Virtual Gourmet

  December 3, 2023                                                                                             NEWSLETTER

Founded in 1996 


"Still Life" by Tom Wesselmann




By John Mariani

By John A. Curtas


By John Mariani

By John Mariani


By John Mariani



By John Mariani


    Peter Luger, which began as a billiards and bowling alley in 1887 in Brooklyn, after years of decline was bought by Sol Forman and his family and became the most highly touted steakhouses in America. Famous for its sliced porterhouse steaks, its refusal to take credit cards and a wait list for tables that can stretch out for months, Luger, which has long had a branch in Great Neck, Long Island, has in recent years expanded to Tokyo and Las Vegas. I spoke with Daniel Turtel, VP of Luger, about the expansion, the availability of USDA Prime meat and how to get a table.

Peter Luger has long been famous for personally choosing and aging its high quality USDA Prime steaks. But the NYC Meat Packing District has lost almost all its suppliers. How does PL source that same quality?

The Meatpacking District has lost most of its suppliers, but there are still a few holdouts, like Jobbagy and Weischel, which we still visit weekly. The other distributors haven’t moved out of NYC, just out of Meatpacking, to Hunts Point in the Bronx, which has a huge market, as do certain areas of Long Island. So it’s a farther drive, but one of the four of us (Dan, Amy, Jody, David) visit each market every week.

I read that when PL has not been able to obtain the consistent quality that you will restrict reservations. Is this still true?

It’s still true that we would, but luckily, we haven’t had to do that for many years now. The beef industry increasingly uses big data to track cattle grading, including factors that contribute to Prime grading—whether that’s genetic, feeding, climate, etc. In 2010, 3% of beef was graded prime; in 2021, it was closer to 10%. Combine this with the increased overall production, and you’ve got way more Prime beef in the market, and you know where it’s going to be coming from. For us, the net effect is more consistent beef supply, but more work, because we are looking for only the very top percentage out of USDA Prime, and we generally have more beef to sift through to find loins and ribs that meet our standard.

How can there now be so many new high-end steakhouses and chains around the U.S. that all claim to be serving USDA Prime? Has the supply increased exponentially and how have you managed to obtain your needed amounts for Brooklyn, Great Neck, Tokyo and now Las Vegas? Who oversees purchasing in those last two cities?

The numbers around Prime percentages have changed drastically in the past decade, and while Prime is up across the nation, that hides the real story, which is that certain regions and certain meatpackers are seeing virtually all the gains in Prime grading. For instance, here is a link to this week’s USDA Grading report below. While Prime nationally was 9.7%, Regions 1-5 are grading 18.26% Prime, while Region 6 is grading 3.16% Prime. What these disparities mean is that we’ve got to be more selective about whom we work with and what regions they operate out of, but once we pick our partners (and we’ve visited every ranch and packing house that we’re using at our new locations), we have a much easier time of filling our weekly quotas.

The Brooklyn location is famous for the difficulty in getting a reservation. What tips can you give to get a table? Can one eat at the bar at PL? If one just shows up at, say 9 p.m., is there a good chance of being seated?

Early weekday lunches are a great way to sneak in, and eating at the bar before 3 p.m. is a good move. Depending on the night, 9 o’clock is the right time to try to snag a last-minute seat; you’ll have to wait a bit, but your name will get in before they start closing out tables for service.

Is the Great Neck location  (below) just as difficult to get a reservation at?

Great Neck tends to be slammed on the weekends and holidays, all summer and Thanksgiving through New Year’s. But it’s also out on the Island, and so weekday lunches and evenings are much easier. The beef is exactly the same, and they’ve got a really unique lobster main course, which we don’t have in Brooklyn. If you can get to Great Neck, go.

Do you still take only cash, debit cards and Peter Luger cards?

Yes, and gift certificates. We’re up to about 100,000 PL account holders, which is pretty special, and it’s a source of pride and competition to have a lower, older number. At least a few times a year, we’ll get a request from the children of a cardholder who has passed away to reissue the card to them with a little second-generation designation, so 100 becomes 100-A, 100-B and 100-C, for instance. Seeing our family business become part of another family’s tradition is just one of the best things about being here.


What effect did the negative N.Y. Times review have on business?

The immediate aftereffect was that reservations went through the roof. It seemed that anybody who had dined with us in the prior ten years wanted to come out and show support, and anybody who hadn’t dined with us wanted to come out to weigh in on the debate. That was October, so it basically began the Thanksgiving-New Year’s rush about a month early. Things went back to normal in January, but then the pandemic hit and everything changed again.

How did PL bounce back after Covid? And what happened to all that beef PL and other steakhouses were not buying during the closures?

Covid was, of course, tough for everyone. Our customer base—both locally and nationally—was incredibly supportive during this time, and our mail-order meat business via The Butcher Shop skyrocketed. We started doing delivery and takeout, which we’d never done before, and we were able to send thank you lunches to the hospital crews who were working through an incredibly difficult time. That was one thing we were really proud of during Covid. Another was that we kept our full staff on full family health insurance the whole time, so that they wouldn’t need to be worried or changing providers in the middle of the pandemic. The result was that when finally we were legally able to open our doors, we didn’t have to scramble to rehire like a lot of other places had, and we bounced back right away.

Is there a next generation of the family to take over and continue its legacy?

Right now, generations two through four are holding down the fort and represented in management. My great-aunt, Amy Rubenstein, is Sol Forman’s daughter, my aunt Jody Storch is Sol Forman’s granddaughter, and David Berson and I are Sol’s great-grandsons. There’s no next generation yet to speak of, but we’ve got a few family weddings next year, so things are in the works!

Many N.Y. steakhouses now claim to have owners and staff who once worked at PL. Is this largely true or are they just claims?

It’s true. Quite a few waiters have gone on to start their own places, and this has definitely helped to make the menu that we pioneered the sort of standard for the Classic American Steakhouse. The service and menus at these places tend to look like ours, but the beef aging and selection—always done at Luger by family—is different. It’s neat to see the little variations here and there.

Are there any plans to open more PLs? And why are the Tokyo (left) and Las Vegas branches not mentioned on the Peter Luger website?

As of right now, we have no immediate plans for more openings. (Tokyo and Vegas branches will be up by the time this goes live!)

Prices have risen across the board for beef. Is this likely to continue and has there been price resistance?

There is definitely resistance, but so far it seems to be futile—especially for those buying Prime short loins or ribs. Even within USDA Prime-rated cattle, the prices of different primal cuts (Chuck, Rib, Loin, Round, Flank, Short Plate, Shank, Brisket) move together, but not perfectly in tandem. We use Prime chuck for our burgers, for instance, and while this is much more expensive to buy than Choice chuck, the price difference is not as great as the difference between Prime Loin and Choice Loin. Prime Loins and Ribs are going to be the most sought-after cuts, and continued demand for them will probably bulldoze over whatever price resistance comes in at other points of the market. 





By John A. Curtas



      "You're not being rude enough," was the first thing I said to our waiter as he cheerfully guided us through the menu and drink order. He just winked and shrugged, "That's not the way we do things around here," as he continued to be more solicitous than a billboard lawyer at a fender-bender.
    Which is another way of saying that when it comes to atmosphere and service, Peter Luger Las Vegas is as far from the actual Peter Luger (the one located at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge in actual New York), as Caesars Palace is from actual Rome. Except for the food—which hits most of the benchmarks established in the glory years when Luger was widely considered the best steakhouse in the country.
      Back then, Luger was famous for several things: cash only (unless you had a PL credit card), rude waiters, and having the best beef in the city. Those were the days before any purveyor of prime could access superior beef from around the globe—a time when New York City got all the best steers, and few in America even knew what dry-aging was. Back then, when it came to sourcing prime grade beef, the Forman family was known for being the toughest customers in New York. Trading on that reputation, the family (yes, it's still family-owned) has finally started to expand, opening first in Tokyo in 2021, and now in Caesars Palace.
      Before we get to the food, back to that rudeness thing. On both of my visits to Peter Luger in the ‘90s, I went early, without a reservation (the second time with three teenagers in tow), and humbly asked if they could squeeze us in. They did, remarkably quickly, in one of the stark, Teutonic rooms—more German beer hall than American steakhouse—at bleached wood tables saturated with a century of beef fat, smoke and history.
      Service was always cheerfully brusque but never unpleasant, and the porterhouse steaks were life-changing: a study in mineral-richness, shot through with tangy, gamey beefiness, singular in their haunting intensity. The only steaks I thought were in the same league at the time were a few in New York (Palm, Keen’s, Gallagher’s) and Gibson's in Chicago. But Luger was in a league of its own. Then and now, the dry-aging still permeates the beef, causing textures to tenderize, and flavors to intensify and "double-back on themselves" (Pete Wells)—the plate spitting butter and melted tallow so hot you can finish cooking your slice on the sides of the platter if you want to cook it a tad more.
      Is the beef as good today as the steaks I remember?  Tough to say, as I consider those Luger steaks in the ‘90s to be the apotheosis of the porterhouse that has rarely been equaled. Even after tasting hundreds of slabs of dry-aged steer from Soho to Tokyo, they remain my standard against which others are judged. The sheer size and volume of the new operation can never duplicate those tastes, but the buttery mouthfeel and nutty, umami undertones of my three steaks at the fourth Peter Luger puts this beef at or near the top of any in Vegas, and will no doubt send some fetishistic foodies into fits of tantric food-gasms.

      As for the rest of the menu, it remains unapologetically old school, stubbornly avoiding anything fancy. Certain items struck me as better crafted here than there: a densely crabby crab cake, a decent Caesar salad, and crispy/creamy German potatoes, which seemed straight from my grandmother’s kitchen. They, along with some non-food improvements—well-spaced tables, better stemware, large circular bar brought front and center into the restaurant (the former Rao’s)—all calculated to produce a sense of masculine comfort, while catering to the demands of a three-hundred seat Vegas steakhouse slinging 2,000 lbs. of meat a day.
      Upon taking one of those seats, they give you a fancy cocktail menu, and a wine list full of interesting bottles. The one in Brooklyn has always been infamous for being barely above the "red, white, or pink?" level of selections, unless your tastes run to overpriced California cabs. This one isn’t cheap, but still possible to mine for fairly-priced bottles, once you understand that $125 is the new $75 when it comes to Las Vegas Strip wine lists.

      You will then be handed a menu with a large letterbox in the center outlining steak for two, three or four ($148.95 to $285.95). Those steaks are all porterhouses—a thick, T-bone containing part of both the sirloin and filet—broiled and brought to the table already sliced amidst the hiss of fat coming off white-hot plates. They are what you order at Peter Luger in the same way you go to Mott 32 for the Peking duck. Everything else is window dressing.  All beef (and lamb) is cured on-premises in a 4,000-square-foot meat locker below the restaurant.
      Don’t expect any bargains, but the "steak for two" ($150) will easily feed four, unless you have an NFL tackle among you. If you insist, lamb, chicken, and Dover sole are there for the pikers, and the bar burger $25 is a study in simplicity, but also a beefy showstopper. As is the horseradish-tinged steak sandwich ($34), served on a slightly sweet, squishy onion roll.
      I happen to be a fan of the Luger steak sauce, even though Pete Wells (in a New York Times take-down in 2019) described it as ketchup and horseradish fortified with corn syrup. Another item which often comes in for criticism is the signature tomato and onion salad; it may be a bit bizarre, but it's as much a part of the Luger legacy as sizzling fat. Wells insulted the dish by stating it "tastes like 1979," but that's exactly the point: this was your grandma's idea of sweet-sour salad sixty years ago. It is about as voguish as a dickey and all the more glorious for it.
      Desserts are no-nonsense classics: hot fudge sundae, properly crusted, almost savory New York cheesecake, apple strudel, chocolate mousse pie—all of them served mit schlag (unsweetened whipped cream), reminding us of the place's Germanic roots and sending everyone home with a satisfied grin.
      The staff is an all-star lineup of local restaurant pros who have put in their time from the biggest operations to the smallest sandwich shops. Executive Chef Eric L'Huillier has gone from Pinot Brasserie (Joachim Splichal's once-underrated bistro in the Venetian) to being top toque at Wally's, to now heading a kitchen where ten flaming broilers are expected to feed hundreds of customers a day. Beverage Director Paul Argier is responsible for the much-improved, multi-national wine program.

      How the new Luger stacks up against other top-shelf purveyors of Prime probably depends on your expectations when approaching an offshoot of such a famous restaurant with such a storied history—a nondescript building in Brooklyn (formerly a billiard hall and bowling alley) that became a cathedral of beef (and one of the templates for the modern American steakhouse) in the latter half of the last century.
      You can pooh-pooh this expansion to Las Vegas as a simple cash grab that is “nothing like the original,” or appreciate it for the food being faithful to what made it famous. Let’s be honest here: in the 21st century, such top-shelf, well-marbled cuts (which used to be the exclusive province of a few select, big city steakhouses) are now sold world-wide. I used to consider it a treat to fly to Chicago or New York to dive into a Brobdingnagian, dry-aged porterhouse. Now there are a dozen steakhouses within twenty minutes of my house where I can indulge my Flinstonean fantasies.
      Thus, with the beef no longer being unique, the final question becomes: Is the meal worth the trip and the tariff? The answer is yes, if you remember you are here solely for the main event: bragging rights to having taken down one of the world’s great steaks. You don't go to Peter Luger for innovations, chef's creations, or seasonal eating. You are there to relive a vibe when prime beef and gut-busting spuds defined a certain mode of American prosperity. When you were what you ate, and what we ate was a lot of steak.
      One hundred and thirty-five years on, from the point of view of a palate who has eaten lots of them, this one remains one of the best, and more than worth boasting about. And in Las Vegas, it will be always be served with a smile.




4 West 22nd Street

By John Mariani


            By its name one might think that the menu at Sagapanock (an affluent town in the Hamptons) might be serving up swordfish, softshell crabs and shad roe from the choppy waters off Montauk. But since Kyungil Lee (below) took over premises of that name, he has focused the menu on Asian-Mediterranean cuisine via Executive Chef Phil Choy, formerly at Daniel Boulud’s Boulud Sud. The results are stunning.
            Located in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, the two-story premises don’t much look like a seafood restaurant on Long Island, aside from sea-shelled glass storefront, blue and white colors. The front room and bar are very loud, so ask for a table to the rear of the adjoining dining room.
            There’s a whole section devoted to oysters, and while I happen to be allergic to the bivalve, I must report the reactions of two oyster-lovers at my table who pronounced an array of dressed oysters—with Fresno and serrano chilies and shallots; cucumber, yuzu, trout roe and dill;  and Italian caviar, buttermilk and yogurt—very much out of the ordinary. They are also served roasted, with four varieties. (Prices vary $4-6 each.)
            All the dishes are quite beautiful and bright with color (Lee should turn up the lighting on the tables to see it), including a pristine fluke topped with coconut, Marcona almonds and tobiko, dressed with a  sauce of cucumber, cilantro oil, chili oil and lime ($22). Richly flavorful salmon crudo comes with yuzu, sesame and the tang of orange and bite of serrano chile ($
22). The ubiquitous appearance of Brussels sprouts is here, too, sweetened with maple syrup, soy, apple and sesame seeds ($14). One of my favorite items is an ample portion of gambas al ajillo of plump, garlic-drenched shrimp with pimento and preserved lemon to add some real bite ($17).
            The larger plates are just as savory, especially the ‘nduja mussels, a big bowl of them with pork sausage, guajillo and the hot, spicy Calabrian condiment ($23). Nice, fat, perfectly cooked sea scallops come with polenta, maitake mushrooms and a chicken jus ($34), while Shoyu salmon is sided with jeweled rice, rich brown butter and mushrooms ($32). Ricotta cavatelli took well to the subtlety of peekytoe crab with sunchokes and a dash of lemon to provide an acid balance ($14). A $14 supplement of caviar would compromised those flavors. I didn’t have the chance to try it, but Sagaponack serves paella with chorizo, saffron clams, mussels, shrimp and squid ($35 per person).
            There are only two desserts, and the one to order is the luscious Thai milk cake scented (left) with cinnamon, ripe mango and a pecan crumble ($17). Crème brûleé with strawberry, Earl Grey tea and mint ($15) was a bit overwrought, and its caramelized crust tasted of being scorched with butane.
            In retrospect there is a lot more Mediterranean influence on the menu than Asian, but Choy’s background serves him well in that regard and means that his creations are not quite like anyone else’s. Seasonings and spices, hot and sweet, coalesce with first-rate main ingredients to make his food very special. If you go to Sagaponack expecting chowder and baskets of fried shrimp, you’ll be surprised—delightfully so. Then again, if Choy took a crack at those items, he'd more than likely also make them with flair.


Open for lunch & dinner Mon.-Sat.


By  John Mariani

To read previous chapters of GOING AFTER HARRY LIME go to the archive


      Katie and David both thought Cambers was talking about Kim Philby, who might somehow have gotten the information about Neame to MI6. But then they both realized Philby would never have given away anything to the Brits.
         “And who exactly was that source?” asked Katie.
         Chambers wiped his lips and said, “Why, our old friend Kovalyov. When we contacted him about you going after Toth, we seemed to open a torrent of rage in him about Toth. You see, Kovalyov’s daughter died of polio when she was very little.”
         “And he thinks Neame’s illicit drugs might have killed her?”
         “No, she was born years later. But Kovalyov had long known that Neame had been rescued by the Soviets in Vienna and brought to Russia. He had made friends high up in the Politburo, apparently.”
d to become clearer to Katie and David that what they’d heard from Jonathan Pogue  and Janos Frankel about Neame-Toth being protected for all those decades by his Soviet benefactors had been a relationship of mutual benefit."
         “Then why didn’t Kovalyov move against Toth?” asked Katie.
         “Under both the Soviet system and under the new Russian regime, that was not his call to make. Apparently, Toth was far too well connected and made too much money for his Russian friends for anyone below the level of the president or prime minister to order such an arrest.”
         Katie then remembered that Frankel had said Toth had recently been struggling to hold on to his power within Hungary Pharm, and that certain Russian oligarchs were trying to topple him.
         “Have you heard anything about a connection between Toth and Vladimir Putin?” she asked Chambers.
         Chambers’s eyebrows rose. “A very good question. Putin is one of those who we believe wanted to push out Toth from his majority position at Hungary Pharm.”
         “So Putin was someone who could have ordered Toth’s arrest?” asked David.
         The MI6 man paused for a moment, clearly thinking over just how much he could tell the Americans, then said, “It’s a reasonable assumption.”
         “But not even Putin would have the authority to arrest Toth inside Hungary, correct?”
         “Correct, an international tribunal would have to bring charges against Toth, assuming they could prove their case.”
         “So, let’s say for the moment it was in Putin’s interest to get rid of Toth, the only way to do it would have been to knock him off.”
         “Or kidnap him,” said Chambers, “then bring him to trial on some trumped-up corruption charges of stealing company profits or something like that.”
         “Which would be unrelated to Toth’s—that is, Neame’s—crimes against humanity in Vienna,” said Katie.
         “I’m sure Putin could not care less. We do. We wanted Toth for such crimes, but Putin wants Toth exposed as a crook.”
         Katie and David were trying to knit all these strands of the story together and how the two of them were involved in it all.
         Katie said, “Now, what I’m finding difficult to get my head around is how did this supposed kidnapping just happen to take place at the same time David and I were about to be murdered by Toth in his country retreat. I can’t believe it was all a dumb coincidence. Two Russian agents just happening to show up as Toth is sticking needles in our arms?”
     Chambers paused again. “Katie, David, if I’m going to comment further on that, it will have to be off the record, you understand? I’m not going to give you any top secret information here, but it is, shall we say, something extremely sensitive.”
         Katie and David agreed to keep it off the record. “Just tell me when you go back on the record,” said Katie.
      “All right. No, it was not a coincidence that the Russians and the Hungarians arrived at the house when they did, although you have to believe me when I tell you they did not know Toth was planning to kill you. They did know you were going there—they had informers inside Toth’s office—so a plan to kidnap Toth was based around his being out of town on a weekend. They also knew he’d have bodyguards.  And I’m sure you’ll be interested to know that it was Kovalyov—on higher authority—who had been monitoring your activities and put the plan together to kidnap Toth and to get you out of there as quickly as possible and across the Austrian border.”
         Katie turned to David. “Well, that explains his sending our old friends on the job.”
         Chambers did not know what she meant.
         “At least one of the two Russians who took Toth prisoner was one of those who picked us up at Philby’s apartment and brought us in to Kovalyov’s headquarters.”
         “Nice touch,” said Chambers.
         “So,” said David, “the Russians stuffed Toth into their car and the Hungarians stuffed us into theirs and we went off in different directions.”
         “Yes, you were brought to Vienna—and by the way, I heard there was some trouble on the road?” 
Katie and David knew that the MI6 man was well aware of what had happened.
         “Can we go back on the record?” she asked Chambers, who replied, “for the time being, yes.”
         “So what happened to Toth?” asked David.
         “The Russians drove Toth to an old Soviet airfield not too far away from his residence and flew him out of the country, probably to Moscow.”
         “And who were those guys who tried to kill us on the road to Vienna?” asked David. “They weren’t police.”
         “No, they were Toth’s men apparently. They’ve been apprehended.”
         In many respects Chambers’s explanation sounded far too pat to the Americans. David believed the British agent was telling them only aspects of the truth and hiding a great deal.  Katie did not believe their rescuers were unaware of Toth’s intentions to kill them.
         “I’m sorry, Chambers,” she said, “but it’s difficult to believe all you people did not know Toth invited us to his retreat specifically to kill us off.  For someone so difficult to get to see, he was being way too nice about inviting us for an entire afternoon to his house in the woods.  Now that I’ve had time to think about it, we must have been out of our minds to go.”
         “You wanted the story, Katie,” said Chambers, “And, David, well, we figured an ex-cop just couldn’t resist. We knew you’d go.”
         “So you knew we might also have been murdered if the Russians and Hungarians hadn’t gotten there on time.”
         Chambers put up his hands. “Katie, it wasn’t our operation. There were no British agents in on it.”
vid glared at him. “Are you suggesting you Brits have more scruples than the Russians?”
ed his glass of Champagne and said, “Well, let’s just say, perhaps they have less than we do.”
         Katie and David felt no closer comradeship with the MI6 officer than they had before the Champagne, and they accepted much of what he said with skepticism. Still, most of the events of the day made much more sense after Chamber’s story.  Katie asked a few more questions and got a few more answers. David sat with his arms folded.
         “We must have the hotel’s famous Sacher torte,” said Chambers. “It’s as decadent a chocolate dessert as you’ll ever taste.” He ordered three portions and coffee, then asked if the Americans would like an after dinner drink. They refused.
         “We’re both pretty wrung out from the day’s events,” said Katie, “so I think we’ll just thank you for the dinner and call it a night.”
         “One last thing,” said David. “If the police didn’t get to Toth in time to save our lives, how would all this have played out? Two murdered Americans on assignment for a major magazine that already had a lot of Katie’s findings?”
         Chambers savored the last of the Sacher torte for a long pause, then said, “I suppose it would make an exciting story, if there was someone to write it. Without Katie around to do so, and with Toth in prison somewhere in Russia, I’m not sure what would have come of it.”
         “Well,” said Katie, “I’ve no intention of keeping the Foreign Office out of the story.”
         “And I’m sure the Foreign Office will have some bland response.  As I told you, this was not our operation. We didn’t kidnap Toth and we did not rescue you. We really had no skin in the game.”
         It just then occurred to David that Chambers telling them MI6’s version of the story might not have been an official directive from the Foreign Office. Perhaps Chambers had come to Vienna to put the best spin on his own involvement in the story, which, taken at his word, was not very much.
         “Tell me something,” said David. “Are you here officially or on your own to tell us all this?”
         Chambers ignored the question, getting up from his chair. “I’m sorry, you said you were wrung out. I don’t want to keep you from a well-earned rest. I’ve taken care of the bill, so I will say goodbye now.” He did not extend his hand.
         “So is this really the last time we’ll see you?” asked David.
         “The world gets smaller all the time, doesn’t it?” remarked Chambers. He then walked out of the restaurant, was helped on with his overcoat, then exited the hotel. From their table Katie and David saw him get into a waiting car and drive off.
         “What do you think?”
asked Katie.
         “He put over what he wanted us to know. The guy’s a pro, trying very carefully to protect himself  by seeming to gain our confidence while keeping that famous British reserve. He didn’t want us to like him, just to make sure we got his side of the story.”
         “Well, then, I guess I have a lot more work to do before I piece  together the whole story. I expect we’ll hear more about Toth after he fails to return to his office Monday.”
         “Yeah, and I wonder just how thorough the Hungarian police are going to be investigating his removal to Russia. Probably the government will make a lot of bullshit demands but in the end Toth will be exposed as a white collar criminal.”
         “Meaning you don’t think we’ll have a part in their story?”
         “I doubt it,” said David. “Not that that will stop you writing your version, which is going to ruffle a whole lot of feathers. Then the Russians will deny it and the Hungarians will deny it, and the British papers will probably play up the Graham Green-Harry Lime angle, don’t you think? And, of course, the Philby exposé.”
         Katie agreed, knowing she had a tightrope to walk, one that would be pulled taut by Alan Dobell when she got back to the States.
         “Alan’s going to throw a fit if he finds MI6 paid for out hotel bill. And he’s going to hate like hell that they put us up at the most expensive hotel in Vienna. If we stick around town another day or two, we’ll have to change hotel. But let me speak to him first. Our ace in the hole is that we almost got killed.”
         “Yes, again. Alan’s gonna love that part.”


John Mariani, 2016




By John Mariani



      The spirits industry goes all out during the holidays, pushing new products as well as the same old product in brand new bottles. Anyone who loves “brown goods” like Scotch, rum, Cognac and rye would love to find these under the tree this year.


MERLET XO COGNAC ($120)—Since 1850 this family-run operation in the heart of the Cognac region has produced this blend from eaux-de-vie from different “crus” at least ten years old.  The wine is partially distilled on lees, a difficult and risky process that gives more body to the Cognac and more aging. The base wine is about 10% alcohol, and the eau-de-vie is about 70%. It has a round, warm character, with a touch of woodiness and velvety texture over the palate.


CLYDE MAY 9-Year-Old Cask Strength Straight Rye Whiskey ($64)—Aged in former bourbon barrels, this Alabama spirit comes out at 57.5% alcohol, from a mash bill of 91% rye and 9% barley. Another innovation is to steep American oak, cherry wood and French oak chips into the whiskey for four more months to give even more nuance to a rich, distinctly caramel flavor with notes of toasted nuts.


ABERFELDY 15 YEARS OLD LIMITED EDITION 2023 ($70)—Part of the brand’s Red Wine Cask series, this is first matured by Malt Master Stephanie Macleod in a combination of refill casks, then finished in Cabernet Sauvignon wine casks from Napa Valley. It has a harmonized structure with honey and spice, bottled at 43% alcohol with  no harshness in the finish, only a pleasing pale woodiness in the finish.



BRUICHLADDICH ($65)—In its distinctive turquoise bottle, this single malt is unique in that it is an Islay Scotch made without peat, instead using raw barley whose slow fermentation process allows for more complexity. It is bottled unchill-filtered and coloring-free. The curious process is odd for an Islay whisky because they are beloved for their powerful peatiness and smokiness, though for those fans Bruichladdich also makes the Super-Heavily Peated Octomore series as well, distilled from 100% Scottish barley, matured for five years, bottled close to cask strength.


PENDERYN PATAGONIA ($85)—This is the eleventh of Penderyn’s “Icons of Wales Edition” series, the first of their blended whiskeys using its own single malt along with that of the  La Alazana Distillery in Patagonia, started in 2011 by the Serenelli family. (Welsh settlers came to Patagonia as early as 1865.) Bottled at 43%, it is multi-leveled with a harmony of sweetness and citrus, toastiness and muted heat.

BEVERLY HIGH RYE ($60)—The name sounds like something students at Beverly Hills High School sneak into their lockers, but there is a lot of care put into this 50-50 blend of rye and bourbon by founder Andrew Borenzweig (an L.A. native) and Master Blender Murphy Quint, made in small batches from whiskies from Iowa and Indiana. The introduction was only in 2021, but the whiskey has already won its share of awards. It’s a very smooth blend, slightly caramel and lends itself to a snifter as well as the cocktail shaker.


DOS MADEROS RUM ($45)—Paola Medina blends the best strains of fermented sugarcane from both lighter Barbados and heavier Guyana stocks, using old Coffey alambiques and discontinuous wooden stills, spending five years resting before being sent to Williams & Humbert for aging in Palo Cortado sherry barrels in Jerez, Spain. There is a true refinement throughout, revealing layers of flavors and ending with a very satisfying finish that lingers on the palate.


INDRI SINGLE MALT ($80)—It was inevitable that India, so long a colony of Great Britain, would someday produce whiskey, and this cask-strength single malt crafted by Surrinder Kumar, is bottled at a whopping 57.2%, aged in bourbon barrels.  "Dru" symbolizes the vessel used to offer the divine drink "soma" to the Gods. Aced on bourbon barrels, it won Best in Show Double Gold at the 2023 Whiskies of the World Awards.


BARCELÓ IMPERIALS RON DOMENICANO 40 ANNIVERSARIO  ($180)—Barceló has been making rum from the cane fields of San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, since 1980 and this edition is limited to 15,000 numbered bottles, so it’s the kind of spirit that may well go to auction houses for sale. It spent more than two years in French oak with varying degrees of charring, spending ten years resting in French oak coops, allowing time for nature to work its magic of marrying complementary flavors to produce a very rich, though not overpowering, rum at 40% alcohol. The bottle and gift box are impressive as well.




"No, Really, Pasteurization Can Be Sexy" by Jenny Eagleton, (9/23/23)


 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.



MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly.  Publisher: John Mariani. Editor: Walter Bagley. Contributing Writers: Christopher Mariani,  Misha Mariani, John A. Curtas, Gerry Dawes, Geoff Kalish. Contributing Photographer: Galina Dargery. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.


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© copyright John Mariani 2023