Merry Christmas to All and to All a Goodnight!
LOUISVILLE by John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER: Megu Midtown by John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR: SHOULD A CALIFORNIA CAB COPY THE BORDEAUX MODEL? by John Mariani
R.I.P. JERRY BERNS by John Mariani
EVERLOVIN' LOUISVILLE by John Mariani
After years of catching up to Southern cities like Charleston and Atlanta, Louisville is definitely ready for its close-up. Those restaurants that have long given the city culinary ballast, like the Oak Room, The English Grill (see below), and Vincenzo's, have year by year been joined by a slew of new places, including Limestone and Holly Hill Inn outside of town, so that the restaurant scene has reached a critical mass that makes Louisville well worth visiting for its food as for its other virtues, not least a burgeoning, reclaimed downtown that is hopping with galleries, boutiques, and cafes. Here are some places I wouldn't want to miss were I going to Louisville right now.
PROOF ON MAIN
702 West Main Street
Downtown Louisville, which has long slumbered, is deeply in the debt to those young city dwellers and developers who have moved in and restored the fine old buildings along Main Street, not least Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown, whose family controls the Louisville-based spirits titan Brown-Forman, and whose personal interest in art collecting and restoration has buoyed everything downtown. Their opening of the 21C Museum Hotel has brought enormous vitality to the area, as has Proof on Main, cobbled together from four late 18th-century buildings, still with their fine original brickwork.
It’s been a while since the redoubtable Drew Nieporent, Michael Bonades, and their Myriad Restaurant Group (TriBeCa Grill, Nobu, Montrachet, and others in New York) opened a new place, and I hardly expected it to be in Louisville. Having done so, Proof on Main changes everything about the city's gastronomy: Not only is Proof a distinct departure from the commendable but fairly staid restaurant scene in Louisville, but it ranks with any of the best modern restaurants in New York, Chicago, or San Francisco.
The interiors are particularly striking for their modern art, along with knitted rugs, linen upholstery, light boxes and their own fine art collection, many specially commissioned. The restaurant is attached to the Museum, so you can make a complete evening of it—check out the art, have dinner, and walk to your room.
Chef Michael Paley, who has worked with Myriad before at Lucca in Boca Raton, serves food every bit as colorful and bold as the design and art, starting with a slew of cured meats, butternut squash soup, and country ham fritters with a grain mustard aïoli (you will beg for more). Kentucky striped bass comes with stewed artichokes, marinated tomatoes, and basil, while a bone-in bison tenderloin is treated to buttered leeks, roasted fingerling potatoes, rosemary oil, and smoked salt. There are several excellent, lusty pastas, including cavatelli with a veal ragù and horseradish, and the burger here is one of the best I've ever tasted, made from bison meat layered with Kentucky cheddar, lavished with "Jezebel sauce," and served with superlative French fries. But the not-to-miss dish is Paley's crispy duck with turnips, scallions, oyster mushrooms, in a sweet-sour broth.
End off the evening with chocolate hazelnut fondue and a snifter of one of the scores of bourbons that Proof stocks, and you’ll be making your reservation here for every night you’re in town. The winelist is very well selected, with a nice balance of American and Italian bottlings, including some "Orphans" whose varietals are somewhat out of the ordinary. The majority of wines is priced well under $100 and there are many terrific choices under $40.
Proof on Main is open for breakfast and dinner daily, lunch Mon-Fri. At dinner appetizers run $6-$10, entrees $14-$28.
1538 Bardstown Road
Out on Bardstown Road, which is largely lined with chain fast food restaurants, you will find Seviche, which Chef Anthony Lamas (below), son of a Mexican mother and Puerto Rican father, transformed from Jicama in 2005 and re-opened as a more ambitious but still amiably casual spot with a good, lively tapas and seviche bar. The place has outdoor tables, tall windows, hanging glass lamps, and a fine use of textured walls of tile, stucco, and mirrors. Despite its modest appearance, Seviche has emerged as one of America's best and most innovative Nuevo Latino-style restaurants, with plenty of the chef's personality packed into every dish.
There are about a dozen seviches offered daily, and you can easily go through a lot of them relatively cheaply, since most are about $13. The mainstays are, of course, unstintingly fresh and made as much on the spot as possible and include a delicious crab and yellow tomato seviche with lemon-cilantro mojo sauce; a single sea scallop with passion fruit, hearts of palm and habanero chilies; crawfish with a julienne of peppers, jicama, olives, greens, and cilantro pesto; and sushi-grade tuna with sesame, scallions, and a coconut-ginger broth (above).
I also liked the steamed mussels in a cilantro-ginger broth with lemon and scallions, and a "Deconstructed Kobe short rib tamale" with roasted peppers, couscous, and chipotle pan juices, although I wonder how truly "Kobe" the beef could be when the dish sells for only nine dollars.
I moved on to some delectable entradas, like pan-roasted Florida snapper with tiger shrimp scented with aji amarillo and served with a toasted tomatillo sauce and crispy leeks--a hearty, well-rendered, multi-textured dish of enormous flavor. I am a big fan of skirt steak and Lamas's Black Angus, marinated churrascos in the Argentina style, with chimichurri, was terrific. He also does the big deal Brazilian dish known as feijoada, incorporating black beans and various cuttings of meats over white rice, braised greens, and manioc flour--not a bad dish to share.
Postres include flan laced with blackstrap rum and an incredibly addictive, if absurdly rich, banana chimichanga with coconut dulce de leche and pecans.
Seviche's winelist is about 120 labels strong, with an amazing number of good bottles from Argentina under $30.
The restaurant is open for both lunch and dinner, with dinner appetizers $6-$19, seviches $8-$13, and main courses $13-$29.
Park Place on Main
401 E. Main Street
The first time I visited Park Place on Main a couple of years back, I liked a lot of what I ate but thought the chef Anoosh Shariat (below) and chef de cuisine Jay Denham were trying a bit too hard. It's a handsome place, with tall ceilings, a large wall of wine (with more than 300 labels and 40 bourbons, put together by general manager/sommelier Jerry Slater), solid dark wood chairs and well-set tables. The artwork set around the room is of high caliber, and the service staff shows a courtesy that bespeaks good training.
Shariat's local rep (including being called "Best Chef" by Louisville Magazine) was, however, enough to draw me back to PPM, and I was very happy I did. On a pleasant summer's day I was very happy to be in such a smart-looking restaurant at a table well separated from every other, with good linens and glassware. The addition of young chef de cuisine has brought a vitality to the place, too. I also thought the menu had gotten somewhat simpler in concept, with fewer flourishes and far more focus, beginning with a superb chilled avocado soup with English peas and crouton--full of the vegetable's fresh, sweet flavors and just creamy and light enough in a delicate balance.
A pea purée also graced a diver's scallop drizzled with crème fraîche and a little French olive oil, and braised Kurobuta pork belly came with caramelized onions and a tangy-sweet apple compote. These all constituted the "small plates," while the "large plates" were generously proportioned but not ridiculously so. The ideas behind them were imaginative, especially in the vegetable sides (which Mr. Shariat revels in), so tender duck breast came with peach khoresh and saffron rice, and pork tenderloin was wrapped in bacon and served with braised greens and a butter pecan purée that could not have been more the soul of Kentucky cookery. I also enjoyed pan-seared halibut with sautéed vegetables and an impeccable beurre blanc, a dish that showed a mastery of seafood and why good fresh fish needs little to enhance it.
For dessert, a milk chocolate panna cotta made a delightful ending. Delightful, too, was the sense that I'd returned to something that has gotten better and better, so that PPM brings the city a sophistication it has needed and now has because of places like this and the others noted in this article.
Park Place on Main is open Tues.-Sat. for dinner. Small plates run $9-$15, main courses $25-$39.
THE ENGLISH GRILL
The Brown HotelJERRY BERNS, FORMER OWNER OF NYC'S `21' CLUB DIES AT 99
335 West Broadway
Indeed, if sophistication were palpably in the air, then you could bottle it at The English Grill.
The Brown Hotel, which opened in 1923 and has long been in competition with the nearby Seelbach, is now one of the outstanding contemporary hotels of the South or anywhere else in the
You enter the Grill from the long, pillared lobby and find yourself in a room of daunting elegance, with varnished wooden pillars, stained glass windows, equestrian paintings, a ceiling with splendid bas-relief tracery, a neatly patterned carpet, and tables set with lovely little lamps of a kind you rarely see anymore. It has majesty but exceptional warmth and total Southern hospitality in every detail. (The fuzzy photo to the left, courtesy of the hotel, shows nothing of its genteel charms.)
Executive Chef Joe Castro (right, seated, with staff), now here for more than a dozen years, and Grill Chef Andrew Garrido demonstrate their insistence on impeccable ingredients in every dish, buoyed by Pastry Chef Brian Logsdon's work at meal's end and throughout by manager Neal Ward and his dining room team. The EG also has one of Louisville's fine wine list, with nearly 450 selections.
On my most recent visit I began with seared sea scallops cooked to a turn with morels, a pea ragoût, and bacon duck jus. Silky foie gras had the added richness of a mascarpone tart with strawberries and a pistachio duck glaze.
Alaskan halibut was a beautiful piece of fish, here done with roasted red pepper and aromatic basmati rice, sweet corn, leeks, and rock shrimp with a chive-scallops jus, every element on the plate gently coaxing each other to be better. A tenderloin of pork was indeed tender, rosy, and came with a fennel and tomato jam and goat’s cheese, with a balsamic pork jus. You’ll notice there are many sweet American elements in the cooking here, but in no instance were they ever cloying, nor did they disturb the wines.
For dessert there was the quirkily named “Chocolate Striptease” (left) with dark chocolate cake and chocolate mousse “enrobed" in dark chocolate ganache with espresso sauce and cacao nibs, flamed with rum. It was a pretty sexy dessert at that. Also very good was “Kentucky Tiramisù,” made with coffee and bourbon soaked biscuits with hazelnut mousse and chocolate "gravy."
The English Grill is as much a celebratory place as it is romantic, and to bask in its beauty is to partake of something of Southern hospitality you won't find as easily as you once might have, even in a mannerly town like Louisville.
The restaurant is open Mon.-Sat. for dinner. Prices for appetizers run $6-$16, entrees $22-$34; 5-course tasting menu, $55, with wines $85.
NEW YORK CORNER
by John Mariani
845 U.N. Plaza
Trump World Tower
When Megu opened in TriBeCa two years ago, even someone who thought he'd seen it all had to be wowed by the drama of the scope and design of this vast and shadowy 13,000 square feet, $6 million restaurant on two levels, complete with a huge Buddha ice sculpture that slowly melts throughout the evening and a huge bronze bonsho bell in the main dining room. The menu was as expansive as the space, with pages and pages of options, with plenty of very high-priced items featuring Kobe beef. Megu sought and got a big bar and event crowd, so the idea of opening a branch in midtown last April made sense, rather than compete with the slew of big new Asian restaurants jamming the Meat Market District.
Nevertheless, the neighborhood around the United Nations is not exactly known for its great vibes and ranging singles crowd. So the restaurant's developer, Koji Imai, decided to build a smaller, more intimate, better lighted, and far more sophisticated Megu in the Trump World Tower (where apartments cost up to $14 million), and I like it a lot more than the original.
It is a stunningly handsome decor, by Yasumichi Morita, again on two levels, both dominated by silo-like fixtures that provide a fine, warm lighting. With less than half the number of seats the downtown Megu has, the Midtown branch has booths and banquettes that make for convivial dining, the decibel level is very good indeed, and the sleek sushi bar offers easy access for anyone not in the mood for a full-course meal. (Yes, there is a melting Buddha, though it's a rather discreet one, atop the bar.)
The service staff moves efficiently and with grace, and sommelier Mary Ann Gutierrez has stocked the winelist with nearly 500 international bottlings, including a couple dozen sparkling wines (which go well with sushi), whites categorized as spicy, floral, and mineral rich, and a carefully chosen screed of reds to go well with the beef served here. Prices are not outrageous, and there is plenty of choice under $50 a bottle, along with about 30 available by the glass and more than 63 sakes. Wines by the glass, however, can be whoppers--Chablis for $14, and cocktails are no bargain either.
Megu is distinguished by its superb ingredients--not unusual in fine restaurants, but if you check their website, you can read about the honmagro toro tuna belly, the skinny on fresh wasabi, the importance of good rice, and a description of Kobe and Kobe-style American beef, both of which are on the menu. There are in fact 14 different cuts and types of beef, one of which is a superlative tartare (below); another comes to the table steaming on a hot river stone, and it is absolutely delicious (right). The beef is called Kagerou Yaki, a premium Kobe (what's regular Kobe?), and it is flamed with Hennessey brandy and served with slices of Japanese garlic. Frankly, I think Kobe beef has been overhyped: True, it is buttery, rich as can be imagined for meat, and has the prestige of price on its side. But I still believe a USDA Prime sirloin, porterhouse or ribeye has more flavor and better texture. I also liked the miso-marinated lamb chops here just as much as I enjoyed the Kobe.
If, however, you opt for seafood, of course go for the array of sushi, which comes at the perfect size and temperature, with fresh wasabi ceremoniously grated on the side. Options include a sampler for $36 for 2-3 people. There is also a lightly sauteed toro tuna steak drizzled with white truffle olive oil (I'm not sure this is more than a passing fancy). Grilled foie gras teriyaki on skewers actually holds up over charcoal.
I wasn't much thrilled with the desserts, like a green tea crêpe (bland) and banana millefeuille (un-special), and the ice creams and sorbets were good if unremarkable. I did find the chocolate truffles, which you spear with a wooden stick, both fun and very good.
Megu Midtown not only brings this stretch of Manhattan real estate its first serious Japanese restaurant but it has brought the level of sophistication up in the same region, as well as making Megu downtown look all the more trendy.
Appetizers run $6-$28, entrees $19-$150; Sushi and sashmi, $4-$20. A 6-course tasting menu is a very reasonable $70.Megu Midtown is open every night for dinner.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
SHOULD A CALIFORNIA CAB COPY THE BORDEAUX MODEL?
by John Mariani
As soon as I opened the bottle, I knew this was something special.
It was Calistoga Cellars 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon (www.calistogacellars.com]) blended with some petite syrah and merlot, and its bouquet had both enormous fruit aromas and a burst of alcohol.
I looked at the label: 14.6 percent alcohol, and it smelled higher. I was, therefore, prepared for one of those odious Napa Valley “fruit bombs” that tastes more like jam than wine, with enough oak-induced tannins to sear the palate, and enough alcohol to make me think twice about drinking more than one glass.
Yet the wine had none of those typical
It was a sensationally good wine, and a prime example of how power in a velvet glove is the hallmark of the very best
Ever since the
The French, in turn, sniffed that, like most things American, California cabs had no finesse, no refinement, and no maturity—an opinion thrown into question at the famous blind tasting in Paris in 1976 where a Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Vineyard 1973 and a Ridge Montebello 1971 beat out Premier Crus like Château Mouton Rothschild 1970 and Haut-Brion 70. (This event was the subject of a 2006 book titled The Judgment of Paris by George M. Taber that is now being considered as the subject of a motion picture that may include actors Hugh Grant or Jude Law.
By the 1980s a few
But too many
Not many vintners like to talk about it, but new technologies with Frankensteinian names like “reverse osmosis” and the “spinning cone column” can reduce alcohol after the grapes have been crushed or even after they’ve been made into wine. Some, illegally, even add water to dilute the alcohol.
But the Calistoga Cellars 2003, made by winemaker Barry Gnekow, was in perfect equilibrium. No question it was a powerful wine, with plenty of raspberry and currant flavors, some of which derive from the petite syrah. But they were balanced by the mild, soft tannins and the mellowing effect of the merlot, which is that grape’s great virtue. More revelatory to me, however, was how this great wine so little resembled my favorite
Calistoga Cellars (right) has only been around since 1996, and only making wine under its own label for four years. Originally, Managing Partner Roger Louer rounded up 20 investors to buy a
Then, after the winery’s cabernet won a Double Gold Medal in 2002 at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, Calistoga Cellars quickly garnered outside interest. Today there are 45 partners. In addition to other wines, the winery makes about 4,000 cases of the cabernet, mostly from vineyard land in
What the Calistoga Cellars wine showed me, as do other great California cabs like Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de la Tour, Opus One, and Dominus (all more expensive than the $30 Calistoga bottling), is that there really is no reason to mimic Bordeaux cabernet and certainly no justification for trying to overpower it. After three decades of premium cabernets,
John Mariani's weekly wine column appears in Bloomberg News, from which this story was adapted.
by John Mariani
I can't pretend to have known Jerry Berns, once owner of NYC's iconic `21' Club, very well, but on those few occasions when I dined there while he was still schmoozing with every guest, I always felt distinctly proud that he'd come up to my table and greet me by name as an old friend of the house. Indeed, there was no better host than Mr. Berns, who joined with his brother in running what began as a speakeasy on Manhattan's west side (the "21" refers to the street address, 21 West 52nd Street) and, when Prohibition ended, developed into one of the most famous and expensive restaurants in the world, with a cache of celebrities that ranged from most every President of the U.S. and Mayor of NYC after 1932 to Humphrey Bogart, Orson Welles, Lauren Bacall, Ernest Hemingway, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, and Damon Runyon. Everybody, but everybody, went to `21' and Berns knew them all.
Like his brother Charlie and his partner Pete Kriendler, Jerry enjoyed nothing more than a house full of fascinating people--Hollywood stars, powerbrokers, beautiful women, writers, even a few gangsters along the way. None was treated with the kind of snobbish deference one found at French restaurants around town but in the manner of a guest showing up at a raffish party that never seemed to end. True, not every newcomer got the same honor treatment from the staff at that time (the first time I ever went to `21' I was given the single worst table I have ever been seated at), but Berns was always checking to see if all was going your way and he wanted to know if there was a problem.
Berns was born in Hell's Kitchen in 1907, got his college degree from the University of Cincinnati, and then joined Charlie and Kriendler at `21.' He never left, at least not until he and his partners sold the restaurant in 1985 for $21 million (it was later bought by the current owner, Orient-Express Hotels). Even after selling the place, Jerry was still the very omnipresent éminence grise for years to follow, retiring in 1996 only when it became impossible for him to bring to the tables the kind of joie de vivre people loved him for. He has, for some time, been missed at `21,' which sails on with all the attendant history and traditions intact, and now he will be missed forever. He was an original, and a man I was pleased to see every time I entered those shiny bronze doors. But, even if it's a cliché to say it, the man's spirit is there, mingling with the laughter of the guests, floating among the corporate toys that have for so long hung from the ceiling of the main dining room.
Jerry Berns, with actress Mary Martin, circa 1955
More than 600 people became ill after eating leftovers taken from the Dinosaur B-B-Que in
WE NEVER FINISHED
"Think of meatloaf as an edible time capsule."--Jill Wendholt Silva, "Serving Up a Light and Luscious Slab of Meatloaf," McClatchy News Service (
TO ALL PUBLICISTS: Owing to the amount of material sent to this newsletter regarding Christmas, and New Year's dinners--many of which are only announcements as to price fixed dinners--it is impossible for me to include any but the more unusual of events for those holidays in Quick Bytes. --John Mariani
* The Medici Café and Terrace, at The Ritz-Carlton Lake Las Vegas, announces its 2007 Winemaker’s Dinner Series: Feb.--Cakebread Cellars; March--Ferrari Carano; April--Rieslings of Germany; June--BV Vineyards; Aug.—Martinelli; Oct.—Kenwood. Call 800-241-3333; www.ritzcarlton.com.
* On Jan. 18, in support of the education and advancement of women in culinary fields, Women Chefs & Restaurateurs (WCR) will host “At the Table San Francisco: Toasting Women Chefs & Restaurateurs,” showcasing the culinary talents of Bay Area women chefs, incl. Traci Des Jardins of Jardinière, Emily Luchetti of Farallon, Melissa Perello of Fifth Floor, et al, at the de Young Museum. $150 pp, or $1,200.00 per table of 10. Call 877-927-7787 or visit www.womenchefs.org.
* On Jan. 20 & 21, in
* Travelgirl Magazine has announced its Le Bernardin, Big Apple Bon Voyage Contest. Travelers may win a prize to be whisked away to
* On Jan. 24 & 25, during the Sundance Film Festival, at the Log Haven Restaurant in Salt Lake City, Utah, chef James Boyce, executive chef of Studio—Montage Resort & Spa Laguna Beach, will team up with Log Haven's chef, Frank Mendoza, for two nights of cooking. $95 pp. Call 801-272-8255.
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.
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