IN THIS ISSUE
BARBADOS SAFE FROM HURRICANES
By John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
A SWEET REVIVAL OF CHAMPAGNES
By Geoff Kalish
BARBADOS SAFE FROM HURRICANES
By John Mariani
As has been historically the case, Barbados is one Caribbean island that suffered few ill effects from hurricanes--this year Irma and Maria--owing to its location in the Lesser Antilles east of the hurricane zone. Thus, this story, based on a visit earlier this year, still holds true, making the island one of the few wholly open to visitors this season.
No one knows quite why Barbados is named after “the bearded ones,” or even which European visitors first set foot on the island. Nor has anyone traced the origin of the colloquial term “Bim” used by the locals for their island. The Spanish and Portuguese nosed around the island, but after the British claimed it in 1625 as a colony, dubbing it the “brightest jewel in the English crown,” the island was never afterwards invaded, and owing to its position in the Antilles, hurricanes rarely hit the island.
Barbados is fairly large, with eleven parishes spread over 167 square miles, and there is scarcely a hilltop that does not offer a stunning view of the Caribbean. A day’s visit to the evocative capital city, Bridgetown (below), proves why it has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. The western side of the island is now slowly getting built up after downturns in the economy after 9/11 and the crash of 2008. But today that side has earned the name “Platinum Coast” for the number of affluent homes and resorts that line sandy beaches. Poverty still remains and unemployment is high, so consistent tourism is an essential industry for Barbados.
There is a lovely Caribbean lilt in the “Bajan” (Bay-jun) Creole-English as spoken by the Barbadians—if you listen carefully you might hear it in the voice of the island’s most famous citizen, Rihanna, who was born in Saint Michael and raised in Bridgetown—and reggae music pours out of restaurants, seaside thatched-roofed bars, and shops along Bridgetown’s streets. The houses and downtown buildings are painted every color of the rainbow that soaks in the sun to achieve a washed-out, toned down pastel patina.
For lack of space I shall pass over the more obvious attractions available in various forms elsewhere in the Caribbean—snorkeling and scuba diving, catamarans and charter fishing, the Carlisle Bay Marine Reserve and Barbados Wildlife Preserve, horseracing and, in good British tradition, cricket matches. Let me concentrate, instead, on Bridgetown itself, where I was fortunate to have an extraordinary guide named Morris Greenidge, historian and author of Bridgetown Barbados: A Walking Tour (2015), who was that rare amalgam of depthless knowledge and local lore combined with a palpable passion for his hometown.
I met Greenidge at the harbor in town, a large, gray-haired man wearing suspenders and a straw-hat. From the moment I asked him a question I knew there was none he could not answer, always at great length. He is as much an authority on the still controversial history of slavery in the Caribbean—after several revolts the trade was banished in 1834—as he is on how the original tobacco, cotton and indigo industries were replaced by the importation from Brazil of sugar cane, for which slave plantations were requisite.
Greenidge has a story about every steeple, every house, every block of Bridgetown. There’s a spot on the corner of Palmetto where rum was developed; the site of the first and only synagogue (1654). Over there is Cheapside, once the end of the Indian trail and where what used to be the “Kissing Bridge” arched the canal; there’s the site of the old hotel once run by a “most beautiful mulatto woman” named Caroline Lee, after whom they named a yellow sweet potato; Parliament Square with its statue of Lord Nelson and its House of Assembly with stained glass portraits of every British monarch from James I to Victoria; every block tells an old story and Greenidge knows them all, delivered in the calm, cadenced way of a man who still reveres so much of what has disappeared during and long before his lifetime.
On my own I visited the beautiful St. Nicholas Abbey (right), one of only three remaining Jacobean houses in the entire Western Hemisphere, built in 1660 and now admirably maintained as a family home by architect Larry Warren, his wife, Anna, and their sons, Simon and Shae, who purchased the property in 2006 and impeccably restored its interiors and gardens. The rooms are filled with impressive 18th century antiques, dining tables set with old china, Tudor arches, Chippendale staircases, and two bedroom floors. There is also an outdoor café for a light lunch.
On premises is also a working distillery (one of four on the island), whose award-winning rums include a five-, twelve- and eighteen-year-old you can purchase at the estate after watching the actual process of turning sugar cane into “Kill devil” rum in a copper still named Annabelle.
(A visit to St. Nicholas Abbey makes one to the Mount Gay Distillery wholly unnecessary, for the latter’s tour is more of a commercial venture designed to “herd-‘em-in, give-‘em-a-tot, sell ‘em a t-shirt and bottle of rum” without actually showing the rum production.)
Animal Flower Cave (left) in St. Lucy parish on the northern tip of Barbados is well worth a trip. You descend steep wooden stairs to a cave whose sea anemones give it its name, whereupon you gaze out a jagged rip of rock to the sea as the waves dash themselves against the opening. Be sure to wear shoes that can grip the very slippery rocks; I thought I did but still dashed myself against the rocks, and, though unharmed, I wondered how long it would take a rescue party to get me out of there had I broken a few bones.
Far grander and different than the Animal Flower Cave is Harrison’s Cave (right), known since 1785 but for centuries impenetrable. It was opened by the Barbados government in 1981 to the public, and there are now tours throughout the day in guided tram cars that wind through 1.5 miles of still active caverns, meaning that water is still creating, drop by drop, the stalactites and stalagmites of wondrous beauty, one outcropping unlike any other. You rise, then descend deeper and deeper before emerging into the light again. There are some tours that delve farther into more cramped spaces, and, if you’re so inclined, you can even get married in them.
Barbados’s currency is tied to the U.S. dollar at a rate of one US$ to two Barbados dollars. There is a VAT tax of 17.5% at hotels and restaurants, and a 10% service charge is added to your hotel bill; tipping at a restaurant is 10-15%.
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
121 EAST MAIN STREET
a general rule among all restaurants that a menu
has both high quality and lesser quality dishes,
which is especially the case with American
steakhouses, where the menus do not radically
differ one from another.
saying the beef is of excellent quality, one might
find that the hash browns are not up to snuff or
the desserts are mere afterthoughts and the wine
list all too familiar. Rare is the steakhouse
where every item on the menu is at the same
standard of quality.
There are fine little touches like the presentation of a good loaf of bread and a big slab of butter, along with hot potato chips cooked in beef fat
that adds decided flavor.
I’ll get to the quality of the meat in a moment, but one item in particular among the appetizers typifies Vulaj’s commitment to buying the best. At better steakhouses a crabmeat cocktail ($21.95) might—if you’re lucky—be made with jumbo size lump crab, but it is extremely rare when, as at Flames, you get a generous portion of colossal crabmeat (left), which wholesale runs $36 per pound.
The same goes for the extra large shrimp ($19.50), twin lobster tails ($54), and the ingredients in the salads. The eggplant rollatini ($12.95) with prosciutto and melted fontina in a light tomato-tinged cream sauce is very good, and I cannot think of a more classic rendering of spaghetti alla carbonara—no cream, no onions, no parsley—than I’ve had at Flames, and the portion will easily feed two ($26.95).
The veal chop
with mushrooms ($48.95) weighs in at about 16
ounces, and the
American rack of lamb is comprised of four
beautifully trimmed chops. Lobsters of various
sizes—three to four pounds (MP)—are either
expertly broiled or steamed, served with a ramekin
of clarified butter.
Side dishes get just as much care, from creamed spinach ($8) that seems equal parts cream, butter and spinach, lightly seasoned, to various
kinds of potatoes, though I think the mashed potatoes ($8)—starchy on a recent visit—need work.
One of the desserts that’s always been a crowd pleaser is the zucchino ($10), a very rich layering of reduced English cream, white chocolate and mocha mousse and meringue.
guessing that the reason that Flames Steakhouse is
such a bright, new example of its genre may be due
to Vulaj’s short retirement from the business, so
that, as so often happens with restaurateurs, he
couldn’t stay away and has re-entered it with a
whole new spirit and buoyant attitude to make it
better than ever.
Flames is open for lunch and dinner Tues.-Sun.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
A SWEET REVIVAL OF CHAMPAGNES
By Geoff Kalish
With the largest quantity of Champagne continuing to be sold between mid-November and the end of the year (at least in the U.S.), there’s been a major effort among a number of Champagne producers to make bubbly more than just a year-end holiday celebratory drink. In past years the marketing has focused on mixing classic Champagne with other ingredients, especially fruit juices (as in a mimosa) or Angostura bitters, with or without brandy (as in a Champagne cocktail).
However, since consumers rarely see what bubbly is added to the mix, and since the sparkler is rarely the main taste component, it’s not unusual for an establishment to save cost by substituting a sparkling wine other than Champagne to give the drink its fizz. In fact, mimosas made with inexpensive Prosecco or Spanish cava are the norm for many spots. Attempts to promote Champagne, especially rosés for Valentine’s Day, have met with a similar fate, in that in many, many instances a less expensive sparkler is served, particularly as a “glass” of sparkling rosé before or at the end of the traditional romantic dinner.
On the other hand, with his Champagnes now offered at more than 500 Michelin-starred restaurants, worldwide, it appears that Bruno Paillard, whom I met with on his recent visit to New York, has succeeded in his goal to produce food-focused bubbly and appeal primarily to those appreciating his sparklers with a meal. In fact, 80% of his annual output of 400,000 to 500,000 bottles is sold to restaurants, rather than to individual consumers through wine shops.
Accounting for the elegant, food-friendly style of his Champagnes—like the lush, fruity Brut Prémiere Cru ($46), the zesty 2004 Vintage Assémblage ($90) and the newly released rich, “toasty” 2002 Nec Plus Ultra Brut ($180)—is an extreme attention to detail and quality, with organic farming of grapes, use of only “first-press” juice and aging the wine on its lees for at least 36 months, with only grapes from Grand Cru vineyards, and more than ten years on its lees for the Nec Ultra Plus. And, it seems, at least based on visits to two top-tier Champagne producers
in Reims—Taittinger and Veuve Clicquot—there’s a new focus on expanding the market by promoting “sweeter” styles.
As most savvy consumers know, the process of making Champagne was “invented” in the late 17th century by French physician Christopher Merret (right)—no, not Dom Pérignon—by adding sugar and yeast to still wine, causing a secondary fermentation with trapped carbon dioxide bubbles. Initially this was a dry wine, but it veered towards the sweet side to satisfy the taste of royalty in the 19th century, especially the czars of Russia. In fact, to make these sweet Champagnes even sweeter, consumers added sugar to them. However, over the years and with a change in consumer tastes, drier styles have been in vogue, especially in America. But, in an attempt to expand the market, at least some Champagne houses are producing at least a portion of their portfolios with more than a bit of sweetness. So, as Yogi Berra might have said, “there’s nothing so old that it’s not new again.”
So, while Taittinger (left) makes a number of excellent brut products, particularly the vintage Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs ($170) and the non-vintage Brut Préstige Rosé ($60), they have recently been producing two “sweeter” sparklers: a non-vintage Nocturne Blanc Sec ($58) and a non-vintage Nocturne Rosé Sec ($60). Both sport festive designer labels and are geared towards those who find Champagne too “yeasty” or tart for their taste. While I generally prefer the drier style of sparkler, I actually found these two bubblies more than mildly enjoyable. In fact, in addition to being perfect accompaniments to a range of hors d’oeuvres, including caviar, smoked salmon and spanakopita, they made an excellent match for spicy Asian fare, with the blanc showing a bouquet and taste of brioche with hints of blackberry, and the rosé featuring a bouquet and taste of ripe strawberries.
And, in a concerted effort to cash in on the current cocktail craze—yes, they’re back in style, or depending where you’re from, they may not ever have gone out of vogue—Veuve Clicquot with its distinctive yellow label, is touting two new products: Veuve Clicquot Blanc Rich ($65) and Veuve Clicquot Rosé Rich ($65), both with more than a touch of sweetness, primarily intended for use in cocktail recipes. In fact, while these bubblies provide enjoyment in their own right (the blanc, with or after sweet desserts or blue-veined cheeses, and the rosé with smoked fish or spicy Thai fare), adding a slice of lime or ginger gives them just enough flavor and zest while cutting the sweetness a bit to make excellent refreshing quaffing. In addition, when served with a slice of cucumber they make top-notch palate cleansers between courses of a meal. And, I’m sure that inventive mixologists will find additional ingredients to add to these
to bring further favor.
So, to enjoy for more than just a toast to a year-end holiday, expect to see sweeter wines like Taittinger’s Nocturne series and bottles of Veuve Clicquot Rich. They may not be for everyone, but in markets where they have made an appearance they seem to be high-flying hits. And while less costly “imitators” may make their market appearance, it is doubtful they will provide the quality of the Taittinger and Veuve Clicquot Champagnes. And, should these sweeter styles not be to your liking, there’s always the “dry” food-friendly bubblies from Bruno
Paillard, which, while costly, are well worth the price in terms of quality.
"On the following dates, the Louisville Courier-Journal incorrectly referred to hot dogs as sandwiches: Oct. 2, 1887; Aug. 10, 1901; March 20, 1904; July 21, 1935; Jan. 14, 1939; May 4, 1941; Sept. 15, 1950; June 29, 1958; Nov. 16, 1961; and Aug. 4, 1966. Among those errors were references to a frankfurter sausage sandwich, frankfurter sandwich, coney island sandwich, frankfurter sandwich with mustard, and, the most egregious, a frankfurter sandwich with catchup. We deeply regret the errors, especially that last one."
WE HAVE A COUPLE OF SPECIALS I'D LIKE TO TELL YOU ABOUT THAT THE CHEF HAS PREPARED TONIGHT. FIRST THERE'S PRAIRIE DOG CHEEKS IN A REDUCTION OF CACTUS NEEDLES, AND THE THERE'S CORN SOUP WITH SHREDDED PRAIRIE DOG ENTRAILS, AND THEN A LOIN OF PRAIRIE DOG--TWO TO A PLATE--SMOKED OVER PEYOTE AND SERVED WITH PINTO BEANS. THERE'S AN ADDITIONAL CHARGE OF TEN DOLLARS IF YOU WANT THE DISHES PAIRED WITH WATER.
The Sioux Chef, the indigenous food education and catering team, led by chef Sean Sherman, is teaming up with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and the Minneapolis Parks Foundation to open a Native American restaurant at a new riverfront pavilion called Water Works. Wood-fired cooking will feature prominently. “We’ve cut out things that weren’t here before [Europeans came to America],” Sherman explains. “So we’re not using any dairy, wheat flour, processed sugar, beef, pork, or chicken, and are just really being creative with proteins and plants and agriculture that was here before.”
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“John Mariani’s Hound in Heaven starts with a well-painted portrayal of an American family, along with the requisite dog. A surprise event flips the action of the novel and captures us for a voyage leading to a hopeful and heart-warming message. A page turning, one sitting read, it’s the perfect antidote for the winter and promotion of holiday celebration.” – Ann Pearlman, author of The Christmas Cookie Club and A Gift for my Sister.
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JOHN CURTAS has been covering the Las Vegas
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