Virtual Gourmet

February 17, 2008                                                        NEWSLETTER

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In This Issue

HONG KONG, PART 3 by John A. Curtas

NEW YORK CORNERGrayz by John Mariani

NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLARDuckhorn Still Sets the Mark for American Merlot by John Mariani

by John A. Curtas

     Modern  Hong Kong resembles an Asian Las Vegas crossed with New York City The multitude of gleaming towers compete with the Big Apple for skyscraper supremacy, and sparkling new hotels and mega-malls are everywhere, and contain many of the best restaurants in town.  Some might bemoan the internationalization of the city, but all this progress means that, whatever your tastes run, you can pretty much satisfy them with a selection of restaurants run by the world’s culinary stars.
   One of the biggest stars is Pierre Gagnaire, who, along with Alain Ducasse (Spoon) and Joël Robuchon (L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon), has established a French presence here.  Having eaten nine years ago at Gagnaire’s namesake restaurant in Paris, I wonderd how his cuisine might have matured and how well it would travel nine thousand miles from his homeland.
I still remember a dish of sweetbreads impaled on a cinnamon stick, set beneath a teepee of smoldering cinnamon that was beyond delicious but so intricately constructed I knew not whether to eat it or start playing cowboys and Indians with the food.  While not as outrageous as the wacky Spanish in his embrace of molecular gastronomy, Gagnaire has always been considered one of the more inventive and cutting edge French chefs, and how those avant-garde urges played to a Chinese audience was something I had to see.

       Fascinating in its own right is the entrance to Pierre à Hong Kong (5 Connaught Road (Central); (852) 2825 4001) atop the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.  Having an eight-foot video screen of Gagnaire's face and food greet you as you proceed down the corridor to the hostess station is definitely non-traditional, and an advertisement that you are in the presence of greatness, in case you had any doubt.  I expected plenty of dazzle factor from that food, but I didn’t expect having M. Gagnaire at that station to greet me as I arrived for lunch. Putting myself in his and manager/sommelier Alexandre Usseglio’s hands, the dégustation turned out to be just the thing to measure how his cuisine has changed over the years.
     The sleek, modern room (above) has only twelve tables, most as low-slung banquettes wrapped in chocolate brown leather; they are remarkably intimate.  No matter where you sit, you will have an unobstructed view of Victoria Harbor through giant picture windows that frame the room, as well as a front row seat for the power lunches and dinners going on all around you.
       Like many of the courses, the first offering of roasted bread beef jelly with melted Beaufort cheese and chorizo, with Boudeuses oysters sitting in a lightly smoked beetroot purée, sounded complicated, looked simple, and tasted divine. Next came the simplest dish of the eight courses: Imperial prawns with pink grapefruit, pears and pineapple cubes sitting in a crab-and-verbena-flavored aspic (left), followed by de-constructed cuttlefish,  in a tomato ravioli with tuna and grilled baby squid,  a perfect melding of earth, sea, sharp and mellow flavors.
    What arrived next looked like a Caesar Salad topped with ice cream, which turned out to be an intermezzo of romaine greens, girolles, trompettes, and Medjoul dates tossed in coconut milk and topped with a savory tarragon and apple sorbet. It won my award for the best-tasting, most innocuous-looking dish I have ever eaten.  The next course resembled sea bass topped with Captain Crunch, but the crispy things on top were puffed and crunchy wheat grains, so the breakfast cereal analogy wasn’t far off.  As the three-hour lunch hit the home stretch, a confit-like roasted wild duck, wrapped around sauerkraut, green cabbage and caramelized salsify appeared in a port wine sauce so rich I thought the British must have never left the island.
     The cheese course (right) was a wonder in its own right--Mimolette with chopped spinach and a diced mango and vegetable broth jelly, Muenster with almond cream, and Bleu d’Auvergne alongside sultanas and yellow carrot sticks.  Dessert was a simple affair, if you call a wine poached orange slice wrapped around mascarpone cheese and showered with white truffles, simple. In all, the meal was inventive without being overwrought, and gutsier and a tad more conservative than I remember Gagnaire’s cuisine being from a decade ago.  But I can’t imagine food being any better.

The prix fixe dégustation lunch at
Pierre à Hong Kong is priced at approximately $250/USD.
      After the pirouettes by Pierre, my final two non-Chinese meals were somewhat anti-climactic.  Restaurant Pétrus (852 2820 8590), high above the Island Shangri-La Hotel (Pacific Place, Supreme Court Road, Central), with a 56th floor spectacular view of Hong Kong harbor. The restaurant is helmed by Chef Frédéric Chabbert and was much more conservative in its approach to the cuisine classique of France. (It is not associated with the London restaurant of the same name by Gordon Ramsay). That didn’t make it any less satisfying, only less intellectual.  I asked Chabbert about his pan-seared duck liver with pear and sunchokes in a Jura Vin Jaune reduction, and he told me no one in Hong Kong will drink the idiosyncratic and slightly oxidized “yellow” wine but that it makes a perfect sauce for foie gras, and he was right. Chabbert’s food, such as his Charolais beef with macaroni gratin and a rich mustard sauce and a fricassée of Bresse chicken with crayfish, was perfectly executed. There is an eye-popping, 36-page wine list that will delight Bordeaux lovers, and those not blessed with a trust fund or a seven-figure income will find plenty of well priced, half bottles to choose from.
The design, befitting the name and Chabbert's cuisine,  puts one in mind of a grand Parisian dining salon, albeit one with a bird's eye view of one of the most spectacular skylines on earth.

Starter courses at Pétrus are $30-45USD  and main courses run $47-72USD.
     The food at Aqua (One Peking Road Tsim Sha Tsui, 852 3427 2288), is an international mix of novella Italian with nouveau Japanese, and it succeeds about as well as you might expect from such a mixed metaphor.  A couple of guidebooks recommended the Italian food at this trendy 2-in-1 restaurant, but to my taste buds the oversized sushi was the clear winner.  The menu claimed its timballo de rigatoni was a classic 18th century recipe, but I’m fairly sure that a single, large vertical rigatoni stuffed with duck confit in a light tomato sauce dusted with Parmesan cheese never appeared on a Doge’s table.  The sushi (right), however, was impeccably presented, had the clearest and cleanest flavors, and didn’t try too hard to impress the way the crazy pasta dishes did.
    But the real reason to book a table at this top floor restaurant is the view a table affords you for the nightly laser show that lights up
Victoria Harbor from 44 separate buildings.   That show, and the overall stunning harbor views, will make you forget about the food, which is done better in Tokyo and Bologna anyway.
    Aqua's steel and glass décor is über-trendy, bi-level, and cutting-edge, just like its customers and staff (not to mention their haircuts!)  It's noisy, designed to be obsolete in a few years, and totally beside the point.  Whether you like it or not will depend upon whether you think antique is a verb.
Italian main courses at Aqua run from $32-40USD, and Japanese main courses are priced at  $23-70USD.

          As I was traveling with someone under the impression there were things to do in Hong Kong other than eat, shopping and sightseeing occasionally intruded upon my day.  But I did find three outdoor markets that are a must-see for anyone interested in what’s left of the traditional Cantonese food scene.  Hawkers (outdoor street food vendors) have disappeared on the streets of Hong Kong, and unlike Singapore, they haven’t found a new home in government approved food courts.  So the closest you can come to the Hong Kong of fifty years ago is by taking a stroll through the fresh food markets on Bowrington Road in Causeway Bay, Reclamation Street in Kowloon, or Peel Street off Hollywood Road in Central.  Bowrington Road seemed to be the place for butchers and fishmongers, while the other two were more about greengrocers displaying their wares of exotic fruits, vegetables, and the occasional basket of live frogs awaiting a tasty fate.  As a westerner, I tried to look past our notions of hygiene, and ignored (and eventually became amused by) the bare-chested butchers dropping cigarette ashes to and fro.  The beautiful chaos of these markets serve as a reminder that the Chinese, despite modernization and westernization, retain a closeness to what they eat that we can only dream about, making Hong Kong one of the most amazing and flavorful places on the planet.--J.A.C.
Since 1995, John A. Curtas has been commenting on the Las Vegas food scene and reviewing restaurants for Nevada Public Radio.  He is also the restaurant critic for KLAS TV, Channel 8 in Las Vegas, and his past reviews can be accessed at




13-15 West 54th Street

     gray Kunz has twice proven himself one of Manhattan's master chefs, first at Lespinasse in the St. Régis Hotel (now Alain Ducasse's brand new Adour), then at Café Gray in the Time-Warner Center at Columbus Circle--both very dramatic venues. So it might have been expected that his next venture would have some spectacle about it, and architecturally, he could hardly have chosen a better known landmark--a building across from Museum of Modern Art that was once Nelson Rockefeller's townhouse and then the original premises of Aquavit (now relocated to East 55th Street).
      One of the most striking features of Aquavit was a waterfall in the subterranean dining room (above) whose ceiling soars upwards for several stories. For reasons I can't begin to imagine, the waterfall is now kaput, and that splendid dining area is now reserved for private functions. Indeed, Grayz has been positioned as a function space, with visual and audio elements and a smaller private dining room upstairs at the level below the street where you enter.  There in the main dining room they still have the old
herringbone pattern antique wood floors, buttery leather seats and banquettes called "demi-lune sofas," and a  sexy, well-lighted bar (below).  It is all very sophisticated in a very New York way.  Surprisingly the next floor down, whose only pleasing feature is a wine wall, is as dreary and drab as the upstairs room is cosmopolitan and  colorful. Keeping the noise level down is easily accomplished by turning down the bass-and-boom of the canned music.
       There is a pun in the name of the restaurant, for the menu is mostly small plates, although main courses at dinner can rise to $39.  Grayz is one of those more casual but not inexpensive restaurants for which Joël Robuchon's L'Atelier concept gave the nod to important chefs that already include Ducasse and Gordon Ramsay, on the assumption that people want wider choice, smaller portions, and less formality in the dining room--all of which is admirable.  You can certainly just drop into Grayz and order a little of this or a lot of that, though you'll have a tough time sharing the plates with friends.  The small dishes are certainly ample and the prices are pretty fair for this degree of posh, mostly $11-$18, with some a delicious foie gras terrine with truffles in millefeuille pastry with parsnip, chanterelles and a Port wine jus at $22.  There is also a 5-course tasting menu at $85 that is good value, and the winelist has something for everyone's budget, along with a slew of novel cocktails.
     The service staff, led by manager George Atterbury, is as finely tuned and attentive as any in New York.  Just don't let them sit you in that room downstairs.
     Among the "finger food and small plates" there were plenty of winners, including that truffled foie gras, and applewood smoked salmon with hickory salmon caviar and bourbon maple-syrup, which would make as good a late breakfast dish as I can imagine.  Salt-stone grilled prawns were juicy and smoky, with a kaffir-scented rémoulade, and a hearty veal weisswurst with mustard came with just about the best pretzels you'll find in New York (don't get me started on those hard, cold, cardboard-like, salty horrors they sell on the street corners!).
      Larger plates include seared venison loin with red cabbage, chestnuts, and lingonberry-salmis sauce, a grilled branzino with a classic Champagne beurre blanc sauce dotted with caviar,  and grilled red snapper in a court bouillon--each dish showing Kunz's classic precision to a T. The same goes for his crisp roasted duckling with pears, Brussels sprouts and a light cider reduction.  And in a city swarming with braised short ribs, Kunz's were superlative, with creamed spinach and an assertive tarragon and horseradish emulsion.  For dessert go with a soufflé--again classic--served with a blood orange salad.
       I have not had lunch at Grayz, when the menu is lighter and quite a bit different, but I suspect everything here shows the underpinnings of a master chef.
                                                                                                                 Gray Kunz
Grayz is open for lunch Mon.-Fri., for dinner Mon.-Sat.


Duckhorn Still Sets the Mark for American Merlot
by John Mariani

                                                   Duckhorn Vineyards, St. Helena, California

     When I got an invitation back in 1980 to attend a wine media dinner to be held by Napa Valley’s Duckhorn Vineyards at New York’s Four Seasons restaurant, I shrugged and thought it would be just another nice evening out. I knew nothing about Dan and Margaret Duckhorn or their wines—they’d only founded their winery in 1976—and was very surprised when they poured merlot.
     Back in the late 1970s few California wineries gave much thought to merlot except as a nice blending varietal to smooth out big tannic cabernets, then the prestige wines of the era. No one bothered to imagine they could make a great wine like Bordeaux like Château Pétrus (about $1,000 a bottle), which is made predominantly from merlot. But that night at The Four Seasons was a moment when the wine world—at least for the media at the dinner—shook, with delight.
      I remember very clearly smelling and tasting the wine, with a definite but very pleasant herbal nose. What amazed me was the complexity and richness, the soft tannins, and the sheer brightness of a varietal I had mostly dismissed in the past.
      As impressed as I was, at the time I had no way of knowing if any but Duckhorn’s merlots had a future. As it worked out, largely because of Duckhorn’s efforts, merlot soon became an enormous success story among California winemakers, Costing far less than cabernet sauvignon, the wine hit the right sweet spot for a burgeoning generation of Americans ready for something so easy to drink, adaptable to so many foods, and,  by the 1980s,  so readily available.  And, as the “Oxford Companion to Wine” (third edition, 2006) notes, DNA research suggests that merlot “is likely to be the progeny of cabernet franc . . . and probably half-brother to cabernet sauvignon.”
     Merlot plantings grew exponentially (it is the predominant red grape planted in France). The problem was, as ever, that success translated into scores of California wineries producing oceans of terrible, one-dimensional merlots. Beringer even produced a white merlot to compete with white zinfandel, and in 1985 a Napa company began marketing Marilyn Merlot, with labels showing the late actress and rights obtained from her estate.
     By the 1990s merlot was experiencing double digit sales growth, from 1.6 millions cases in 1995 to 7.8 million in 2005, and it is still the leading red varietal purchased by Americans today. But sales started to flatten out in 2004—not coincidentally the same year the hit movie “Sideways” came out, in which pinot noir snob Miles Raymond screams, “I’m not drinking any #%^** merlot!”
     Merlot’s fall from grace after that movie came out had many winedrinkers switching to pinot noir, and I can’t say I blame them. Too many California merlots are boring wines at best and dreadful plonk at worst.
      Then this past weekend at home I happened to open a bottle of Duckhorn’s 2004 Estate Grown Napa Valley Merlot ($85), which I drank, oddly enough, with filet of cod with slices of chorizo sausage and coco bean puree. I chose merlot because the sharp, spicy chorizo needed a soft red wine, and the cod needed something not too complex.
      My first sip time-warped me right back to that dinner in 1980.  The wine was luscious, its tannins solid but softening, its fruit tremendous, and its bouquet smelled of the soil it came from, along with sage and plum notes. Made from 95 percent merlot and 5 percent cabernet franc, aged for 20 months in new French oak, with 14.5 percent alcohol, it is a wine that can age but doesn’t need five to ten years like Pétrus.
      With a loin of roast pork, I also tried Duckhorn’s 2005 entry level merlot ($52). While not as rich or complex, it was a good, solid, racy example of what made Duckhorn’s merlots so appealing in the first place. (Duckhorn also makes several single estate merlots, along with Paraduxx, a zinfandel-cabernet sauvignon blend, and Goldeneye, a pinot noir.)
      Just to see what the competition was up to, I also tried a Bookster Napa Valley Merlot 2005 ($35), about which I knew nothing. It was massive, so tannic, even after two hours of decanting, that I thought I was drinking Indigo ink. Had it been the only merlot I tasted this year, I might well have given up on the varietal.  But as long as Duckhorn still bears the standard, I will happily keep drinking the #*&*% merlot.
To visit Duckhorn, check their website at

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.


A 24-year-old Italian tourist was given a drip-feed of 100-proof vodka at an Australian hospital after doctors ran out of medicinal alcohol to treat him after he swallowed an antifreeze ingredient, ethylene glycol, which can cause renal failure. The drip-feed of vodka equaled about three drinks an hour for the three days the man spent in intensive care. The patient made a successful recovery.


"I swam naked in La Jolla.  It was on a warm autumn night almost 30 years ago when I and a group of friends from UCSD stripped bare, scrambled into the water, and splashed around like goofy seals.  We didn't worry that the police might nab us. We didn't think what we were doing was particularly risky or wild.  San Diego was smaller then, and less sophisticated.  It was only a few years after I skinny-dipped at the Cove when I first ate at George's at the Cove."--Abe Opincar, "By George," From a restaurant review in Riviera Magazine (2007).


* From Feb. 28-March 3  The Bermuda Gourmet Getaway will be hosted by Hell’s Kitchen winner Rahman ‘Rock’ Harper, incl. Boston’s Todd Winer, The Metropolitan Club;   Matt Gennuso,  Chez Pascal in Providence;  Jason Wilson,  Crush  in Seattle; Jon Ashton,   CW’s “The Daily Buzz.” To be held at various locations, incl. The Elbow Beach Hotel Bermuda, Fairmont Southampton Hotel Bermuda, Coco Reef Resort and Riddell’s Bay Golf and Country Club.Events incl. guest chef and winemaker dinners, brunch at a local organic farm, ‘Chillin’ and Grillin’ at Bermuda Aquarium Museum and Zoo.  Visit or call 441-278-8896.

* From Feb. 29-March 2 the Sixth Annual Boca Bacchanal Winefest & Auction presented by Boca Raton Magazine, Boca Raton Resort & Club and Republic National Distributing Company will hold a live auction to support educational causes , with 8 Vintner Dinners ($325 pp) at private residences on Fri.  evening; a Sat. evening Bacchanal & Auction ($250) at the Boca Raton Resort & Club, and the Sunday Grand Tasting ($75), with a “revelry on the green” at the Centre for the Arts at Mizner Park Amphitheatre, with 30 local restaurants and more than 140 wines. Call 561-395-6766.

* From Feb. 29-March 3, the Southeast Regional Conference of the American Culinary Federation will meet at the Williamsburg Lodge, in Williamsburg, VA,.  Chef sHans Schadler and Rhys Lewis, and the Virginia Chefs Association welcome chefs from the southeastern U.S. for events incl. contests, demos, training and information on the current trends under the theme "A Culinary Revolution." Programs incl. "Indigenous Foods of the Americas: Changing the Way the World Eats";  "Secrets of the Chocolate Maker"; "Global Flavors and Your Menu"; "Truffle Trivia"; "Through the Grapevine: A Williamsburg Wine Experience"; "Foods of the Titanic";  American Academy of Chefs Dinner. Visit Call 1-800-HISTORY or visit

* Beginning in March, Norfolk, VA, will host more than 65 public festivals and events designed to showcase the region's music, culture, history and food.  This year's highlights incl. Spring Town Point Virginia Wine Festival May 9-10. For more info, call (757) 441-2345 or visit;  Virginia Beer Festival May 16-17. Call (757) 282-2800; Bayou Boogaloo & Cajun Food Festival, June 20-22; call (757) 441-2345.

  On March 2 and 3, the James Beard Foundation will honor winemaker Christian Moueix of Dominus Estate and Château Pétrus at the 3rd Legends of Wine event in Napa Valley, hosted by chef/owner Ken Frank of La Toque in Rutherford,  with wine tastings, wine dinners, and a vineyard tour with Moueix.  Proceeds benefit the Foundation and the La Toque Scholarship in Wine Studies. Full VIP package for all events is $6,000 pp. For the gala dinner on March 3,  $1,200. Call (800) 36-Beard or (212) 627-2308.  Special rate for accommodations  at  the Harvest Inn (St. Helena). Call (800) 950-8466 or (707) 963-9463;

* Dublin’s Merrion Hotel features a St. Patrick's Festival Offer and a St. Patrick's ShamrockPackage.The Offer incl. accommodations in a superior double or twin room in the hotel's Garden Wing, full Irish breakfast, and Black Velvet cocktails. Valid from March 13-19, at 355 Euros ($533). The St. Patrick's Shamrock Package incl.  2 nights in a superior double or deluxe twin room, full Irish breakfast, Black Velvet cocktails on arrival and  grandstand tickets and picnic lunch for the St. Patrick's Day Festival Parade on  March 17, at 795 Euros ($1,193).  Call 353 1 603 0600, or 1-800-223-6800. Visit

* The New York Wine Expo will be held March 7 & 8 at the Jacob Javits Convention Center, featuring more than 600 wines from more than 170 global winemakers.   In addition to sampling, consumers can learn from the experts at a wide range of seminars designed for all levels of wine lovers.  Topics include wine tasting, wine and food pairings, wine serving, selecting the right vintage, among others.  Mark Oldman, one of the country's leading wine educators as well as the Wine Columnist for "Every Day With Rachael Ray" will be delivering the Keynote Address entitled "Outsmart Wine with Mark Oldman" on Saturday. Tickets can be purchased in advance online at and at the door on the day of the event.


NEW FEATURE: I am happy to  report that the Virtual Gourmet is  linking up with two excellent travel sites:

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,  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."  This week, a report on "HOTELS FOR RECESSIONARY TIMES."


Tennis Resorts OnlineA 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, Suzanne Wright, John A. Curtas, 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 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. It was 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 2008