Virtual Gourmet

  January 28, 2018                                                                                            NEWSLETTER


"Still Life" (mid-17th century) by Paolo Antonio Barbieri


By John Mariani


By John Mariani



By John Mariani

Buddha Temple on Chao Phraya River


    I suspect everything most people imagine about exotic locales comes from  movies or books, which in the case of Bangkok may derive from the 1974 James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun  (left) or the mystery novels of John Burdett featuring detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep.  In the mind’s eye, then, Bangkok seems a ravishing, ancient city crisscrossed by canals that earn it the sobriquet of “Venice of Southeast Asia,” dotted with golden temples and rife with smoke-filled bars plied by the city’s B-girls.

    In his 2004 novel Bangkok 8, Burdett writes of riding the Sky Train above the city’s traffic and of seeing  the “great skeletons of unfinished high-rises that loom out of the chaos from time to time, monuments to a building frenzy that chilled with the Asian financial crisis in 1998 and never heated up again.” 

    But, in fact, over the past decade, the frenzy was redoubled, so that now Bangkok is as modern as any city in Asia, meaning it is a forest of high rises, banks, condos and hotels that have erased most of the exotic city as it was as recently as the 1990s. 

    Think of it this way: If Rome were to be razed and only Vatican City were left to remind you of the Eternal City’s glorious past, that is what has happened to Bangkok, where only the magnificent Royal Grand Palace and a number of smaller temples now give you a sense of the city’s rich history and character.  The canals have been paved over, old neighborhoods demolished and people squeezed out of ancestral properties.
The world’s largest Chinatown outside of China itself is still largely intact but it’s a pretty unattractive place to stroll.You should visit the city's open markets to see the whole panoply of foodstuffs locals have access to, though you may be surprised to find meat and seafood sitting out in the 100 degree heat without benefit of ice. 

    Many of those condos and office buildings go empty, even as more are constructed ever outward from the city’s center.  Many are just tax deductions or places Asian millionaires park their money.

    Taxes tend to be high, unemployment is low, but so are salaries, so that a university graduate makes only about $500 a month to begin. Still, everyone gets medical care and education.

    It’s a much cleaner city than it used to be, and the notorious stinking three-wheel tuk-tuk  (left) have switched from diesel oil to natural gas. Oddly enough, they seem to cost more than regular taxis, which are amazingly cheap in Bangkok.  Otherwise, the Skytrain (below) is a fast, efficient way to get around to 25 stations and connects with the even newer subway system, with 16 stations.

    Rudimentary English is taught in primary school—the locals call it “Thai-Lish”—so it is really not much of a problem to converse with anyone in the food and service industries in Bangkok. The gay population is treated well, and there is legislation to legalize gay marriage.

    All of this and a great deal more I learned over a comprehensve tour of Bangkok by a marvelous young tour guide named Pat Srithaworn (, whom I hired through my hotel for 3500 baht ($110) for a six hour tour.  Upon meeting him, I said that my first impressions of Bangkok were that its transformation into a predictably modern city seemed to have wiped out what was old and historic.  He agreed that this was largely the case but said we would hire one of the boats (2000 bahts; $63) to take us on the southern curve of the Chao Phraya River, where the culture has experienced a smidgen of gentrification.

    The river boats (left) cut quickly through the murky water, then slow down to wait for a huge set of a dike’s iron gates to part, opening onto a very different, older Bangkok along whose banks most people are living in shanties set right next to beautiful Buddhist temples.  Along the way you will see small crocodiles sunning themselves on the front lawns.

    Still, north of those old neighborhoods, the Grand Palace makes a trip to Bangkok requisite for anyone seeking true Asian splendor.  The complex, built entirely in wood, had been the home to royalty since 1782, when Thailand was called Siam. King Phutthayotta Chulalok built it and some masonry structures have been added, but overall it is a gilded Xanadu. Today the royal family lives elsewhere, and for the past year it has been a place of mourning since the death of the last king.

    One could wander the great plazas and be in wonder at the exteriors of the buildings, for not every one is open. One that is will amaze even the most jaded of travelers: the Reclining Buddha (Phra Buddhasaiyas), representing the entry of Buddha into Nirvana and the end of all reincarnations. Immense in size—50 feet high and 150 feet long—it has a core of brick covered with plaster then gilded; the statue’s feet are inlaid with mother-of-pearl (below).  Along the walls are more than a hundred bronze bowls representing Buddha’s characters, and visitors are encouraged to drop coins into them.

    Much of what remains of interest to the traveler seeking Bangkok’s cultural soul is still there because it was built—in some cases dragged in—by King Rama V, who brought the Vimanmek (“Cloud”) Mansion to the city in 1910. The mansion has eighty rooms, appended with 20 buildings arrayed over a parkland. Inside is the Royal Family Museum and the Royal Carriage Museum.  Then there is Wat Traimit, Temple of the Golden Buddha, which is in fact the world’s largest solid gold Buddha statue, once covered with plaster until it  was chipped away by workmen  to reveal the spectacular surface underneath.

    Since the 1990s, and despite booms and busts, most of the international deluxe hotel chains have come to the center of the city, straddling the Chao Phraya River, including the Mandarin Oriental, the Shangri-La, the Royal Orchid Sheraton and Lebua (below), where I stayed.  I found it to be a singularly beautiful all-suites hotel, rightly famous for its Whiskey Bar on the top floor and outdoor restaurants overlooking the cityscape.  I shall be writing about those restaurants next week, but for now let me say that Lebua is a place of what seems an unending line of staff members at every turn, closing their hands to their lips and smiling at you, greeting you at every elevator door, and answering to every request with dispatch and cordiality. The rooms, which you can find right now for about $111 per night, all have balconies, and excellent bathrooms,

    The nightlife in Bangkok lives up to much of its exotic hype, and depending on your tastes, it’s probably best to ask your concierge for guidance and to remember the song “One Night in Bangkok” from the musical Miss Saigon:


One night in Bangkok and the world's your oyster

The bars are temples but their pearls ain't free

You'll find a god in every golden cloister

And if you're lucky, then the god's a she

I can feel an angel slidin' up to me


By John Mariani

28 West 44th Street



    The obsession of some Japanese food aficionados is to find the smallest, most out of the way, most expensive sushi bar of a kind where the chef-owner holds forth behind a ten-seat counter in the bowels of an obscure subway station alcove. Then there are those people who kinda-sorta like Japanese-Chinese food but are more interested in the nightclub vibe of a vast food hall like Tao, where a liquor set-up will cost a gang of guys $500.

    The six-month old Sen Sakana, in the Theater District, does not pretend to be the former and has no desire to be like the latter.  Spacious it is—190 seats—with a bar up front, a good-sized dining room and an elevated sushi counter, but owner Allan Wartski, Executive Chef Mina Newman (right),of Peruvian descent, Taku Nagai and Sushi Chef Hyun Lee are very committed to making this an authentic Nikkei-style Japanese food destination, showcasing the culinary marriage that occurred when Japanese emigrated to Peru, blending Japanese tradition with New World products and spices, not least chile peppers. Nikkei is the name given to the  immigrants, whose people now number about one percent of Peru’s population.

    The first sighting of this kind of fusion food was at Nobu in TriBeCa, now an international chain as easy to find in Ibiza as it is in Dubai, with mixed results.  Sen Sekana is a far more approachable restaurant, whose name means “one thousand fish,” to describe the number of species that swim in the Pacific waters off Peru.

    The menu is way too long and difficult to wade through, from soups and starters to kushi yaka items on skewers to main courses, robata grilled vegetables and two pages of sushi. The captains and waiters will guide you, but perhaps it’s best to stick to either sushi or the other dishes that precede it for a first visit.

    The sushi is certainly well worth it all on its own, for here is one of those Japanese restaurants where the various species of seafood—maguro tuna, unagi eel, hotate scallop, kinmedai golden eye snapper, and many others—all have a distinct flavor. Too often elsewhere it’s difficult to distinguish among them.  Not here, and to add to the distinction you can have them as a classic maki roll ($8-$21), nigiri or sushi ($4-$18 per order), as well as with novel ingredients like scallop with Pisco ponzu jelly, lemon zest and citrusy yuzo, or hamachi yellowtail with a Peruvian green sauce ($6-$13 per piece). There are three $80 omakase dinners of twelve pieces of nigiri or sashimi.

    For the table you might want to snack on root vegetable chips (below) with charred tomato dip ($9), or shishito peppers with bonito flakes and yuzu salt ($8), or more substantial appetizers like harumaki of spicy tuna with yuzu-spiked scallop in crispy shells with guacamole ($23) and a delicious ceviche of madai tiradito with red snapper, shio kombu (dried kelp), aji Amarillo chile and mango sauce and harumaki spring rolls ($24).  Don’t miss the yucca cheese croquettes with a spicy Peruvian huancaina cheese sauce and lime daikon ($12). All these are meant to be shared. 
Main courses tend to be less interesting than the rest of the menu. Chicken namban, a deep-fried chicken breast with black vinegar sauce and aji tartare ($26),  sounds more savory than it is, and a grilled orata with grated lime, daikon, ponzu and ginger sauce ($40) was overcooked and very expensive.

    The kitchen is playful with desserts, which include a waffle made with squash batter and sweet potato and laced with molasses.

    Sen Sakana is another Asian restaurant that is bringing the Theater District a culinary reputation (see my review last week of Hakkusan) in direct contrast to the now defunct Guy Fieri restaurant and chains like Olive Garden. And with a $49 four-course pre-theater menu, Sen Sakana is ideal to make a fine, festive evening.

    By the way, Sen Sakana is a no-tipping restaurant, which should be factored into your response to the prices.





The Swiss government has decreed that lobsters
must now be “stunned” before going into boiling water, saying:  as of March 1, “the practice of plunging live lobsters into boiling water, which is common in restaurants, is no longer permitted.”




“Lamb chops traveled with a terrific rice pilaf, pink with harissa.”—Pete Wells, “From Burgers to Sundaes, the Loyal Plays to the Crowd.” NY Times (12/26/17)




 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:

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.

To un-subscribe from this newsletter,click here.

© copyright John Mariani 2017