Virtual Gourmet

July 30, 2006                                                       NEWSLETTER


                                                                                "Easy to Spot" by Harry Ekman (1950)

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In This Issue

Deep Down in Paris' Great Wine CellarS by John Mariani

NEW YORK CORNER: 'Cesca's New Chef by John Mariani



Deep Down in Paris' Great Wine CellarS
by John Mariani

  “What is your pleasure?” is a question not taken lightly by Paris’ best sommeliers.  Indeed, these fellows feel challenged to find the wine that will please you most within your budget. Gouging is, how shall we say?, très vulgaire.  Actually, there's little need to gouge since the wines cost so much to begin with.
    Of course, Paris restaurants with exceptional wine lists happily cater to those for whom money is no object and rarity is paramount. Some years ago the owner of the restaurant Laurent told me a group of 20 Arab guests (ostensibly non-drinkers) waved away the  wine list, demanding only the most expensive bottles on it. (The bill, paid in cash, came to $125,000--and this was in 1980!) At La Tour d’Argent they currently have a Hong Kong customer who only drinks wines from the Nineteenth Century, of which, fortunately, the restaurant has ample supplies.
     23Indeed, La Tour d’Argent (15 Quai de la Tournelle; 33-1-4046-7111), which traces its history back to 1582, possesses the most astounding wine cellar in Paris, with 11,000 selections and 450,000 bottles.  They are stored beneath the restaurant in shadowy caves (below) as eerie as those in Edgar Allen Poe’s story “The Cask of Amontillado.” Ask to visit them and you are led through a labyrinth leading to a secluded cave storing the oldest wines in the cellar, which requires two security men to open.  Here you may watch a video (in French) on the caves’ history, intoned by La Tour d’Argent’s late owner, Claude Terrail, who speaks solemnly of a Château Citran dating to 1858 (the oldest wine in the cellar); an 1871 Château d’Yquem; an 1865 Chambertin, and a Logis de Servolles brandy from 1797. About 40% of the wines down there are Bordeaux and 40% Burgundy; the rest (except for Ports) are all French regional wines.eeee
    Head sommelier David Ridgway, a Brit, here since 1981, contends that each week he has at least a couple of tables spending $20,000 or more for wine. “The extremes are expanding. There are those who want spectacular wines, and those who just want to drink a good value wine I recommend. I don’t push the rare ones; they sell themselves. Americans tell me how much they want to spend, and sometimes they feel insulted if I suggest something under their price level.”  Ridgway, one of 15 sommeliers at the restaurant, also insists many of La Tour d’Argent’s wines above 300 Euros (about $375) are priced less than in American wine shops.

Some connoisseurs in
Paris cluck that La Tour d’Argent’s list is too dated and doesn’t acknowledge the great wines being made in other countries.  Thus, the Michelin three-star Taillevent (15 Rue Lamennais; 33-1-44-95-1501), which opened in 1946, prides itself on a vast and catholic list of 1,500 labels and 550,000 bottles, with still more not yet on the list, still aging. They are stored beneath the restaurant and at three locations around Paris. About 8% are non-French bottlings.
    Taillevent’s complete list is massive, but every table is presented with a wine card of about 320 selections, most quite young from the mid-‘90s and 2000 vintages, with dozens priced under $50. Mark-ups seem to average about 2-3 times retail prices in the U.S.: A Mouton-Rothschild ’83 goes for 290 Euros ($365), which sells in U.S. wineshops for about $150. But remember, restaurant wine prices in France always include both tax and service.  (Tipping a sommelier is only recommended if he may have planned out an entire meal's wines, but it really is not necessary.  If you do tip, $10-$20 would be a gracious gesture.)222
   “My goal is to have people choose their favorite region and varietal and offer them a wide range of options,” says head sommelier Marco Pelletier, who came from Michel Rostang to Taillevent seven months ago. “I’m happy to say that 90% of our clientele ask my advice, and our regulars trust us to surprise them with a wonderful wine from Chile or Australia. It is important that we have a list not just to show off but to offer variety and some fun.”  Just recently a guest brought a rare bottle of 1925 Taylor’s Port to Taillevent, which Pelletieri opened by heating the bottle’s neck, then icing it. “The cork was too old to risk crumbling into the bottle. So I just snapped off the neck. Everyone applauded.”
    Taillevent has also just debuted its tasting cellar downstairs, where clientele may go for digestives of Port and brandy.
tOne of the newest and best modern cellars in Paris is at Le Cinq, the restaurant of the Four Seasons George V Hotel (31 Avenue George V; 33-1-49-52-7154).  Having taken over the moribund property in 1999, management started from scratch in building the winelist. “The old cellar had nothing left,” says sommelier Thierry Hamon. “Everything had been sold at auction.  Now we have more than 1,500 selections and 50,000 bottles, with 40 wines from the U.S. and Canada. We’ve been very successful buying older Bordeaux, so we are quickly building strength in that area.”pppp

    Like his colleagues, Hamon is delighted to make suggestions within a guest’s price range. “I’m proud to say that at lunch today I only opened the wine list four times; the rest of the guests asked me to choose. Americans tell us what they want to spend. The Russians may start at 1000 Euros. The other night one of them ordered a 12,000 Euro magnum of Bordeaux. For the Japanese I propose wine by the glass.”
    You may visit Le Cinq’s wine cellar, once part of an old stone quarry used to build the nearby Arc de Triomphe. In World War II the cellar was walled up to protect its bottles from falling into German hands. Today the cellar is state-of-the-art in temperature and humidity control. It is also romantically lighted. “Several people have proposed marriage in the cellar,” says Hamon.
    Intimidation is the last thing any of these sommeliers want to convey. So, when they ask, “What is your pleasure?” let them do their job and surprise you with something special. Only a cad would do otherwise and spoil their fun.

by John Mariani

164 West 75th Street

      p;Nearly three years in business, 'Cesca has been packing them in ever since Chef Tom Valenti and partner Godfrey Polistina gave the Upper West Side its best Italian restaurant ever.  The warm atmosphere, the rusticity married to New York polish, and winning, wonderful Italian cooking made 'Cesca (named after Polistina's daughter) a favorite not just in the neighborhood but for anyone who loves this kind of hearty, robust cooking.
      This year, Valenti left 'Cesca to oversee (and perhaps eventually take over) Ouest, another West Sider he opened in 2002.  The current ownership of 'Cesca is The Off the Menu Restaurant Group, which also currently runs Ouest and Mainland.  Valenti was not, however, always in the kitchen at 'Cesca, leaving chef de cuisine duties to Amanda Freitag, then to Michael Della Verde,  so the Group sought out a new chef who had the chops to maintain 'Cesca's style while adding measurably his own.  They have chosen very wisely: Kevin Garcia, who was born on the Upper West Side, has had long experience at top restaurants, including Al Forno in Providence, Il Vipore in Lucca, Italy, Prime in Las Vegas, and Luca at the Boca Raton Resort.  Lately he was chef de cuisine at Del Posto in NYC.
      The L-shaped dining room (above) hasn't changed much as far as I can tell, still dominated by a big open kitchen where you can see Garcia hard at work.  The counter is piled with fresh breads made here, and there's a marvelous aroma that hits you as soon as you enter the restaurant.  Iron chandeliers, brown velvet banquettes, and warm lighting puts you in mind of a ristorante in the hills of Umbria or Tuscany.  There is also an enchanting wine room (below). The winelist is full of the kind of full-flavored wines that go so well with this style of cooking; the wines are not cheap, though, and I'd like a better selection under $50.  There are, however, several good wines by the glass, which may be sampled in flights of three.

       The menu is pretty large, but nearly everything I sampled came out well, despite the crush of a Saturday night crowd.r By all means try out the light, crisp fritto misto of vegetables and seafood, or perhaps the simple and luscious buffalo mozzarella with heirloom tomatoes and basil--both dishes done as well or better than any in NYC.  True, there are a lot of clichés on the menu, like tuna carpaccio and linguine with clams, but you won't often run across Etruscan farro salad with tomato, cucumber, and red onions often, and, on the basis of the sweet and savory trippa alla Fiorentina cooked with white wine, tomato, and prosciutto served here, I urge that people take another try at tripe if they haven't seen it on an Italian menu recently.
      Pastas are lusty and delicious, from a good and spicy bucatini all'Amatriciana, with chile peppers, onions, and sweet tomatoes, to correctly pungent g
arganelli malafemmina, ridged pasta with heirloom tomatoes, anchovies, Cerignola olives and ricotta salata. Tagliatelle ribbons come with abundant prawns, calamari, tomatoes, chilies, white wine, and  basil, while farro also plays a part in a tender, rich risotto. Best of all the pastas sampled was ravioli stuffed generously with braised duck meat and lavished with a balsamic and brown butter and sage dressing.
       There are daily specials offered weekly--tagliata di manzo on Tuesday, porchetta on Wednesday, veal chop on Thursday, risotto sapore di mare in Friday, and, on Saturday, panate di maiale.  On the regular menu there is succulent wood-roasted orata with sea beans and Meyer lemon, a yellowfin tuna crusted with grilled porcini and served with caponata and pignoli, and a nicely fat-riddled grilled pork chop with smoked bacon, white beans, olives, and a touch of oregano.
       Desserts are fairly predictable  but homey and well made, from the gelati and pannacotta with berries to a  tasteful tiramisù and  crisp apple crostata. The moist cheesecake here is gilded with whipped cream and nut brittle. Espresso is well made, if you beg them to make it so.
     I welcome chef Garcia, who seems to have the homeboy touch in this, his own neighborhood, and the total lack of pretension on the part of everyone who works at 'Cesca makes it a restaurant you truly look forward to returning to; I know I do.
      Appetizers run $12-$14,  pastas (full portion) $18-$23, and main courses $27-$542. 'Cesca is open for dinner only, daily.




Embassy Suites Hotels has created an omelet inspired by Donald Trump aptly named “The Domelet," containing  ham, cheese, peppers, and sour cream with salsa.


According to American Express's Briefing, a survey on women dining out done by Marketing to Women showed:

1. Women are less likely to be satisfied with their frequency of dining out in both tableservice and quick service restaurants.

2.  Women's brains take in and integrate information from what they see, hear, and emotional overtones.

3.  Women pick up on and respond to things that men can't--making them more likely to be turned off by aspects of an experience that aren't what they should be, but also more conscious and appreciative of the nice touches.

4. Women appreciate more nuances than men at every point along the way, from reservations to how you say goodbye.

5. Tidiness can make a difference when it comes to the potential battleground of bathrooms.

6. If you design a "guy place," you're not going to get the romantic dinners, the date crowd, the single women.

7. When you meet women's heightened expectations, you are more than fulfilling those of men, leading to increased customer satisfaction for both.

qrqrThis fall, from Sept. 29-Oct. 6 John Mariani (left), publisher of Mariani's Virtual Gourmet and food & travel columnist for Esquire Magazine,  will host and lead a 7-day cruise called "The Sweet Life," aboard  Silverseas' Millennium Class Silver Whisper, with days visiting Barcelona, Tunis, Naples, Milazzo (Sicily), Rome, Livorno, and Villefranche.  There will be a welcoming cocktail party, gourmet dinners with wines,9999 cooking demos by John and Galina Mariani co-authors of The Italian-American Cookbook), optional shore excursions will include a tour of the Amalfi Coast, dinner at the great Don Alfonso 1890 (2 Michelin stars), a private tour of the Vatican, dinner at La Pergola (3 Michelin stars) in Rome, a Night Cruise to Hotel de Paris and dinner at Louis XV (3 Michelin stars) in Monaco, and much more.  Rates (a 20% savings) range from $4,411 to $5,771. For complete information click.


* On Aug. 7 the Fifth Annual Hall of Fame Fundraising Dinner benefiting the Golden Gate Restaurant Association Scholarship Foundation will be held at MoMo’s Restaurant in San Francisco. Pat Kuleto of Kuleto Restaurants will be honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award; Charles Phan of the Slanted Door will be honored with the American Dream Award; $150 pp. Call 415-781-5348. Details for the Hall of Fame Dinner are on the GGRA home page at
* For the 55th consecutive summer, Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena, CA, presents "Tastings on the Lawn" on Aug. 12, featuring a super-premium wines, incl. reserves and limited releases, with food and live music by the Paul Hlebcar Trio, on the sprawling grounds of the Napa Valley winery.  Mondavi family members will be in attendance to greet guests and sign bottles, available at a 20 percent discount. Charles Krug's Napa Valley Zinfandel Port wine will be paired with chocolate in the historic 1881 Carriage House. Tix $25 in advance,  $30 at the door.  Call 888-275-5784.    The second tasting of the summer will be held on Sept. 23.

* On Aug. 17 in Berkeley, CA,  Spenger's Fresh Fish Grotto Chef Romero Miraflor will serve a 5-course Anchor Steam Brewery Beer Dinner.  $45 pp. Call 510-845-7771;

* On Aug. 19 Michael~David Winery in Lodi, CA, producers of the Seven Deadly Zins, Seven Heavenly Chards, Incognito and, Earthquake wines will transform their winery into a Jamaican jam session with San Francisco's Red di reggae sensation, and incl. food, beverages, wine tastings, and barrel sampling. $65 pp;  Designated Drivers: $35;  Wine Club/Wild Women on Wine Members $45; Wine Club Designated Drivers: $35. Call  209-368-7384. 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, 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.

6y6My newest book, written with my brother Robert Mariani, is a memoir of our years growing up in the North Bronx. It's called Almost Golden because it re-visits an idyllic place and time in our lives when so many wonderful things seemed possible.
    For those of you who don't think of the Bronx as “idyllic,” this book will be a revelation. It’s about a place called the Country Club area, on the shores of Pelham Bay. A beautiful neighborhood filled with great friends and wonderful adventures that helped shape our lives. It's about a culture, still vibrant, and a place that is still almost the same as when we grew up there.
Robert and I think you'll enjoy this very personal look at our
Bronx childhood. It is not yet available in bookstores, so to purchase a copy, go to or click on  Almost Golden.
--John Mariani

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copyright John Mariani 2006