Virtual Gourmet

March 16,  2008                                                        NEWSLETTER

Pasticceria in Bergamo, Italy (2007). Photo by Galina Stepanoff-Dargery

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In This Issue


NEW YORK CORNERBlue Hill at Stone Barns by John Mariani

by John Mariani


by John Mariani
Photos by Galina Stepanoff-Dargery

      There is probably no more indelible image in Ernest Hemingway’s writings about Spain than the running of the bulls in Pamplona in his novel The Sun Also Rises.  Beginning on July 6, the Fiesta San Fermin still goes for nine days of hectic eating, drinking, and bull running (which begins the second day), just as Hemingway described it.     Ever since the book’s publication in 1926, people from all over the world jam into Pamplona for San Fermin,  reserving every room in town far in advance, cramming into the same plazas and the same bars Hemingway wrote about.     
But for the other 355 days of the year Pamplona is a very convivial and beautiful small city, considerably more cosmopolitan than when Hemingway first visited but still retaining the same charms of historic Navarra and northern Spanish culture, from the 14th century Gothic cathedral to the Plaza del Toros, next to which is a street named—try to guess!--Paseo Hemingway. Papa certainly left his mark here.

     Hemingway’s favorite hotel was Gran Hotel La Perla--in the novel called "La Montoya"--on one corner of the broad Plaza del Castillo. His favorite room was No. 217, now re-numbered as 201. The hotel was just re-opened by new owners this past year after a complete renovation, with very modern white rooms (left) and huge wall photos of the days when the novelist wrote about the city.  I had a room that overlooked the sun-drenched Plaza, which is thronged with people from noon onward.
     In the downstairs dining room (below) at La Perla large windows look out onto a street where, at eight o’clock on the mornings of San Fermin, the bulls rumble by, not so much in pursuit of those terrified, white-shirted, red scarfed crazies who have come here to be chased but in a headlong rush to get the hell out of the streets and back to the bullring.
      You can actually have breakfast here at the window and watch the spectacle over coffee and a Spanish omelet.  At night the eight-table restaurant at La Perla is one of the best in the city, full of matador memorabilia, including two bull’s heads, provided by matador Lalo Moreña. The hotel has here commemorated a famous older restaurant run by nine sisters (closed in 2000), called the Hostel  del Rey Noble. You nibble on fried olives with a glass of cold Sherry, then move on to piquillo peppers stuffed with salt cod, or cut into juicy roast lamb, and drink a Navarra wine like the deep-colored Otazu Reserva. Finish off with an Ochoa Muscatel while enjoying the complimentary almond-lemon tuile cookies and chocolate truffles.  Dinner will run you about 35 Euros per person, without wine, but including tax and service.
The beautiful Plaza del Castillo is ringed with cafés, including the Bar Txoko (now a completely nondescript tourist haunt); at the other end if the Café Iruña (below), a very large restaurante with art nouveau décor, simple regional cooking, and very sunny outdoor tables.  There's usually a wait for lunch and dinner, with many tourists on line, but the locals make a Sunday meal here of standard Navarra fare. (Hemingway, of course, frequented both these places.)  The best café in town is right behind the dull Txoko. This is the very gregarious, always packed, clean well-lighted place called the Bar Gaucho on the  Calle Espoz y Mina whose tapas (here called pintxos) have won many awards in the region.  It's a very pretty spot, with a tile mural of seafarers, a polished bar, and well-lighted displays of both hot and cold tapas.  Also, on the street behind La Perla and off the Plaza called Estafeta, where the bulls run, there are probably a dozen or more tapas places, some quite obvious in their hustling for tourists.
     If you’re going to the bullfights in the arena, which start around 6:30 in the evening, tapas bars are your best bet to get something to eat. Afterwards, or at midday or for dinner, Casa Otano (5 Calle San Nicolas) is a very popular, handsome, two-story rustic restaurant in the charming Casco Viejo (old town), just off the Plaza del Castillo. It's been here since 1913, and has two dining rooms upstairs (below), with brick walls, stained glass windows, wooden ceiling beams, and some pretty  awful paintings.Here you can enjoy a bowl of steaming red beans thick with carrots, cauliflower, and pork rind (sometimes with a few bristles still intact), and baked merluza (hake) with a sauce of garlic and onions. Pork cheeks in red wine are good and hearty, too, with an unexpected pear sauce. Tagliatelle with shrimp and scallions was quite rich, a little skimpy of the shrimp, though. For dessert have the flan drizzled with honey or the yogurt-based cuajada soufflé with sugar crust.
      There's a 21 Euro fixed price lunch, and at dinner figure on about 40 euros, without wine, but including tax and tip. The winelist is pretty thorough in Spanish and Navarra bottlings, with plenty priced under 15 Euros.

    At night take your seat on the Plaza, drink a few Spanish brandies, and begin to realize that life's greatest gifts to Ernest Hemingway were his appetite and his being born in a century that allowed him to indulge it. No one traveled more widely or immersed himself so deeply in the culture of a place, picking up the language on the street, so that he could say with certainty, "If a man is making up a story it will be true in proportion to the amount of knowledge of life that he has and how conscientious he is."  And you can sit there with your brandy and say to yourself, yes, this is just the way Hemingway promised it would be.

by John Mariani
Photos by Michael Moran

Blue Hill at Stone Barns

 630 Bedford Road
Pocantico Hills, NY

     Not since Louis XIV moved his palace to Versailles in 1642 has a chef and dining room been more blessed by largess than Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York, about an hour's drive from Manhattan.
      Set on 80 acres of the Stone Barns Center, with a 22,000 square foot greenhouse, the estate had been a Rockefeller family farm. David Rockefeller donated the estate to the non-profit educational Center, along with $30 million, and leased the restaurant to Chef Dan Barber, who owns it with his brother David and his wife Laureen, along with the tiny, eight-year-old Blue Hill restaurant in New York City. The Stone Barns branch opened four years ago.
      Barber gathers many of his ingredients from the Center’s farm—all raised without use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides—along with sheep, turkeys, black pigs, and hens. Barber’s definition of “fast food” is food that came up from the farm that day, sometimes minutes before being cooked.
      New York architect Asfour Guzy gutted the old barn to install the restaurant, for which British artist Ben McLaughlin painted a huge triptych evoking the land and seasons of the Hudson Valley.
      Blue Hill’s winelist, with 750 selections and 15,000 bottles is one of the finest in the U.S., overseen by sommelier Thomas Carter.  It is particularly rich in small estate American labels, including New York State, many from vineyards devoted to sustainable farming. Most amazing are the scores of terrific wines priced under $50 on the list.
      So why a review of Blue Hill now, four years after it opened? Because I feel that it has taken that much time to become the singularly superb restaurant I hoped it would be from the start. Back in 2004 I found the concept, the dedication, and the beauty of Blue Hill wholly admirable, but I also found the food too precious, even pretentious. Everything seemed topped with stringy, flavorless micro-greens that got stuck in your teeth. Portions were small, sauces minimal, and flavors lacked real intensity.
     Now, however, after two recent visits—one at twilight in autumn, another on a cold winter’s night—I found every aspect of fine dining has come together at Blue Hills, from the perfect temperature for butter and cheeses to the hearty seasonings of the farm-made charcuterie and the crusty, yeasty breads.
      You can choose anything from anywhere on the menu, categorized as “Greenhouse/Field,” “Ocean/River,” “Handmade Pasta,” and “Pasture,” or go for the 7-course “Farmer’s Feast” ($110) or the 4-course “Stone Barns Dinner” ($78).  The kitchen always sends out a few amuses, like the juicy little tomato burgers with herbed goat’s cheese, or a shooter of what might be described as V-8 Juice made by a master chef.
      Whatever vegetables you order, they will possess all the tenderness and sweetness of the season. Thus, greens and herbs plucked that afternoon from the greenhouse come to the table with warm mushrooms, pistachios, and “this morning’s” soft-fried hen’s egg. Right now root vegetables star in a beet salad with cheese torchon, walnuts, and mâche lettuce. Cobia—not the most flavorful fish in the sea—is enhanced with a pistou of winter veggies and beans, while gnocchi pasta dumplings come with local cheeses, sweet potatoes, and chestnuts; tortellini are packed with pumpkin purée and dressed with hazelnuts, escarole, and shiitake mushrooms.
      Some of the best grilled Spanish mackerel I’ve had came with marinated spaghetti squash and the farm’s yogurt, while braised hake is served with winter fruit and “black dirt” spinach from Orange County.
      Among the meats there is Hudson Valley venison with farro grain from faraway South Carolina. The lamb is brought in by Rabbi Bob from upstate New York, and Barber serves it with chickpeas, hummus, and squash. The farm’s own black pigs are the basis for a pork dish with smoked ham hocks, fromage blanc dumplings, and celery root.
      Don’t neglect a cheese course, which may include Mrs. Quicke’s Clothbound Cheddar from Devon, England; Selles-sur-Cher from the Loire Valley, and Accapella from Petaluma, California.
     And for dessert go with the chocolate bread pudding with chocolate sauce and coffee ice cream or any of the season’s fruits in items like the cranberry soufflé with yogurt sorbet. desserts.
      Cooking in such a gorgeous Hudson Valley setting with access to the freshest and best ingredients allows Barber (right) and his kitchen brigade to experiment in synch with the natural order of things. Now, after four years, that synchronization is fully engaged, from farm to table, with results that make you wonder if this is what it was like in the Garden of Eden before Eve ate that apple.
Blue Hills at Stone Barns is closed Mon. & Tues. 3 courses, $65; Four courses, $78; 4-course “Stone Barns Dinner,” $78.  7-course “Farmer’s Feast,” $110.



Right Bank Bordeaux Producers Give a Peek at the 2007 Vintage
by John Mariani
Bordeaux vintner Docteur Alain Raynaud of Château Quinault watched the future walk right by him at Auction Napa Valley. “It was the 2002 auction, the year after 9/11,” recalls Raynaud. “One of the biggest wine collectors from Texas arrived in his own helicopter, and I was standing there to greet him, and he just went right by me without even nodding. Right then I knew French wines were in trouble.”
     Indeed, the American antagonism towards all things French hit wineries immediately. “Before 9/11, seventy percent of our exports were to the U.S.,” says Raynaud, 60,
who is consultant to and President of the vintners of Cercle Rive Droite, an organization of Bordeaux producers on the right bank of the Gironde River. “After that they dropped thirty percent.”
      Only slowly have exports to the U.S. crept back up, at a time when total sales of French wines have been decreasing both in France and worldwide.  The sale of the best-known, ultra-expensive Bordeaux wines, like Lafite-Rothschild, Margaux, and Pétrus, still sell every bottle they can produce, but below those in the top rankings, many Bordeaux producers have been foundering.
      Raynaud was in New York this week with 30 Cercle producers to show off the 2007 vintage “en primeurs”—wines from the barrel that will not be released in bottle until spring of 2009. “French wines used to be acknowledged as the best in the world,” says Raynaud, who also consults for an Argentinean winery, “and we competed among ourselves. Today there are so many countries making wine as good as we do in France that the market is much tougher. Still, we in Bordeaux have to remain true to ourselves and to the terroir of the region. We shouldn’t try to make wines that taste like so many others in the world.”                                                 Le Pont de Pierre over the Gironde River, Bordeaux
      Fortunately Cercle Rive Droite producers have not suffered the dramatic slump other French wine regions have. Consistency from vintage to vintage has been the key. “Through technology we have learned how to make up for the kind of poor vintages we used to have, like 1972, 1973, and 1974,” he says. “Now, even when we have terrible weather, frost, and mildew we cannot control, we can compensate in many ways with a smaller, healthier crop.  The simple training of the vines is so different than before; we remove buds and leaves and reduce the size of the crop; we don’t use screw conveyors to bruise the fruit and mix them with weeds. This all means healthier grapes, so that we can manage to make good wines even in weak years, and great wines in very good years.”
      The 2007 vintage, of which I tasted about 30 examples poured for the trade and media at Chanterelle restaurant in New York, proved Raynaud’s point. The growing season was not at all promising, with little rain in early summer, then showers in late summer; then a lack of warmth and sun delayed the ripening for weeks. Finally, good weather arrived in September and October. “Summer had to take place sooner or later!” wrote wine consultant Michel Roland in a report for the Cercle on the 2007 vintage.
      The topsy-turvy weather resulted in an uneven harvest in some parts of the region, but the best of the 2007s have emerged with good, soft tannins, balanced alcohol levels, and plenty of fruit flavors.
      I was particularly delighted that the taste of the various terroirs, all dominated by merlot in the blends, were maintained: Wines from Fronsac, like Château Moulin Haut Laroque, Château Dalem, and Château de La Dauphine, were silky and had good mineral qualities; Pomerols like Château Bonalgue, Clos du Clocher, and Clos l’Église were already pretty forward and promise to be delicious upon release; the wines from Saint-Émilion châteaux, like Barde-Haut, Pressac, La Rose Perrière, and Clos des Jacobins, had the characteristic brawniness and woody tannins of the terroir, with a powerful burst of fruit.  Alcohol was for the most part kept under 14 percent.
      At prices that will retail between $35 and $50, these wines should sell well, though they are in a niche of French wines for those who particularly love the subtle complexity of Right Bank Bordeaux.
      In U.S. restaurants these wines will sell for double or triple that. But, as Raynaud notes, “You’re lucky. In France a restaurant well charge five times the retail price! But our own production costs are soaring: transportation costs have risen 15 percent in two years, and we don’t have the cheap labor other countries have to pick our grapes. If a bottle of our wine costs $10 to make, we can’t sell it for $15 retail and make any profit.”
     Cercle wines now sell 40 percent of their production in France, with Belgium, Great Britain, and the U.S. the biggest export markets. “The U.S. used to be number one,” he says. Cercle is therefore looking to expand to other world markets, but Raynaud is still wary of China. “It’s difficult to get money out of China. We ship a container and they just don’t pay for it. It’s going to take a while to straighten those things out.”

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.


"I don't know which is worse: to be packed in a room with a lot of people half your age, in which case you feel like an idiot, or even worse, go see someone you've really loved for a long time, like Elvis Costello, and you look around and see all the other original fans and they're all old and hideous just like you. It's a totally depressing experience."—Anthony Bourdain in


According to the Wall Street Journal, actor
Ashton Kutcher and wife Demi Moore celebrated his 30th birthday at the New York restaurant Socialista with Roberto Cavalli, Molly Sims, Liv Tyler, Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna, and Bruce Willis, unaware that the woman bartender mixing up caiparinhas had apparently returned from a vacation in Honduras with a case of Hepatitis A, which, according to the NYC health Department, is spread "primarily through food or water contaminated by stool from an infected person." As a result the Health Department asked the worldwide press to spread the news, in hopes of finding all the people in attendance that night at Socialista when the bartender was working and to tell urge to get vaccinated.


To all public relations people: Owing to the amount of press releases regarding Easter dining events, I regret that it is impossible to list any but very special events.

* From March 15-April 27 The Kitano New York's Hakubai will offer an Early Bird Special for its acclaimed Kaiseki Menu at $58 pp. from 6 -  8 p.m.  Call 212-885-7111.

* From March 19-April 1, NYC's Japonica celebrates its 30th Anniversary with special fixed price menus at $65. In addition, guests will receive a complimentary glass of plum wine, and an anniversary flight of sakes will be served for an additional $10. Call 212-243-7752.

*    On March 18 in L.A., Stefano Ongaro, owner and wine director of All' Angelo Ristorante, and Dalla Terra(tm) Winery Direct(r), host a celebration of Northern Italy with "A Night in Piedmont" with Chef Mirko Paderno.  $145 pp. Call  323-933-9540.

* From March 20-April 20 owner Mehanni Zebentout and Chef Jose Salgado of Nomad in NYC will feature  an Algerian Wine Series with a selection of Algerian wines paired  with housemade North African mezzes for $5 each and wines for $12 a bottle. Call 212-253-5410.

* On March 25 at Ty Warner's San Ysidro Ranch,  in Montecito, CA, Chef John Trotta and Far Niente Winery hold a 6-course  dinner, priced at $295 pp, with packages that incl. dinner for two and accommodations, from $1099. . . . On April 29  Sea Smoke Cellars is guest host, with the same prices. Call 805-565-1700.

* From March 26-30, during the 22nd annual Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, several culinary events will be featured: March 28: “A Fireside Chat with John Mariani,” publisher of The Virtual Gourmet at the Windsor Court Hotel, $35 pp;   March 29: “Back to the Land,” with Chef John Besh and John Mariani, at Besh Steak, Harrah's Casino, $35;  March 30: “The Gulf Menagerie,” with Kit Wohl, author of New Orleans Classic Seafood, offer culinary tips, techniques, and friendly banter at the Ritz-Carlton, $35, incl. autographed copy of the book.  March 30: “Play with Your Food,” with Julia Reed, Scott Gold and Robert St. John, who will explore how food is a lens through which to view the rest of life.; at Muriel’s Jackson Square,  $10. For info call  504-58-1144 or visit

* The White Barn Inn in Kennebunkport, Maine, is offering a weekend culinary package over 5 weekends in early spring. The 2008 lineup incl.  David Hutton, XV Beacon, Boston, March 28-29;   Anthony Dawodu, Caneel Bay,  St. John: April 9-13; Norbert Niederkofler, Hotel & Spa Rosa Alpina, Italy: April 16-20;  Torsten Rumprecht, The Regent Palms, Turks and Caicos: April 23-27; Richard Titi and Benedetto Baracchi, Il Falconiere, Italy: April 30-May 4. Package incl.:  2 nights deluxe accommodations;  breakfast; Traditional afternoon tea; Welcome cocktail party with Executive Chef Jonathan Cartwright and the Guest Chef Friday evening; 2-hour cooking demo; 6-course dinner;   Signed White Barn Inn Cookbook; From $586 pp.  Call 207-967-2321; visit

*  Zephyr Wine Adventures has announced its 2008 schedule, incl.    a 5-day multisport tour of Oregon's wine country to an 8-day hiking and biking tour of Tuscany and Umbria to a 9-day safari and walking tour of South Africa's vineyards. Lodging, meals, guides, and wine tastings are included and prices range from $1900 to $3200 per person. Call 888-758-8687.

* From April-Dec, 2008, in Beverly Hills, CA, the Luxe Hotel Rodeo Drive is offering a 2-night “Ready for the Paparazzi Package,” with accommodations, a welcome amenity, complimentary glass of wine or cappuccino in Bar 360, dinner for two in Café Rodeo, 4 passes to  Sports Club/LA -Beverly Hills, a personal hair consultation with  celebrity hairstylist Jose Eber,  an  appointment with a personal shopper and makeup application at Saks 5th Ave. Rates start at $379 per night. Call 866-LUXE-411.

On April 3  NYC’s  Japan Society presents its annual sake tasting,”The 100-Year History of Sake” with expert John Gauntner, author of The Sake Handbook, and a rare opportunity to taste sakes debuting in Japan's spring 2008 National Sake Appraisal. Tix $35/$30. Call 212-715-1258; visit

* On April 3 in Chicago, Hart Davis Hart Wine Co. will hold its 2nd annual charity wine auction, “Hope Dream Live 2008” at  TRU, located to benefit YMCA-Camp Independence. Live auction. $1,500 pp. Call 312-482-9766. . . .On April 4 Hart Davis Hart will host walk-around tasting of 8 of Roumier's wines at The Club at Symphony Center in Chicago; $225 pp; Call 312-482-.9766 or visit . . .On April 5 Hart Davis Hart. will hold their 2nd auction of 2008, featuring 707 lots valued at $1.7 - $2.6 million, incl. Bordeaux from The Victor K. Atkins Collection. The live auction will take place at . Call 312-573-5597.

* From April 2-5 the Taste of Vail  spring food and wine festival will feature 35 chefs, owners and sommeliers from over 50 wineries.  Proceeds go to a variety of Vail Valley charities. Guest chefs incl. NYC’s Terrance Brennan of Picholine and Tony Aiazzi of Aureole, Joseph Manzare of Zuppa in San Francisco, and Curtis Lincoln of The Brown Palace Hotel in Vail. Events incl. The Après Ski Wine Tasting; The 4th Annual Colorado Lamb Cook-Off; The Mountain Top Picnic featuring a martini bar at at the scenic Eagle's Nest. And  moore. Visit  on Vail Mountain.  Visit

*   On April 3 Lagunitas Brewing Company will showcase fine beers At Spenger's Fresh Fish Grotto in Berkeley, CA, with a 4-course dinner byChef Devon Boisen. $40 pp. Call 510-845-7771;

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."  To go to his blog click on the logo below:


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, Brian Freedman. 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