Waiters, North Dakota, circa 1936
go to my web site, in which I will update food
travel information and help link readers to other first-rate travel
& food sites, click on: home page
NEW YORK CORNER: Porter House New York by John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR: Williams Selyem Pinot Noirs--Tough to Beat and Tougher to Find
by John Mariani
NEW ORLEANS NOW: A Tale of Two Cities
by John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER
Depending on what part of town you're speaking of, New Orleans is either in fine shape or worse than ever. The latter includes those same neighborhoods wrecked by Hurricane Katrina when the levees broke. When asked what those areas looked like when I saw them a month or two after the disaster hit, I would say, "It looks like Hiroshima." Now, almost two years later, with almost no reclamation of those neighborhoods done, I answer, "It looks like Hiroshima, with rats."
One of the byproducts of the destruction of those neighborhoods is that so many of the restaurant and hotel business workers lived in them--the cooks, the waiters, the busboys, the dishwashers, the maids, the maintenance people, and so on--and they still have no place to move back into. Thus, the hospitality industry has had to pay bonuses and work very hard to maintain an effective workforce, and the scarcity of service staff has affected every sector of that industry.
That said, I am happy to report that in the downtown and French Quarter, there are few remnants of the disaster, and the city has been slowly rebounding, with convention business up and this year's Mardi Gras in full swing. According to Tom Fitzmorris' New Orleans Menu newsletter, which has been keeping track of progress since the day Katrina hit, the number of restaurants in the city has actually increased, from 809 before Katrina to 817 as of this week. On a recent visit to the Tennessee Williams Festival in New Orleans, I found the restaurants downtown and in the Quarter doing good business, though places open for lunch seem sparsely attended. Reservations are easy to come by everywhere. I was able to get back to two well-established restaurants and one new one, and found the joie de vivre palpable in each, and where there are good restaurants full of people and light on the streets, there is a buoying spirit to move ahead and improve every day. Here are some notes on the three restaurants I visited.
930 Tchoupitoulas Street
The opening of Cochon six months after Katrina seemed testament that there were still some brave souls willing to bet the bank on the city's future. Actually, Chef Donald Link and his partner Chef Stephen Stryjewski (right) had long been planning to open this casual new restaurant, which the hurricane delayed by six months.
Link's reputation in town has been growing for years, and now he has a national one too, having just won the James Beard Award as Best Chef in the South for 2007. He first made his mark as sous-chef at Susan Spicer's Bayona, then, in 1995, as chef at Herbsaint Restaurant in the Warehouse District. Having grown up in Cajun country, Link wanted both to preserve and refine the kind of cooking he grew up eating, with a close eye on ingredients that are as locally sourced as possible. Unlike Paul Prudhomme, whose highly personalized food at K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen lavishes fish, meat, and vegetables with butter, intense spices, and thick sauces, Link stands back and lets his ingredients do the talking. Meanwhile Stryjewski oversees an in-house boucherie where he makes boudin, andouille, and smoked bacon.
Cochon is a funky-looking place done up in expanses of artisanal woodwork (the chairs are none too comfy), dark gray concrete floors, and deep, warm tobacco and mustard colors. There's a fine etched steel bar up front specializing in Southern cocktails, and it carries 15 bourbons, along with a few root beers. The winelist, though not extensive, is just about the right size for the kind of no-holds-barred flavors of the food here.
Just point to anything on the menu and you can't go wrong: Fried alligator tail morsels come with an intensely satisfying chili and garlic aïoli, while fried chicken livers, (above) cooked to a turn, get a side of pepper jelly toast. From that admirable boucherie come spicy grilled pork ribs with watermelon pickle (below, right), and hearty headcheese with house-made mustard that provides its own muscle. Feeling green? Go for the iceberg lettuce with buttermilk dressing, bacon, and radishes--not an earth-moving salad but crisp and cool and completely delightful on a warm, muggy day.
O.K., now you get down to business: The steamy open kitchen sends forth wonderful aromas--smoked ham hocks come with nicely gritty grits and truly brown gravy of real substance. Rabbit is tender, buoyed by plenty of tender dumplings, and the oven-roasted Gulf fish is succulent to the bone. There is smoked beef brisket with a horseradish potato salad that would rank with any at a New Yawk deli, but best of all is the pig (cochon) slowly cooked to velvety tenderness, with a crisp skin, served with turnips, cabbage, and pork cracklings. On the side you get tasty twice-baked stuffed potato (T.G.I. Friday's should take a hard look), smothered greens, "eggplant & shrimp dressing," and good old lima beans.
Whether or not you've saved room for dessert, have one, maybe the caramel pudding with chocolate-pecan crisp, or the fabulous lemon-buttermilk pie with a Graham cracker crust. And then there is the Lane cake, a very old Southern favorite you don't see much any more--layers and layers of white cake, coconut, chopped nutsm, and frosting. The waiter will suggest a dessert wine with this, maybe even a glass of Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine.
Cochon is an easy place to love, and it doesn't cost much to do so, with "small plates" $7-$11, a boucherie plate $12, and main courses $12-$18. Sounds pretty dreamy, right?
Dickie Brennan's PALACE CAFE
605 Canal Street
I need not deconstruct (yet again) the family tree of the Brennan family except to say there are two main branches, the one that runs Brennan's (see below) and the one whose various members run various restaurants around New Orleans, as well as Brennan's of Houston. Dickie Brennan is of the latter branch, a big, gregarious guy with a handshake you can trust when he tells you he and his people are going to take real good care of you, whether it's at his Palace Café, Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse, or the Bourbon House. I like them all very, very much, but I hadn't been back for a while to the Palace Cafe, which opened in 1991 and was one of my picks for best new restaurants that year in Esquire, so I decided to have a pleasant little lunch there one day. It was far more than pleasant and not exactly little.
Located on Canal
Chef Darin Nesbit mounts a convincing Creole menu, which used to be biased in terms of seafood but is now more balanced with meat and poultry. Nesbit learned from a master, the late Jamie Shannon at Commander’s Palace, and he went to The Palace Café in 1997, contributing to the restaurant's cookbook, Palace Café: The Flavor of New Orleans. He took over the executive chef's position in 2003.
As at Cochon, charcuterie is housemade here, as are the specialty breads and the ice creams. For starters there is a very rich crawfish pain perdu whose menu description speaks for itself: "Housemade brioche filled with Louisiana crawfish tails, dipped in savory custard and pan-seared and topped with fontina béchamel and sautéed crawfish." That's a lot of prose for a lot of good flavors, and it is significant that it reads "Louisiana crawfish" because these days not all the crawfish being served in Louisiana come from Louisiana.
Flash-fried rabbit is tossed with a satiny beurre blanc and served with celery slaw and cheese crouton, while speckled trout is stuffed with shrimp and crab, then wrapped in bacon to keep it juicy, then baked with fennel, leeks, and scallions, and gloss of Champagne sauce. Then they load on poached oysters and choupique caviar!
Duck is the specialty here and comes in three ways: crisp breast with smoked oyster boudin; citrus-honey glazed with dirty rice; and pepper-crusted with foie gras.
For dessert don't miss the ice cream sandwich with toasted almond cookies or the textbook perfect strawberry shortcake and chocolate Mississippi mud pie.
Appetizers at dinner run $6-$9 and main courses $13-$18.
417 Royal Street
The other side of the Brennan family, led by brother Pip, Ted, and Jimmy (below, under a portrait of their father Owen), along with various nieces and nephews, has been a celebratory place for visitors to the Crescent City since 1946, and though Katrina did not hit the French Quarter with much force, it had the effect of shutting off water and electricity there, ruining restaurants' stocks, refrigerators, and wine cellars, none moreso than Brennan's, which lost one of the most extensive caches of old wines in America.
The Brennans rebounded and restocked, and now, as you walk through the old doors of the salmon-colored building on Royal Street and take a table inside or on the leafy courtyard, you know that things are getting back to normal in New Orleans, which means back to the way it was. You can read the whole pre-Katrina history in the book Breakfast at Brennan's.
One or more of the Brennans is always there, the hospitality of every hostess and maître d' is obviously sincere, the waiters bring over the wrapped loaves of hot bread several times throughout your meal, and the cocktails are nonpareil. The winelist, if not as grand as it once was, is back to 3,000 labels and 35,000 bottles, getting better case by case, month by month, and you'll find what you like on there, with 56 pages to choose from. (Having badgered the Brennans for years, I must once more remind them that their wineglasses should be finer quality.)
The dining rooms, with red brickwork and spacious tables, have a Big Easy formality, though dress codes have loosened up a lot in this sophisticated eating town. There is candlelight and flowers, and arched windows open onto the patio, with its wrought-iron furniture and window on the moonlight and stars.
"Breakfast at Brennan's" is still one of those things every traveler must do once in his or her life, for it is a lavish and delectable spread, ending off with the restaurant's signature bananas Foster, flamed with rum and banana liqueur. There are several very flamboyant egg dishes, many with crabmeat, along with their excellent turtle soup, all for $36.
A four-course $48 dinner is every bit as magnanimous--there are no small portions at Brennan's--and chef Lazone Randolph (below), who took over in 2004, has honed everything on the long menu to a consistency rare in a restaurant of more than 500 seats. Choose among starters like seafood okra gumbo or that wonderful turtle soup, then move on to a wide array of shrimp dishes, almond or pecan-rich trout in a sea of lemon butter, or redfish with crabmeat in a mushroom-wine sauce. The buster crabs with rich Béarnaise make for an unredeemedly rich and delicious dish, and the marchand de vin sauce on the two generous and juicy tournedos is as good as that classic reduction gets.
Then you'll have to decide among the dramatic bananas Foster or the crêpes Fitzgerald, the chocolate pecan pie, or the famous Brennan's cheesecake with strawberries. Then you nurse a good Cognac or Irish whiskey, and the world is spinning around on its axis just fine again.
by John Mariani
PORTER HOUSE NEW YORK
10 Columbus Circle
The Time Warner Center set out to become a beacon of fine dining when it opened three years ago, and, largely it has succeeded, with the haute cuisine of Per Se, the winning modernism of Cafe Gray, the exquisite precision of Masa, and, now, the refined steakhouse that is Porter House New York, in a location on the fourth floor where the very odd V Steakhouse, which looked like the Addams Family designed it, flopped after a little more than a year in business.
The nicely named Porter House New York has reconfigured the space to be the most refined version of a steakhouse in New York one could wish for. It has none of those scruffy steakhouse clichés of the past, none of the yellowing sports memorabilia, none of the razzle-dazzle Vegas-like decor of some newer entries. It's a big place, yet it has a bountiful spaciousness about it--140 seats, big roomy, round booths, no tables crammed in, no lousy tables for out-of-towners, no bad lighting. Broad tables with soft tablecloths, good stemware, and a view of Central Park that makes you swoon, the Jeffrey Beers-designed room is a testament to New York swank without being "swanky."
Have I mentioned that the chef and managing partner here is Michael Lomonaco (below), whose previous stints included `21' Club and Windows on the World (where he escaped within five minutes of the 9/11 disaster)? Lomonaco is one of New York's great pros, as adept at being a field marshall as he is an intense perfectionist, so that what comes out of the kitchen has his eagle-eye approval and what does not come out he has nixed. His superiority has not only to do with his longevity in the New York restaurant landscape but in his dedication to American ingredients and cuisine as it has developed over the last two centuries. He respects the tradition of a porterhouse (a term that came from the fellows called porters around London's Covent Garden who carried beer and spirits to waiting theatergoers), and, while not doing anything exotically new, he manages to make a porterhouse steak or a rack of lamb an epiphany of flavor. Michael Ammirati is chef de cuisine.
Lomonaco is not trying to re-invent the wheel of a genre menu that has proven amazingly durable, so you begin with unstintingly fresh shellfish--oysters, clams, shrimp, mussels, and lobster--or a classic Caesar salad. There are also corn-fried oysters with ancho chile mayo and jalapeño pickles, an excellent crabcake, seared sea scallops with capers and brown butter, and a superlative beef tartare. Everything is of top quality, right down to the bread (not a given in most steakhouses), and the side dishes, like Parmesan-dusted asparagus, fabulously crunchy onion rings, four- cheese macaroni, creamed spinach, and great potatoes--mashed Yukons, hot, meaty French fries, and crisp made-to-order chips. Curious, then, that the only lobster offered is a two-pound--puny by NYC steakhouse standards.
So whaddabout the meat? It's as good as it gets. I have long ago given up trying to decipher which steakhouses in NYC or anywhere else actually get enough USDA Prime beef, much less the minuscule amount of dry-aged beef out there, so I just go by taste, and Porter House delivers it big time. The signature item, served for two but hefty enough for three or four ($84), is everything I hope for in beefiness and age, surface resilience, and crusty char. Colorado lamb chops come as three T-bones--at $38 a downright bargain. And the strip steak is as every bit as delicious in all the right ways. There are four sauces to accompany these cuts, and they are worthwhile in small dabs: you don't want to mask the flavor of those meats, but the Béarnaise is worth a tablespoon or two on the side.
There are also nightly specials, including filet mignon tips, calf's liver with bacon, bone-in filet, cowboy rib steak, braised short ribs, hanger steak, and skirt steak.
Ah, yes, desserts! Well, you've gone this far so go further overboard with crème brûlée, an "Old School" hot fudge and whipped cream sundae, and a delightfully retro pineapple upside-down cake with butter pecan ice cream. You'll leave heavier but happier than when you arrived. All desserts are $10.
By the way, Lomonaco, who has co-hosted the "Epicurious" TV show, has a book Nightly Specials available at the restaurant. Lomonaco might easily have given up his chef's whites and the heat of the kitchen for a career as TV cook or perhaps gotten on the bandwagon of opening of a series of restaurants and eateries with his name on it, and maybe someday he might roll out the Porter House New York concept. Except PHNY seems so quintessentially a part of NYC and its glorious location unique, that I very much doubt a Porter House Cincinnati is in the works.
Porter House New York is open daily, with dinner appetizers ranging from $10-$23, and entrees $58.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
Williams Selyem May Be the Best--and Toughest to Find--Pinot Noir in California
by John Mariani
Begging won’t help. Knowing a guy who knows a guy may.
But patience is pretty much the only way you will ever get to buy a bottle of Williams Selyem Pinot Noir, which I consider
The problem is that a whole lot of other people think so too, so unless you find one of the very few winestores that get a tiny allocation, the only other way to taste Williams Selyem wines is either at a restaurant with its own tiny allocation or by asking to be put on the winery’s subscription list through their website www.williamsselyem.com.
Last week I had the rare privilege of tasting a wide range of the company’s wines at a dinner held at
Such success is uncommon even among
Selyem and Williams believed that pinot noir flourishes best in
After their 1985 Rochioli Pinot Noir won the title of sweepstakes winner and Winery of the Year at the 1987 California State Fair, Williams Selyem’s reputation soared and connoisseurs fell over themselves to get their hands on the wines.
In 1998 John and Kathe Dyson (below), who had subscription number 2080, bought the winery, after being “hand-picked” by Williams and Selyem to succeed them. John Dyson had been Deputy Mayor under Rudolph Giuliani. The couple already owned the Millbrook Winery in New York and vineyards in the Central Coast of California, as well as several distribution and manufacturing companies and an investment fund based in New York. Since taking over Williams Selyem, the Dysons have added other vineyard sites in the Russian River Valley.
They hired Bob Cabral to continue a philosophy he says is “to be truly expressive of individual sites, even though we make all the wines exactly the same way, with the same yeasts, a filter-free method, and the same aging process with as little intervention as possible on the part of the winemaker. I’ve sold wine off in bulk if it doesn’t come up to John’s standards. He just tells me to `get rid of it.’”
The dinner began with two chardonnays, 2002 Hawk Hill Vineyard, with a whopping 15.4 percent alcohol, and a 2004 Allen Vineyard at 14.8 percent. I found them both too pronounced with oak—they are completely barrel fermented and spend 20 months in oak—along with some good toasty notes, while a caramel-like sweetness buoys the wines. They loosened up with a dish of Maine lobster with sea urchin and leek fondue, but I wanted more chardonnay fruit flavor.
The pinot noirs were mostly splendid, however, the 2004 Flax Vineyard, extremely rich, with still-solid tannins that suggest there is a bright future for this wine. The Bucher Vineyard from the same vintage had lovely spice to it and is pretty much ready to drink right now. These admirably accompanied a dish of braised veal-and-cabbage ravioli with morels, fava beans, and truffle consommé.
What I love about Williams Selyem pinots is their concentration and balance, with extraordinary complexity that prevents them from being one of those overextracted California fruit bombs. Still, I do not think they require as much aging in bottle as a Grand Cru Burgundy. I found the nose of both 1996 and 1998 Hirsch Vineyard faint, the tannins way in the background, and the fruit fading. Neither did much for the rich flavors and fat of roasted duck glazed with sweet Black Mission figs.
I was enchanted with two zinfandels served, a 2003 Forchini Vineyard with a staggering 16.2 percent alcohol and a 2003 Bacigalupi Vineyard at 16.3. Both were highly concentrated and raisin-y, and they softened up fast in the glass, perfectly complementing a selection of artisanal cheeses wig fig jam and quince paste.
You’ve got to be lucky to find any bottle of Williams Selyem in a wine store, there is no tasting room at the winery, and the wines do not go cheap on restaurant winelists. But if you’ve got the patience and the money, and you do manage to snag a subscription from the winery, it will be well worth the wait.
John Mariani's weekly wine column appears in Bloomberg Muse News, from which this story was adapted. Bloomberg News covers Culture from art, books, and theater to wine, travel, and food on a daily basis, and some of its articles play of the Saturday Bloomberg Radio and TV.
THEY TRIED PLAYING A JOSH GROBAN SONG BUT PEOPLE KEPT THROWING UP.
Chef Hester Blumenthal of The Fat Duck in Bray, England, is encouraging his guests to listen to certain music on their iPods to increase the intensity of his food flavors. Blumenthal told Square Meal Magazine that he conducted a series of tests with an experimental psychologist at Oxford University and found that when "We ate an oyster while listening to the sounds of the sea, and it tasted stronger and saltier than when we ate it listening to barnyard noises."
WE COULD WATCH THEM FOR HOURS ON END
"I remembered why I relish Indian stations--rambling, desultory places filled with holy men, cows, sleeping families, and men with formidable spitting talents."--Lawrence Osborne, "Karma Express," Condé Nast Traveler (May 2007).
* “The Art of Wine,” curated by Virtual Gourmet contributor Mort Hochstein, runs through June 11 at The Berkshire Museum (413-443-7171), incl. works by Sol LeWitt, Max Ernst, Wassily Kandinsky, and others who created created original art for wine labels for wineries incl. Benziger, Clos Pegase, Frog’s Leap, and others.
* This month the Culinary Institute of America launches “The Sophisticated Palate” at their Greystone campus in the
* On June 16 & 17, 7 the “Taste of the Gaslamp Quarter” in
* From June 18-July 15 a “Royal Afternoon Tea on The Terrace” will be featured at Brunello at The Baglioni Hotel, as devised by Chef Stefano Stecca and revolves around Royal Ascot,
June 25, in Chicago, Share Our
Strength's Taste of the
Nation and American Express will hold "Eat, Drink and End Childhood
Hunger,” when 30 of
* On June 23 the Shores Resort & Spa at
* From June 25-29 Curtain Bluff, Antigua, will host Master Chef André Soltner, former Chef/Owner of NY's award-winning restaurant Lutèce, as guest Chef at the resort. In addition to cooking for guests, Chef Soltner will hold cooking demos and classes with Curtain Bluff's Chef Christophe Blatz. for any guests wishing to participate. Guests booking NOW through June 25th can take advantage of these classes, which will be complimentary to any guest booking an Executive Suite or higher category room. Special Summer Rates of $595 per couple apply, incl. all meals, activities and cooking classes. Call 1-888-289-9898 or visit www.curtainbluff.com.
* On June 27 Mantra Restaurant in
* From June 28-July 1 “The 26th Annual Kapalua Wine & Food Festival” will be held at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua at Kapalua Resort, Maui, hosted by Fred Dame, Master Sommelier, with winemakers and celebrity chefs, exclusive dinners, wine tastings of more than 100 wines, cooking demonstrations, gourmet meals, tennis and golf. 4-day admission - $750 pp. Other events individually priced. Special KWFF accommodation and ticket packages available. Call 1-866-669-2440 or visit www.kapalua.com.
* From June 29-July 2 Jean-Francois Meteigner of La Cachette in
* Eric Chavot, Chef of The Capital Hotel in
Everett Potter's Travel Report:
I consider this the best and savviest blog of its kind on the web. Potter is a columnist for USA Weekend, Diversion, Laptop and Luxury Spa Finder, a contributing editor for Ski and a frequent contributor to National Geographic Traveler, ForbesTraveler.com and Elle Decor. "I’ve designed this site is for people who take their travel seriously," says Potter. "For travelers who want to learn about special places but don’t necessarily want to pay through the nose for the privilege of staying there. Because at the end of the day, it’s not so much about five-star places as five-star experiences." To go to his blog click on the logo below:
Tennis Resorts Online: A Critical Guide to the World's Best Tennis Resorts and Tennis Camps, published by ROGER COX, who has spent more than two decades writing about tennis travel, including a 17-year stretch for Tennis magazine. He has also written for Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel, New York Magazine, Travel & Leisure, Esquire, Money, USTA Magazine, Men's Journal, and The Robb Report. He has authored two books-The World's Best Tennis Vacations (Stephen Greene Press/Viking Penguin, 1990) and The Best Places to Stay in the Rockies (Houghton Mifflin, 1992 & 1994), and the Melbourne (Australia) chapter to the Wall Street Journal Business Guide to Cities of the Pacific Rim (Fodor's Travel Guides, 1991). Click on the logo below to go to the site.
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.
Any of John Mariani's books below
may be ordered from amazon.com by clicking on the cover image.