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  January 12, 2014                                                                                             NEWSLETTER

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Publicity Stunt Dinner on the Empire State Building Scaffolding (1932)



By John Mariani

By John Mariani and Robert Mariani

By Brian A. Freedman


By John Mariani

    Atlanta’s reputation as being the South’s best restaurant city is increasingly challenged by smaller ones like Charleston and Nashville.  But Atlanta still holds sway by virtue of the diversity of restaurants in every section of town, from Downtown to Buckhead, and by the ethnic offerings that are easily the most varied of any city south of Chicago. Of course, New Orleans has a far more highly developed indigenous gastronomy, but it cannot match the overall breadth and depth of Atlanta’s offerings.  And, each time I visit, I’m delighted to see how the city’s restaurant sector expands, sometimes by copying concepts from elsewhere, but largely based on a deep field of innovative chefs for whom Atlanta has long been home.

3600 Peachtree Road NW

       Chef Ford Fry’s The Optimist was my choice in Esquire as Best New Restaurant of  2012, and, while his brand new place, King + Duke, didn't quite tag that highest  honor in 2013, it’s not a place you’d want to miss if you’re going to Atlanta.  Where The Optimist is all about great seafood, King + Duke (named after two grifters in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) is centered around wood-fire cooking from a 24-foot hearth in an open kitchen (left). Chef de Cuisine Joseph Schafer seeks in every dish to “accentuate natural flavors through slower methods of cooking and the smoke of the wood fire.”  Which will have you salivating when you get a platter of roasted bone marrow with smoked mushrooms salad, or the candied lamb belly with sheep’s milk feta. Mississippi rabbit comes with a farro grain salad and rabbit liver on toast, and Maine lobster wood roast takes on smoky levels of flavor, along with bok choy, garlic and a chile kick. And you get popovers, too, hot and steamy from the hearth (right). Even desserts, by Chrysta Poulos, take advantage of that hearth in sweets like dulcey panna cotta with grilled peaches. 
    King + Duke is resolutely American, right down to beers on a 200-label list currently being made in the 13 original colonies, along with a slew of American ales. If you want to find Atlantans of every stripe having a grand old time, check out King + Duke any night of the week from five o’clock till midnight.

Lunch Mon.-Fri.; dinner nightly; appetizers $6-$16, main courses $16-$49.

3050 Peachtree Rd NE
photos by Sara Hanna

    One of the most highly regarded Japanese restaurants in Atlanta some years ago was the brash MF Sushi, where Tokyo-born Chef Fuyuhiko Ito (left) dazzled guests who learned not to expect the ordinary and always to anticipate surprise.  Sadly, after an expansion, MF’s publicity-loving owner took his eye off the ball, closing down and relocating to Houston (where a recent fire has shuttered the restaurant).
    Atlantans were excited, then, when Ito re-emerged as chef at the splashy new Umi in Buckhead, and it caught on fast with a well-heeled crowd dying to dine in a new hot spot with occasional celebrity appearances.  (More than once on my visit was I told Elton John sat on the very banquette I occupied one evening, which made me check for stray jewelry in the creases.) 
    Owners Farshid Arshid and Charlie Hendon hired Atlanta artist and designer Todd Murphy to make this a snazzy place whose look was to be at least as important as the food. Unlike most sushi eateries, Umi has a very large dining room: to the rear is the sushi bar; the vast dark walls are hung with huge works of art.  Part of the intent, annoyingly, was to create an environment where earsplitting noise is supposed to  create excitement, when in fact it is more than  off-putting.  Indeed, it was really one of the loudest restaurants I dined in all last year, which obliterated much of the pleasure of Ito’s exquisite omekase menus.   
    Our large party left the omekase all up to Ito, beginning with appetizers of yellowtail with jalapeño and ponzu sauce; salmon yuzu; and tuna carpaccio, whose bright flavors and seasonings set the palate for the cool, unadorned purity of unstintingly fresh sashimi---yellowfin tuna, yellow jack, kinmedai (sea bream), otoro, madai (red snapper) and amaebi sweet shrimp.
    Nigiri sushi followed, the flavor and temperature of the rice as important as the seafood, which included uni-aburi (sea urchin), otoro, zuke-maguro tuna, shime-saba (marinated mackerel), kinmedai (golden-eye red snapper), and mako-karei (halibut).
    The presentation of the warm dishes was pretty without ostentation, and it was unusual to see foie gras two ways – nigiri-style, with fresh wasabi and soy sauce, and with teriyaki sauce and radish sprout, which went well with a 2009 Château Villa-Franche Sauternes.  Black cod miso-yaki, Chilean sea bass yu-an yaki (marinated and grilled) and rock shrimp with creamy spicy sauce followed.
    I was getting a bit full by then but still to come were irresistible scallops 
seared on the grill, as was lobster with soy butter, and, the piéce de résistance--or coup de grace--Kobe-beef toban-yaki in a dashi broth that ameliorated the decadent richness of the beef, which at $28 an ounce is sheer indulgence; then again, this is the true Japanese Kobe beef, not Australian or Texan “Kobe-style,” and that makes a great deal of difference.
    The translation of Japanese food culture into western desserts is rarely very successful, though I admired chef Lisa Ito’s honorable marriage in items like green tea soufflé with Cointreau anglaise sauce; and a chocolate pecan pie with Japanese sea salt caramel.
    Umi at its best, which is at the sushi counter away from the noise, brings back memories of the fine work Ito did at MK, only now it seems even more personalized and entirely his. 

Open for dinner Mon.-Sat.; prices vary tremendously depending if you order a la carte or tasting menus, as do seafood prices of top quality.

Phipps Plaza

    Atlanta has two top-tier indigenous steakhouses--Bone’s and Chops--along with the usual national chains, so Davio’s had to go several steps further to distinguish itself among the cookie-cutter competitors. Since opening the original Davio’s in Boston, owner Steve DiFillippo has had considerable success capitalizing on the Italian steakhouse theme with branches in Foxborough and Lynnfield, MA, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and, last fall, in NYC. 
    First of all, the Atlanta design departs from the cliché-ed masculinity of his competitors,  with lighter colors, good separation between tables, and a modern polish throughout.  G-M Claude Guillaume knows how to build a steady clientele the old-fashioned way, through courtesy rather than the brash macho of so many other beef eateries.  The wine list is solid, the service staff well trained, and the open kitchen a pleasant diversion.
    Davio’s is self-described as a “Northern Italian Steakhouse,” which means there is a far larger selection of appetizers, or antipasti, that includes Kobe-style meatball with tomato sauce and caciocavallo cheese; crispy calamari with chickpeas, oregano and a spicy tomato sauce; and Davio’s signature spring rolls (they sell them by the box), which have never bowled me over, although I can see their appeal, done up with chicken parm, Buffalo chicken, and shrimp.
    All pastas are available in appetizer portions, and there is exceptional range--from fresh, light p
otato gnocchi with organic mushrooms and a fragrant basil truffle oil to lobster risotto with asparagus and lobster cream. The tagliatelle bolognese has a fine, lusty meat-and-tomato sauce, though it would hardly pass muster for authenticity in Bologna.
     You could, therefore, easily go to Davio’s even if you had no particular interest in steaks, for the menu also lists a massive grilled porterhouse of veal with creamy potatoes, asparagus and a Port wine sauce, as well as pan-seared scallops with Carolina Gold Rice grits, leeks and basil oil.  Slowly braised beef short ribs are gilded with Gorgonzola mashed potatoes, Swiss chard and a Port wine glaze. 
    If, however, you do come to see how the beef stacks up next to Atlanta’s other steakhouses, you will be very happy with the USDA Prime offerings here, especially the terrific New York sirloin and the ribeye. You’ll also be delighted with the Colorado lamb chop of real succulence and rich mineral flavors.  Throw in some onion rings or macaroni and cheese with white truffle oil, and you’re going to be impressed.
    And while Davio’s main course prices are competitive with those of its competitors, Davio’s candidly lists theirs on their website while most of the others do not. So, in trying to distinguish Davio’s from the rest, they are trying hard to win you over and win you away.  And a little pasta doesn’t hurt that idea either.        

Open daily for lunch and dinner. Appetizers $9-$16; pastas $18-$32; main courses $26-$45.

406 West Ponce de Leon Avenue
Decatur, GA   

    Decatur, Georgia, is an easy 20-minute drive outside of Atlanta and, in a much smaller way, is itself becoming something of a food destination.  Chai Pani--which means “tea and water,” but in India colloquially refers to going out for a snack--is a truly delightful addition to the increasing number of Indian restaurants in the USA that are going well beyond tandoori chicken and mulligatawny soup.
    The original Chai Pani was opened by Chef Meherwan Irani and his wife, Molly, in Ashville, NC, with Decatur’s branch debuting last year.  The menu features regional Indian street food--the kind guidebooks wisely encourage foreign travelers to India not to eat if they want to avoid “Delhi belly.” But here in Decatur, be assured you will have the time of your life and remember each dish with every intent to return soon for more.
    The menu is long, beginning with chaat (snacks) like kale pakora, so piping hot and crispy they seem to crackle before you even eat them. So, too, the okra fries are tossed with lime and spices before a deep plunge into hot oil.  The samosas with garbanzo beans, sweet yogurt, tamarind and green chutney are so good I’d take them in a bag to nosh on during a tailgate picnic, and addictive indeed is the platter of Sev potato dal puri with crunchy chickpea noodles. Uttapam are savory crêpes made with a lentil batter, like a flat dosa heavy with a stew of cheese, while the Sloppy Jai  here is done with a lamb hash, tomato, onions and all manner of complex spices, served on two soft buns. They also do traditional thali platters (above, right), both vegetarian and non-vegetarian.
    Chai Pani is one of those restaurants where no matter how many things you try, somehow you don’t feel stuffed.  But you eventually will, which only means you'll be  back for more, and probably very soon.

Open Tues.-Sun.; Snacks $3.49-$7.99; uttapam $9.99; sandwiches $8.99-$9.99.





Minton's and The CecilE CECIL

By John Mariani
Photos by Evan Sung

       I shall let my brother Robert fill you in on the background and future of Minton’s (see next story), which, with its adjacent restaurant The Cecil (both at 206 West 118th Street), is part of the new Harlem Restaurant Renaissance that also includes Red Rooster, the 5 and Diamond, Corner Social and Vinateria.  Let me concentrate on the restaurant segment of Minton’s and begin by saying that it is certainly one of the most handsome new restaurants to open this year, right down to the white tablecloths.
         Founded in 1938 by saxophonist Henry Minton, the “playhouse” was the crucible of jazz that came to be called bee-bop, whose innovators included giants like Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Charlie Christian.  Minton’s was going strong until 1974, when a fire razed the hotel in which it was located, and, through those dark days of Harlem’s history, Minton’s stayed dark.

         Happily for everyone, Minton's   (212-243-2222) has new owners and a smashing new look in a modest-sized room whose antecedent was listed on
both the National and the New York State Register of Historic Places.  Huge photos of jazz stars bring back the memories, as does a house band of stellar musicians,  and the respect paid by owner Richard Parcels and partner-chef Alexander Smalls (right) to the traditions of Harlem cookery--they call it “Southern Revival Cooking”--is evident on a menu that includes a lavish “Low Country Experience” of appetizers: Beau Soleil oysters with Champagne mignonette and osietra caviar; deviled egg toast with smoked trout and pickled shallots; fried okra and country ham; blue crab fritter with sauce rouille; a lusty bacon pilau with smoked chipotle aïoli; and cremini mushrooms with creamed collard greens ($24).
       Other fine starters include a tangy sherried she-crab soup with crispy yams and skillet bread ($18) and a roasted parsnip and kabocha squash soup with benne seed crunch and brown butter crème fraîche ($14).
       Among the main courses, I recommend the smoked Berkshire pork chop with a yam hominy grit cake and winter greens ($39), which shows a refinement of country cooking for which chef de cuisine Banks White shows real talent.  Plump quail is also smoked, served with a giblet cornbread cake and cranberry cardamon cake ($34). A generous casserole of lobster and shrimp comes with a rich Creole crawfish gravy and pimento cheese grits (left).  And you will not easily forget the fabulous, if misshapen, flaky Southern biscuits at Minton’s, which are a dazzling riff on culinary tradition as much as bee-bop was on New Orleans jazz.       On the busy Saturday night I visited, some of the dishes were not up to others, and some came out tepid, not hot, perhaps owing to a menu unnecessarily large for this size restaurant.  I trust the kitchen will get into the swing of things and coordinate all the cooking with more finesse.
       For dessert the best is a pineapple upside down cake with corn cream and a blueberry compote.

   Just a few yards away from Minton’s is The Cecil  (212-866-1262), whose piped-in background music indicates that this is more of a restaurant than a jazz venue. Here, Smalls, with Chef de Cuisine Joseph “JJ” Johnson, are doing what they call the “comfort food of the African Diaspora,” so that you may roam from a delicious West African beef suya with rum-soaked apricot compote, grilled plantains and groundnuts to Gullah shrimp min-burgers with housemade kimchi and scallions.
       I arrived at The Cecil with three very hungry guys, finding the bar up front bopping. A beautiful and wholly engaging Haitian-born manager named Paola Mathe brought us to our table and checked back all night. Our cocktails were impeccably rendered, and we began ordering from every section of a long menu.  A white root vegetable soup was laced with red curry oil and chives ($9), and a black bottom bean cake came with a fruity-spicy papaya salsa and plantain chips ($11). “Afro/Asian/American” oxtail dumpling were spiked with a green apple curry sauce and crispy taro root ($14) for scooping up the sauce, and the spicy broiled prawns (below, right)were gigantic indeed, with a yam flapjack and piri piri sauce ($15).

       There is a section called the “rice & vegetable wok bar,” (below, left) from which you choose your preferred rice—black, jasmine, sweet brown—and top it with an array of options. We went with succulent country cut pork ribs ($24) and left not a morsel behind.
      There was a slew of wonderful main courses, including a macaroni and cheese casserole ($16) with caramelized shallots and pepper ham, and feijoada, the beloved dish of Brazil bulked up with spicy black beans, oxtail, merguez lamb sausage ($27).
       Long-braised lamb shank fell off the bone, accompanied by coconut grits, heirloom carrots and purple sweet potato ($36), while duck fried noodles gained enormous flavor from a collard greens salsa verde, cashew broth and a poached egg on top ($32).
       If, after having food this hearty, you have room for just one dessert, make it the pecan sticky buns with brown butter toffee and vanilla ice cream ($8)—and two forks. Then again, there’s everything to love about the spiced Nyangbo crema sponge cake, chocolate croquante, and black cardamon ice cream ($8).
      Perhaps what’s most impressive about the menu here is that you won’t find a single item on it served anywhere else in New York City.  Every dish is very special, some unique, and a great deal of thought has gone into exotic seasonings here.
       Indeed, if I may indulge a backhanded compliment to JJ Johnson, it’s that, if you take food home—and you will—some dishes lose a great deal in taste and texture when consumed the next day, meaning that his cooking is not just fresh but depends on a very canny timing and devotion to each ingredient in a dish. Like pizza and French fries, they need to be consumed on the spot.
       The Cecil’s roomy space, with a fine mural of a black woman, has tables made for piling on dishes, and the noise level is civilized.  Bread baskets and bowls evoke those from home kitchens.  Some of the well-meaning waitstaff need more tutoring about the wine list, but overall I think it impossible that anyone going to The Cecil will be disappointed with the vibe and perhaps educated in the most savory way of the breadth and depth of The Cecil’s style of cooking.

Minton's is open Wed.-Sun. for dinner; The Cecil is open for lunch Mon.-Fri.; for brunch Sat. & Sun.; for dinner nightly.

By Robert Mariani

    It’s a name I don’t think I’ve heard spoken of in many years. 
    And so when I learned that after many years, “Minton’s Playhouse” was re-opening at its original address at West 118th Street in Harlem on the ground floor of the old Cecil Hotel, I was really delighted. Delighted that the unassuming little nightclub where Bird and Diz’ and Monk and the rest of the greats and near-greats all went to jam was back in business after a fire in 1974 had shut it down.

    Although I grew up in the Bronx then lived in mid-town Manhattan for over ten years in the late ‘60’s, I’d never gone to Minton’s. Birdland, the Five Spot, The Jazz Gallery, The Blue Note, The Half Note, Slug’s, Sweet Basil, and the Village Vanguard were all the great jazz venues I was lucky to frequent. But never Minton’s. It was not very highly publicized at the time and there was little if any music of note being played there in the late '60s and '70s.
    But now, Minton’s Playhouse is back up and running. The space retains its original diminutive, intimate size with narrow tables on either side facing the wall (not the bandstand as with the original Minton’s). The dark, film noir atmosphere is a lot more stylish and formal than what I imagine it probably was like back in the ‘40’s and 50’s. There are classic life-size black-and-white photo murals of the very greatest of the Jazz Greats—Miles and Ella and Dizzy, Lady Day and Monk, Prez, and of course, Bird.
    Behind the bandstand, the original colorful mural depicting a small bunch of Be-boppers lolling around in a cramped room has been carefully restored.
On the Saturday evening we were there, a smartly-dressed quintet of older musicians were playing what one might call “easy listening jazz.” It was pretty, melodic, though not very much like the high- intensity Bop tempos that Bird or Dizzy would have been playing. Nobody called  “Cherokee” or “Salt Peanuts.”
    The patrons this Saturday night were talking and eating and the music was quite literally background. Luckily though the acoustics and the sound system were both quite good and even though our table was a fair distance from the bandstand, it was possible, for the most part, to listen and appreciate the music that was being played.
    The band members were 90-year-old Rudy Lawless on drums, Michael Max Fieny on bass, Mike Camola on alto, Michael Howell on guitar, and the elegant Mrs. Bertha Hope on a sparkling new baby grand piano (below).
    For me, Bertha Hope’s graceful solos were well worth the price of that evening’s admission, and after the set I had a chance to speak briefly with her backstage. She seemed surprised that someone actually new the name “Hope” and associated it with some of jazz’s finer piano playing moments.

Left: Thelonious Monk, Howard McGhee, Teddy Hill, Roy Eldridge outside Minton's Playhouse (photo by William Gottlieb)
    Elmo Hope was born in 1923 in New York City, where he grew up with musicians like Bud Powell, Johnny Griffin, Percy Heath and Philly Joe Jones, and later was a side man with Sonny Rollins, Coltrane, Clifford Brown and Harold Land.
    Elmo’s wife, Bertha, was born in California and began taking piano lessons at about the age of three. It was Bud Powell’s playing that hooked her into the jazz idiom, and she was becoming a sought-after pianist in the ‘50’s when she met Elmo. They did record two piano albums together, but Bertha put her own career on hold as the spotlight began to shine more brightly on her husband. He was one of the pianists just about everyone back then liked playing with.
    Listening to Bertha Hope that night at Minton’s reminded me what if feels like to just relax into the groove the way that the great players have always done. Her velvety touch on the keyboard is not unlike that of Hank Jones's, and though it’s easy to hear how much she was influenced by the whirlwind of originality surrounding her during the growth of Be-Bop, she maintains her own conception, her own sound, her own time feeling that really and truly swings. If anyone belongs at the new Minton’s Playhouse today, it is the musically beautiful Bertha Hope.




                                    PRESTIGE CUVÉE CHAMPAGNES
                                                                 By Brian A. Freedman

    I spend a fair amount of time at beautiful tastings and elaborate meals for my work, and over the years it’s gotten notably easier to convince my wife that, yes, heading into NYC for a wine-soaked lunch or dinner is, indeed, a necessary aspect of my job. But a recent tasting and lunch of some of the top Champagnes in the world, presented by renowned expert Ed McCarthy for the  Wine Media Guild's annual December gathering, was a rare opportunity to taste and enjoy over lunch more than a dozen and a half prestige cuvées, those top-tier bottlings that represent the apex of the art and craft of producing Champagne, and to broadly assess what sets these often legendary wines apart from their counterparts.
    In all honesty, I felt a little guilty leaving the house that morning. Once I finally walked into Felidia Restaurant on East 58th Street and saw the bottles in their buckets of ice, however, I quickly got over it. Decadence, it turns out, defeats guilt every time. I think Epicurus said that. Or maybe not.
    Unlike the more readily available and affordable brut non-vintage style, the majority of these Champagnes were vintage-dated, expressions not just of a particularly successful year’s crop but also, in many cases, of the terroir of a specific part of the fabled region. And the differences were staggering.
    The youngest of the prestige cuvées that day was the 2005 Louis Roederer Cristal ($220). This wasn’t a fabulous year in Champagne, but certainly a very good one, as the tightrope balance between pear and mineral and hints of forest floor, all well wrought and expressive, amply demonstrate.
    Jumping back to 2004, Perrier-Jouët’s Cuvée Belle Époque ($130-$150) was, as always, lovely. I found it difficult not to drink multiple glasses of this wine with such crisp bright apple and lemon notes. (At a wonderful lunch at Le Bernardin in October, hosted by Perrier-Jouët and Chef de Cave Hervé Deschamps, I loved the Belle Époque Rosé 2004, and still imagine its flowers, candied cherry, raspberry and blood orange notes. And their 2006 Belle Époque was a rich, exotic Champagne expressive of nuts and warm brioche, as well as apples and berries.)  Moët & Chandon’s Cuvée Dom Pérignon 2004 ($160-$165) boasted a nose that reminded me of the aroma of a sidewalk after a spring rain, with Seckel pear and hard peach and a lingering sense of minerality. From Veuve Clicquot, La Grande Dame 2004 ($120) spoke of apricot, hard apple, minerals and an unexpected, utterly charming undertone of wild strawberry.
    In addition to these, I recently received two samples of Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage 2004--not prestige cuvées technically, but still beautiful bottles of Champagne. The Brut is a lively, giving bubbly that boasts toasted biscuits, persimmon and mashed pear, as well as attention-grabbing mineral and floral hints. As much as I enjoyed the blanc, the Brut Rosé is even better, with red and darker berries to spare, as well as flowers, oranges and a hint of savory earth at the edges.
    Heading back to 2002--an amazing year--Ayala’s Cuvée Perle d’Ayala ($125) was one of my choice wines of the day, its biscuit and lemon curd aromas leading to a vigorous palate defined by its minerality and gorgeous lemon-flesh notes. This one will continue to drink well for another 15 years or more--not that I can resist it right now. Also from 2002 was the lovely Pascal Doquet Vieilles Vignes Le Mesnil Grand Cru, a vivid expression of one of the most highly regarded sources for Chardonnay in France. This was all breed and finesse, with lemon curd and high-toned minerality pulsing with an underlying sense of power. If I had a few bottles (and at $80-$85, I can actually afford this one), I’d continue to enjoy them through 2030 and beyond.
Nicolas Feuillatte’s Palmes d’Or 2002 ($110-$120) was a softer expression of the vintage, with mashed pear and bright apple acidity; very appealing indeed. Ruinart’s Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 2002 ($130), by comparison, mined a more savory vein: white pear notes here were balanced out by more briny flavors, an almost salty sensation that begged for food. And Piper-Heidsieck Rare 2002 was breathtaking, a sweet-souled and rich wine with cereal grains, biscuits, lemongrass, white flowers and orange oil. Even at $150-$170, it’s worth the money, if you have it. Finally with this vintage, the Perrier-Jouët Blanc de Blancs 2002 ($150) benefited from every one of the 60 years of age of the vines it’s produced from: mineral, candied ginger, sweet pineapple, brioche and a hint of sesame define this beauty.
    Vintage 2000 was represented here by two remarkable bottlings. The Pol Roger Cuvée Winston Churchill ($200-$225) was open-knit and giving, with ample spring flowers and minerality, and, as the chill came off it a bit, just-developing hints of earth. This one promises to really blossom in the next few years. From Deutz, the delicious, compact Cuvée William Deutz ($104) reminded me of white raspberry and crunchy Granny Smith apple, an excellent Champagne for pairing with food other than canapés.
    There was only one 1999 prestige cuvée at the tasting, but what a bottling it was. I have been fortunate to taste Bruno Paillard’s Nec Plus Ultra Grand Cru several times in the past--once, even, at his gracious, lovely home in Reims--and have always swooned over them. This transfixing Champagne ($388) was no different: bright, balanced mineral notes are lifted with more exotic hints of lime and lemongrass, as well as emerging forest floor. I’m already longing for the next time I can enjoy a bottle of it.
    One year older was the Gosset Célébris Extra Brut 1998 ($150-$160), a wine that is carrying its age brilliantly, with plenty of red-berry fruit mingling with notes of dulce de leche. Wonderful. And then there was the Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995 ($175-$185). I’ve always been a lover of Heidsieck’s Champagnes, and this one lived up to every expectation I could have had. Toasty multigrain bread notes found their counterpart in the flavor of apricot preserves, and the subtly salty finish lingered like a particularly beautiful memory for some time.
    There was also a handful of top-quality non-vintage Champagnes as well. The Krug Grand Cuvée ($170), as expected, was among the highlights, a thoroughly complete wine with ample fruit and berry, as well as more exotic notes of lemongrass, preserved lemon, and nervy mineral brightening the whole enterprise up with real finesse. Laurent-Perrier’s Grand Siècle ($110-$120) was a shimmeringly transparent expression, the lime and lemongrass of the mid-palate finishing on an almost dry note that begged for food. And A.R. Lenoble’s Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru ($50-$65) also hinted at the exotic, with bright kaffir lime and mineral notes balanced by aromas of white berries and pear.
    By the end of the day, it was abundantly clear that this wasn’t just an exercise in decadence and pleasure, but a deeply illuminating educational experience. The opportunity to assess, across such a wide range of wines, what is happening at the topmost echelon of the Champagne world was exceptionally edifying. Overall, my takeaway from this was twofold. First, if you can afford to spend the money on prestige cuvées, it is worth doing so; the longevity and expressiveness of these wines are just stunning. Second, the experience highlighted yet again how important it is to not just sip these Champagnes on their own but to pair them with food; because, despite their prestige and expense, they are incredibly versatile at the table.
    This time of year, then, maybe we all should vow not just to drink more Champagne, but to do so with family and friends and to enjoy it alongside the holiday meals that define the season as much as mistletoe and menorahs. If you pair wisely, not only will both the food and the Champagne benefit, but it will make the long slog between New Year’s and springtime that much easier, and that much more enjoyable. Which is why we drink Champagne in the first place: Because it makes life better when we do.

PS: A sumptuous and comprehensive new book, A Scent of Champagne by Richard Julhin (Skyhorse Publishing, $47 ), is a superb new entry on a much-discussed subject. Juhlin presents his vast knowledge and well-respected opinions on France's bubbly gift to man with erudition and stylish writing, including 8,000 Champagnes tasted and rated since 1998. Highly recommended for the connoisseur.--John Mariani





Republican Congressman Scott Kingston of Georgia, speaking of funding the federal school-lunch program, said,  "Why don't you have the kids pay a dime, pay a nickel to instill in them that there is, in fact, no such thing as a free lunch? Or maybe sweep the floor of the cafeteria."


"Today, Brooklyn and Berkeley seem connected by an underground tunnel in which hybrid vehicles carry curing salts, butchery manuals and biodynamic wines back and forth below the continent. But at the time, nobody thought that West Coast sunshine was going to rescue the borough of brownstones and strollers from Manhattan’s long shadow."----Pete Wells, "Marco," NY Times (Dec. 18, 2013).



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

The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink by John F. Mariani (Bloomsbury USA, $35)

Modesty forbids me to praise my own new book, but let me proudly say that it is an extensive revision of the 4th edition that appeared more than a decade ago, before locavores, molecular cuisine, modernist cuisine, the Food Network and so much more, now included. Word origins have been completely updated, as have per capita consumption and production stats. Most important, for the first time since publication in the 1980s, the book includes more than 100 biographies of Americans who have changed the way we cook, eat and drink -- from Fannie Farmer and Julia Child to Robert Mondavi and Thomas Keller.

"This book is amazing! It has entries for everything from “abalone” to “zwieback,” plus more than 500 recipes for classic American dishes and drinks."--Devra First, The Boston Globe.

"Much needed in any kitchen library."--Bon Appetit.

Now in Paperback, too--How Italian Food Conquered the World (Palgrave Macmillan)  has won top prize  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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© copyright John Mariani 2014