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  December 30,  2012                                                                                                NEWSLETTER

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Greta Garbo and Reginald Denny in "Anna Karenina" (1935)

Happy New Year!



Dining Out in DC

by John Mariani

2012: The Year in NYC Dining
y John Mariani



Dining Out in DC
Three Newcomers Show the Range of Capital Dining
by John Mariani

Al Dente
3201 New Mexico Avenue

    It’s been years since any Roberto Donna made anyone's list of best chefs,  despite his reputation as one of America’s greatest.  Donna came to DC from northern Italy when he was just 19—his accent is still rich with Piedmontese vowels—and in 1984 his deluxe, high-priced Ristorante Galileo was the epicenter of Washington’s Power Lunch scene, where he lavished pols, lobbyists, ambassadors and lawyers with white truffles and Gaja Barbarescos.  chefs, he had a way of opening and leaving restaurants before the paint dried. 
Now, he is back, at a colorful trattoria up off Embassy Row near American University, and he is cooking Italian food at a level few other contemporaries in America have achieved. At Al Dente, he brings all he’s learned  to bear on dishes so deceptively simple that they seem like sleight of hand. He puts as much care into his superlative pizza alla margherita as to anything he’s ever done. How does he coax so much enormous flavor out of roasted porcini mushrooms, parsley and garlic baked in a foil pouch?  How does he cram that intensity into humble Sicilian caponata of vegetables, olive oil and vinegar?  What makes his polenta fries with stracchino cheese so delicate? And by what miracle do his gnocchi achieve such texture that they truly do melt in your mouth?
    Al Dente has an effervescent, casual look, a riot of bright colors, tall windows, and an open kitchen where Donna works.  There is a patio outside in good weather.  At first glance it looks like a modest venture, but the cooking here is superlative.  Our party of four more or less let Donna feed us course after course, which included marvelous renditions of spicy, sweet-sour Sicilian caponata. Orange and green zucchini flowers were stuffed with freshly made ricotta, mint, and a touch or lemon, and a plate of
spaghetti di Gragnano, teeming with seafood, was a triumph of delicate simplicity.
    Cornish hen "alla mattone" (pressed under a brick) was very juicy, served with polenta, and tearing the meat from the legs was half the enjoyment, while eating the whole thing was the appeal of soft shell crabs, 
lightly battered and served with spinach and polenta.  For dessert there were two old favorites that seemed brand new in Donna's presentation--a hemisphere of tiramisu with hot chocolate sauce and caramelized hazelnuts (left), and zuppa inglese composed of layers of chocolate cream, rum-soaked sponge cake, and a lavishing of  hot vanilla sauce.
  For all that, Roberto Donna is still an iconic figure, and, for 2012,  he was my choice as Esquire’s Chef of the Year.

Al Dente is open for lunch and dinner daily, brunch on Sat. & Sun. At dinner antipasti run $3-$13.95, pastas (full portions) $16.95-$19.95, main courses $16.95-$19.95.


Blue Duck Tavern
Park Hyatt Washington
1204 24th and M Streets, NW

    The Park Hyatt Washington is a fine choice as a modern hotel well located, in the West End of Georgetown, proximate to  the Smithsonian Museums and other monuments of the Capitol. All the amenities are here--large rooms, a spa room, meeting and banquet space, and on unusual Tea Cellar offering rare and vintage tea selections.
    Its wide open restaurant, Blue Duck Tavern, overseen by Executive Chef Sebastien Archambault and
Chef de Cuisine John Melfi have given the traditional American cuisines many modern interpretations, sourced from more than 65 regional and American purveyors, which gives weight to the much-abused phrase "farm to table."
    I've enjoyed hearty dinners here, with most dishes cooked in the wood-fired oven,  but I was very impressed by the Blue Duck's new approach to a lavish breakfast at a very reasonable price, starting with
a wood-fired pecan and cinnamon roll that serves two.  You are handed a newspaper of your choice, and a choice of fruit juices that might include  pineapple and mint or pomegranate and orange or watermelon. Croissants and pastries are made from scratch throughout the morning, including first-rate fluffy biscuits that break open into a steamy aroma. You may go whole hog and have them with peppery gravy. Grits are mill ground, salmon is house-smoked.
    My wife and I ate all over the menu, from the array of charcuterie (right) and breads to a terrific  baked brioche French toast. Pure aged maple syrup comes with the  skillet pancakes.  The eggs are from Amish farms and  include eggs Benedict with pork belly and sauce Choron, and there is a wonderfully decadent short rib has with poached eggs and a shot of horseradish sauce.

    Your mother or your teacher might have told you that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and if that's the case, there's no better place in DC to indulge in it.  The food and service here will open your eyes both literally and figuratively as to what an American breakfast can be.

Blue Duck Tavern is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. You may order a la carte, but the $35 American breakfast is the way to go. (By the way, there is complimentary valet parking if you come from outside.)                                                                              
                                                                                                            Photo Len DePas

1190 New Hampshire Avenue NW

     The personality of a great restaurateur is evident even when he is not on the premises.  In the case of Ashok Bajaj, who runs The Bombay Club, 701 Restaurant, The Oval Room,  ArdeoBardeo,  Rasika, and Bibiana Osteria-Enoteca, the man can't be everywhere but you can see his hand in every detail, not least the impeccable service that has his thumbprint on the greeting, seating, and taking care of his customers.  Born in New Delhi, trained within the Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces, he eventually chose DC to make his own mark.
    The original Rasika in Penn Quarter is still among the finest Indian restaurants in America, overseen by Executive Chef Vikram Sunderam. The West End version, more casual, set on two levels, with big bar and expansive patio, has Chef de Cuisine  Manish Tyagi, and he reproduces many of the dishes that distinguish the innovative, intensely complex flavors found at the first Rasika. Simon Stilwell is Beverage Director and very helpful in pairing wines to the food here, not an easy thing to do with flavors like chili peppers, cardamon, and cinnamon in the mix.
    This is not a carbon copy of the original's menu, but there are variations, for instance, in the tawa griddle items, which sears foods like honey ginger scallops with red Bell peppers and (deliberately) charred garlic; crab cakes kawahari with onions and coconut chutney; and Parsi lamb cutlet with garlic fries and tomato sauce.
    Among savory finger foods are cauliflower bezule; masala codfish Fingers with   chili flakes and curried mayonnaise; and gosht ke sev, made from shredded lamb. There are also several barbecue dishes, including a delicious one of mango shrimp and another of duck Narangi Seekh with candied orange and spiced marmalade.
    The menu is long and need not include 12 vegetable and sides dishes along with 15 meat and poultry dishes, but I highly recommend the excellent Goan shrimp masala; the lobster hawa Mahal with tomato and fenugreek; and the fabulous lamb shank with caramelized onions, saffron and garam masala.
    Rasika West took off from the start and has been popular with the locals, like Hilary Clinton and her husband Bill, who celebrated their anniversary here in October. If the branch hasn't the elegant cast of the Penn Quarter original and not quite the same refinement in the cuisine, it is still an Indian restaurant heads above all but Rasika itself in DC or anywhere else in America right now.
Ashok Bajaj has another winner in the capital mix.

Rasika West End is open Mon.-Fri. for lunch and Mon.-Sat. for dinner. Dinner appetizers run $8-$12, main courses $17-$28.


by John Mariani

 2012: The Year in NYC Dining

Horn & Hardart Automat façade exhibited at the New York Public Library (2012), photo by John Mariani

    It's been the usual frenetic pace of dining in NYC in 2012, and you'd never know there are lingering effects of a recession in the packed restaurants--many of which were out of commission for weeks after Hurricane Sandy.  As usual, needing something to inflate, the media tried to make way too much of the so-called "Brooklynization" of NYC's dining scene, for despite numerous openings in that borough, only a few, like Gwynett Street (left) and Blanca,  flared more brightly than other openings in Manhattan and Queens. (This latter borough, I predict, will soon have its own hype coming in 2013 as the hot new dining destination.)
    Critics went mad over restaurants that overnight appropriated "New Nordic Cuisine," which has already gone past its time, and chefs whose idea of a nice evening out is to sit guests at counters and serve them 12, 18, 28 or more courses of four hours, as at Blanca and Atera, which says more about young chefs' egos than it does about a trend.  Molecular and molecular cuisine made little headway, despite all the hype about them, with chefs picking up an idea here and there but generally eschewing the fantastical.  Indeed, there was far more attention to gutsy, hearty cooking--marrow, shortribs, innards and heavy sauces--than in the past, led by the tiny M. Welles Dinette P.S. 1 at the Museum of Modern Art in Queens and Mas (La Grillade). Oddly enough, the media also went ga-ga over restaurants like Pok-Pok in Brooklyn and Mission Chinese in Manhattan that are facsimiles, with the same menus, of originals in, respectively, Portland, Oregon,  and San Francisco.
    Despite those who continued to insist that high-end posh dining was dying--citing the closure of Alain Ducasse's Adour, L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, and Matsuri--there were wholly different reasons for each, and had more to do with a lack of personality than the quality of the food or interest. In several cases, it was purely about real estate: Ben Benson's Steakhouse and Beacon Grill both went under when the landlord demanded impossible rent increases.  Yet while those closed, high-end restaurants like Daniel, Le Bernardin, Jean-Georges, Corton, The Four Seasons, Eleven Madison Park, Gramercy Tavern, Gotham Bar & Grill, Per Se, Marea, and others flourished, with expensive newcomers like Michael White's  Ai Fiori, Daniel Humm's NoMad, and Danny Meyer and Floyd Cardoz's North End Grill (right)  thriving.
    Bistros have shown new popularity at places like La Promenade des Anglais, where Chef Alain Allegretti gives real spark to old dishes, as is the family-style kitchen at Jeanne & Gaston.  Italian restaurants' numbers just won't let up evidenced by newcomers like Sirio, The Leopard (left) Valbella Midtown, Vai,
  Caffe Storico, Rosemary's, Il Buco Alimentari, Perla, and  Isola.    Ed Shoenfeld upped the ante on Chinese-NY food at RedFarm (below), and there is still a three-hour wait to get into a California offshoot named Mission Chinese. The one genre that has seemed to run out of steam is the expensive steakhouse, of which we long ago had more than enough.
    The range of these restaurants should put off any doubt of those who believe NYC is running second to, oh, I don't know, Portland, as America's greatest restaurant city.  Its breadth and depth is not even scratched in the newcomers and oldtimers, and the ethnic neighborhoods continue to be crucibles of food cultures most people never even sample.
    What do I see in the upcoming year? Much more of the same. There should be more Korean restaurants getting away from the brazier-cooking tabletop style, and Mexican cooking can only improve after the success of Cocina Empellon.  Except for a vocal minority of rapid foodies who search out the next food truck or storefront sandwich shop with the fever of a starved Tasmanian devil, most New Yorkers dine out to eat what they favor--maybe great French food one night, dim sum the next, Italian-American classics, or a perfect strip steak and onion rings.  New Yorkers do love celebration and are not immune to fashion, swooning, and celebrities.  Out of towners want much the same, content to go back to totemic restaurants, avid to check out what's new, willing to spend on the big ticket.  Fifty million of them come to NYC every year.  Toss in 7 million New Yorkers, and you've got a lot of mouths to feed.



By John Mariani

The Best Wines and Spirits of 2012

Rachel Taylor and Freddy Rodriguez in "Bottle Shock" (2008)

     Though world auction prices have been dipping in recent months for First Growth Bordeaux and the greatest Burgundies, the prospect of drinking those wines in the future dims for most wine lovers, especially since those wines may never even be uncorked by those who bought them, saved for another auction or as trophies for display in some Hong Kong restaurant.
         All of which means that all the rest of the wines in the world and an increasing number of new spirits, are there for the us all to enjoy at competitive prices driven by a global wine glut.
         Prices for third, fourth, and fifth growth Bordeaux are stable, and the lesser estates throughout Bordeaux are offering some amazing value now.  Many California cult wines, once sold by subscription only, are having a hard time unloading their recent vintages. And when was the last time any Italian winery announced it was making a new “Super Tuscan?”
    Meanwhile, South America and Portugal are making every effort to move in on the export market once dominated by the Italians and French. So, as I riffle through my notes over the past year, I find more enjoyment, overall, with new discoveries and old favorites whose consistency is always an allure. Here are some of the ones I was happiest drinking in 2012.
    Two Gran Reserva Riojas, which by law must spend 24 months aging, three in bottle, delighted me for their power, nuance and brilliance, without edging past 13.5 percent alcohol:
Beronia Gran Reserva 2001 ($30) and Baron de Ley Gran Reserva 2001 ($38), a Rioja Alta blend of tempranillo, graciano, and mazuela, aged in oak for 30 months.
    In the same way, a Chianti Classico Riserva, Barone Ricasoli Rocca Guicciarda 2008 showed refined complexity with Italian styling, which was something of a surprise from an estate I’ve often thought made Chiantis that were too austere. This is a lusher version, showing that Chiantis can achieve the highest levels of quality in Italian viniculture.
    One of the now classic Super Tuscans I was thrilled to enjoy again was Ornellaia, this time the newly released 2009 ($150), which was of medium body rather than the heavyweight usually associated with the estate. The tannins were soft, the levels of acidity and fruit promise a long life, and the melding of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, and petit verdot, while a Bordeaux blend, showed all its Italian charm in its soft radiance.
   Joseph Drouhin Clos de Mouches 2010 ($120) reminded me again of the eminence of the best white Burgundies over all other chardonnays, made on the slopes of the Côte d'Or (right). A rainy, cool summer made for small berries that ripened with perfect sugars but a slightly less than normal alcohol, with wonderful bouquet and balance throughout the palate.   
    I make no secret of my enduring love for good Sancerre, but Domaine Thomas’ Sancerre La Crele 2010 ($25) was a revelation of the power sauvignon blanc can achieve. Big and full-fruited wine, made from old vines, with 13.5 percent alcohol, it’s everything that the overly sweet and grassy sauvignon blancs of New Zealand and California should hope to be.
    At an autumn dinner at Alain Senderens in Paris, I thoroughly enjoyed a glass of Pommery Cuvée Louise Rosé Brut Champagne 2000 with a mousseline of pumpkin, and the next day I visited—as anyone may—the Domaine Pommery estate in Rheims, with its modern art-filled caves, and I was happy to find that the newer vintages, especially the roses, have a elegance and fruit lacking in other prestige cuvees that are often much too bone dry.
    Knob Creek is best known for its fine bourbons, so I thought it merely a novelty when I ran across their 100 proof Rye Whiskey ($41). Ryes are making something of a comeback, for while most traditional ryes have a sting and make good mixers, Knob Creek’s, released last July, deserves to be savored in a cut crystal glass, preferably with a dog by your side to pet and talk to.
    I like renegade spirits makers, and Phil Prichard of
Prichard’s Tennessee Whiskey ($30), founded in 1997 in an old schoolhouse complete with basketball hoops, is made from white corn in small batch copper pots, then aged in white oak barrels. The nose bursts with vanilla and soft smoky oak, so it begins sweet on the tongue, then trails off with an engaging, peppery finish that stays there until you take your next sip.
    Orange liqueurs are usually added to other spirits and juices, as in a margarita, but Solerno Blood Orange ($30), from Sicily, is not only a great looking scarlet package, but its blood orange base gives it a unique, berry-like flavor, with medium sweetness, and a faint, pleasing burn. It’s best enjoyed on the rocks or crushed ice rather than in a cocktail.

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



For $409,  The Loews Hollywood Hotel has a Sweet! Suite,  stocked with over 100 pounds of candy,  a $100 gift card to Sweet!, a candy-making demo and tour of Sweet!, plus two giant sticky 10-inch diameter lollipops, one five pound Wonka bar and "all the Stickyhard candy you can eat."


NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal has lent his name
 to a brand of coconut-flavored vodka called "Luv Shaq."



 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:

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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