Virtual Gourmet

September 21, 2008                                                                 NEWSLETTER

Wine Poster by L. Gadoud (1925)

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: This issue comes two days earlier than usual, and there will be no issue for Sept. 27 of Mariani's Virtual Gourmet because Mariani will be sailing the Mediterranean.  The next issue will be Oct. 5. (If you do wish to read last week's Sept. 13 issue, click here.)

In This Issue

WHAT'S NEW AROUND THE BAY AREA?  Part One, by John Mariani

NEW YORK CORNER: Macelleria by John Mariani

NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR: Up in Michigan Vineyards Take Root
by John Mariani


by John Mariani

     There’s nothing wrong with the restaurants in San Francisco, except that so many of them serve pretty much the same Northern Cal-Mediterranean menu. Indeed, it would be hard to find a non-Asian restaurant in the city not serving beet salads with goat’s cheese, mussels in white wine, and grilled salmon.
     This year has seen a departure from that play-it-safe template, with several restaurants taking a chance that locals and visitors will be hungry for something beyond the grip of the city’s ubiquitous bistro-trattoria-tapas bar syndrome.

Intercontinental Hotel
888 Howard Street

      Certainly the best San Fran restaurant to open this year is Luce, in the Intercontinental Hotel near the Moscone Center in SoMa. I know it seems an unlikely venue for fine dining, but the designers have created a smart-looking, airy restaurant whose tall windows reflect light off black-and-gold mosaics and silver globes, giving the room a shimmer both day and night.
     But the real sparkle here is Chef Dominique Crenn (below), who like other of San Francisco’s great woman chefs--Alice Waters, Judi Rogers, Nancy Oakes, Tammy Huynh, Traci des Jardins, and many others--cooks with a finesse and a degree of precision you sure don’t find in hyper-masculine grills like Tadich and Sam’s. 
     I loved her work when she was at a Santa Monica restaurant that was more about décor than fine cuisine, but that didn't last long. Now, at Luce, she has further refined her already delicate touch. Begin with a brilliant take on “surf and turf" carpaccio, silk-thin slices of ham and salmon combined with a spicy black olive gelato. Delicate but richly flavorful white asparagus bisque is laced with hazelnuts and a sunny side up quail egg bobbing on top. Risotto with wild mushrooms, truffle, and padano cheese was a classic rendering, though a bit gummy one afternoon.
   Her careful cooking of two golden filets of branzino came with an artichoke barigoule, kumquat escabeche, and the lovely touch of purslane. Pintade (guinea fowl) is one item you don't see too often on American menus, and she roasts it impeccably to a juicy turn. Or for something a little  heartier go with her succulent Colorado lamb chops and cheeks with a North African tagine of apricots and a tingling puree of peas and mint.
     For dessert, don’t miss the chilled bavarois of mascarpone cream, with espresso custard, a kumquat puree, a gelée spiked with grappa, and the scent of orange blossom.
     The 5-course menu at $65 is an amazing bargain $95 for 8 courses moreso.


Epic Roasthouse
369 The Embarcadero

    Epic Roasthouse is a vast place on the Embarcadero, and when I visited at twilight, the romantic view of the Bay Bridge played counterpoint to the dark, timbered, industrial ambiance of the dining room, dominated by a huge water pump and flywheel of a kind used to fight the city’s 1906 earthquake fire. It's one of restaurateur/designer Pat Kuleto's quirkier designs, more Disneyland-ish, in contrast to the cool sleekness of his next-door Waterbar, which is also quite large. Kuleto has done more than 175 restaurants, and his own best efforts have included Boulevard and Farallon in San Francisco and Martini House in the Napa Valley.
     The long menu ranges from house-cured charcuterie and roasted marrow bones with tomato jam to seven cuts of beef, along with lamb and veal t-bones, and pork porterhouse from a wood-fired grill.
Inside tip? The generous roasted ribeye for two, at $84, would probably serve three people.
     On the night I visited, the kitchen was having trouble getting the food out hot or cooked properly—more than distressing in a steakhouse. Why any chef would encrust a New York strip with coriander, black peppercorns, and coffee beans is beyond me, and the mediocre fried onion rings are in no need of the assertive anchovy-tomato ketchup. But Jan Birnbaum is a serious chef with real chops (no pun intended), and I chalk up many gaffes to a poor night. Nonetheless, the big size, the skittering waiters, and huge menu make it difficult to achieve consistency.
     There are still all sorts of good ways to go here, starting with a lavish selection of charcuterie--pancetta pate, duck prosciutto, cappicola, and more--and, this being San Fran, plenty of oysters. The seafood offerings are small, but include a roasted whole fish, on the bone to retain succulence, and cedar-planked smoked salmon.
       If you hanker for Prime rib, get here well before 8 PM, when it goes off the menu. Otherwise you can enjoy a veal T-bone, a pork porterhouse with ricotta gnocchi, and "THINGS YOU JUST WANT IN A STEAKHOUSE," which include  mac-and-cheese and cabbage slaw with malt vinaigrette.

Appetizers $6-$18, main courses $26-$54.

14555 Big Basin Way, Saratoga, CA

     Silicon Valley has long been in need of a fine dining restaurant where the microchip execs can show off their wine expertise and worldliness. With the opening of the new Plumed Horse in Saratoga, wholly renovated from an antiquated continental restaurant, circa 1952, the area has not only acquired one of the best new restaurants in Northern California but one well worth a connoisseur’s drive down from San Francisco (or about 45 minute from SFO).
      For its 3-story wine cellar alone (right)—encased in thick glass that includes the floor you walk on—this is a unique place, and the list itself of more than 2,000 selections is, in a West Coast way, awesome.
     The restaurant is a series of finely crafted rooms, with more glass walls, an onyx bar, and chandeliers that slowly change color throughout the meal. It all has a kind of swanky posh that nods towards Vegas but retains a fine elegance.
      The menu is all frills: Chef-partner Peter Armellino (most recently at Aqua Restaurant in San Francisco) starts you off with three kinds of caviar, or perhaps a heart-unstopping rich fondue of melted Camembert, into which you dip slices of potatoes cooked in duck fat then dusted with black truffles. Wonderfully tender Monterey abalone shares a plate with sweet Sharlyn melon, acquiring a salty-smoky edge from bacon.     Armellino doesn’t let up: There’s a foie gras and onion soufflé with prunes soaked in Armagnac. There’s more foie gras married to the roast breast of duck, with ripe white peaches and walnuts. 
The juicy, well-fatted Colorado rib-eye of Colorado lamb with shallot-stuffed ravioli and a truffle jus is a great dish, too.  And for dessert, what the hell, go crazy with the “2010” banana split with chocolate, banana ice cream, candied almonds, and a cherry gel.
     Prices here are high but not outrageous, with appetizers starting at $9 and going up to $25 for that abalone, and main courses $32-$44. The best way to appreciate Armellino’s range is with the 7-course $115 tasting menu ($80 for vegetarians).
   You might consider having
an early or late dinner at get tix for a concert at the nearby Mountain Winery—Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Steely Dan, and so on--and go back to Plumed Horse for an after-dinner drink from a stock of first-rate brandies and spirits. Unless, of course, you're driving back to SFO yourself.

This article was adapted from John Mariani's weekly column in Bloomberg Muse News.

Part Two of this article will appear on October  5th.

by John Mariani

48 Gansevoort Street

     Has it really been almost a decade ago that Macelleria opened?
    And how has this unassuming restaurant been able to outlast so many of the flash-in-the-pan trendier places that have flopped in the Meat Market District?
     The answers are, I think, pretty obvious: First, the quality of this Tuscan-style steakhouse/trattoria has never wavered, and second, owner Sergio Bitici and his lovely daughter Violetta (below) have never treated a single patron as anything less than a welcome guest.  While other restaurants in the area have their pecking order guest lists and clueless hostesses at the door, Macelleria opens its arms wide and does all its staff can to make people happy.  Ergo, a decade in business, and that business is never flagging.
      On a recent, beautiful evening, Macelleria's tables were packed, as were those inside the brick-walled dining room, downstairs and up, in a building that was once a meat warehouse.  Butcher tables, meat lockers, wine bottles set on ledges, simple china and napery, and a semi-open kitchen give the place a faux-rusticity within city limits, and a ceramic bull's head is the centerpiece for it all.  These days you'll hear as much Italian, French, German, and Spanish spoken here as English, because Macelleria has a strong European following.  The Italians especially--and Tuscans most of all--feel right at home here, for the steaks are as close as you'll come to bistecca alla fiorentina in America.
      But there is, in fact, much more on the menu worth considering aside from the superb USDA Prime beef. By all means begin with a big platter of fried zucchini, slim ribbons cooked in good oil till perfectly crisp and sweet.  The mixed salumi are wonderful, as is the bread you place them on, and the pastas--half a dozen plus specials--taste exactly the way they would at your favorite trattoria in Florence or Siena: Garganelli comes with a rich oxtail ragù; spinach ravioli is done in a bright, lush tomato sauce with the last of summer's basil; pappardelle with wild boar sauce is sensationally good, but be prepared to take some home if you plan on having a main course. As a special that night, shrimp and linguine fra diavolo was delicious, light, with a little zip of pepper, and fragrant aromas of the Mediterranean in the sauce.  I was chagrined to find the spaghetti alla carbonara here has heavy cream in it ("Americans ask for it," sighs Sergio), but just ask the kithchen to leave it out.
      It would be ridiculous to dissuade you from going for the beef here, but if your tablemates want something else, they should be extremely happy with dishes like the golden crisp veal alla milanese with arugula, or the impeccably roasted chicken alla diavola.  One of the dishes I will always order at Macelleria is the fabulous eggplant baked with mozzarella and tomatoes--so sweet, so creamy, so decadently rich.
    Okay, how about the beef? Well, since Macelleria--which means "butcher shop"--is smack in the (quickly diminishing) Meat Market District, its access to the finest beef is a no-brainer. (Though not a given, for despite the excellence of the meats served at the Old Homestead, Valbella, and Craftsteak down here, plenty of other restaurants buy second-rate beef.)
There are five cuts, including a porterhouse (for two), a rib-eye, a New York strip, and chopped steak--all of the best quality.  But if you love bistecca alla fiorentina, whose cut is called a lombata, order Macelleria's T-bone, which is cut nice and thick, lightly charred on the outside, and cooked rare or medium-rare (anything beyond that is criminal).  It exudes all sorts of flavors--mineral, salt, sweetness--along with textures and resilience.  Its is a beautiful piece of meat.
     There are some good desserts here, including a New York style cheesecake, though the apple strüdel needs some work.
    The winelist, a simple two-page screed, has a lot of the big names along with unfamiliar smaller estates with very rational prices, and plenty of options under $50.
      Indian summer makes dining al fresco at Macelleria a New York reverie, but you could as easily think you were on the Via Palchetti in Florence feasting of bistecca at Il Latini, or Via Rosina at Trattoria Mario.  Macelleria is as close as you'll come this side of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Macelleria is open daily for lunch and dinner. Appetizers run $8-$12, pastas as full portions $$17-$9, and main courses $18-$45.


Up in Michigan Vineyards Take Root
by John Mariani

Ernest Hemingway once wrote that “wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection.”  But then he wasn’t talking about the wines of northern Michigan, where he spent his boyhood summers.
     Back then, before World War One, the best-known Michigan beverage was Welch’s Grape Juice, which Dr. Thomas Welch called the first “unfermented wine,” for use in church services.
     But if Hemingway (left) could go back to Michigan today he would find a flourishing wine industry, with 56 vineyards spread over 1,800 acres throughout the state—a 60 percent increase in the last decade—and, with 425,000 cases of wine annually, 13th in the nation for wine production.
     Some of that is still made from native, out-of-fashion labrusca grapes like Concord, but since the 1970s more and more French-American hybrids like vignoles and chambourcin and European varietals like chardonnay, merlot, and, especially, riesling are now planted throughout the stunningly beautiful northern part of the state, around Traverse City, the Leelanau Peninsular, and the Old Mission Peninsular, where the winter climate is somewhat more temperate than elsewhere in the state.
     Last month I spent a week in the region, astonished by the size of Lake Michigan and enchanted by the numberless lakes, bays, rivers, and streams, where Hemingway’s hero Nick Adams lived and fished, around Charlevoix, Petoskey, and Horton Bay.  The first two, and Traverse City, are now largely gentrified, with gourmet delis proudly selling the local wines.  Indeed, I only wish wine shops in New York, Texas, and Virginia had more of that pride in promoting their own wine industries.
     At every restaurant I visited, from the superb, high-end Tapawingo in Ellsworth to quaint taverns like Chandler’s in Petoskey, there were always Michigan bottlings on the winelist.
    New wineries have taken some odd names, like Left Foot Charley, Karma Vista, Fishtown White, Sex, Detention, and Hotrod Cherry. There’s even a line named Madonna, with a picture of the diva on the label; it’s made by Silvio and Joan Ciccone, who happen to be the pop star’s mother and father.
     For the entire week in Michigan, I drank nothing but Michigan wines, and, not knowing quite what to expect, I was delighted by several, particularly the rieslings, which, as in New York’s Finger Lakes, adapt well to the cold climate and terroir. The sweeter versions of the varietal had little of the complexity and structure of a fine German or Alsatian counterpart, but those that were semi-dry (or mildly sweet) had sufficient acid to make them delicious aperitifs.
      I particularly liked Bowers Harbor Vineyard 2006 Riesling ($17) from the Langely Vineyard on the Old Mission Peninsula. With 12 percent alcohol it hit just the right mark that makes riesling both refreshing and bright. Also good was Chateau Grand Traverse Dry Riesling from the same region, this a 2007 ($12), with a fresh, clean, briskness that went well with the little dried hunter’s sausages we nibbled on. The winery also has a six-room inn on the property overlooking Grand Traverse Bay.
      A Brys Estate Vineyard & Winery Pinot Grigio 2007 ($17) was about as bland as most Italian pinot grigios, and I sniffed and sipped in vain to find much chardonnay flavor in Brys’s Naked Chardonnay ($18). More impressive, if a tad too sweet, was Forty-Five North Pinot Noir Rose 2007 ($18) from Leelanau; its 13.5 percent alcohol gave it good body, and the deep rosy color and fruit made it pretty wonderful while sitting out on the porch watching the storm clouds gathering off Lake Michigan.
     The only red I really liked was also pinot noir, a 2005 from Bowers Harbor ($20), with a warm, true taste of the varietal I might well have believed it had come out of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. With local artisan cheeses after a steak dinner and then a slice of homemade cherry pie, it went beautifully.
      Most of the other reds I tried, from a wide variety of grapes, were one-dimensional and several had an unappealing sweetness. Left Foot Charley Red ($17) was a blend of 80 percent cabernet franc, 5 percent merlot, 10 percent dornfelder, and 5 percent regent, which for me added up to a simple, wholly uninteresting wine. Chateau Fontaine Big Paw Red ($16) said it was semi-dry on the label, which pictures a dog named Nick, who supposedly penned the description on the back: “A hardy red; it’s not too dry, but then again, it’s not as sweet as me. Woof! Love, Nick.”
     If you’re up that way, the best book on Michigan wines is From the Vine: Exploring Michigan Wines by Sharon Kegerreis and Lorri Hathaway (Ann Arbor Media Group, $34.95;193 pages).
     Michigan law permits shipping to “reciprocal states” only, so best check with Fed-Ex if you can get receive them where you live.  If so, try Folgarelli’s Wine Shop in Traverse City (231-941-7651).

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 on the Saturday Bloomberg Radio and TV.

Certainly, Count, We Have a Wonderful Table for You
and Your Blood Brides Right Over Here!

A restaurant in the Ukraine  named Eternity is serving dinner in a coffin 20 meters long, six meters wide and six meters high, decorated with wreaths.  The menu includes a dish called  "Let's meet in paradise." The owner says he hopes it will bring tourists to the town of 


“Soon after I sat down on my first visit my Hooters girl came over to take our order and promptly took a seat next to my friend. I call this move the `sit and reveal.' I saw the same technique practiced at other tables and again on a subsequent visit. It appears to be standard operating procedure and it provides a better vantage point from which to scope out your Hooters girl. It's quite effective. I confess I have a Mayberry-like habit of looking at the girls in the eyes. But I'm trying to do better.”—Stett Holbrook, “Hooters," Metroactive (8/27/08).


* On Sept. 24,-26, and Oct. 1 & 3, a Bavarian Oktober Fest will be held by chef  Kurt Gutenbrunner at Blaue Gans in NYC with "The Adlers"  musicians. Call 212-571-8880.

* On Sept. 26 & 27 “Discover Wine with Robert Mondavi” at the Charlotte Shout Culinary Experience, at  Johnson & Wales University Campus in Charlotte, NC, where wine experts will discuss affordable entertaining and the basics of wine and entertaining;  cooking demonstrations and competitions.

* Now until Sept. 30th Taberna del Alabardero, Washington, DC, will host its annual Paella Festival  at $28 pp.

* Share Our Strength¹s Great American Dine Out, presented by American Express®,  is a new national campaign that rallies the entire restaurant industry to make  sure no kid in America grows up hungry. From September 21 to 28, thousands of restaurants across the country  to raise money. For info visit

* On  Sept. 28  New Rivers in Providence, RI, will host the second in a series of "Sunday Farmer's Suppers" with focus on the Aquidneck Island and Little Compton area.  $75 pp. Call 401-751-0350.

* On Oct. 1 Texas is hosting its first-ever statewide dine-out day called the GO TEXAN Restaurant Round-Up with more than 200 restaurants across the state will offering special Texas menu items, food and wine pairings and Texas wine tastings. Many restaurants will  donate proceeds to Texas food banks.  Texas singer/songwriters Kelly  Willis and Bruce Robison are celebrity ambassadors. Visit

* On  Oct.  2, at Seasons restaurant at Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco ,  Chef Mark Richardson will feature a   5-course tasting menu paired with Shafer wines; Doug Shafer, president of Shafer Vineyards, will guide guests through a tasting tour of their wines. $150 pp.  Call 415- 633-3838 or visit

* From Oct. 17-19 the 4th Annual Nevis International Culinary Heritage Exposition (NICHE) will be held on the island of Nevis.  Activities incl. cooking demos,  seminars at Old Manor Plantation with members of the Federation of St. Kitts & Nevis Culinary Team;  Gourmet lunches, cheese and wine tastings, rum and chocolate pairings, table décor and theme party presentations, cigar rolling, and a tasting of fine aged rums compliments of Rhum Clement Martinique; island-style beach barbeque with dancing and music at the Four Seasons Resort Nevis. Pascal Bony of Moet Hennessy will offer samplings of Hennessy Cognacs and a special cooking demonstration by celebrity chef, Carmen Gonzalez. Events individually priced or in an all-inclusive package. Accommodations provided at special NICHE rates.

* On Oct. 7 in San Francisco, McCormick & Kuleto’s Seafood Restaurant holds its 15th annual Shuck & Swallow Oyster Challenge, with an oyster and wine pairing benefit event immediately following the competition, to benefit the The Marine Mammal Center.  $30 pp. Call 415-929-1730.

* On Oct. 9 in Louisville, KY, chef and owner Dean Corbett and chef Chris Howerton will present a  4-course “Meet the Farmers Dinner” at Corbett’s “An American Place.” $55 pp. Call 502-327-5058. Visit

* On Oct. 12 La Cachette in Los Angeles  hosts a Chateau Le Puy Organic Food & Bio Dynamic Wine Tasting 9-course dinner by chef/owner Jean Francois Meteigner. $160 pp. Call 310-470-2510.

* On Oct. 12 Spenger’s Fresh Fish in Berkeley, California,holds their 8th annual Crabby Chefs Seafood Festival, to benefit the Berkeley Cal Recreational Sports Development Fund’s Camp Scholarship Program. Incl. an “Iron Chef” style culinary competition; outdoor food booths; musical entertainment. The competition is free. Also he Pacific Seafood “roadshow,” a mobile retail fish and shellfish store. Call Spenger’s at 510- 845-7771.

* On Oct. 16 the annual fundraising benefit of the Seattle Chapter of Les Dames d'Escoffier International will celebrate the Seattle debut of the brand-new, Dames-branded cookbook entitled, Cooking with Les Dames d'Escoffier: At Home with the Women Who Shape the Way We Eat and Drink edited by Marcella Rosene with San Antonio Dame Pat Mozersky.    The fundraiser will be held at Kathy Casey Food Studios with a walk-around reception of dishes created by the Seattle Dames whose recipes are incl. in the book. $110 pp, incl. a copy of the book. Visit

NEW FEATURE: I am happy to  report that the Virtual Gourmet is  linking up with three 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: RIO DE JANEIRO


Eating Las Vegas is the new on-line site for Virtual Gourmet contrinbutor John A. Curtas., who since 1995 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 Click on the logo below to go directly to his site.


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). THIS WEEK: On the Road: Tamoa-Sarasota


MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly.  Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani,  Brian Freedman,   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.

My 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

© copyright John Mariani 2008