Virtual Gourmet

  September 2, 2012                                                                                                NEWSLETTER

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Coney Island, 1940




by Brian Freedman

by John Mariani



 Part One

by Brian Freedman

Before leaving our apartment in Philadelphia for a cruise on Cunard’s glorious new RMS Queen Elizabeth this summer, I received a startling number of texts and emails from friends, all of them bearing a strangely similar message: Make sure you lean over the prow of the ship at some point and, like the DiCaprio character in the movie, bellow out to the breakers, “I’m the king of the world!”
         I’m proud to report that I didn’t. It just never occurred to me. Because once on board, the entirety of the experience was so overwhelmingly wonderful that middling concerns like recreating iconic movie scenes--even on a ship as grand as this--instantly receded from view.
         The movies have nothing on the real-life fantasy of the new Queen Elizabeth.
         Indeed, as a frequent traveler, I have grown accustomed to the many and varied deprivations required to traverse long distances: Truculent TSA agents; unreasonable weight restrictions on luggage; food that wouldn’t pass muster in a military brig; even occasional domestic first-class air travel little better than a standard seat on Amtrak. So when the opportunity arose to experience Cunard’s legendary “White Star Service” firsthand, I jumped at it. And with expectations that, I feared, could never be met.
         I was wrong. They weren’t only met, but far exceeded.
       My wife and I flew to Heathrow from Philadelphia International on July 4th, taking off just in time to catch the Independence Day fireworks speckling the sky far below. From there, we took a car service to Southampton, less than a two-hour drive from London, and spent the day exploring through our jet-lagged haze, trying to tamp down our excitement for the ship’s departure the next day.
         The following morning, upon opening the shades in our hotel room--a more than serviceable Holiday Inn--we discovered, looming above every other waterborne craft at the dock, the iconic wedge of the Queen Elizabeth, its funnel seemingly standing sentinel over the town. A few hours later, we were making our way through security--a remarkably civilized affair--at the embarkation center. And then, finally, off to the gangway and into the ship.
         Immediately upon entering, we were greeted by a phalanx of crew members in their fresh-pressed uniforms, each greeting us with a smile and a genuine sense of warmth. We were booked for a Princess Grill Suite, up on the eighth deck, but decided to take the stairs instead of the elevator, the better to run our hands over the polished woods and fittings, to take in the photos at each landing of iconic Cunard passengers of the past: Movie stars, athletes, natty travelers in suits and jaunty hats.
        The new Queen Elizabeth is the third in a proud line of Cunard ships. The first launched in
1938 but first served as a military ship until 1946, but after many years of passenger service and several owners, it caught fire in 1972 and capsized in Hong Kong Harbor.  Queen Elizabeth 2 began its run in  in 1969, but is no longer in service., though it's said it may soon be a hotel in Dubai.
There are several levels of accommodation aboard Cunard’s liners, though the major distinction is between the standard staterooms and the Grills. Guests staying in the Princess and Queens Grill Suites take their meals in their respective dedicated restaurants, elegant spaces where meals are single-seating (meaning you can show up whenever you like, as your table is reserved for you alone; you won’t be turned or rushed at any point), and where every table has a view out the windows running the length of the 11th-floor room.
         The Princess Grill Suites themselves are gorgeous. Ours, number 8085, was at the center of the ship, and boasted two beds that housekeeping converted into a single large one at our request; a generous living area replete with a comfortable couch, an armchair that proved to be a second home of sorts for me over the course of the voyage, a coffee table, two televisions, and, through a floor-to-ceiling glass door, a balcony with two lounge chairs and a table. The bathroom was exceptionally generous, with plenty of counter space and a shower whose pressure was frankly better than what I have at home. There was also ample closet and storage space--necessary for a cruise like this, with its three formal nights onboard and subsequent necessity to pack a tuxedo, ball gowns, and multiple pairs of shoes, not to mention the more casual gear for off-ship excursions and downtime while on-board.
         All Grills guests are greeted with fresh fruit in a silver bowl and a bottle of sparkling wine: An accurate indication of the level of service and attention to detail to come. Nightly turndown service (replete with chocolates), excellent bath-products from Gilchrist & Soames--everything, it seems, has been considered here, and considered brilliantly. For all the lofty expectations I had about the experience, for all the vaunted reputation of Cunard and its liners--all of it pales in comparison to the reality.
         Meals in the Princess Grill (below) were sumptuous and not nearly as unvaryingly classical as you might expect. And while we certainly enjoyed more than our share of beautifully prepared classics--gorgeous duck à l’orange flambéed tableside, beef Wellington encased in a shattering cocoon of puff pastry, escargots bourguignonne as tender and exuberantly garlicky as you could wish, one of the best Dover soles I’ve ever tasted--there is also a real streak of internationalism underpinning the offerings at each meal. The food on board the Queen Elizabeth, crafted under the watchful eye of Executive Chef Abhilash James, also includes preparations that reflect the increasing diversity of the way people all over the world are eating these days. To that end, we tucked into a vividly spiced jumbo shrimp with X.O. sauce and a soy mirin glaze, char sui pork and vegetable spring rolls, and more.
         The wine list is every bit as varied and thoughtful, running the gamut from very fairly priced classed growth Bordeaux all the way to intriguing, more unexpected standouts from Israel, Austria, California, and beyond. On the Queen Elizabeth, the wine program is overseen by the remarkable Chief Sommelier Dinesh Kathiresan and the more than two dozen sommeliers under him. They taste regularly--and run a fantastic tasting that passengers can sign up for--are very well versed in the wines and their pairing possibilities, and unimpeachably helpful. Our sommelier for the week, Laszlo, is from Hungary, and as passionate and knowledgeable a sommelier as I’ve encountered anywhere. (He’s also an expert on Tokaji, which made dessert-wine time particularly enjoyable.)

        Of course, there are plenty of other dining options as well on board the ship. The Golden Lion (right), a quintessentially English-style pub, glows with the quiet masculinity of polished woods and a pressed tin ceiling. The fish and chips here are excellent, as is the chicken tikka masala. As for the Guinness, it’s perfectly pulled, velvety and appropriately temperate. There’s also the more casual Lido Buffet, the Britannia and Britannia Club dining rooms, where non-Grills guests dine in double- and single-seating meals respectively, and bars and lounges throughout the ship. The Yacht Club is home to very lively dancing in the evenings, and the Commodore Club boasts a selection of “molecular martinis,” thoroughly successful cocktails whose vermouth and other flavoring components have been foamed, and rest on top of the spirit like some sort of delicious royal crown. Several times during our voyage, we took advantage of the excellent afternoon tea, replete with a wide selection of expertly brewed teas from around the world and finger sandwiches from cucumber and butter (no crusts on the bread, of course) to the ship’s remarkable sliced salmon.
         The jewel of the ship’s dining, however, is The Verandah (below), a fine-dining restaurant off the main stairway that is an homage of sorts to the Verandah Grill on the first Queen Elizabeth.  The dining room itself is polished to a shine, the side cart of brandies and digestifs a golden-era beauty, the booths looking out over the windows to the sea below. Guests can order à la carte, but I’d recommend the 5-course tasting menu: At just $35 per person (plus tax, gratuity, and alcohol), it is nothing short of a bargain, especially when the procession of dishes starts making its way out.
         We started at the bar with a lovely, refreshing hibiscus-Champagne cocktail. From there, we settled into our booth by the window--replete with crisp white tablecloth, elegant stemware, and heavy silver--and immersed ourselves in a three-hour-plus meal of remarkable elegance and vigor.  Our tasting menu, like so much of the food onboard, ranged from the classic to the more avant-garde, and all of it was conceived with intelligence and prepared with care and a minute attention to detail. A gorgeous lobster and shellfish salad was accompanied by avocado and tomato jelly. Duck foie gras torchon was joined by pears and an addictive nougat brûlée. Pan-roasted pigeon breast arrived beneath a smooth dome of chocolate; a rich, impeccably balanced sauce grand veneur was poured over it, melting and infusing the chocolate into a sort of dizzyingly savory mole. Chestnuts, quince, and endive provided the perfect lift to counter it all. Seared langoustines and scallops crowned herb-printed pasta as delicate and intricate as vintage wallpaper, all of it tied together with an ambrosial truffle emulsion. Organic filet of beef mined a more classic vein with its soufflé potatoes, morels, black truffles, and Madeira glaze. For all the richness, the flavors remained vividly clear and exuberant.
         All of the ingredients at The Verandah, with a very few exceptions, are sourced from small French farms, and the quality of each shines through with ringing clarity--the minerality of the beef, the delicate gaminess of the pigeon, the depth of the foie gras. This is highlighted even further by the wine pairings, which run the gamut from Old World  to New World and hit a wide range of stops in between. The Verandah itself is reason enough to book passage on the Queen Elizabeth. Dining this impeccably is rare enough on land; the fact that Chef James, Dinesh Kathiresan, and their team do it at sea is nothing short of remarkable.
         Eating this well requires a fair amount of movement to work it off, and, aside from shore excursions (more on that next week), there is plenty to do on board to offset the effects of eating and drinking so well. The Royal Spa is a calming, beautifully run sanctuary that offers any number of treatments, from facials and scrubs to more elaborate massages and other body treatments. The fitness center boasts weights and cardio equipment, and there’s an outdoor loop that more guests than I expected took advantage of for jogging and walking. It was a bit chilly for me to dip into the outdoor pool, but that didn’t stop others from enjoying either it or the whirlpool. Perhaps they’re made from heartier stock than I am.
         My main form of exercise on board the Queen Elizabeth was an almost nightly rotation of dancing in the Queen’s Room, a golden bust of the monarch standing sentinel at the entrance, the music of the live orchestra ringing out beautifully. This was generally followed by a restorative cocktail upstairs at the Commodore Club and a nightcap game of table tennis on the deck, the last vestiges of sunlight painting the sky a kaleidoscope of colors around midnight once we were up in the North Sea and into the fjörds.
          Queen Elizabeth is a thoroughly modern ship that retains a wholly appropriate sense of reverence for its past, a supremely elegant way to travel that never feels stuffy or stodgy. Quite the opposite, in fact: The ship’s and the line’s heritage lend everything here a sense of glittering excitement that never feels forced. Camaraderie in the dining room with neighboring tables inevitably develops by the second day onboard. The crew are uniformly professional and trained to a polish, yet wonderfully friendly, and, somehow, have the uncanny ability to know your name by the end of the first day. Even the sumptuousness of the surroundings is rendered in such a way that it feels like home before the first night is through.
         My wife and I felt this on the very first night, which we spent in what I imagine is the single best way we could have. After Champagne and canapés in our room late that afternoon, and dinner overlooking the English Channel--and after, of course, our table tennis on deck--we headed back to our suite, changed into our plush bathrobes and bedroom slippers, and stepped out to our balcony. I poured glasses of the remaining bubbly, and we stood there, transfixed by the moonlight slashing directly toward us, the watering exploding in a fireworks display of moonlight and stars, and France, off in the distance, glittering across the Strait of Dover.
         If this isn’t the single best way to travel, I remember thinking, then nothing is.

 Part Two of this Article will appear next week.



43 West 24th Street

    The media huzzah about how Peruvian food was going to the Next Big Thing in 2012 didn't exactly pan out, but if canny restaurateurs visit Raymi, which opened a month ago in the Flat Iron district, maybe they might bring the idea into better focus in 2013.
    Actually, at Raymi, peripatetic chef-restaurateur Richard Sandoval, whose empire is now global, is here celebrating "the multicultural spirit of Peru, blending the Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, and native influences that embody the country’s vibrant cuisine." That's a lot to swallow but I think this is the best of Sandoval's restaurants (of those I've visited) in a long, long time.
    The place is a knock-out: big, wide, deep, with high ceilings, a bit loud at the bar (above)--and it's a helluva great bar--clever use of wooden shutters, tapestry upholstery, and brown leather banquettes. The Pisco Bar lists 30 house-infused versions of that Peruvian spirit.  The service staff is well informed about the long menu here, but, at least on the night I visited, either overwhelmed by too many tables or just simply absent from the dining room.
Chef Erik Ramirez, last at Eleven Madison Park, worked with Sandoval and Peruvian chef Jamie Pesaque, to make sure  The Ceviche Bar is a big feature here, and a lot of the tapas-style items are unique, so have a mixto, which includes aji rocoto peppers, shrimp, octopus, scallops, sweet potato, and toasted corn.
    Of the Peruvian sushi offerings--and you may remember Peru is where Nobu Matsuhisa developed his style of sushi--I enjoyed the scallop and cape gooseberry with a crunch of candied ginger and poppyseed that gave it additional texture and nuttiness. And you could go right on through the appetizers and be perfectly happy with a full meal. There is a causa of the day--a causa being a yellow potato (potatoes actually originated in Peru long before any Irishman ever ate one) with an aji puree. The corn empanada is terrific, toasty, with yellow chile, mozzarella, cilantro and chimichurri, then there are skewers called anticuchos done a la plancha (on the griddle), like the juicy hanger steak with ajo glaze and rocoto  salsa.  This is all highly colorful food with real snap, fun to eat, serious in conception.
    As you tell, this is spicy food, but there are always varying degrees within one dish, and sweetness often comes into play, too. The Peruvian shrimp bisque with aji panca, fava beans and a poached egg is marvelously rich and satisfying, with wonderful aroma.
    Well, there are plenty of other starters here, but if you are up for the main courses, go right ahead and enjoy the ceviche done on a hot rock with leche de tigre sauce--it's brilliant--or a traditional arroz con pato (duck) done with tender Canaroli rice, scallops, and cilantro. Chaufa completo is a rice dish derived from Chinese food culture, with fragrant jasmine rice, chicken char siu, shrimp and Chinese sausage.  It all works at Raymi and shows just how close two continents are when their food cultures collide.
    Do not skip dessert--you've gone this far, so indulge in a luscious dulce de leche panna cotta with chocolate walnuts and burnt meringue, or the rice pudding with golden raisins, and brown butter ice cream.  Of course, you'll want to split the crispy donuts with chancaca honey.
    If you stick with the ceviches and starters, the bill can add up, if you're really really hungry, but nothing tops $16 on that part of the menu, and the large portions fort main courses run $22-$26, with a NY strip steak  with sides going for $32.
    Raymi is certainly a signal for anyone interested in modern Peruvian food and for any other restaurateur who thinks that maybe, just maybe, he can do it as well.  Not likely.

Raymi is open for lunch Mon.-Fri., for dinner nightly.



Kenny Shopsin, chef-owner of a diner on NYC's Lower East Side, hates customers who ask for food the way they like it.  “Some people tell me that they’re deathly allergic to something and that I have to make sure it’s not in their food. I kick them out,” Shopsin writes in his book
Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin. He recommends they “go eat at a hospital” instead.



Tennis star Maria Sharapova has launched a new line of candy called
Sugarpova. "I wanted fun and young and nothing too serious," she said, "that's how it came about with candy." Sugarpova comes in a  packages with names like "quirky," "sassy" and "spooky," each with a pair of  "iconic" lips, and includes gumballs shaped like tennis balls). The collection will be sold at Henri Bendel and in hotel minibars.


Any of John Mariani's books below may be ordered from

My latest book, which just won the prize for best book from International Gourmand, written with Jim Heimann and Steven Heller,  Menu Design in America,  1850-1985 (Taschen Books), has just appeared, with nearly 1,000 beautiful, historic, hilarious, sometimes shocking menus dating back to before the Civil War and going through the Gilded Age, the Jazz Age, the Depression, the nightclub era of the 1930s and 1940s, the Space Age era, and the age when menus were a form of advertising in innovative explosions of color and modern design.  The book is a chronicle of changing tastes and mores and says as much about America as about its food and drink.


“Luxuriating vicariously in the pleasures of this book. . . you can’t help but become hungry. . .for the food of course, but also for something more: the bygone days of our country’s splendidly rich and complex past.  Epicureans of both good food and artful design will do well to make it their coffee table’s main course.”—Chip Kidd, Wall Street Journal.


“[The menus] reflect the amazing craftsmanship that many restaurants applied to their bills of fare, and suggest that today’s restaurateurs could learn a lot from their predecessors.”—Rebecca Marx, The Village Voice.

My new book--Now in Paperback, too--How Italian Food Conquered the World (Palgrave Macmillan)  has just won top prize 2011 from the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.  It is a rollicking history of the food culture of Italy and its ravenous embrace in the 21st century by the entire world. From ancient Rome to la dolce vita of post-war Italy, from Italian immigrant cooks to celebrity chefs, from pizzerias to high-class ristoranti, this chronicle of a culinary diaspora is as much about the world's changing tastes, prejudices,  and dietary fads as about our obsessions with culinary fashion and style.--John Mariani

"Eating Italian will never be the same after reading John Mariani's entertaining and savory gastronomical history of the cuisine of Italy and how it won over appetites worldwide. . . . This book is such a tasteful narrative that it will literally make you hungry for Italian food and arouse your appetite for gastronomical history."--Don Oldenburg, USA Today. 

"Italian restaurants--some good, some glitzy--far outnumber their French rivals.  Many of these establishments are zestfully described in How Italian Food Conquered the World, an entertaining and fact-filled chronicle by food-and-wine correspondent John F. Mariani."--Aram Bakshian Jr., Wall Street Journal.

"Mariani admirably dishes out the story of Italy’s remarkable global ascent to virtual culinary hegemony....Like a chef gladly divulging a cherished family recipe, Mariani’s book reveals the secret sauce about how Italy’s cuisine put gusto in gusto!"--David Lincoln Ross,

"Equal parts history, sociology, gastronomy, and just plain fun, How Italian Food Conquered the World tells the captivating and delicious story of the (let's face it) everybody's favorite cuisine with clarity, verve and more than one surprise."--Colman Andrews, editorial director of The Daily

"A fantastic and fascinating read, covering everything from the influence of Venice's spice trade to the impact of Italian immigrants in America and the evolution of alta cucina. This book will serve as a terrific resource to anyone interested in the real story of Italian food."--Mary Ann Esposito, host of PBS-TV's Ciao Italia.

"John Mariani has written the definitive history of how Italians won their way into our hearts, minds, and stomachs.  It's a story of pleasure over pomp and taste over technique."--Danny Meyer, owner of NYC restaurants Union Square Cafe, Gotham Bar & Grill, The Modern, and Maialino.



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,  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: BEDFORD POST INN; OXFORD, ENGLAND

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).

nickonwine: An engaging, interactive wine column by Nick Passmore, Artisanal Editor, Four Seasons Magazine; Wine Columnist,;;

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

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© copyright John Mariani 2012