May 13, 2018
Joan Crawford in "Mildred Pierce" (1945)
HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY!
IN THIS ISSUE
IS THERE A TABLECLOTH REVIVAL?
By John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
INNOVATION MAKES FOR GREAT STRIDES
IN THE WINES OF PUGLIA
IS THERE A TABLECLOTH REVIVAL?
By John Mariani
Few items in restaurants have been so ignominiously evicted as the white tablecloth, right along with little lamps, pots of flowers and salad forks. To the food media of the past decade nothing so reeks of being “fine dining” as a table set with cloth of any kind—linen, cotton, embossed, damask, checkered—as if to suggest, “Eat here and be prepared to pay a fortune, be served by pretentious waiters and be handed a menu all in French.”
Of course, that is utter nonsense, since for the last two millennia tablecloths have been in use, both at home and in restaurants as modest as a pizzeria or Chinese eatery. Indeed, up until this century most people might have shied away from a restaurant because it did not have a tablecloth or at least, as in many bistros, a fresh paper covering, usually over a cloth. (I know of a terrific roast chicken restaurant in Berlin named Henne where one tablecloth is used throughout the evening; they simply turn it over for the next guests.)
The reasons tablecloths are so impeccably correct are many:
• They are spanking clean and sanitary. A barely wiped bare wooden or Formica table is a festering field for germs.
• They are soft and warm to the touch.
• They absorb spilled liquids that otherwise would spill onto your clothes.
• They reflect light, unless a restaurateur chooses a dumb color like black.
• They may provide color and add measurably to the dining room’s design, unless a restaurateur chooses a dumb color like black.
• They are easily crumbed.
• They absorb sound—not a small virtue in today’s crashingly loud restaurants.
So what’s not to like?
Ironically, the war on tablecloths began when some of the very finest of fine dining restaurants, like Jeans-Georges in New York, did away with them, insisting it was part of a “design statement,” when, in almost all cases, it was nothing more than a matter of trying to save money. And I admit that such laundry bills can mount up—tens of thousands of dollars per annum. But not using tablecloths doesn’t seem in any way to reduce the price of a meal at such restaurants. Believe me, your dinner is never cheaper because the restaurant doesn't use tablecloths.
One of the first to rip off tablecloths was the Judge Judy of TV food competitions, Tom Colicchio, who upon opening Craft in Manhattan announced it would deliberately not use tablecloths, or any kind of “formality,” because, he said, "I don't think people are interested in eating like that anymore."
Of course, colorful plastic cups, knives and forks and patterned paper napkins might well be a design statement too and would save them a lot more money, but we haven't descended that low yet, except on airplanes. Paper napkins do, however, now seem to be far more in evidence than ever before at the new hipster restaurants with counters, open kitchens and excruciating house music.
Antagonism towards napery has reached the point of banishment in most modern restaurants, however fine the dining or high the price. Consider some of the “hottest” new upscale restaurants to open in the past few months: David Chang’s new majordomo in L.A.; Chai Yo Modern Thai in Buckhead; Bellemore in Chicago; The Love in Philadelphia; and just about every hot spot in Las Vegas—all with denuded tables.
Fortunately, a happy number of both old and new restaurants—not all of them fine dining by a long shot—still put a proper cloth on their tables, like Oriole in Chicago, Mesa in Dallas, Le CouCou (right) in New York—all packed every night.
Of course, I will always be in awe of a cordial ritual that was once done in many restaurants in America and Europe and still one of the things that draws me back to Sparks Steakhouse in Manhattan (left). After the main course is cleared, one waiter begins to roll up the soiled tablecloth while a second waiter rolls a clean one in its place. It’s such a pleasure to watch this graceful unfolding, so that it seems that there should be no other way to set a table. There it lies before being decked out with the colors of dessert—white, lightly starched, reflecting the light. What a damn good idea a fresh tablecloth makes.
NEW YORK CORNERNERAI
By John Mariani
55 East 54th Street
Photo by Benjamin Chasteen
When Nerai opened five years ago on the East Side, both in its décor and its cuisine rose above the city’s other high-end Greek restaurants like Milos Estiatorios and Molyvos. As I wrote at the time, “Nerai is not a taverna, no bazouki players, fish nets or faded posters of the Acropolis. Instead, Nerai is admirably at the level of a stylish Italian restaurant like Marea or a seafood restaurant like Oceana (whose premises these once were). Nerai delivers very high quality with a panache unique to Greek restaurants in NYC.”
Now, under owners Spiro Menegatos, Costa Youssis and Dinos Gourmos and a terrific young chef, the restaurant has risen even higher by refining what it’s always done very well, making this the finest Greek food I’ve enjoyed in this country.
The glowing marine-like décor is exceptionally beautiful, with soft lighting playing off folds of white drapery-like fabric and fine table linens. The service staff, from the bar to the dining room, are trained in the generous spirit of what Greeks call filoxenia.
The 500-label wine list is at least 20 percent Greek, with both the newest vintages from modern wineries and some impressive older vintages going back to the 1990s, all carefully overseen by sommelier Michael Coll.
I first tasted Israeli-born Chef Moshe Grundman’s food when he was at a restaurant in Nyack, N.Y., where he was doing exciting Mediterranean-style food. Before that he’d been sous-chef at Oceana, so his way with seafood is impeccable, including grilled octopus (below) served over fava beans with sweet caramelized onions, roasted red peppers and capers as an appetizer ($26).
But the best way to begin is with a variety of spreads ($20) like revithada me hummus of braised chickpeas over tahini hummus ($14); spanakopita packets of spinach and artichokes ($15) flavored with dill and feta (the feta here is outstanding!); and kolokithakia tiganita of paper-thin piping hot zucchini chips fried to a perfect crispiness ($22).
Horiatiki ($17) takes the standard Greek tomato salad with feta, cucumber, onions, olives and treats them to a rich tomato butter that makes a big difference in flavor. The simple classic of quickly fried haloumi cheese is accompanied by sweet fresh figs and a shaved fennel salad ($16).
The raw seafood dishes (left) at Nerai show the quality of the daily choice of a fish like dorade settled in lemon oil with a hint of thyme and a wonderful ouzo mint gelée ($18).
Pasta is now, I suppose, just as popular in Greece as anywhere else, so it was good to see Grundman (above) giving a Hellenic twist to sweet squid ink linguine in a Metaxa bisque brimming with lobster meat ($26/$39). A very Italian wild mushrooms risotto ($18/$28) incorporates porcini, cremini, beech and shiitakes, while pastitsada is a plate of slowly braised veal cheek and smoked Metsovone cheese slathered over paccheri pasta tubes ($24/$36).
I really don’t think a Greek seafood menu of this quality needs to list Dover sole and salmon, so go instead with the poached kakavia (stone bass) in a black pepper and lemon consommé ($38), or the lavraki of whole grilled loup de mer dusted with fresh oregano, a lemon-olive oil called ladolemeno and capers ($38). Papia moussaka ($36) is a hearty plate of duck-laced layers with lentils, chanterelles and figs. Given Greeks’ passion for their own lamb, I was a little surprised that Nerai is serving Australian lamb shipped in from 10,000 miles away. It is served as chops with honey glazed carrots, dolma and an oregano jus ($42).
Plan on having at least one of the fine desserts, like the karidopita walnut cake with milk and honey glaze and chocolate gelato ($14), or the saragli of freshly made baklava and tahini parfait with sesame brittle and a pistachio gelato ($15).
Nerai has debuted a 3-course weekend pre- and post-theater menu for $49 per person, a 4-course Tasting Menu for $79 and a six-course option for $115, with a wine pairing for $55. There are several unnecessary surcharges for some dishes.
I’ve said before that Greek restaurants in NYC have been largely underrated, but those like Nerai now show that they are easily in the same league as the city’s best French, Italian, Japanese and American entries. Add in a beautiful room, civilized noise level, innovative wine list and a good deal of that filoxenia, and Nerai enters the pantheon with grace.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
By John Mariani
INNOVATION MAKES FOR GREAT STRIDES
IN THE WINES OF PUGLIA
Marangelli and family at Cantine Menhir Salento
Read any commentary on the wines of Puglia, on the heel of Italy, and you’ll mostly find comments like “emerging wine region” and “still focused on bulk wine.” The most recent edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine sniffs that, “what Puglia urgently needs is to ensure the survival of its centenarian bush vines and most interesting indigenous varieties, and, ideally, a viticultural in winemaking institute . . . to shape its future.”
There is some truth to that statement, except it’s about ten years out of date. Young vintners and new plantings in this, the most southern of Italian wine regions, have quickly moved to improve both the wines and their image. Since Puglia, Southern Italy’s wealthiest region, produces the largest amount of the country’s wines—17%—the impetus to produce better wines is now paramount, despite controversial Italian wine laws that deny producers a D.O.C. appellation if they want to try something innovative; instead those producers must label their wines under the I.G.T. tag, which basically means simple table wine.
One of the leading innovators in Puglia today, along with wineries like Carvenea, Feudo di San Croce, Polvanera and others, is Gaetano Marangelli, owner and founder, in 2005, of Cantine Menhir Salento in the southeastern part of Salento. There he works with traditional varietals like Primitivo (called Zinfandel in California), Negroamaro, a white grape called Minutolo, Ottavianello (Cinsault in France) and the unusual Susumaniello.
Over dinner in New York with Marangelli, I was not just impressed by the quality of the four wines he brought but by their distinctive flavors of a kind I’ve rarely encountered among Puglian bottlings. His Pietra Rosato ($15-$18) had an enchanting flowery bouquet and more body than most rosé wines, made from 85% Negroamaro and 15% Susumaniello, at 12.5% alcohol. His white wine, Pass-O ($15-$18) is 100 percent Fiano Bianco, at 14% alcohol, also expressing fragrance, a slight fruity sweetness and a refined amount of acid. This last virtue is not that easy to achieve in a very hot climate like Puglia’s.
“Our vineyards are very far east and I plant on north northeastern hillsides, which keeps the wines cooler, so that the acids develop along with the sugars,” he told me. The Sirocco winds from North Africa further help keep the intense heat at bay, and the rocky soil drains very well. Marangelli has also committed himself to being fully certified organic by 2019.
“Fifty years ago all the wineries also produced their own olive oil, cheese, even chickens and eggs,” he said. “I and some of my colleagues are trying to restore that.” To such end his property is also home to a 100-acre organic farm named “Anna” that supplies many of the provisions to the on-premises Origano Osteria & Store (left), which also has a small restaurant attached (below). He is even in the process of building a 30-room modern hotel, which will take advantage of Puglia’s increasing agrotourism popularity.
I tasted two of his red wines and they were outstanding. Pietra Salice Salentino (an amazing bargain at $15-$18) is made from 80% Negroamaro and 20% Malvasia Nera. Thick-skinned Negroamaro, which means “black bitter,” is a grape one wine writer has said “leads with bombastic fruit which makes it easy to chug, especially alongside meatballs or pizza.” Nothing could be further from the truth with Marangelli’s stylish expression of the grape. Pietra Salice Salentino has delicious levels of flavor and only 14% alcohol. Fermented for 20 days, with 24 hours of maceration, it is aged in Slovenian oak barriques for two years and in bottle for four months. What emerges is a lush red wine that tastes like little else outside of Puglia, not something you chug back with meatballs and pizza. Indeed, we enjoyed it with a steak and mushrooms and spicy chicken alla scarpariello with onions and chile peppers.
But his flagship wine, with only 15,000 bottles produced, is the Pietra Primitivo Susumaniello ($20-$25), which I would rank with many of the finest red wines in Italy. If there were such a class as “Super Puglians,” this would be one of them. In this case, only the Primitivo is aged and only for six months in barrique. The Susumaniello does not spend time in oak at all and is only added to the final blend before bottling and aging four months.
It is a very voluptuous wine, and that crucial acidity balances the richness of the tannins and the exuberance of the ripe fruit. By not allowing it to age in oak for an extended period, the wine maintains an elegance it might otherwise lose. At 14%, it has an ideal level of alcohol.
As do all winemakers, especially those in already hot climates, Marangelli is concerned about global warming, noting that he used to pick much of his crop in September but now picks in mid-August.
“The increase in heat creates more sugar that would become overripe by the end of September,” he says, “fermenting into too much alcohol and becoming overwhelming.”
I’m pretty sure you might enjoy Marangelli’s wines with a good pizza, but if food and wine should marry well, the food should be every bit as fine as Marangelli’s wines.
According to two studies by researchers at Loma Linda U.'s School of Allied Health Professions, eating dark chocolate can make people smarter, as measured by EEGs to measure brain activity after feeding five people 48 grams of 70 percent cacao.
EATING COLD CHICKEN IN A COLD
Column Sponsored by Banfi Vintners
Wine is a joy year-round but
in cooler weather one
grape varietal has really taken center stage in
my daily activities – that most Italian of
grapes, Sangiovese, and its ultimate expression
– Brunello di Montalcino.
Recommendations for Celebrating Sangiovese
BelnerO Proprietor’s Reserve Sangiovese – A refined cuvée of noble red grapes perfected by our pioneering clonal research. This dark beauty, BelnerO, is produced at our innovative winery, chosen 11 consecutive years as Italy’s Premier Vineyard Estate. Fermented in our patented temperature controlled French oak and aged approximately 2 additional years. Unfiltered, and Nitrogen bottled to minimize sulfites.
Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino – Rich, round, velvety and intensely aromatic, with flavor hints of licorice, cherry, and spices. Brunello di Montalcino possesses an intense ruby-red color, and a depth, complexity and opulence that is softened by an elegant, lingering aftertaste. Unfiltered after 1998 vintage.
Castello Banfi Rosso di Montalcino – Brunello's "younger brother," produced from select Sangiovese grapes and aged in barrique for 10 to 12 months. Deep ruby-red, elegant, vibrant, well-balanced and stylish with a dry velvety finish.
Poggio all’Oro Brunello di Montalcino Riserva – A single vineyard selection of our most historically outstanding Sangiovese, aged five years before release, the additional year more than that required of Brunello including 6 months in barrel and 6 months more in bottle to grant its “Riserva” designation. Incredible elegance and harmony. Intense with lots of fruit and subtle wood influence. Round, complete, well balanced with hints of chocolate and berries. Unfiltered after 1998.
Poggio alle Mura – The first tangible result of years of intensive clonal research on Montalcino’s native Sangiovese grape. Estate bottled from the splendidly sun drenched vineyards surrounding the medieval Castello from which it takes its name. The Brunello di Montalcino is seductive, silky and smoky. Deep ruby in color with an expressive bouquet of violets, fruits and berries as well as cigar box, cedar and exotic spices. The Rosso di Montalcino is also intense ruby red. The bouquet is fresh and fruity with typical varietal notes of cherry and blackberry, enriched by more complex hints of licorice, tobacco and hazelnut. It is full bodied, yet with a soft structure, and a surprisingly long finish. The Poggio alle Mura Brunello di Montalcino Riserva is deep ruby red with garnet reflections and a rich, ample bouquet that hints of prune jam, coffee, cacao and a light balsamic note. It is full and powerful, with ripe and gentle tannins that make it velvety and harmonious; this wine is supported by a pleasing minerality that to me speaks soundly of that special hillside in southern Montalcino.
SummuS – A wine of towering elegance, SummuS is an extraordinary blend of Sangiovese which contributes body; Cabernet Sauvignon for fruit and structure; and Syrah for elegance, character and a fruity bouquet. An elegant, complex and harmonious red wine.
Cum Laude – A complex and elegant red which graduated “With Honors,” characterized by aromas of juicy berries and fresh spices.
Centine – A Cuvee that is more than half Sangiovese, the balanced consisting of equal parts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Vinified in a firm, round style that easily accompanies a wide range of dishes, this is a smooth and fragrantly satisfying wine with international character, and a perennial favorite at my own dinner table.
Banfi Chianti Superiore – The “Superiore” designation signifies stricter government regulations regarding production and aging requirements, as compared to regular Chianti. An intense ruby red wine with fruit forward aromas and floral notes. This is a round wine with well-balanced acidity and fruit.
Banfi Chianti Classico – An enduring classic: alluring bouquet of black fruit and violets; rich flavors of cherry and leather; supple tannins and good acidity for dining.
Banfi Chianti Classico Riserva – Produced from select grapes grown in the "Classico" region of Chianti, this dry, fruity and well-balanced red has a full bouquet reminiscent of violets.
Fonte alla Selva Chianti Classico – This is our newest entry into the Chianti arena, coming from a 99 acre estate in Castellina, the heart of the Chianti Classico region. The wine is a captivating mauve red that smells of cherry, plum and blackberry with hints of spice. It is round, full and balanced with very good acidity.
Col di Sasso – Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon. Luscious, complex and soft with persistent notes of fruit and great Italian style structure.
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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:
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 (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
MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET
NEWSLETTER is published weekly. Publisher: John Mariani. Editor: Walter Bagley. Contributing Writers: Christopher Mariani,
Robert Mariani, Misha Mariani, John A. Curtas, Gerry Dawes, Geoff Kalish,
and Brian Freedman. Contributing
Photographer: Galina Dargery. Technical
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