IN THIS ISSUE
RALEIGH IS FOR REAL
By John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
By John Mariani
RALEIGH IS FOR REAL
By John Mariani
Photo by Geoff Brown
For a long while now when praise is bestowed on North Carolina’s Research Triangle, Raleigh is usually mentioned last, after Durham and Chapel Hill, whose universities, Duke and U. of North Carolina, grab most of the attention for their research and high-tech clout. But in many ways the once sleepy city of Raleigh now has a lot more to offer than those other municipalities, and, during a recent trip there, I found that the city is on a sure rise to long-delayed eminence.
Raleigh most certainly has its own colleges and universities—ten of them, including North Carolina State and Shaw, the first black university in the South—and its population of 440,000 is nearly double that of Durham and seven times that of Chapel Hill. Forbes magazine ranks Raleigh among the six fastest-growing cities in the country.
By the end of the 18th century Raleigh was a planned city drawn in a grid pattern (right), and the city suffered little damage in the Civil War, so neighborhoods retain their architectural integrity, like Oak View County Park, which reflects the city’s homestead history; Oakwood, with its graceful Victorian homes; the beautifully landscaped State Capitol area; the picnic-perfect Moore Square; and Mordecai Historic Park, which encloses the city’s oldest (1785) residence.
Fayetteville Street, now on the National Registry of Historic Places, has the city’s first modern skyscrapers and leads from the Capitol to the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. The dreamers and city planners have been fully supportive of the arts as a principal tourist draw—admirably making all the museums in Raleigh free to everyone—which begins with the impressively mounted North Carolina Museum of History (left), rich in folklore, Civil War exhibits, displays of sports memorabilia, African-American history, and, through July, an exhibit devoted to Evangelist Billy Graham.
An abandoned warehouse district can be a boon to a city in expansion mode, and Raleigh’s is six blocks square, anchored by the Contemporary Arts Museum (CAM), which truly is about contemporary artists, not modern masters. The district is full of stores and galleries that pump vitality into the entire region and bring light and night venues to the streets. The huge 30,000-square-foot Sanders Ford building (once a Ford car dealership) has been turned into the remarkable Artspace (below) with studios for 30 resident and guest artists and three exhibition halls. Artspace and other municipal projects downtown rescued the once derelict City Market from total blight.
Unlike Atlanta, Birmingham, Montgomery and some other Southern towns, Raleigh is a true walking city, with several neighborhoods falling under what’s called the Design District, now teeming with new storefront boutiques, antique stores, fabric shops, art galleries, lighting stores, cafés and jewelers along Peace Street and Capital Boulevard, Glenwood Avenue and Cameron Village, all of which bring the focus back downtown from the suburban sprawl caused by the I-440 ring around the city in the 1980s.
Just outside of downtown is Raleigh’s most impressive cultural institution, the North Carolina Museum of Art (below), set on 164 acres of woodlands, with extensive collections of American, African, Egyptian, Greek and Roman art, and an entire room devoted to the sculptures of Rodin. When I visited it was showing Leonardo da Vinci’s extraordinary handwritten Codex Leicester, which Bill Gates had bought in 1994 for $30.8 million and has since exhibited around the world.
The city also has its own widely heralded Carolina Ballet Company and is home to the North Carolina Symphony and North Carolina Opera.
As throughout the South, college football is of titanic importance, as manifested by the 57,583-seat Carter-Finley Stadium built for the NC State Wolfpack. Raleigh lacks pro football, basketball and major league baseball teams, but the Carolina Hurricanes NHL hockey team carries on, these days often near the bottom of the league standings after winning the Stanley Cup a decade ago.
If you had two or three days in Raleigh to visit, you could get a very good read on the character of the city by having breakfast at Big Ed’s City Market Restaurant, on Wolfe Street since 1989 and part of the downtown revival. The Big Ed in question is Ed Watkins, a local fellow whose menu—the place is only open for breakfast and lunch—is a repository of Southern and American cookery perfected over decades and improved by the increasing availability of great ingredients from the Market.
I’ll say more about the food at Big Ed’s in an
upcoming article on Raleigh’s food scene, but just
to sit in the big room, whose every square inch,
especially the ceiling, is festooned with maps and
flags, toys and antiques, is to watch all of
Raleigh’s strata of society mingle, gossip, maybe
with a little more twang in their voices, and eat
way too much.
It’s all part of the city’s magnanimous
spirit, and in those lilting North Carolina voices
you’ll hear the ring of great expectations.
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
1221 2nd Avenue (at 64th St.)
thing defenders of President Richard Nixon all
give him credit for was “opening up China” in
1972, but I’ll toss in another: That opening
resulted in the export of chefs
from Hunan and Sichuan provinces to NYC
kitchens near the U.N. building, bringing with
them styles of Chinese cuisine previously
unknown in this country.
More recently, at least in NYC’s Chinatown, there has been something of a shift to Cantonese and Shanghai-style cooking, but, overall, Chinese restaurants lost the cachet they had in the 1970s and 1980s. So, for a delectable history lesson in all these styles, I recommend a trip to China Fun on Second Avenue at 64th Street, where, since 1991, Dorothea and Felix Wu, together with Chef Wing Fone Chan, have been stir-frying, roasting and steaming hundreds of dishes that reflect Chinese food New York style. Indeed, like so many other Chinese restaurants these days, they’ve even added sushi and Japanese dishes—scores of them—to the menu.
Of course, the law of diminishing returns sets in when a kitchen is asked to maintain consistency with a menu so large, ranging from dim sum and sweet & sour chicken to nine soups, steamed “Spa Cuisine” items, Cantonese barbecue, Peking duck and 18 “Chef’s Specials” every day and night. With the “Lunch Special” you get a choice of 30 different dishes with soup or an egg roll, and rice, and nothing cost more than $10.
It is easy enough to chuckle about this throwback “whatever-you-want-we’ll make” approach, except that my party of four found China Fun a nostalgic trip to a time when “going for Chinese” was still considered exciting and dishes with names like “Shaking Beef” and “Happy Family” were as much a part of the exotic adventure as was the prospect of finding a paper umbrella in your way-too-sweet mai tai (which you will at China Fun).
It was really an opportunity for my friends and me to see just how well old-fashioned Chinese dishes held up, and we were delighted to find how many—at least at China Fun—really do.
The dining room is wide, pillared, and the tables have white cloths and paper on them. A lone sea bass swam in a gurgling tank to the rear, with lobsters in another. Service was very cordial and, just as I expected, delivery of the food was fast and furious, with many dishes arrayed around our large circular table and others on an adjacent table.
We ordered an array of dim sum: for the four of us two orders ($7.75 each) of mixed dumplings—vegetable, pork, chicken, and beef—eight in each order, both fried and steamed. The dough was a little thick but the flavors inside were distinct and very good. We tried two noodle dishes, broad chow mei fun ($11.25) in a light brown, properly sticky sauce (below), and Singapore noodles ($12.50) lightly (a bit too lightly) flavored with curry.
One of the best of the main dishes was a staple of Hunan kitchens, shredded pork with garlic ($15.95), which had plenty of both (all portions at China Fun are very generous). We just had to order that guilty pleasure Gen. Tsao’s chicken ($15.95)—whose origins have been much debated over the years—and lapped it up in all its glistening, crispy, sweet and salty glory, the morsels meaty, the chile heat just intense enough. Lobster with ginger (market price) was excellent, with sweet meat inside cracked shells, assertively spiced and clearly made for eating with your fingers.
The only minor disappointment was a sea bass mounded with a julienne of scallions, perhaps because its delicacy paled by comparison to other dishes already consumed. The dish’s ample sauce was good and the flesh nicely cooked, but it needed more spark. I did wonder, afterwards, why that lone bass was still bobbing in its tank after we’d ordered and devoured our fish on a plate.
Well, we didn’t order dessert, but you know we were not going to refuse that most Chinese-American of silly items—the fortune cookie, whose sentiments seem to have kept up with the times.
In a sense, so has China Fun, where the evolution of Chinese cuisine in NYC is so broadly displayed to such good effect. True, I didn’t order chow mein or chop suey and shall leave those to history. But for a happy evening and consistently good food of so many kinds, China Fun is a well-named place to be treasured.
Open daily for lunch and dinner
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR❖❖❖
By John Mariani
January is gone, February looms. It's
been a month of good winter wine.
Ponzi Vineyards Pinot Noir Reserve 2013 ($40)—I have a love-like relationship with Ponzi’s wines: Some, like this Reserve Pinot Noir I love a lot, others I’m surprised are not better. (What I don’t like is that they print their back labels with gray 12-point type on a black background, requiring a magnifying glass to read it.) With 13.6% alcohol, a Pinot Noir like this proves that Oregon can make a delicious Willamette Valley example without boosting the brawn and ripeness through the roof. It’s telling to read their notes on the vintage: “The season started with a warm spring bringing an early bud break. From that point the growing season remained warm and dry. . . . All went as planned until the last week in September when the tail end of a Japanese typhoon dropped close to 6 inches of rain on the valley and completely saturated the vineyards. . . . We had some ideas on how to handle it; using helicopters to dry the vines, multiple picking passes, extensive sorting before de-stemming and very careful winemaking, among other methods. October saved us with three long weeks of dry, breezy days allowing the fruit left on the vines to reach optimum flavor without any dilution from rain.” American ingenuity at its vinous best!
Palmer & Co. Brut Reserve ($50)—Complaining about the high prices of Champagne is unlikely to change them, but for a very fine example at just $50, Palmer is a producer with more than 200 growers in Montagne des Reims where plenty of good bubbly that does not get proper recognition. Palmer is beginning to and at this price point it should gain momentum. The wine has heft, a proper degree of minerality and faint, pleasing sweetness, and can easily be enjoyed as either an apéritif or with any seafood dish I can think of.
Château Larrivet Haut-Brion 2012 ($25)—This sturdy Bordeaux from Pessac-Léognan is not associated with the First Growth Haut Brion. The property has been owned by the Gevosan family for twenty years now, its vineyards principally planted with Merlot (55%) along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Aged in new French oak, the wine would seem to require more time to develop, but right now its balance is just fine for drinking at the moment, its softness due to the amount of Merlot, so the Cabs enhance rather than overpower the principal varietal. At $25 it blunts the argument that good Bordeaux must cost at least twice that to make an impression.
Augustiner Chorherrenstift Neustift Abazzia di Novacella Alto Adige Valle Isarco Kerner 2013 ($19)—Quite possibly the most difficult wine name to order from a list, this is one of the few Kerners that come into the U.S. market, and, given its delicious and unusual varietal character, it’s hard to see why we don’t get more of them, although most Kerner is made in Germany, where it originated as a cross-breed kind of Riesling. This one is from an 850-year-old abbey in the Italian Alps. Its 13.8% alcohol gives it just enough weight to provide elegance to the freshness of the fruit and acidity. I’d as soon drink this with cold salmon or chicken as with trout au bleu or vitello tonnato.
Tomero Malbec 2014 ($17)—When all the bankrolled celebrity estates go into dithyrambs about their microclimates, soil composition, and personal wine making philosophies, it’s wonderful just to taste an honest wine whose only appellation is “Uco Valley, Argentina” and still expresses the simple pleasures of the varietal at a price that makes it well worth buying by the case. The fruit is prominent but it’s tamed by slight tannins.
Kitma Gerovassiliou Avaton 2012 ($47)—Here you have a good example of how Greek red wines have evolved over the last quarter century—Kitma Gerovassiliou was founded in 1981 near Thessaloniki, and today they plant a slew of varietals including Limnio (50%), Mavrotragano (25%), and Mavroudi (20%) that go into this small production (10,000 bottles) wine with a smoky undertone and formidable tannins. If Homer’s “wine-dark sea” were as deep red as Avaton, it would clash with Greece’s blue-green waters. The wine has a long life ahead of it, and with lamb it is a perfect choice. “Avaton” means "inaccessible" or "impossible to reach," because the owner wanted to make “a super premium Greek wine using only indigenous Greek grape varietals [at a] time when . . . super premium Greek wines were using international varietals,” because such a level of quality was thought to be impossible to reach. No longer.
Smith & Hook Cabernet Sauvignon Central Coast 2013 ($25 or less)—Neither a fruit bomb nor an alcohol blockbuster, this 100% Cab still shows some Central Coast brawn, caused in part by the dry warmth of the vintage season. Therefore, you get dark fruit flavors that are tamed by the acids from grapes gathered cooler Arroyo Secco vineyards. There are few 100% Cabs being made any more in California, and S&H is one of the best, with 14.8% alcohol. Even more amazing is that I’ve seen its $25 price tag reduced in stores to $20, which is one reason it so often sells out.
Binomio Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva 2010 ($50)—So few names help distinguish Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wines and so much plonk is produced in the region, so it’s always a delight when you find one like Binomio, a ten year-old winery partnered with La Valentina and Inama, that expresses the best of the varietal in a riserva that moderates its tendency towards grapey sweetness and harsh tannins. The pressed wine is transferred into new and second-use French barriques, with refining taking about 15-18 months; a selection of the best barriques is made then the wine is racked and goes though a light filtration, thereby keeping much of its essence.
Boroli Barolo 2011 ($40)—There now seems more Barolo out there in the market than ever—more than 500 producers--all with the prestigious DOCG ranking. But while many well-aged single estate examples have skyrocketed in price, Boroli shows its terroir and power and elegance with just 14% alcohol. It has fine structure and complexity and might be kept for another few years, but I was happy to drink it along with a hearty winter beef stew on a snowy evening when wines like this seem to cuddle up to food. Achille Boroli is just 38 years old and is passionate about Piedmont terroir, and I think the best is yet to come.
Wente Vineyards Eric’s Chardonnay 2014 ($25)—Wente makes a great deal of wine and a great number of bottlings--they’ve been in California since 1883, under five generations—but this Small Lot bottling, at 13.5% alcohol, shows just how wonderful Livermore Valley Chardonnay can be when not subjected to oak but only to four months in stainless steel. You don’t get that often cloying oakiness or wearying alcohol; instead you get the true taste of the grape that is so much more amenable to so many more foods.
Tenute Cisa Asinari dei Marchesi di Gresy Barbera d’Asti 2013 ($18)—More and more with Italian food I find myself reaching for a Barbera d’Asti, not just as a safe and dependable choice but as a wine that expresses everything the Barbera varietal should be—not too bold, not too dark, with plenty of fruit but no plumminess. Marchesi di Gresy’s family dates back to 1797 (they also make a splendid Barbaresco) and works from four estates; the Barbera d’Asti’s grapes come from Alto Monferrato, and leaving the grapes on their skins for ten days gives the wine a richness you don’t expect at this modest price level. Enjoy this with winter pastas with wild mushrooms, game dishes, and rotisserie chicken.
WELL, CHICK, THAT
NYC's first Chick-fil-A Grand Opening was delayed in December when the restaurant was inspected by the NYC Health Dept. and cited for 59 violation points, including not refrigerating food below 42 degrees, not properly sanitizing its “wiping cloths,” and evidence of filth and flies was also cited. Although the restaurant was not mandated to close by the Department of Health, it did, posting a sign that read “To ensure we continue to provide our guests with the best possible service and experience, we are closing for a few days beginning on Wednesday, December 30th for restaurant maintenance and facility updates." It re-opened January 5th.
Next on their hit list, getting IHOP to change
to "LA MAISON INTERNATIONAL DES CRÊPES"
A Québec diner called Resto La Mama Grilled Cheese Gourmet received a letter from the Quebec language authority, which requires that all public signs, including advertising, be predominantly in French, contending that the restaurant was violating that rule by including the words “grilled cheese” in its name, and for having an ad that reads, “Enjoy Mama.” Owner Stephane Rheaume said that no customer ever walked into Resto La Mama and asked for a “sandwich de fromage fondu.” The language authority later said Rheaume would not have to change his restaurant’s name, a turnabout he insists is a result all the negative media attention the complaint drew.
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I'm proud and happy to announce that my new book, The Hound in Heaven (21st Century Lion Books), has just been published through Amazon and Kindle.
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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, ForbesTraveler.com 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: DEAD SEA SPA
Eating Las Vegas
JOHN CURTAS has been covering the Las Vegas
food and restaurant scene since 1995. He is
the co-author of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50
Essential Restaurants (the fourth
edition of which will be published in early
2016), as well as the author of the Eating Las
Vegas web site: www.eatinglasvegas.
He can also be seen every Friday morning as
the “resident foodie” for Wake Up With the
Wagners on KSNV TV (NBC) Channel 3 in
nickonwine: An engaging, interactive wine column by Nick Passmore, Artisanal Editor, Four Seasons Magazine; Wine Columnist, BusinessWeek.com; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.nickonwine.com.
MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET
NEWSLETTER is published weekly. Editor/Publisher: John
Editor: Walter Bagley. Contributing Writers: Christopher Mariani,
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John A. Curtas, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein,
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