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  December 2,  2012                                                                                                NEWSLETTER

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A Perfect Place to Celebrate the Holidays in Philadelphia
by Brian Freedman

New York Corner
Bistro Rollin
by John Mariani

Clos des Mouches Sets a Gold Standard for Chardonnay
by John Mariani


A Perfect Place to Celebrate the Holidays in Philadelphia
by Brian Freedman

        It may seem a statement of the obvious to point out that Le Bec Fin is now crafting one of the best foie gras dishes in Philadelphia. After all, it’s the sort of thing that a great French restaurant is supposed to do: take a famously luxurious ingredient and transform it into something even more decadent than its inherent nature already accomplishes.
      But this particular Hudson Valley foie gras, with its textbook-perfect crust encasing a center of almost liquid succulence, did more than deliver on a literal level. It also symbolically heralded a new era not just of Le Bec Fin but also of how haute cuisine now  manifests itself in Philadelphia. With the balancing sweetness of huckleberry puree painted onto the plate and the headiness of aged balsamic to cut it and bring the perfume of fennel into the fold, all of it anointed with Armando Mani vintage-dated olive oil, this was foie gras brought into a realm of lightness and delicate complexity I’ve rarely seen before.
      French gastronomy as manifested at the new Le Bec Fin is rooted in a deep respect for the glories of its tradition, yet never finds itself mired in them. It’s fine dining with a lighter touch than you’d expect. And it is thoroughly successful.
    For more than four decades, Le Bec Fin,  under the ownership of the exacting Georges Perrier, was a benchmark for haute cuisine in America, introducing countless restaurant-goers not just to classic preparations and, eventually, as the years wore on, a sense of dishes more creative than Le Bec often got credit for, but also to a more civilized, formalized way of dining, with its teams of servers choreographed like dancers at the Bolshoi. In the years leading up to his departure, Perrier’s influence had waned a bit as other restaurants competed for the same high-end-dining dollars, and he attempted to steer Le Bec Fin away from its more formal roots. But even today, there is no denying the impact he had--and, in a number of important ways, continues to have.

The new Le Bec Fin is certainly a different restaurant, and owner Nicolas Fanucci
  is succeeding brilliantly in making it his own. But aspects of the original remain: The dining room, if less weighty than it was, still has a transporting shimmer to it: You know, immediately, that this will be a special afternoon or evening here. The service is impeccable, yet far more approachable than you might imagine. And the old Le Bar Lyonnais downstairs,  briefly been transformed into Tryst before Fanucci took over, is now the urbane Chez Georges, a lounge and bistro that’s a fitting tribute to the man who started it all.

      A dish as seemingly simple as an omelet is raised to the level of the miraculous. Eggs, somehow both light and dense at once, were rolled around Cabot’s clothbound cheddar and just enough truffle to perfume it all without overwhelming it. Braised Bibb lettuce draped atop served as a framing device for the deep savoriness of the perfect little packet. Alongside a glass of Champagne, you’d be forgiven for assuming that all was right with the world.
    Mingling richness with an almost impossibly light touch is one of the great achievements of the kitchen here under the watch of Chef Walter Abrams (right), formerly Sous Chef at the French Laundry in Yountville, CA. Savory-sweet chestnut emulsion and ethereal sweetbreads worked in the service of a celery root agnolotti whose skin was breathtakingly delicate. A compact brick of beef, dry aged for 32 days and ringing with an almost Gorgonzola-like sweet-funkiness, sat regally alongside potato confit and a cylinder of Savoy cabbage studded with applewood-smoked bacon. Poularde featured three distinct layers, each more appealing than the last, each matched impeccably with the accompanying artichoke fondue: The caramel-toned skin, a millimeter-thin ring of fat that had just begun melting, and fantastically moist meat showing the deepest shade of pink.

    The same philosophy of layered, well-developed flavors and a lighter touch underpins the menu du jardin, or vegetarian menu. In the sunchoke royale, the humble root was transformed into a kind of custard with a meatiness and depth that some actual cuts of beef never quite reach. Navel orange segments and sprigs of mint provided brightness and lift when least expected. Foraged mushrooms with Malabar spinach and beets, crowned with a perfectly poached egg, which is broken for a sauce, could easily go toe-to-toe with any meat-based counterpart.
      It’s not all French classics here, and the riffs on non-traditionally-French dishes are just as successful. Nettle-ricotta pierogi was flavorful enough to make the most judgmental Eastern European grandmother proud, and, like the agnolotti, it was encased in a pasta that nearly melted when it hit the tongue. Portuguese sardines, their skin glistening like some kind of opal against the shimmering light of the dining room, arrived draped over a fluffy eggplant, olive, and swordfish mousse. The entirety of the plating, including marinated tomatoes and watercress, channeled the Mediterranean as succinctly and joyously as any dish I’ve had recently. Musque de Provence velouté--think of it as a kind of pumpkin soup; at first taste it seemed overwhelmed by its curry but eventually settled into a sense of exoticism and balance that made subsequent spoonfuls impossible to resist.
      Not everything was perfect, of course, though any shortcomings were more a result of too delicate a hand rather than any real underlying problems. Flawlessly tender pork belly would have had greater impact with a more deeply rendered crust. This is an ingredient that does best on the lustier end of the spectrum. Autumn squash salad was a lovely gathering of impeccably delicate squash, crisp Asian pears, kale, and pumpkin seed butter, but no matter how many different combinations of components I tried, it never rose above the level of very good--difficult when your companions are tucking into the glorious foie gras course.
         But those were mere hiccups in meal that was, from the amuses to the mignardises, truly excellent.
     Now under Fanucci, former G-M of The French Laundry and of Perrier's Le Bec Fin, this is a new restaurant, its name notwithstanding. The cheese cart, for example, is no longer rolling around the dining room. Neither is the dessert trolly. Happily, neither of these changes has diminished the restaurant in any way: The plating and quality of the individual cheeses, for example, is gorgeous, including an herb-perfumed Fleur de Maquis with candied pecans and quince relish, and a Langres Chalancey (like Epoisses but less aggressive) with Concord grape, black walnuts, and a joyous banana-like paw paw bread that stuck to the teeth with each bite.
         Desserts embodied entire operas of flavor, and Pastry Chef Jennifer Smith (below) is clearly a serious talent; Philadelphia’s collective sweet tooth is sure to grow more intense once word of her work gets out further. Creations like a Seckel pear bavarois with local lait cru from Lancaster, PA, and gianduja assumed the flavors of the autumn with laser-like precision. Spiced pumpkin cheesecake singlehandedly made me no longer miss summer fruit season: who needs a peach when you can have a gourd like this one? A procession of banana génoise, salted caramel mousse, vanilla ice cream and hazelnuts marched across another plate like impeccably dressed soldiers on parade-display for the general.
         As for the wine list, first-time guests will be pleasantly surprised by the range of options. While you can certainly tuck into a mortgage-payment bottle of Burgundy or Bordeaux, or, say, a miraculous 2001 Château d’Yquem--one of the single greatest wines you’re ever likely to taste--there are also plenty of gems at far lower prices as well. At my table, for example, we loved a Georges Lignier Gevrey-Chambertin 1997, which, at $95, embodied all the high-toned acidity, red cherries and mushroom-y funk of Pinot Noir from Burgundy that usually sets you back far more money than that.
         And speaking of money, Fanucci just recently announced the arrival of a new pricing structure for dining here: The 8-course, $150 dinner menus will remain, but now they are joined by a 4-course, $85 option as well. Lunch, which until now had been limited to a 4-course, $55 experience, now also includes a 3-course, $39 choice. Combine that with personalized iPad menus and user-friendly wine lists and a staff as elegant, confident, and beautifully choreographed as any in the city, and you have a restaurant poised for great things.
         In the end, the new Le Bec Fin is a deeply personal restaurant, with heart and a sense of soul that only promise to grow. Nicolas Fannucci works the room with warmth and charm to spare. His love of the restaurant and what it means to the city in particular and fine French dining in America in general is ringingly clear.
        When Chef Perrier announced his retirement, and before it was clear that Fannucci and his team would be taking over the grand old restaurant and re-working it in a new image, fine-dining lovers in Philadelphia were justifiably concerned. But with this new incarnation of Le Bec Fin, and under the expert guidance of Fannucci, Chef Abrams, and the rest of their team, the jewel of Walnut Street represents not just a new era for the restaurant itself, but also for Philadelphia dining as a whole.
    It’s good to have Le Bec Fin back, and it’s great to see it through this new lens.

Le Bec Fin is open for lunch Mon.-Fri., for dinner Mon.-Sat. 





by John Mariani

142 Fifth Avenue
Pelham, NY



        Everett Potter, whose travel newsletter is linked here each week, and his wife Gayle occasionally dine with my wife and me, and recently we returned to a restaurant not far from us, in Pelham, NY, that reminded me again that Westchester County grows annually in the number of solid dining experiences that make this NYC suburb a highly desirable place to live and eat.
    Bistro Rollin is a warm and warm-hearted American bistro that began in 2009 as a French bistro, much praised at the time for the authenticity of its cuisine bourgeois.
    Owners Arthur and Barbara Bratone speak of a time “more than forty years ago when we were on a tour of three-star Michelin restaurants in France. Hopelessly lost one day trying to find Paul Bocuse’s restaurant, outside of Lyon, we arrived hours late for our reservation and were almost afraid to enter. But when the Maitre D’ came to the door apologizing that the restaurant was located in such a ridiculously difficult to find spot, we knew we had found a truly unique place. This is what we strive for at Bistro Rollin.”
    Bistro Rollin is not in the culinary league of Bocuse, but in its familial hospitality, it works at a similar level. One or both of the Bratones will be there to welcome you, and you’ll likely get a chance to meet Chef Manny Lozano, Westchester-born, with long experience in noted NYC restaurants like March, Aureole, and L'Absinthe.
    As you enter there is the “R” Bar where you can eat and drink lightly, with items like the tuna burger or tuna carpaccio, or enjoy the whole dining room menu.  As noted, Bistro Rollin originally aimed for a concentrated French bistro style, but over the years at the behest of its clientele, more Italian and American dishes have been added.  Still, they all share a hearty style, now best exemplified in the autumn-winter menu.
    Thus, the lasagna here is done with a wild boar ragù and béchamel. Thank heavens they’ve returned their classics onion soup, bubbling with Emmental and Gruyère Cheeses,  and I really liked Lozano’s crab cakes  with celeriac slaw. Pan-roasted skate comes with acorn squash, wild mushrooms and a dark red wine sauce.  Fat sea scallops take on a richness from a broccoli puree, pine nuts and beurre blanc laced with ginger soy.
    Roast duck breast has a delicious side of creamy endive, roasted apples, prunes, and chestnuts, which is exactly the kind of dish that shows off Lozano’s treatment of seasonal ingredients. He also does a commendable half-pound burger with handcut French fries, silky-sweet onion confit, saline pancetta bacon, and melted Gruyère, which, at $16 is one of the great bargains around.
    There is a plate of three artisanal cheeses available, or you can go with good renditions of crème brûlée, apple tart, housemade ice creams and sorbets, or my favorite, profiteroles with vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce and candied almonds.

    Bistro Rollin’s winelist is modest, but the prices are attractive, with good bottlings of La Craie Sancerre 2010 at $42 and a Domaine Faiveley Mercurey 2009 at $49.
    So I consider myself fortunate to live just four miles from Bistro Rollin. If you're in my neck of the woods, drop by and be delighted by this unexpected little gem.

Lunch and dinner Tues.-Sat.; brunch & dinner on Sunday
; Dinner appetizers $9-$19, entrees $16-$31.



Clos des Mouches Sets a Gold Standard for Chardonnay
by John Mariani

    Calling a white Burgundy like Clos de Mouches a first-rate chardonnay is like saying a Maserati is a fine piston-engine car. Indeed, it says nothing. Chardonnay is, with cabernet sauvignon, the most widely recognized grape varietal in the world (with more than 400,000 acres planted, with the largest acreage in California), but it is actually a grape whose basic flavor is pretty dull.

    Primarily it is the soil of a region that gives chardonnay its distinctive flavor.  Add to that different styles of vinification and enormous variance in the amount of time the wine sleeps in an oak barrel (the actual origin of the oak, age and size of the barrel matters, too), and you find that a chardonnay from New Zealand tastes little like a chardonnay from South Africa or Moldavia.

    Winemakers can easily obtain a high yield from the varietal, and the wine can develop a fairly high degree of alcohol for a white wine. And therein lies the problem with modern chardonnay: far too many examples are mass produced, overripe, high in alcohol, and taste like caramelized wood, absorbed from barrels whose staves (below) that have been “toasted” with fire.

    While ever mindful of new technology, Burgundian wine producers also trust hundreds of years of experience in determining which vineyards and what moment in autumn will yield the best grapes and, after further assessment,  just how much time their wines should spend in barrel.

    I shall never forget the great lesson I learned long ago walking with a Burgundian winemaker up a section of what is called Cote d’Or (golden slope, above), tasting grapes as we ascended.
At the edge of the slope—it’s barely a hillside—the grapes were tangy and acidic, but as we walked mere yards upwards, where the angle of the sun provided more heat and light, the grapes grew sweeter.  The grapes higher up would provide more fruitiness, more sugar, more body, and higher alcohol.
Back at the winery I tasted the wine from three or four barrels of the illustrious white Burgundy called Corton-Charlemagne. All the wines were from the same vineyard and harvest, yet each barrel’s wine tasted different—all distinctly Burgundian in flavor but different enough so that blending later on would be necessary to achieve a balance.  Even then, with bottle aging, the wine might taste different bottle to bottle. Getting a producer’s style consistent is the job of the winemaker, who in Burgundy is often overseen by the negociants (merchants) who may or may not own parts of the same vineyard.

For this reason, then, Burgundy lovers either search endlessly for wines that please their palates most, or, what is much easier, come to depend on certain producers with longstanding reputations for consistent excellence. Names like Bouchard Père & Fils, Louis Jadot, Domaine Leroy, and Joseph Drouhin  (left) are also readily available in the global market and produce a wide range of good wines, from the most illustrious and expensive.

A tasting of a bottle of Drouhin’s Clos de Mouches 2010 ($120) with steamed lobster and drawn butter reminded me all over again of that stroll up the Côte d’Or.  Here was chardonnay at its highest expression in a wine that exemplifies the Burgundy winemaking tradition at its finest.

The summer weather for the 2010 vintage was rainy and cool, resulting in small grape berries and a reduced crop, but the berries ripened fully in September, concentrating the sugars and juices. According to Fredéric Drouhin, CEO of the company founded in 1880, “Because the vintage has less alcohol than the 2009, the wines are more refined, offer great purity and freshness.”

This coalescence of factors has made for a white Burgundy whose fruit is impeccably balanced with just enough acid to keep it bright and with only a rounded hint of oak in the finish.  Burgundy fans might argue that a few more years in the bottle will only improve wines of this caliber, but drinking it that night gave me such supreme joy in rediscovering the true personality and essence of the chardonnay grape in Burgundy, that I plan to drink Drouhin’s Chassagne-Montrachet Morgeot ($114) and Puligny-Montrachet Folatiéres ($102) within the next few months.

Chardonnays in the rest of the world may try to imitate the grand Burgundy style, though terroir and that sunlight on the slopes are key to its uniqueness. If the best white Burgundies—and there are a lot of insipid ones—are the gold standard and are priced accordingly, I think it better for the rest of the world to make chardonnay in their own styles and try to make it better and better.  As I said, a Maserati is a great deal more than a piston-engine car, and a great white Burgundy transcends chardonnay’s proliferation elsewhere.

John Mariani's 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.


A student nurse named Rejane Moreira Telles in training at a Rio de Janeiro clinic. accidentally injected an elderly woman with milky coffee. Telles told a local TV show, "Anyone can get confused. I injected the coffee, and I put it in the wrong place." After entering the patient's heart and lungs, the woman drowned within hours.




"Try the one-two punch of country pâté, both creamy and nubbly, followed by a properly chewy and minerally hanger steak that is nearly outshone by a blissfully rich garnish of stewed oxtail and nutty celeriac."—Amy Pataki, Toronto Star (111/10/12)



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

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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." 

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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