Virtual Gourmet

  September 25, 2005                                                        NEWSLETTER


                          Polish youngster carrying an armload of loaves of bread made from Red Cross
                                                    flour  at an evacuation camp, Tehran, 1943            Photographer: Nick Parrino

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In This Issue


NEW YORK CORNER: Fleur de Sel by John Mariani



What Hath Ferrán Adrià Wrought?
by John Mariani

                                      wwwwNo gastronome would deny that the Spanish master Ferrán Adrià
has had enormous influence on fine dining around the world, especially with young chefs out to prove their mettle by imitating his highly experimental cuisine, forged at his restaurant El Bulli in Roses on the
Costa Brava.  Had Adrià, 43,  done nothing but introduce foamy, frothy sauces to his menus, his name would be known, so ubiquitous has that trendy technique become—one Adria himself abandoned years ago after  having marketing the process with great success.
     If nothing else, Adrià is an innovator, who has been rightly called “the Salvador Dali of the culinary world.”  He himself has said time and again that his kitchen is a laboratory, and the recipes, which he works on tirelessly, are intended both to dash outmoded traditions of classic cookery while exploring the chemical interactions of ingredients and techniques with new flavors.  His guiding principle seems to be “why not?” but is actually closer to “what are the possibilities?”
     El Bulli (right), which is only open six months of the year and which serves precisely 50ger people for 145€ ($188) each night via a staff of 60, is (do the math) obviously not a gold mine, despite its being packed months in advance for food the Michelin Guide has honored with three stars. Adrià worked for many years in obscurity before achieving his fame—or notoriety—and now he has parlayed his enormous media hype into products, books, catering, and teaching.
     Before going any further I should say I have never dined at El Bulli, so I withhold any and all judgment of its food, though I have eaten at an offshoot in Madrid, of which I shall say more later.  But in canvassing everyone I know who has been to El Bulli, the reactions have ranged from “Genius!” to “B-S artist.”  I know great chefs who have said their whole theory of food was forever changed by El Bulli, while at the same time saying they never want to sit through another six-hour meal there.  Others say that one-third of  the dishes served—which usually mounts up to 30 or more—are brilliant, one-third are silly, and one-third inedible.  Some think it is all an elaborate joke.
     Yet there are those, both in and out of Spain, who have used Adrià’s ideas to license some of the most absurd culinary eccentricities imaginable, always with a sophomoric seriousness of purpose that Adria himself finds more than a little ridiculous.  These young chefs, who are always asking things like, “Why should we always eat the same old thing?” (as if to drop everything from bouillabaisse to hot dogs in the same teeny-weeny bowl), do what young chefs often do while  maturing: they try  to outdo the master and show that by being even more iconoclastic they are thereby more brilliant. This is particularly true of a handful--and it is really only about three--of Chicago chefs determined to prove that food and cooking is only the means to a publicity-rich end: Indeed, in many of their concoctions, food ceases to be food at all, except as conceits of style, sometimes amusing, sometimes completely loopy.  Yet the food media have feverishly covered them with gushing awe, especially when they are photogenic and ripe for appearances at magazine-sponsored culinary festivals.
In an article in Food & Wine,  
Chicago chef Grant Achatz (left) of Alinea said, “Sometimes, quite honestly, we want diners to feel confronted, if that makes their heart beat faster, if that helps them take note of the moment. . . . I don’t think we want to make people. . . fearful. But there can be levels of intimidation, surprise, excitement, intrigue, mystique.”  Which has led Achatz to produce dishes such as bison with freeze-dried blueberries and caramelized fennel, which you eat while sniffing  the aroma of burning cinnamon sticks wafting from a ceramic dish.  Another Chicago chef, Homaru Cantu of Moto (who once served me smoked watermelon)  told Nation's Restaurant News, "If we can take an Explorer satellite and send it into space, why can't we make a dish levitate or glow in the dark?"  It seems never to occur to such chefs that maybe there is no good reason--let alone a gustatory one--that dishes should levitate or glow in the dark. Anyway, we've already had flaming baked Alaska and crêpes Suzette.
      Of course, one can always up the ante on such silliness. A report in the September issue of Travel Magazine notes that
"At The Lock Up restaurant, in a basement in the Shibuya district of Tokyo, eating out is weird.  Weirder than weird. Every hour, on the hour, a siren goes off, they play Abba really loudly and a bunch of waiters in Halloween costumes run around and attack you with foam hammers while hosing you with canned oxygen."  Can Chicago be far behind?

      I do not blame Adrià for my suffering through condescending, cult-like recitations by waiters on how to eat such dishes as tomato soup and liquid ham, squab with a melted Cadbury chocolate bar on top, nitro-frozen ice cream, hearts of palm stuffed with vanilla, lemon rind, bulgur wheat, and pumpernickel, and more gels than I've had since the last time I bought Chuckles candy. But that is what he has wrought, especially among his young Spanish idolaters.
      One of the worst meals of my life was at a gathering of young Basque chefs in NYC at Le Bernardin, where I was served a cocktail of Campari and vermouth with a raw clam in it, calamari carbonara with sweetbread crisps, and a completely raw breast of duck with a wheat ragoût.  When I inquired of Le Bernardin's chef-owner, Eric Ripert, what he thought of that dish, he raised his eyebrows and said, "In the kitchen I saw that they were plating the duck raw, and I asked them, aren't you going to cook that?"mmt
      New is nothing new in gastronomy, from the days of ancient Rome when larks' tongues were served with perfume to the Middle Ages when kings actually were served dainty pies baked with 20 live blackbirds in them.  In the 1930s an  Italian Futurist named Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (right, in center) insisted that his guests eat in total darkness while stroking velvet.  He also hated pasta because he said it made Italians a soft people. Strangely, none of his ideas ever caught on.
      We then went through a rough patch with the extremists in France's nouvelle cuisine movement of the 1970s, not because the original concepts of nouvelle cuisine were wrongheaded--use great ingredients, shop the markets, consider diet, be creative--but because stupid young renegades felt they could make their mark by using the oddest combination of ingredients to dazzle people, putting kiwi, raspberries and sherry vinegar on every dish.  Then there was "fusion cuisine," which combined disparate elements of  Eastern and Western foods that usually clashed and rarely meshed on the plate.
      As Lord Byron noted, "Novelties please less than they impress."  It is hard to imagine that any but a few innovative techniques spawned by Adrià and his zealots will ever become part of the culinary repertoire, fading instead into the obscurity they deserve, along with those food critics who think that enduring 25-35 courses with as many glasses of wine over five or six hours is a form of gastronomic ecstasy.

      wwwwwwwwwwwwWhich brings me to La Terraza del Casino (Casino de Madrid, 15 Alcala 15;  915-218-700; click ), Adrià's posh restaurant in a magnificent restored  Beaux Arts building in Madrid. Nothing about such elegant decor (left), which indeed includes a gorgeous terrace overlooking the city, gives you any indication you are in for an evening of highly experimental cuisine.
      Adrià has benighted his disciple, Paco Roncero, to cook his food with the same enthusiasm as in Roses. I had the pleasure of sitting next to El Bulli's sommelier, Lucas Payà, whose understanding of his employer's methodology became apparent in conversation as we began the meal with  little sesame puffs and a parmesan-flavored lollipop, followed by  a bonbon of hazelnut ice cream.e44
      "People don't understand that Chef Adrià wants this to be fun, not to be taken so seriously. He is of course very serious about what he does, but he fully expects people to be amused, and he would be the first to admit that many of his dishes are just there to amaze you or make you laugh.  When he sprays the essence of a flavor into an empty bowl, he's just trying to make you think a little about it. Chef Adria knows that many chefs who follow him go to extremes without understanding why."
       With that amiable philosophy of having fun in mind, it became clear that I would be foolish to exact upon the food in front of me the same critical standards I would for, say, an impeccably made consommé, an exquisite refinement on spaghetti alla carbonara or an overbaked devil's food cake.  Once I threw up my hands and accepted the game as a game, I started to have fun.  This did, not, however endear me to many of the silly things I was to eat over the next three hours (it was a quickie meal--only 24 courses--compared to what is served in Roses).
       I haven't the space even to list everything we ate, but some of the highlights included a Fig Newton-like spiced bread containing foie gras, drizzled with Port wine. There was a delightful crispy little ham sandwich--with Iberian ham, of course. Teeny mint-scented melon balls the size of beluga roe come in a caviar tin, and his “paella de Kellogg’s” in an espresso cup full of a delicate seafood soup with Rice Krispies flavored with shrimp and saffron was great fun and delicious.   A rather simple tart of cèpes with onions and bacon with syrupy Port made perfect sense..  Shoulder of lamb with a mango purée and mascarpone cheese was lovely, and a dessert of whipped pineapple ice cream with yogurt tinged with curry would have made a light, refreshing ending, had it not been for five more desserts to follow.
       8888This was still food, conceptualized and amusing, not bizarre.  I cannot say the same for a dish of lobster with olive oil soup and grapefruit dotted--from an eyedropper--with an olive oil reduction (left).  I couldn't get too excited either about a "chop suey" of raw clams in a buttercream of tomillo and lemon (ugh!).
       By and large, however, the food was a far cry from the excresences of what I've eaten elsewhere at the hands of chefs who want to take such ideas farther than they ever should go.  Professional curmudgeon Fran Lebowitz once observed,  "People have been cooking and eating for thousands of years, so if you are the very first to have thought of adding fresh lime juice to scalloped potatoes, try to understand that there must be a reason for this."
       She wrote that back in 1978, and since then cooks have gone so far beyond citric potato recipes that the idea seems almost quaint.  These days at least one Chicago chef has been photocopying images onto his food.  I don't know if Ferrán Adrià will someday get to the point when, like an aging rock star who once sang the praises of LSD, he begins to seek repentance for unleashing such idiocies. I, meanwhile, shall just wait for it to fade away, as bizarre fashions always do.

by John Mariani

5 East 20th Street

    Five years in the rough-and-tumble world of NYC restaurants is the welcome watermark at which a restaurateur can breathe a little easier, feeling that he has built something that will last.2e
    Buoyed by a regular clientele that applauds the consistency of style in such a restaurant, the chef is gratified that he is being true to himself and pleasing his clientele.  And five years in business can encourage him to do a little more, build up the wine list, refresh the place without ruining what makes it lovable.  Such is clearly the case at Fleur de Sel, which marks Chef-propriétaire Cyril Renaud's (right) half-decade in business with a beautiful make-over that makes it look more commodious but still retains the intimacy this small, 48-seat restaurant has always had.  It is a handsome room, sophisticated and beautifully lighted for buoyancy, one of those rare places where you feel you will dine well without spending a fortune.  Not that Fleur de Sel is cheap: The 3-course dinner menu is $67, but the 6-course tasting menu, at $82, is a bargain, seeing as how that's what three courses will cost at other French restaurants around town.  The 3-course lunch at $25 is an outright steal.
       76One of the benefits of a restaurant's success--as well as its great temptation--is the urge to build a better wine list, and Renaud has turned what used to be a one-page, 50-label wine card into a 1,000-selection screed, overseen by sommelier Janine Lettieri, lately of Gotham Bar & Grill.
      Renaud, a Breton by birth, has an impressive résumé, with stints at Le Villard in Paris, Villa Lorraine in Brussels, the London Hilton, and La Caravelle in NYC. When he opened Fleur de Sel, he used all his family's talents and his wife Brigitte's support to make it into a little charmer, including hanging his own paintings, which are homages to the French Impressionists.
      Reynaud's food shows, in every spoonful, that he has achieved what he set out to do: "I love the energy, the creativity, and the hard work," he says. "To me, this is the best life has to offer."  He works seasonally with his menus, culling the best of the market for dishes likes his lustrous parsnip soup with truffled-parslied ravioli and roasted parsnips. His roast scallops couldn't be sweeter, assisted by cherry tomatoes and a verbena reduction, and if there's a better early autumn dish than his braised sweetbreads ravioli with smoked morels, scallions, and Madeira sauce, I can't think of one.  Also delicious was a Maine lobster salad with Asian pear and celery and a black truffle mayonnaise, a dish of simple luxury and pink-and-white beauty.
rtj5          Wild striped bass could  not have been juicier, sweetened with roasted corn and chanterelles, with a red wine sauce enhanced with maple sugar.  Roasted sea scallops were lustrous and silky, set with cherry and heirloom tomatoes and drizzled with a reduction of verbena. An unusual marinade of sugar cane and coffee gave marvelous flavor to a superb, well-fatted pork chop, served with white sweet potato puree and caramelized cepes.
   You may then opt for a generous plating of cheeses in perfectly ripe condition or go for the enchanting raspberry feuilleté with white chocolate and caramel ganache (right), sprinkled with a few grains of--what else?--fleur de sel. Also highly recommended is the gaufrette of chocolate, black mint powder, and chocolate ice cream, and a banana mousse with crème de cafe and chocolate dentille.
Everyone loves to dream about small, intimate restaurants that are as highly personalized as they are personable, and Fleur de Sel is a model of the form.   If you are looking for food that levitates above the plate or photo images of your cat on a Eucharest wafer, go elsewhere.  But if you seek exquisite, highly creative, but never eccentric, cuisine, served in a lovely little place, Fleur de Sel is a rare find, even after five years.


Imagine a universe where Austin Powers marries Condoleeza Rice and they live happily ever after. That doesn't seem so far out as I sit sipping a glass of Rioja (for a mere $6) at the Globe's deliciously long zinc bar, reading over an old Travel and Leisure while waiting for a friend. There are books and magazines available, as well as deep, day-bed couches on which to lounge around and read them. Laptops are often up and open as part of a business-meeting-turned-into-lunch, or vice versa."
--Meredith Ford,
in a review of The Globe, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (07/21/2005)


According to the NY Post, animal rightists in
Long Beach, CA, demanded that the local aquarium stop serving fish in its cafeteria.


* On Sept. 27 Il Fornaio (America) Corp. will donate 20 percent of its food sales to Share Our Strength’s Hurricane Katrina Relief Fund. For more information, visit

*  On Oct. 5 the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington  (RAMW) is calling on Washingtonians to "Dine for America" for Katrina relief by supporting the nationwide fundraising effort spearheaded by the National Restaurant Assoc.,  recommending restaurants in the DC donate 10% of sales, Participating thus far:  Zola, Red Sage, Harry's Tap Room, The Essential Grille, Potowmack Landing, Great American Restaurants, Bistro Bis, Vidalia, Bangkok Joe's, Riedel's Modern American Barbecue, The Oceanaire Seafood Room, The Special Orders Deli at the House of Representatives, et al. To participate or to find participating restaurants go to

* On Oct. 6 Chicago’s Heaven on Seven owner/chef Jimmy Bannos will hold a “Recipe for Relief, A Culinary Event to Benefit Hurricane Survivors” at McCormick Place, to benefit America's Second Harvest, the Nation's Food Bank.  Raffle and silent auction proceeds will benefit The New Orleans Hospitality Workers Disaster Relief Fund.  More than 70 participating chefs incl. Paul Kahan, Blackbird; Jean Joho, Everest; Shawn McClain, Spring; Stephanie Izard, Scylla; Jackie Shen, Red Light; Grant Achatz, Alinea; Charlie Trotter, Charlie Trotter's; Art Smith, Personal Chef to Oprah Winfrey; Gabriel Viti, Gabriel's Restaurant, Miramar and Pancho Viti's; Rick Bayless, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo; John Bubala, Thyme.  $50 pp.  Call 312-422-0173, or visit

* The James Hotel in Scottsdale, AZ, is now offering the JAMES Cares package available through December 31st. Guests can choose from four charities to contribute 10% of their booking proceeds incl.: the American Red Cross for Katrina Victims; the ONE Campaign to fight global AIDS and extreme poverty; Thomas J. Pappas School for Homeless Youth, Arizona's only school for homeless children; or The Phoenix Children's Hospital.  Additional package amenities incl. one-night’s accommodations in a pool view room, dinner for two at Fiamma Trattoria, and a  turndown gift. Price starts at $329.  excluding tax and is based on double occupancy.  Call 212-228-1500 or contact; visit


* Millennium & Copthorne Hotels is offering “Explore London” packages thru Dec. 31 at The Copthorne Tara Hotel London Kensington; Millennium Bailey’s Hotel; Millennium Gloucester Hotel; Millennium Hotel London, Knightsbridge; and the Millennium Hotel London, Mayfair. Rates begin at £225 ($405) for 3 nights accommodation, upgrade to a Club Room with access to the Club Lounge,  dinner  at one restaurant, and lunch on the Bateaux London. . . A “London Luxury” package incl. 7 nights’ stay and two dinners.  Call  866-866-8086;

* Hotel Andalucía in Santa Barbara, CA,  is offering a trio of culinary packages: “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and You,” with  king room;  tour of the Downtown Farmers Market with 31 West Executive Chef Michael Reardon; dinner at the restaurant; $295 per couple; “Bed, Book and Banquet,” king room;  a copy of Chris Stewart's Driving Over Lemons set in the Andalusian region of Spain; Cocktails and dinner restaurant 31 West; $400-$450 per couple; “Vintage Santa Barbara”:  2 nights’  accommodation in a king room; .six-hour escorted back-country wine tour with Cloud Climbers Jeep & Wine Tours, 4 wineries;  Gourmet picnic lunch. $680-$780 per couple.  Call 805-884-0300 or 877-468-3515 or

* On Sept.  28 Restaurant Jean-Louis in Greenwich, CT, will hold a dinner with the wines of W.J.Deutsch & Sons, incl. wines of Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, New Zealand, Chile and Portugal. $100 pp, with part of the proceeds to benefit Windows of Hope. Call 203-622-8450.
* From Sept. 30-Oct 1  Texas wineries and Horseshoe Bay Resort Marriott Hotel in Horseshoe Baywill host two days of wine, food and music at the Hill Country Fall Fest and Texas Wine Auction, with 90+ wineries.  Events incl. the Fall Festival Kick-Off Party; Putting Tournament; Cooking Demonstrations; Hill Country Winery Tours; Antique Car and Boat Show and the Toast of Texas Reception, Dinner and Wine Auction.  The Marriott Hotel is offering a package that includes discounted admission to Fall Fest events, plus accommodations and breakfast, at $374 per night. Call 800-452-5330 or visit

* On Oct. 2 Malibu Family Wines owners Ron & Lisa Semler and John Paul and Eloise DeJoria will  present their wines as a fundraiser for City Hearts.  Local restaurants incl. Saddle Peak Lodge, Sunset Beach, and IL Tiramisu, serving signature dishes.  There will be a “Luxury Silent Auction.” $75 pp.  $25 for children. Visit; or call  1-800-889.6955.

* On Oct. 2 the Fifth Annual Harvest & Barefoot Crush & Fundraiser Honoring City Hearts will be held at The Vineyards at Saddlerock Ranch in Malibu, CA,   as a fundraiser for City Hearts. There will be food from Saddle Peak Lodge, Paradise Cove, Mi Piace, The Sunset and Il Tiramisu; a Barefoot Grape Stomp in a Barrel, followed by a foot cleansing and foot massage from the Argyle Salon & Spa; Luxury Silent Auction; Aspen hotel stay, and more. $75 pp.; $25 for children. Visit or call 1-800-889.6955.

* On Oct. 6  the Signature Chefs & Wine Extravaganza will take place at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, FL. presented by the Miccosukee Resort & Gaming, offering the opportunity to sample from some of the area’s best restaurants, taste wines, and bid on auction items, with proceeds to the March of Dimes.  VIP Champagne Reception and dinner.  Chefs incl.:  Adam Votaw from Chispa; Allen Susser of Chef Allen's;  Michael Schwartz of afterglow;  Michael Gilligan of Atrio Conrad Miami; Clay Conley of Azul; et al. $125 pp in advance, $150 at the door, VIP tix $225. For info call  Miriam Martinez at 305-477-.1192 or visit  To purchase tickets call (305) 477-1192 or visit

* On Oct. 8 "Taste of Georgetown Festival" will be held, with 30 area restaurants participating along with wine pairings and displays by local artisans, to benefit the homeless outreach efforts through The Georgetown Ministry Center. Call 202-333-1600 or visit


MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly.  Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani,  Naomi  Kooker, Kirsten Skogerson,  Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Lucy Gordan, Suzanne Wright. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery,  Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.

 John Mariani is a columnist for Esquire, Wine Spectator, Bloomberg News and Radio, and Diversion.  He is author of The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink (Lebhar-Friedman), The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink (Broadway), and, with his wife Galina, the award-winning new Italian-American Cookbook (Harvard Common Press).

 Any of John Mariani's books below may be ordered from by clicking on the cover image.

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copyright John Mariani 2005