort of way. You order at a counter and can joke around with the staff and ask a lot of questions if you get there before the line forms, which begins after 11 a.m.

    LM consistently ranks in the top five joints in the state for good reason: It's historical, traditional, and fantastic, more of a polished operation than Smitty's or Snow's but every bit their equal when it comes to top quality 'cue. You know it has to be good when you find yourself salivating one hour after polishing off a plate of Snow’s best.
    Many things stood out about our second barbecue breakfast -- the sweetness of the glazed ribs, the in-your-face flavor of the house-made sausages, the amazing peach cobbler and banana pudding,  but mostly I couldn’t get over how good the brisket sandwich was. Crusty, smoky and moist, it pulled apart with barely a nudge, and needed only a smidge of stewed onions on top and a raw one with pickles on the bottom to accentuate its beefiness. If ever there was a piece of brisket that didn't need barbecue sauce, this was it. Eat your heart out, Kreuz.
    There was plenty to love about Louie Mueller. Their jalapeño barbecue sauce was the best of the trip, and, if I had to pick a single barbecue restaurant to eat in for the rest of my life, this would be it.

    The next day, we returned to Austin proper for some citified ‘cue. Micklethwait Craft Meats doesn't look like much, nothing more than a barrel smoker and a trailer in a parking lot. As with Franklin's (its competition down the street), the line forms early. Unlike Franklin's (which has gotten the whole Anthony Bourdain/Jon Favreau treatment), the line is manageable. In our case, we got there right when it opened, and as with Snow's, it took us about 40 minutes to get our plate of grub.
    And what a plate it was: wonderful poppy seed slaw, first-rate pinto beans, ribs, brisket and sausage that were all stellar. "It's more chef-y than many other barbecue joints," one of our Texas 'cue confidants had told us. And so it was. And so was everything from the peppery sauce to a pecan pie that was worth the wait all by itself. But what really stood hoof and shoulders above the other cuts was the kielbasa, a sausage of uncommonly good pork, beef, spice, and cure of moderate, peppery compaction (left). It was the sausage of the trip, and a beautiful expression of how a thoughtful chef can hew to tradition and still improve upon it. About the only disappointment at Micklethwait was the pulled pork, which was mushy, poorly-pulled and bland. Word to the wise: When you want a pulled pork sandwich in Texas, head to the Carolinas.
    There were no disappointments at our final stop, however. Everything was just about perfect at Freedmen’s. The service was fast (it's more of a sit-down restaurant, albeit one with picnic tables), the food came quick (but was obviously sliced to order), and they were playing old ‘60s rock instead of one Willie Nelson tune after another, which seems to be the mandatory soundtrack everywhere else. It describes itself as a laid-back lounge and beer garden serving barbecue and retro-inspired cocktails, and that about sums it up. We didn't partake of any libations but the bar looked serious. The meats took a backseat to none of our previous six places, and the ribs (right) might've been the best overall for pure, sweet-smoked porkiness. Freedmen's even smokes their banana pudding, which is just about the barbecue-i-est thing you can do.

      The trouble with eating great barbecue is that it spoils you for anything else.  Smoked meat is a tradition in Central Texas that has morphed into a secular religion, in part because so many people now want to worship at the altar of artisanal foods that respect the ingredient, the process and the history of what is being served. Part of the resurgent popularity also, no doubt, is due to the price: $30 gets two people a mountain of food at any of these joints.
     If three days of meat immersion taught me one thing, it's that it's impossible to make barbecue this good—whether you're in Los Angles or Long Island—unless you respect and learn from the traditions that made it great. Austin's young guns are doing this tradition proud, but the next time I get a craving for Texas ‘cue, I’m heading for the hills.



By John Mariani


38 E 19th Street (near Fifth Avenue)

         Readers of this column know that I rarely write about a restaurant I don’t like or one that is not worth the effort.  Why waste the reader’s time?
    The exception is when a restaurant opened by a celebrity chef whose prior efforts have been stellar turns out to be disappointing at best and dreary at worst.  Thus will I attempt to explain how  restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s new abcV is in every respect a second-rate effort, which is doubly surprising because it is an offshoot of his justly renowned ABC Cocina nearby.
   The “V” in the name means vegetarian/vegan, and everything is true to the cause. Now, I have no problem with vegetarians who eat as they wish for a variety or reasons, though vegans I find always to be strident, polemical and too often political in their vexations.  I have also in the past praised highly vegetarian restaurants for their creativity, the essential flavors enhanced with seasonings and spices, and the quality of the ingredients, going back to Greens, the pioneering vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco opened by Deborah Madison in 1978.  I remember how excited I was by the soups and salads, vegetable pastas and desserts.  Alas, none of that excitement is on the plate at abcV.
         The dining room itself is as white and sterile as a hospital O.R. Everything but a striped banquette is white, every surface hard, so the decibel level is as ear-rupturing as any in NYC, so, of course, the already caterwauling New Yorkers have to talk even louder to be head above the din.  Behind a glass wall cooks are furiously keeping up with yet another order of hummus.
         The menu is divided into “light and fresh,” “warm and hot,” “noodles and rice,” “legumes” and “dosa,” all small plates.  The green chickpea hummus (left) with Thai basil and oddly colored pita bread ($15) was a pleasant enough dish—most the ingredients here are first-rate, with the exception of insipid Australian truffles.  Slow roasted eight ball squash, coconut, cashews and flowers with “warming slices” ($18) had little flavor of any kind. Charred zucchini baba ghanoush with tomatoes was bland and unattractively plated, not helped by chewy, dry, gray pita bread triangles ($14). Avocado lettuce cups (below) were little more than leaves of lettuce with bites of avocado, cumin, and a little Serrano chile to spice them up ($13).
         The pasta (of three listed) we tried was disturbingly insipid: spinach spaghetti with broccoli, the omnipresent kale, preserved lemon, garlic, Parmesan cheese, and saffron crumbs ($19) was overwrought and texturally distasteful.  A small bowl of coconut sticky rice, with coconut sugar, combava (a new name for kiwi lime) and sea salt ($11) was nothing more than a lump of gummy rice you’d get at as a side dish in a take-out Chinese eatery.    
A single crisp Indian dosa crȇpe costs $8; add yogurt, avocado and sprouts and it doubles in price.
      Simply reading the dessert list descriptions, with items like vegan coconut custard ($13) and vegan matcha crème brûlée ($11) dissuaded me from ordering them.
         As laudatory as I’ve been about so many of Vongerichten’s enterprises—from his first foray in Boston to his namesake restaurant at Columbus Circle to the original ABC itself, his expansion of his empire on what seems like a weekly basis to every continent has shown him to be more an entrepreneur than a great chef.   He has become not the face but merely the name of his worldwide restaurant company, for it is obviously impossible for him to spend time in all his 39 restaurants from here to Shanghai.  He needs to roost rather than just nod at what opens in his name from now on.

abcV is open for breakfast On.-Fri., brunch on Sat., lunch Mon.-Fri., dinner nightly., lunch and dinner daily.



By John Mariani

    There are California wineries with names like Folie à Deux and Rubicon that suggest the idea of even starting one is a little crazy.  But for Rolando and Lorena Herrera, naming their Napa Valley winery Mi Sueño—Spanish for "My Dream”—was as inevitable as their faith in their own abilities to achieve success in a very tough, very expensive venture.
    Their dream is proudly an American Dream, for the Herreras certainly did not come from wealth.  Rolando grew up in a rural area of Mexico, helping his grandparents work a six-acre farm they eventually had to sell to make ends meet. In 1975 the family moved to California’s Napa Valley, but moved back to Mexico after five years. When Rolando turned 15, he returned to Napa Valley and lived in a plant nursery while he finished high school, washing dishes at Cindy Pawlcyn's Mustards Grill and graduating to line cook.

    In 1985 Rolando met Warren Winiarski, owner  of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, who hired him to break up rocks for a stone wall around his property, then later offered him an opportunity to work the grape crush and help out in the cellar. After three years, Rolando became cellar master at the winery, while taking courses on viticulture and enology at Napa Valley College.

    It was still a long road from there to his own winery, with stops along the way as assistant winemaker at Château Potelle (left), winemaker at Vine Cliff, and director of winemaking of Paul Hobbs Wines.  Then, in 1997, Rolando married Lorena—herself the daughter of migrant workers who bought land in California—and the couple launched their own winery, Mi Sueño Winery, as a side project. They also founded Herrera Vineyard Management in 2003 as a consulting firm and an ultra-premium label whose various wines were named after their six children—Perla Chardonnay ($70), Esmeralda Pinot Noir ($70), Victoria Malbec ($95), Valeria Petit Verdot ($95), Rolando Jr. Cabernet Sauvignon ($140) and Rebecca Cabernet Sauvignon ($140).

    Today the Herreras control 40 acres in Oak Knoll, Coombsville, Los Carneros, Russian River Valley, and Sonoma Mountain. Last year they purchased a property on Mt. Veeder.  Mi Sueño produces between 8,000 and 10,000 cases of wine per year, produced by 17 full-time employees. All wines are bottled unfined and unfiltered.

    Over dinner at a Mexican restaurant in New York, I asked the Herreras what the most important element of  running a premium winery is.  Speaking as a man from a long line of Mexican farmers who knew how different every parcel of land was, whether to grow corn or pumpkins, Rolando insisted that a good vintner must first work with what Mother Nature provides, in order to grow and sustain the best grapes possible, with phenolic ripeness at the lowest brix in order to achieve balance.

As the father of six children, Rolando compared viticulture to parenting, saying, “You have to be consistently present with your children to know what is going on in their lives. Even when you think you know them, they change. The same is true with growing grapes. Each growing season is different, and to be a good farmer, you must nurture and cultivate the fruit and spend as much time as possible in the vineyard. You have to be there. No growing season is the same, just like no stage in a child's life is the same."

    Mi Sueño makes wines in various price ranges, some at the high end of California bottlings.  The basic line includes Los Carneros Chardonnay ($42), Sonoma Mountain Chardonnay ($55), Los Carneros Pinot Noir ($42), Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($55), Cabernet Sauvignon ($75), Syrah ($55), Tempranillo ($55), and a red blend made of primarily Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, "El Llano" ($49).

    The Herrerras make their wines unapologetically in the big, bold California style in which alcohol can work its way up to 14.6% in the Chardonnays, while the red wines stay at the reasonable 14.5%.  The Chardonnay, particularly the 2013 Perla  ($70), is a very lush wine, but some of that comes from the caramel flavors picked up from 32 months of aging in French oak, which you will definitely taste. I prefer the more subtle 2014 Los Carneros ($42), which spends
only 10 months in barrel, so that even at 14.5% alcohol its richness is in better acidic balance and the fruit is not as pronounced.
    Of the red wines I tasted the 2013 Rebecca Cabernet Sauvignon ($138) was my favorite, and it compares well with a lot of the most prestigious California Cabs at that price.  The fruit is a boon to this wine, for after 22 months in 100% French oak the tannins began to be tamed.  Only 115 cases were made and are available through allocation only.

    So the Herrera story is inspiring, not solely because these immigrants, like so many who came to America to follow their dream, have succeeded so admirably, but also because the results are as impressive as others’ who began with much more money and much more doubt.



Xi Ping Chow (left) was arrested by the NYPD after being informed that the man was making his hot dogs with the meat of stray dogs in the area,  possibly from dead dogs in dumpsters of the Animal Care Centers all over the city. Chow’s wife, Hu-Wen Zhao, insisted a rival hot dog stand owner on the other side of the street conspired against her husband to shut down his business, saying, “He always jealous because my husband’s hot dogs taste better, people always come buy Chow Chow hot dogs.”


“If you’ve taken a peek through Instagram recently, one thing is clear: Black food is everywhere. Perhaps a goth response to the ubiquity of unicorn lattes and rainbow bagels, dyeing foods a deep, inky black has become one of the year’s biggest food trends. Activated charcoal, the ingredient that creates this ‘super-black' hue, has made its way into coconut ash ice cream, detoxifying lemonades, pizza crusts, and boozy cocktails that are as black as your cold, dark soul.”--Amy McCarthy, "Everything You Need to Know About Eating Activated Charcoal,"





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

   The Hound in Heaven (21st Century Lion Books) 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 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: QUEBEC DINING

Eating Las Vegas JOHN CURTAS has been covering the Las Vegas food and restaurant scene since 1995. He is the co-author of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants (as well as the author of the Eating Las Vegas web site: www.eatinglasvegas. He can also be seen every Friday morning as the “resident foodie” for Wake Up With the Wagners on KSNV TV (NBC) Channel 3  in Las Vegas.


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, Geoff Kalish, Mort Hochstein, and Brian Freedman. Contributing Photographer: Galina Dargery. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.

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