Virtual Gourmet

December 14, 2008                                                                 NEWSLETTER

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In This Issue

Part One: San Sebastián by John Mariani

NEW YORK CORNERBlaue Gans by John Mariani

NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR: Don Melchor Shows Why Chilean Wines Can Claim Worldwide Bragging Rights by John Mariani


Part One: San Sebastián

By John Mariani
Photos by Galina Stepanoff-Dargery
                      It might well be said that the way people eat in Spain is the way the rest of the world is now eating. Not that Spanish foods like salt cod, paella, and garlic soup are showing up on every global menu, but that the flavors of Spain’s cuisine—sweet peppers, beans, ham, shellfish, and the idea of tapas—have become part of the repertoire of chefs from Portland to Paris. Spanish wines are now considered among the finest in the world, and the explosion of media attention given to Spain’s “molecular cuisine” chefs led by the highly controversial Ferran Adrià of El Bulli in Roses has made stars of Spanish chefs, even though such experimental cooking has little to do with the way Spaniards actually love to eat, according to revered regional traditions.

                                     A view of San Sebastián from the Hotel Maria Cristina
Nowhere is this more distinctive than in the Basque country of Northern Spain, especially in the seaside city of San Sebastián (called Donistia in Basque) and the surging cultural capital of Bilbao.  The Basque country, stretching from the French border westward to Cantabria and Burgos, is only 4,500 square miles of territory, and you can’t drive more than three hours in any direction without crossing into another province.  It is richly indebted to foods from the Cantanbrian Sea—chipirones (baby squid), ventresca (tuna belly),   rodaballo (turbot), gambas (shrimp), merluza  (hake), kokotxas (hake  cheeks), bacalao (cod),  almejas, (clams),  txangurro (spider-crab), cigalas  (langoustines), and the famous—and very expensive--angulas (baby eels), found in the estuaries of the Bay of Biscay.
     The farms around Gernika provide wonderful pimientos and kidney beans, mushrooms and potatoes. The sheep’s milk Idiazabal cheese (once smoked in chimneys) has a distinctive wild gaminess. Spanish hams are nonpareil, and the lamb is sweet as whatever it feeds on.  Oddly enough, few restaurants in Northern Spain serve Spanish beef; instead it is brought in from Denmark!
        People go to old cider houses to drink the fresh, slightly alcoholic apple juice. And the regional wines, including the fine red Rioja Alavesa and the sparkling txakoli, go perfectly with hearty Basque cooking.
      The easiest way to begin sampling all these foods and wines is at the ubiquitous tapas bars, here called tascas.   Most nights in the casco viejo (old quarter) of the gorgeous city of San Sebastián that straddles the Bay
of Biscay, the bars are packed with locals who come to snack on tapas—here called pinchos--and to drink red and rosé wines, cider, Mahou beer, or txakoli. The prowl from bar to bar is called el txikiteo, referring to the squat, wide-mouthed glasses drinks are served in.

La Cepa tapas bar

       The array of tapas at some bars may number three dozen or more, though most places serve perhaps a dozen, some hot, some cold, and are quite similar from bar to bar.  You always find thin, silky slices of Spanish ham on crusty bread (good bread is a distinguishing factor among tapas bars); scrambled eggs and mushrooms; sardines and anchovies; stuffed pimientos; fried croquetas; and a potato omelet called tortilla de patata. Everything is unstintingly fresh:  in a good tasca those pinchos made in the morning and not consumed by the afternoon are discarded and new ones prepared for the evening.
      The best way to tell a good tapas bar from a poor one among more than 500 in San Sebastián is to measure the square footage you can manage to occupy on the floor: Anything more than one square foot means the bar is not very popular, and jostling for a position near the bar itself is part ritual and part endurance test.
      The best tascas offer a wider variety and several house specialties.  One of the most popular is Gandarias Jatetxea (
right; Calle 31 Calle de Agosto 23), which serves tripe, chorizo sausage, several types of croquetas, some with cod and a creamy béchamel inside, and has exclusivity to carry Spain’s finest and most expensive ham, from the producer Joselito.
      My favorite tasca is La Cuchara de San Telmo (
Calle 31 de Agosto, 28). It is also the one with the least wiggle room, so you will find yourself cheek to jowl with locals who point to the cold tapas on the bar or order the hot ones of the night, which on any given  might include shredded oxtail,  a risotto with blue Cabrales cheese,  even foie gras.
      The tradition among barmen at the tascas is to pour the wines by holding the bottle a good foot away into the txikiteo glasses, and rarely do they ever waste a drop. You get a short pour—maybe an inch or two, the reason being that most people eat one or two tapas, slug down their drink, and move on. My own preference is to drink the cold, fizzy txakoli, whose alcohol is only about 10-11.5 percent. That way I don’t wobble (much) down the street after my third tasca visit.

Here are a few more tips about bar hopping in San Sebastian:
1.  There are at least a dozen tapas bars (and restaurants) along the Calle 31 de Agosto, including those named above, along with well-known examples like La Cépa, Martinez, and La Cueva. Many others dot the streets of old town, and every hotel will provide a map of them. Every hotel can give you a printed map of two dozen of the most popular.

2.    Cold items line the bar, while hot dishes are listed on blackboards.
3.    The barman totals up the bill merely by looking at the empty plates you return. It’s an honor system.
4.    There is no tipping required in a tasca.
5.    Smoking is still allowed in Spain’s restaurants, but many newer tascas now post “No Smoking” signs.
6.    The locals tend to eat late, but not nearly as late as they do in Madrid. Start bar hopping after 8 PM and the tascas will be swarming by 9.     During the week they start to close up around midnight, later on weekends.
7.    Tascas tend to stay open throughout the day, so you can eat pretty much whenever you get hungry.
8.    Prices for most cold tapas will run about 1.60 to 1.80 euros, hot dishes 2.40 and up. Wines by the glass, including Txakoli, cost about 1.10 to 1.40 euros.




by John Mariani

139 Duane Street (near West Broadway)

       The "Blue Goose" is the more casual TriBeCa offshoot of Chef Kurt Gutenbrunner's Wallse, both specializing in Austrian and Eastern European cuisine.  It is located in what had been the premises of Le Zinc, but not much was done to the basic décor, retaining the walls of old posters, many with movie themes, few having anything to do with eastern Europe. The arched ceiling is comforting, and right now, during the Christmas season, there is a true jollity in the place that might make you believe for a moment you were in Salzburg.
       Wooden floors and bare wooden tables do nothing to tamp down the noise here, which was increased by pop music that our party of six thrice asked to be turned down: it was, then turned back up, it was, then turned up again, and so on. So much for taking guests' requests seriously. Conversation was not easy from then on.
      The menu is relatively short, the winelist is too, with a decent number of Austrian grüner-weltliners, rieslings, and spätburgunders well worth trying, many under $50.
        I do not mean it as either insightful or harsh criticism to say that the food Kurtenbrunner (below) is serving here is enticing but not very exciting.  It is, in fact, quite true to its origins, but there's not a lot to go into a reverie about when you get a nice plate of wursts or some boiled beef with horseradish.  Nevertheless, on a cold winter's evening there was plenty to like about this food, which is easy to share with friends.
      A generous plate of baked gnocchi was lavished with crème fraîche and chives, the dumplings tender and nicely chewy, the sauce pretty straightforward.  Excellent in every respect was a chestnut soup "Viennese mélange" with Armagnac-soaked prune, the faint sweetness of the nuts enhanced by the decided sweetness of the prune and cut by the brandy.  Crispy artichokes came with Speck smoked bacon; smoked salmon with sweet potato rösti and arugula made for a hefty starter, under the Heute im Angebot (daily offerings) one night.  Very bland however was a starter of herbed spätzle with mushrooms, corn, and Brussels sprouts that seemed more a side dish.
      The sausages, $9-$10, include frankfurter with potato-cucumber; pork-and-veal weisswurst with a big fat, soft pretzel; cheese-filled käsekrainer with sauerkraut, mustard, and horseradish; bratwurst with the same condiments; and currywurst with excellent French fries.  Too bad these don't come as a mixed platter.
      There are two schnitzels here--the usual pounded pork in breadcrumbs and sautéed in butter, with sauerkraut and potato puree, and jäger schnitzel, with mushrooms, bacon and that herbed spätzle from the appetizer side. Kavalierspitz was similar to tafelspitz--boiled beef, with creamed spinach, root vegetables, and apple-horseradish, which was just barely satisfying in a dull way. My favorite entree was suckling pig with braised red cabbage and brioche dumplings.  The pig was well-fatted, the skin nice and crispy, the whole a succulent and savory winter's meal.
       Desserts were in the Austrian style--crisp apple strüdel with ice cream, very good one-bite chocolate lollipops like those Bon Bons you used to (still?) get a movie theaters, and Saltzburger nockerl us a creamy soufflé with huckleberries.
         If you like, you may end off with a selection of schnapps or a glass of trockenbeerenauslese.
         Bluae Gans is, no ifs, ands, or buts, a cozy little place in TriBeCa, and if you are in the mood for Austrian comfort food, this will do the trick.

Blaue Gans is open nightly for dinner. Appetizers run $10-$16, entrees $24-$30.


Don Melchor Shows Why Chilean Wines Can Claim Worldwide Bragging Rights
by John Mariani

     A decade ago the wineries of Australia and New Zealand were biting huge chunks out of the global wine market. But in the sweepstakes for the next decade of the 21st century, I’m putting my money on Chile for turning out excellent wines smack in the affordable $8-$15 price range: no wonder that in 2007 imports of Chilean wine increased by 13%, with $207 million in sales.
      But it’s not just volume that drives Chile’s success: some of the great cabernet blends are now coming out of the country’s vineyards, including Montes Alpha “M,” Apalta, Almaviva, and one of the very best, Don Melchor, made in the Maipo Valley. Blessed with an isolated mountain terroir protected from pests like phylloxera and laws to prevent the importation of any foreign plants, the Maipo is an Eden for winemakers.
      Don Melchor is named after the founder of its parent company and Chile’s largest wine producer, Vina Concha y Toro, which dates to 1883 and whose sales now top 6 million cases annually, shipped to 125 countries.
      Don Melchor came into being after Concha’s enologist visited colleague Emile Péynaud, a towering figure in Bordeaux who has been called the “father of modern winemaking.” Péynaud encouraged Concha to imitate the Bordeaux style of cabernet blended with other grapes, and Don Melchor was established in 1987 in the foothills (650 meters high) of the Andes on 114 hectares (above).
      “The soil is actually poor and stony, with few nutrients,” Enrique Tirado, 42, (below) winemaker at Concha since 1997, told me over a beefsteak lunch at Tutta Bella restaurant in Scarsdale, NY.  “Great wines have to suffer, and we’ve had 21 years now to improve and refine Don Melchor.  At first we used 100 percent cabernet, then added merlot, ripped that out, and now we blend in cabernet franc.”
      The grapes are picked fairly late because the winery is in the coolest area in the valley, with a cold wind that keeps intense heat at bay. Still, Tirado contends that global warming is both “evident and huge” in the region, which for the foreseeable future is actually something of a boon to cool weather terroirs.
      The wines spend 14-15 months in oak barrels, then one more year in bottle before release.
      Over lunch I was able to taste six vintages, beginning with 2001, which was still tight on first sip but loosened up into a wine clearly identified as a Bordeaux blend, but just as clearly as a more lush Chilean wine, warm and layered with fruit, vanilla, and good acids.
      The 2002 was very intense, but with a radiant balance of mineral and dark fruit components, while the 2003 had the added nuance of pepper and spice.  All were ready to drink right now, but each showed a stage of development that assured me the wines would improve for the next few years.
      The consistency of flavor and style in the earlier vintages wines was much to my liking, so I began to have concerns when I tasted the 2004, 2005, and 2006. The more usual alcohol level of 13.6 percent was getting bumped up.  The later vintages seemed like much bigger wines—the alcohol volume of the 2004 was a hefty 14.5 percent—with fruit far more forward.
      The 2004 was very concentrated and then loosened up with the ferrous taste of the beef porterhouse; the 2005 was, at this point, too plummy for my taste, while the 2006, though possessed of enormous fruit aromas and taste, seemed closer to the earlier vintages’ style.  I’d love to try them all again in a year or two. I feel quite certain that the oldest will be even finer and the youngest should come into better focus. The 2005 costs about $69 and the 2006 about $80.
      I haven’t had a chance to taste Don Melchor earlier than these vintages, Indeed, you’d be hard put to find many vintages older than 2004, because the wines are snapped up pretty soon after release. Those wine shops and online wine retailers I checked were mostly showing the 2004 and 2005, with only a very few offering anything from the 1990s.
       But it’s not just supply and demand that drives the price of Don Melchor, which I find remarkably modest for a cabernet sauvignon of this caliber.  It’s the kind of red wine that shows Chile cannot just deliver plenty of good wine, but is capable of making some great ones.

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.



Corrections from the New York Times Food Section:

"An article last Wednesday about the growth of breweries in Brooklyn referred incorrectly to Sixpoint Craft Ales, which plans to open a bottling plant in the borough. Brooklyn Brewery has bottled beer in Brooklyn for about two years, and Park Slope Brewing Company bottled beer there for a few years starting in 1997; Sixpoint would not become the first company to bottle beer in the borough since the 1970s. The article also misstated the year Brooklyn Brewery opened and omitted one of the locations where it brews Brooklyn Brown Ale. The brewery opened in 1988, not 1986, and the ale is brewed in Brooklyn and Utica, N.Y., not just Utica."

"An article last Wednesday about Kallari, an Ecuadorean collective that grows cacao and makes chocolate, misspelled the name of the ethnic group whose members belong to the collective. They are Quichuas, not Quechuas. It also misstated the cost to have the Fair Trade organization certify that the collective treats growers fairly, a fee the collective chooses not to pay because that would mean paying for its own beans. It is 8 cents a pound of cacao, not 10 cents.The article also reported that “people in the chocolate industry said they knew of no other cacao farmers who were making and marketing their own chocolate." But after the article was published, a reader pointed out that the owners of the Grenada Chocolate Company, on the island of Grenada, are also local cacao growers who make chocolate."



In Waukehsa, Wisconsin, Robert Farnam was arrested after faking a heart attack at a local Applebee’s restaurant after running up a $32 check. He was brought to a hospital where a doctor recognized him from a previous visit. Farnam faces a 9-month jail sentence and $10,00 fine.

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: TRADE YOUR STOCK SHARES FOR A ROOM ON THE BEACH.


Eating Las Vegas is the new on-line site for Virtual Gourmet contributor 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: A Report on The Four Seasons Jackson Hole. Click on the logo below to go to the site.

Family Travel Forum: The Family Travel Forum (FTF), whose motto is "Have Kids, Still Travel!", is dedicated to the ideals, promotion and support of travel with children. Founded by business professionals John Manton and Kyle McCarthy with first class travel industry credentials and global family travel experience, the independent, family-supported FTF will provide its members with honest, unbiased information, informed advice and practical tips; all designed to make traveling a rewarding, healthy, safe, better value and hassle-free experience for adults and children who journey together. Membership in FTF will lead you to new worlds of adventure, fun and learning. Join the movement.

Family Travel Forum

All You Need to Know Before You Go


MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly.  Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani,   John A. Curtas, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Suzanne Wright, and 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.

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