American Cereal Boxes
ANNOUNCEMENT: John Mariani will be part of two events at the Tennessee Williams Festival, to be held Wed. March 21 through Sunday March 25. On Friday, at 5:30 P.M.: "RESTAURANT SCOOP FROM THE VIRTUAL GOURMET," wine, wit, and hors d’oeuvres. Mariani, a food columnist for Esquire, will give the scoop on the latest national restaurant trends. Windsor Court Hotel, 300 Gravier Street, limited seating, $40. Sponsored by the Windsor Court Hotel. Sunday March 25: 11:30 A.M. "NEW ORLEANS FOOD MEMORIES ": Join WYES-TV producer and co-author of Lost Restaurants of New Orleans Peggy Scott Laborde as she discusses local food reminiscences with Tom Fitzmorris, host of The Food Show radio program and co-author of Lost Restaurants of New Orleans; and author John Mariani. Whet your appetite with a sensory feast of New Orleans’ famous culinary scene. The Pelican Club Restaurant, 312 Exchange Alley, $25 limited seating. Sponsored by The Pelican Club Restaurant. For Festival Tickets click here.
by John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER
Au Revoir. . . for
Now.. to Philly's Le Bec Fin
by John Mariani
More than once I've insisted that Chicago is, overall, a better restaurant town than San Francisco, New Orleans, or L.A., and falls into a solid second behind NYC. All of those others may, in fact, be better food towns, for their variety of indigenous styles, ethnic neighborhoods, and great markets. But when it comes to restaurants, Chicago is as vibrant as any and faster moving in developing, or at least adapting, what was first done elsewhere. Its legitimate claim to being America's crucible for modernist or molecular cuisine may be a mixed blessing by downplaying the excellence of so many great chef-driven restaurants in favor of the razzle-dazzle of that handful of chefs who believe novelty trumps good taste. And the city has become obsessed with gastro-pubs (the first of which appeared in London and NYC a decade ago), which is a nice enough idea but can become tiresome after the fifteenth wooden slab of rabbit rilletes and Cabrales cheese.
I never tire, however, of going to Chicago to see what's new and delicious. Here's my report based on my most recent time in town.
great steak is pretty much
guaranteed in a town so historically intertwined
with the beef
industry as is Chicago, and you can bet that the
veteran local places like Gene
& Georgetti, Gibson’s, and the original
Morton’s on State Street are as
consistent as the city’s fierce winter winds and
throbbing summer heat
with all the national
steak house chains in town, it hardly seems wise
to open another high-end entry
downtown--unless you’re going to be
Something of a circus but
no zoo, this vast, brash Chi-town bistro with a
sexy Paris Studio lounge upstairs is the hottest
place in town for all the
right reasons—not least for its “French Soul
Food” and low prices. It’s
become an overnight hit for its ebullient
hospitality, a long menu of hearty
bistro classics, a very reasonable wine list, 14
craft beers on tap, and
terrific charcuterie plates to share. You can’t
help but have a good time. The whole place
rings with the sound of people having a grand
old time, sharing plates, ordering too much,
dropping in, rushing out. It does get loud in
there, so ask for a less-loud table, if
possible. The waitstaff is very attractive
and very affable. And if a table isn't available
or ready, head upstairs for a cocktail and the
swank lounge (below)
with the prettiest people in Chi-town.
by Anthony Talier
Certainly one of the loveliest and most
civilized new restaurants in
Chicago, with a very amiable sound level buoyed
by enjoying themselves and being
catered to by a finely tuned staff, is Henri,
its décor inspired by the
work of Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, whose
early skyscrapers are in
evidence along the lake front. The
restaurant's location across from
Millennium Park and the Symphony make it an
ideal choice for pre-theater.
The colors are soft pastels and charcoal, with sea green mohair-covered settees, chocolate velvet-covered walls, hardwood floors, crown moldings and chandeliers swathed with silk shades. Fine white cloths drape the tables, stemware is thin, a flower decorates each setting, and during the day brilliant sunlight pours in off the lake.
Executive Chef Dirk Flanigan (below)
and Chef de Cuisine
Christopher Cubberley are driven by classic
concepts of French cuisine, but it does
not hold them back, showing a sure degree of
finesse in all they cook, whether it's an
impeccable Dover sole or rich lobster
Wellington. There are daily specials, too,
like bouillabaisse on Friday and a hearty
cassoulet on Monday. There is surely no better
bargain in town than Henri's three-course
lunch, with ample choices, at $30. Since that
changes, I can only say that my
lunch a few months ago was very good--though
lunch doesn't wholly show the kitchen's range.
The current prix fixe that includes similar
dishes like smoked steak tartare, a torchon of
foie gras with fig jam, or a winter vegetable
soup; second courses of cobia gravlax and
croque-monsieur; a Prime burger, and buckwheat
crêpes with wild mushrooms.
Garcia, Daniel Alonso and David Mistrial
debuted their new River North neighborhood
restaurant with an intent to please just about
everybody, not least a tavern crowd, people
who like small plate selections, and those who
want a good hearty meal prepared by Exec Chef
Bob Zremmer, whose tenures at True, North Pond
and X/O make him an ideal candidate to handle
all these attractions, with a definite
Mediterranean style and slant to the menu.
East 58th Street (near
Thirty-seven years is a long time in
the trendy world of NYC restaurants, but through those
four decades the Maccioni family--paterfamilias Sirio,
his wife Egi, and, when they grew up, their three
sons, Mario, Marco,
and Mauro--have maintained Le Cirque's eminence while
expanding its name to other cities, now including Las
Vegas, the Dominican Republic, and New Delhi. The
family also owns Circo in NYC, with plans to take over
the dining room at the Pierre Hotel.
He has, since coming onboard at Le Cirque in January, maintained a balance of Le Cirque's mainstays and signature dishes like the plâteau fruits de mer and potage Saint Germain, lobster salad "Le Cirque," and crispy flounder "Le Cirque," but his own contributions have now filtered onto the menu, and I put my self in his hands recently to cook for my guests and me as he wished. The results were superb across the board, beginning with a rich, flavorful squab terrine stuffed with foie gras, truffles, and winter salad to cut the richness. Then came Maine scallop ceviche with hearts of palm, cilantro, a subtle nudge of aji amarillo, avocado and carrot salad. A wonderful specimen of John Dory was accompanied by fennel compote and zucchini, dashed with bouillabaisse jus. With these was poured a Sicilian Grillo Carolinem Marengo Feudi di Pisciotto 2007, which was lively and full of mineral flavors that went well with lighter first courses.
Next was a tour de force, a double consommé de poule with foie gras, tapioca ravioli, black truffle; so rarely do I taste a perfect consommé as this was, clear, robust and wonderfully enriched by the ravioli and truffles. Hake was done simple "demi-sel," with olive oil crushed potatoes in a sauce grenobloise, served with an Alteserre Bava 2006 from Piedmont, followed by a Barbera d'Alba "Amabiliu Casciu Adelaide 2006, with a slowly cooked egg that poured out over sweetbreads, black trumpet and pearl onion on buttery brioche; last of the savories was a braised "porchetta" of rabbit--a roll of impeccably juicy rabbit meat with peqillo peppers, Swiss chard, peas, onions, and foie gras--as perfect a winter's dish as I've had all these chilly months.
For dessert there was an enchantment--"Creamsicle Vacherin" with vanilla ice cream and mandarin orange sorbet, and, of course, Le Cirque's classic signature crème brûlée.
I really love the balance at Le Cirque, the well proven, the much beloved, and the completely new, all delicately wrought with the kind of refinement that the Maccionis have always exhibited, now with a new chef who is not gong to betray that trust.
Dinner at Le Cirque is fixed priced at lunch for $45, in the Cafe $28; at dinner $135 for six courses; a la carte, with starters $21-$47, main courses $39-$79. The restaurant is open for lunch Mon.-Fri, and for dinner Mon.-Sat.
Au Revoir. . . for Now.. to
Philly's Le Bec Fin
Indeed he had: I have known Georges since 1980 when I dined at Le Bec Fin to write about it for Playboy's "25 Greatest Restaurants in America," based on a survey of more than 100 food authorities. At that time, NYC's Lutèce held first place on a list crammed with French haute cuisine restaurants, including La Caravelle, La Grenouille, and The Palace in NYC, Le Français in Wheeling, Illinois; L'Ermitage in L.A., Maisonette in Cincinnati, and several others. When I dined at Le Bec Fin and met maestro Perrier to tell him of the honor, he glared at me and, in still-thick French accent shouted, "Le Bec Fin ees number feef-teen??!! Are you keed-ing? You theenk zat places like zee `21' Club eez better than me?" I defended the list by saying I had not personally chosen or ranked the restaurants, and that being 15th on such a list, especially since Le Bec Fin was in a city without nearly the tourist visits that NYC or L.A. had, was an extraordinary achievement. That seemed to placate him a little, not much, but he and I began to develop a respectful professional friendship that has endured to this day.
Four years later I conducted the same survey for Playboy, and this time Lutèce again took the number one spot and Le Bec Fin moved up a notch, to number 14, which didn't make Georges any happier to see places like Paul Prudhomme's K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen in New Orleans at number 6. "Zay theenk zat zees guy who makes goombo and blackened feesh is better than me?" This time I had to explain to Georges that there had been shifts in American gastronomy, and that Le Bec Fin's lavish dedication to French haute cuisine was considered by some a tad passé, which in the 1990s led to the demise, for various reasons, of most of the French restaurants on the list, most of which were run by Georges' personal friends and members of the prestigious Maîtres Cuisiniers de Français.
That commitment on Georges' part was total, and he was notorious for being the kind of taskmaster in his kitchen that would make Gordon Ramsay seem a namby-pamby. Georges was tough but was always did himself everything he demanded of his brigade, and he oversaw every detail in the dining room, which sat 50 people who paid $65 for a multi-course dinner, which back then was heavy with silver, crystal, and heavy French décor of a kind that had indeed become dated. But nowhere in America could you find better food or service, a superb cheese cart, and a dessert display from which you could choose as many as you wished, all backed by a truly great wine list, and, as a chef who had seen the best and worst of la nouvelle cuisine, Georges had in fact adapted the new ideas to his never-too-rigid classicism. That is still pretty much the case today.
Nevertheless, I told Georges that he really needed to get out more and at least to try some restaurants of the new American style. So he came to NYC and I took him to Alfred Portale's Gotham Bar and Grill. At first he sniffed and moaned about the place, but as he ate dinner, all his Gallic pretensions dropped away, and he admitted the food, the preparation, even the underpinnings of Portale's style was superb. After that, Le Bec Fin's food evolved, got lighter, more imaginative. You might find ravioli with foie gras on the menu, less cream in the sauces, less pretension on the plate. Waiters changed from tuxedos to suits, and eventually--much to his regret--Georges dropped the requirement for jackets-and-ties.
Le Bec Fin thrived against all odds as the place to dine in Philadelphia, even as brilliant young chefs--many grads of Le Bec Fin--shook things up elsewhere in the city. Even after Georges nearly severed four fingers of his hand in a Cuisinart. Even through a couple of marriages. And even after breaking numerous bones in his body after falling down a darkened stairwell. Georges was going to persevere, and as he got older he even opened other restaurants, including a more casual bistro underneath Le Bec Fin.
Now, after more than four decades in business, Georges is stepping away from the great edifice he built. Knowing him as I do, ever amazed at his energy, his joie de vivre, his knowledge, and the impossibility of separating the man from his kitchen, I suspect he will get restless soon and start something else, begin a new life in the kitchen. Maybe he will teach. Georges Perrier is not one to spend his days perfecting his golf swing or forehand; he won't merely travel around visiting his old French chef friends and dine at their restaurants, and it's unlikely he'd ever feel wholly comfortable living back in France. For Georges is that peculiarly American success story, a man of nerve, drive, and unimpeachable standards who in teaching Americans how to dine became part of our gastronomic fabric, his influence threaded throughout this country's greatest and grandest kitchens, a mentor and master who instilled all he knew in others, and never demanded more of them than of himself. Georges is a great French chef but he's also a great American.
BRAVE NEW WORLD
London's Guardian reported that Dutch scientists were close to producing "an artificial burger that looks, feels and tastes like the real thing," to be concocted by molecular chef Heston Blumenthal. It was reported that the lab-grown meat was grown from fat stem cells and cow muscle, and now resembles "unappetising half-millimetre thick strips of lab-grown meat that are pinky-yellow in colour." But the project's lead researcher expects a near-perfect approximation of a real burger by October.
LET'S DO LUNCH, SOON
AS YOU GET OUT!
In Gainsville, FL, a new cookbook titled From The Big House to Your House is a collection of 200 recipes by six Texas women prison inmates, all serving at least 50 years at the Mountain View Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, all but one of them for murder. The inmates apparently found that an empty potato chip bag works for cooking in a quart-size electric warming pot and a plastic ID card can be used as a cutting or chopping implement. Ingredients are limited to what can be purchased from the prison commissary.
Any of John Mariani's
books below may be ordered from amazon.com.
❖❖❖FEATURED LINKS: I am happy to report that the Virtual Gourmet is linked to four 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, ForbesTraveler.com and Elle Decor. "I’ve designed this site is for people who take their travel seriously," says Potter. "For travelers who want to learn about special places but don’t necessarily want to pay through the nose for the privilege of staying there. Because at the end of the day, it’s not so much about five-star places as five-star experiences." THIS WEEK: COLORADO'S NEW HIGH COUNTRY RESTAURANTS
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 KNPR.org. Click on the logo below to go directly to his site.
Tennis Resorts Online: A Critical Guide to the World's Best Tennis Resorts and Tennis Camps, published by ROGER COX, who has spent more than two decades writing about tennis travel, including a 17-year stretch for Tennis magazine. He has also written for Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel, New York Magazine, Travel & Leisure, Esquire, Money, USTA Magazine, Men's Journal, and The Robb Report. He has authored two books-The World's Best Tennis Vacations (Stephen Greene Press/Viking Penguin, 1990) and The Best Places to Stay in the Rockies (Houghton Mifflin, 1992 & 1994), and the Melbourne (Australia) chapter to the Wall Street Journal Business Guide to Cities of the Pacific Rim (Fodor's Travel Guides, 1991).
ALL YOU NEED BEFORE YOU GO
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