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  December 9,  2012                                                                                                NEWSLETTER

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Thomas Mitchell, Donna Reed, James Stewart, and Carolyn Grimes in "It's a Wonderful Life" (1947)


L.A. Eats, Part One

by John Mariani

Ai Fiori
by John Mariani

Pioneer Napa Valley Wine Maker Is Back
by Mort Hochstein


L.A. Eats

Clark Gable and Carole Lombard (1941)

Part One
by John Mariani

   The down period for Los Angeles dining, which began about the time one-state-over Las Vegas began to steal its thunder, ended a couple of years ago, and now, with a slew of new restaurants typifying the city's diversity, it's time to re-consider L.A.'s ranking among American food towns.


9669 South Santa Monica Boulevard


         Now, isn’t this just what Beverly Hills—where people would sell their bodies for the “A” tables at Spago, Cut and Mr. Chow—were dying for?  A humble little Austrian restaurant with a six-foot-seven chef and nothing close to an “A” table.

If BierBeisl was only a place to get a platter of wursts and some rare Austrian brews, it would be welcome enough anywhere in L.A.  But when you get such great bursts of flavor from a Käsekrainer sausage pumped up with oozy Emmenthaler cheese and sharp pepper, and when an appetizer of glazed white asparagus are as sweet as candy and sprinkled with unexpected sautéed sweetbreads, heirloom tomatoes, lemon confit and veal jus, you soon sense that chef-owner Bernhard Mairinger is doing at BarBeisl something far more special.  Break off the arm of a fat, soft pretzel and sop up the vinaigrette on the carpaccio of silky pork roast. At the end, rouse yourself to share that giddy Austrian dessert called Kaiserschmarm of golden,  hot meringue and warm plum compote. And, if you are taller than Mairinger, you eat free!

         By all means ask Mairinger to pair up some beers with his food. I did. Here’s what he said: “I consider beer as hard and easy to read as wine. Different bitterness, meets sweetness, creaminess, fruitiness, and so on. The best way to explain our beer and sausage pairing is probably that whatever you are missing on the plate, you should get from the beer.

    “For instance, Weisswurst made with veal only and poached in milk with onions is one the leanest, creamiest sausages, so it is best with a creamy, hoppy almost buttery sweet Stiegl Weisse, which is a traditional, very popular combination in Bavaria.

    “Debreziner, made with beef and pork, fresh horseradish and tarragon mustard, is juicy, peppery, and spicy with cayenne pepper, paprika, and caraway.  I like it with the Staropramen, my favorite Czech beer, which adds bitterness and hoppiness, so the slightly sweet flavor of fresh horseradish stays on the palate along with the spices after every bite, and even after the meal.

“Käsekrainer--Viennese street food--is a peppery beef and pork sausage that has Emmenthal cheese folded into the coarse brat, so it literally explodes in your mouth, and if you are not careful enough, all over your shirt. Pair it with Anderson Valley Boont Amber Ale, which is grassy, gently bitter, perfectly balanced with a hint of hops and caramel.

“Bier Cabanossi is a coarse beef and pork steamed and smoked sausage served with pickles, tarragon mustard and peppercress, very good to eat with a dark Koestrizer Schwarzbier that has an almost coffee bitterness that supports the sweet-saltiness of the sausage and pickles.”


Bäco Mercat

408 South Main Street



    It’s not about the sandwich. Which is one helluva great sandwich: a bäco (right) is a freshly baked roll, somewhat like a soft taco or pita, that in its original conception was filled up from whatever was around the kitchen—now, fried pork belly, carnitas, pickles, and a sauce of tomato and almonds called salbitxada. Variations followed fast—bäcos with crispy shrimp, sriracha hot sauce, and chive; oxtail hash, smoked Gouda and mustard; beef tongue schnitzel with harissa, smoked aïoli and pickle.
So far so good, but chef-owner Josef Centano (left), last at the Lazy Ox, has also crafted a menu of singular dishes that would garner raves at far more deluxe dining rooms, deeply satisfying food, crispy, crunchy, tender, spicy, each item different and novel, like Centano’s chile relleno with a pork ragù, ricotta, and Monterey jack cheese, and his blistered okra with tomato, mint and basil.  His flatbreads would be irresistible even without wonderful toppings like romesco, anchovy and lemon.

    Bäco Mercat is not a place that says anything glib about casual dining trends. It’s a place entirely its own, unreproducible  without Josef Centano. “I wanted a neighborhood place,” he says, “and it’s downtown because that’s my neighborhood. I live across the street. I love the Old Bank District and the buildings here because of their history and character and architectural bones. I didn’t have the budget for a designer, so it’s a pretty DIY place. I stripped and shined all the old brass in the restaurant. I helped paint. A friend recommended a craftsman who works with iron, and he built the bar and the restaurant signs. It is what it is.”





8432 W. Third Street

323- 782-1778


         Victor Casenova has fallen upwards. Two years ago, the very posh ristorante moderna Culina at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills, where he was a celebrated star chef, made Esquire’s list. Now at his own little trattoria on the very un-posh West Third Street, Bronx-born Casenova, 35, has gone back to his roots, with authoritative renderings of Neapolitan pork braciole with wine dark ragù and bitter Swiss chard. He stuffs sweet peas, ricotta, and mint into sheer ravioli dressed with nothing more than lemon butter, and he spreads his excellent, smoky pizzas with fresh funghi porcini, a rich besciamella cream, soft-centered burrata cheese, smoky pancetta bacon and a dash of thyme.

         The room is small, three cozy rows of nicely-set tables, the colors are olive and red, the floor polished, the walls hung with Italian food posters, and white flowers flourish in a big terracotta vase.  You are greeted by a manager named Molly, who is as pretty as she is affable, and Casenova will be in and out of the kitchen all night to ask how you like everything.  You won’t have trouble telling him, except perhaps to stutter, trying to come up with enough superlatives. 


One Pico Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA

    Los Angeles has plenty of first-rate deluxe hotels that mimic the grand luxury style of Europe, including The Four Seasons in  Beverly Hills and The Bel-Air, but for a unique flavor of breezy, seaside L.A. style is Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica is where I love to stay, feeling like Randy Newman singing, "Roll down the window/Put down the top /Crank up the Beach Boys, baby/Don't let the music stop/We're gonna ride it till we just can't ride it no more."
    The architecture is Southern Cal, white clapboard, terraces, rooms done in sandy and blue colors, with a big welcoming lobby lounge great for cocktails. The Santa Monica Pier is just a stroll away, the venerable Chez Jay dive bar is down the street, and the area is home to some of L.A.'s best restaurants, like Michael's, Valentino, and Border Grill.  Shutters also has one the loveliest, chic restaurants in town, called 1 Pico, where I've happily had occasion to have excellent lunches over the past several years, as I did on a brilliantly sunny day recently, in full view of the Pacific. There is also a casual booth-and-counter spot downstairs that puts out an excellent and very friendly breakfast.
    Chef Anthony Zappola knows his clientele wants to eat on the light side at lunch, and sommelier Peter Neptune is always there to help with a summery wine, no matter what the date in the calendar, with plenty of wines by the glass of carafe and a remarkable number of bottles under $50, with an even-handed stock of California's best and fine wines from the rest of the world.
    On my last visit I began with creamy burrata cheese coupled with English peas and walnuts, and it was tough not gorging on the terrific goat's cheese flatbread with grapes, arugula, and a dash of basil pesto. This being California, there is a Caesar salad, with grilled chicken. There are also four sandwiches, and I always order the lobster club item, which really holds a lot of lobster atop toasted, buttered brioche, with smoked bacon and, to give it a Southern Cal touch, ripe avocado.  There's also a grilled shrimp Cobb salad, generously proportioned. Typical of the sunny pastas here, there is a saffron-scented well-wrought risotto with mushrooms, and one of the signature items at 1 Pico is the Jidori chicken with fingerling potatoes, green olive, and pine nuts.

    It's the easiest thing in the world to sit at 1 Pico, have an extra glass of California chardonnay, look out at the ocean then contemplate either a stroll on the beach or a nap. Whatever you opt for, tomorrow is tomorrow and you do one or the other after a fine lunch.       

1 Pico is open for lunch Mon.-Sat, dinner nightly, Sun. brunch; Lunch special $29 for two courses; Dinner appetizers $12-$19; main courses $25-$33. There will be Christmas Eve Christmas Day, and Reveillon menus.


by John Mariani

Ai Fiori

Setai Hotel

500 Fifth Avenue (near 36th Street)
Photos by Evan Sung and Ted Axelrod

    Two years ago celebrated chef Michael White (below) opened a deluxe restaurant named Ai Fiori ("among the flowers") that veered from the committed Italian style of his other successes, Marea and Osteria Morini. Ai Fiori was also more posh than previous efforts, and, while located on the second floor of the Setai Hotel and a somewhat corporate hotel decor, the style of the place, with its fine linens, bone china, thin stemware, flowers, and comfortable seating have made this a restaurant where one can have a very civilized and beautifully crafted lunch or dinner.

    White's Altamarea Group  has got his hands full with many properties, including Al Molo in Hong Kong, so I was delighted to find him bounding from the kitchen at Ai Fiori when I had a recent lunch there.  I've known White since he first showed his exceptional talent at Fiamma, and his ebullience is as fetching as ever.  Chef de cuisine PJ Calapa keeps things in the air on a day-to-day basis.

    Ai Fiori's menu always has a selection of crudi, as first showcased at Marea, and he does one with fluke, American caviar, and a squirt of Meyer lemon to brighten the piscine flavors. His creamy  torchon of foie gras with a lacing of balsamico, crunchy of almonds, and buttery brioche is classic and very good, and his vellutata of lobster with black truffles and bits of chervil is simple in the best sense of the word.

    There are of course, all housemade pastas here, and every one I've tried has been exemplary, including black Ligurian trofie imbued with cuttlefish ink and morsels of more cuttlefish, scallops, and rare, spiced mollica crabs. Agnolotti, sheer and light, are packed with braised veal with a sweet corn purée and charred corn, veal jus, and basil, while plump tortelli come with ricotta and mascarpone, sottocenere cheese and a fine red wine glaze, a rich dish you might want as a main course. Something of a signature White keeps on his menus is the spaghetti with blue crab, lemon, bottarga, and chilies (left), a dish that seems a clash of flavors but is in fact an impeccably wrought whole on contrasts.

    If you feel like seafood as an entree, any of the day's fish will make you realize that few chefs in NYC do seafood this well, as with an olive- oil poached wild striped bass with artichokes barigoule, blue crab, sea urchin, and lemon. His sea scallops are always the finest in the market, served with , fennel, leeks, trout roe, sea and a shellfish sabayon of real depth.  Somehow such strong flavors only serve to enhance, not cover up, the delicate sweetness of the scallops. 

    At lunch the meat entrees include a roast chicken with cipollini onions, piquillo peppers, fregola, caramelized onion jus; lamb wrapped in caul fat, with, ratatouille, and  a tomato confit (right); a strip loin of beef with endive, potato terrine, “cacio e pepe”, and classic bordelaise; and a hamburger with bacon marmalade, American cheese,  pickles and pommes dauphines.

    For dessert the Ligurian olive oil cake has plenty of fans, and I particularly love  chef Alina Martell's crostata of chocolate with spiced pear and pistachio, pear and pear sorbetto.

    The winelist has breadth and depth though there are few bargains here and too few bottles under $50. Prices for food have gone up considerably, too, since Ai Fiori opened, but you'll still dine more lavishly here than at most of the deluxe French restaurants around NYC. And you will dine very well indeed.

Ai Fiori is open for breakfast daily, brunch Sat. & Sun., Lunch Mon.-Fri., and dinner nightly. Lunch, $42 for two courses; Dinner menu for 4 courses $92; tasting menu $130.



by Mort Hochstein

   Bernard Portet is back. 
  In 2010, Portet (left), one of the pioneers of Napa Valley viticulture,  wrote finis to more than three decades  of winemaking,  stopped to watch the flowers bloom for a few short months, then , before those flowers had a chance to fade away,   jumped back into the California vineyards he knew so well for so long.  

    In 1972, Portet and John Goelet, both from families that  had been part of the French wine industry for many generations,  went overseas to found Clos du Val, which became one of California’s flagship wineries. Just four years later, Clos du Val made headlines when it and a handful of upstart  Napa wineries embarrassed the greats growths  of Bordeaux in a historic blind tasting, which became known as The Judgment of Paris. Portet’s first vintage, entered in that wine competition without  his knowledge, finished eighth in the tasting, whose results astonished and embarrassed the French judges.  Ten years later, in a rematch, the French were again upended when Clos Du Val finished first.  For the next three decades Clos du Val made its mark early  and continued to win honors under Portet’s leadership.

   After his brief retirement,  Portet  and  Don Chase, a veteran Napa wine executive created Heritance, which, Portet observes,  is a winery without  walls.”  The partners source their grapes from the vineyards Portet knew for so many years  and produce their wine  at a custom crush facility. The venture, with Portet’s name on it, has taken off rapidly and Heritance Cabernet, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc  are  now available in    New York, Illinois, Massachusetts and, of  course, California.  Portet says he continues to observe the dictates  he learned as an adolescent in  Bordeaux,  aiming for “balance  and complexity and, always, a long finish. The days of overpowering reds from Napa are no longer,”  he observes. “The wines I make today are closer to those of my French roots, balanced between fruit, earth and acidity, and assembled with an eye toward the foods they will enhance."

  “I was born and raised in the vineyard and the wine business,” he recalled recently. “My father, André,  was estate manager for Château Lafite and from an early age, I  walked the fields  with him, studying how grapes, soil and weather conditions come together and how those grapes can be assembled into great wine.”  After studying  agronomy, viticulture and enology  in  Toulouse and Montpelier, Portet joined  John Goelet, another  member of a distinguished Bordeaux wine family, and embarked on a mission to find  the ideal  vineyard  ”where we could grow great grapes and make a quality wine.” Portet toured for two years, visiting and studying viticulture  in South Africa, Australia, and South America, eventually seizing on the Napa valley as the ideal place to realize his goals.  “I was impressed,” he noted recently, “with the intense and powerful wines being made at the early stage and  could see Napa’s  potential for great Cabernet Sauvignon.”

      Convinced that better grapes came from the hillsides, he  established  Clos du Val in the then relatively unpopulated   Stags’ Leap appellation. "I was newly married, and I told my wife I expected to be in California for only  a short time, but  John Goelet wanted  me to stay to buy equipment and oversee the operation. I had to make decisions  on, say, the diameter for a pump. I’d never chosen a pump or purchased hoses previously.  That short  time turned into 40 years.”

         In October of ’72, rains came just after he’d harvested 80 percent of his first  grape crop, and  he never brought in  the remaining 20 percent. “They were rotten and I would not touch them,” he recalled.  That problematic vintage, however, was the one that put Clos du Val on the map and, he observed,  “the rest is history.”  Napa was just beginning its long ascendance in the seventies and Portet was one of the vintners who helped Napa win its high esteem in the world of wine.

          Today, in his winery without  walls or fields, he has a freer hand  and  is able to change his blends as the situation arises: "I no longer worry about pumps or presses that can break, and while I work closely with the growers, I am not responsible for the vineyards. Without those responsibilities I can be  more creative, more flexible, and I can experiment with small lots.  And change my blends as I see fit.”     
As a treat for a group of writers assembled to sample  the Heritance line, Portet  brought out  a treasured bottle of that first ’72 Clos du Val.  It still showed  good fruit, soft tannins and  hints  of spice.  I can only imagine how it was when those French judges  ranked  that unknown wine  over the noble Bordeaux in ’76 and again in ’86.

        But we there for the Heritance wines and the Judgment of New York in 2012 is that they show the balance and elegance  associated  with  wines made by Portet. I’d always found Clos du Val a bit austere, in the mode of top line Bordeaux, but the Heritance wines are  indisputably much more approachable at an early stage and they linger long on the palate, a key characteristic of a Portet wine. I particularly enjoyed his 2010Sauvignon Blanc, enhanced by Semillon, but he had to change the blend the next year. In 2011, not happy with the Semillion  crop, he went into his flexible mode, remembering that  some French winemakers used Roussanne to bolster their Sauvignon. He was lucky enough to find good Roussanne grapes in Carneros, so he altered his blend to make a wine that is similar but a bit lighter than the 2010.  Since 2003, while still allied with Clos Du Val, Portet has also  been a commuter to Argentina, where he produces a Malbec under the Nandu label. Looking to the future, he’s thinking about trying a Rhone blend and he has other projects in mind.

      With retirement behind him, Portet is doing what he does best, finding the right grapes and assembling them into good wine.  “I am enjoying my Heritance adventures, “ he laughs.” My wife says I should have been doing this ten years ago.”






In Kansas, a Family Dollar store employee put 20 twenty laxative tablets in a soda he placed in an employee fridge, but somehow it was served to a woman customer, who became violently ill and had to be hospitalized. When she complained, Family Dollar offered her a $200 gift card as compensation. Instead, the women is seeking six figures in damages.




Or as the late Jim Morrison once put it,  "I believe in a long, prolonged,
derangement of the senses in order to obtain the unknown."

After eating Chicago chef Grant Achatz's food, NYC chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten
 asked him,  "I want to know what you're smoking." Achatz (right) said,
"Chef, I'm smoking dreams, man. I'm smoking dreams."





 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: THE HUDSON VALLEY

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