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  September 21,  2014                                                                                             NEWSLETTER

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Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in "Who Done It?" (1942)


by John A. Curtas


Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant
By John Mariani

by John Mariani


By John A. Curtas

    I first tasted Kerry Simon's cooking on Aug. 30, 1988.
    The exact date is remembered because it was a birthday celebration for my wife at the time. It was a spectacular dégustation at a restaurant called Lafayette at the Drake Swissôtel in New York City. Executive chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten was getting all the press at the time--and four stars from the New York Times, but Simon was his number one -- executing a menu of French sensibilities tweaked with Thai technique and Indo-Chinese seasonings that was as delicious as it was dramatic.
    It was ten more years before we crossed paths again, this time when Simon moved to Las Vegas in 1998 to open JGV's Prime Steakhouse in the Bellagio (with Wylie Dufresne). From there, I've followed him to the seminal Simon Kitchen & Bar in the Hard Rock Hotel (ground breaking in its day for its tweaked American fare), and then to Simon at Palms Place -- a restaurant I have tried (and failed) to like since the day it opened.
    We have had a rather prickly relationship over the years. We like each other on a personal level, but he hasn't always liked what I've written about him and I haven't always liked what he has cooked. That said, we have a certain wary respect for the other's craft -- which usually leads us to warmly greet each other -- even if, two minutes after hugs are exchanged, we start debating one of his recipes or one of my sentences.
    But none of this really matters anymore. What matters are two things: one, Kerry Simon is very sick, with a particularly virulent form of Parkinson's disease -- known as Multiple Symptom Atrophy -- and, two, as his swan song, he has opened a restaurant serving the best food downtown Las Vegas has ever seen.

    Carson Kitchen (right) is a small place (divided into a cozy 46-seat downstairs space and an outdoor patio on the second floor), that reminds one of Le Pigeon in Portland, Oregon, or Bar Jamón in New York City. The open kitchen is framed by an L-shaped bar, and you are so close to some of the action you can practically quiz the cooks on what they're making as you wait for your plates. There are four tables at the front, two communal tables, and then another large bar on the other side of the small room, all of which provide a setting for an array of drop-dead dishes that taste like something a great chef would serve you in his own home.
    Not that we've ever tasted veal meatballs with sherry foie gras cream in any chef's home -- or any restaurant for that matter -- as caramelized, crispy, meaty and silky as any we’ve encountered. That foie gras cream is a stroke of genius and makes you wonder why the Joël Robuchons of the world didn't think of it first.                                Photo: Peter Harasty
    Plenty of chefs have thought of doing deviled eggs, but Simon's "Devil's Eggs" -- topped with crispy pancetta and caviar -- are such a creamy, crispy, sweet and salty delight they will have you shaking your head in appreciation. They are among six of the nine starters we've sampled, all of them unique -- Spam croquettes; tempura green beans with a cream cheese and pepper jelly sauce; can’t-eat-just-one crispy chicken skins with smoked honey; spaghetti squash with rabbit ragù, and more -- and all of them begging to be shared. The “bacon jam” was a thick layer of dark spreadable marmalade, topped with a melted slab of brie, chock full of the sweet and savory combinations of which Simon is so fond. You will find yourself reflexively dipping piece after piece of your baguette into it, blithely ignoring whoever entreats you "not to fill up on bread." One order will not be enough -- even if there are only two sharing it.
    Then there is the butter burger, an homage to the butter burgers of Minnesota and Wisconsin. This one, basted in butter rather than stuffed with it, is a hand-formed patty of good, coarsely ground meat, seasoned to a "t" and presented with crumbly Boursin sprinkled atop melted cheddar on a brioche bun. It's a belly bomb to be sure, but a beautiful one. My table also couldn't get enough of the Baked Mac & Cheese, or the Roasted Young Beets with orange and pistachio (great combo that), or the Rainbow Cauliflower, perfectly in harmony with lemon and garlic, or the Broccoli Crunch with real green goddess dressing (hooray!). If ever there was a restaurant to teach the fear-of-food crowd what wonders can be done with common, edible plants, this is it.
    All of these are accompanied by the obligatory hand-crafted cocktails, good beers and decent enough wines (well, decent enough for the downtown crowd, not necessarily for yours truly) -- all priced to sell.
    Finally, there are three desserts of which we've had two: the Bourbon Fudge Brownie (with bacon-brown butter ice cream) and the Glazed Donut Bread Pudding served with two sauces -- three-rum caramel and creme Anglaise -- the whole so much greater than each of its parts. One order is too much for one, but won't be enough for two.
    It's hard to put into words just how terrific this little gem of a joint is. Carson Kitchen is the restaurant I always knew Kerry Simon had in him.  There are more interesting ideas and palate-popping flavor combinations on its simple, one page menu than you will find in a month of dining at tourist traps masquerading as gastro-pubs on the Strip. Whatever revolution is happening in downtown Las Vegas is still small bore in scope, but Simon has perfectly captured the zeitgeist of this renaissance, and is feeding it well.
    How funny is it, to realize at this late date in our relationship, that Kerry Simon had to go small to make it so big.  I asked Kerry what he hopes his legacy will be. He said, "
Someone who cooked simple and healthy food that made everyone who tried it happy."


124 South 6th Street (at Sixth and Carson)

Shareable apps run $6-$12; sandwiches $10-$14; veggies $8-$12; and meat and fish well under $20 a plate. Desserts are $6 and cocktails hover in the $12 range, making this place a steal by any standard.




By John Mariani

I can’t entirely explain it, but it is a very rare thing when the seafood served in America’s restaurants, even in New York City, rises to the level of quality found throughout Europe.  Part of this has to do with the proximity of sources in Europe--the North Sea, Mediterranean, Aegean, Irish Sea, and so on.  The U.S., while possessing a tremendous coastline, is largely landlocked, and all game fish sold in restaurants must by law be raised on a farm, which affects the flavor of trout, lake bass, salmon, catfish and shrimp.
    Yet the demand for quality fish is higher than ever, making the availability of the very best problematic and at very expensive.  There just isn‘t enough good product to go around, so when you see the list of fish on a menu that is printed only once a month, or even once a year, you can be sure that not all the seafood on it will be of a high quality.  You might also question why a menu repeats the word “fresh” next to its seafood entries. 
    Since demand will always exceed supply, restaurateurs promise more quality sea bass, branzino, salmon, turbot and Dover sole than there ever actually is in the market.  Indeed, I once asked an Italian restaurateur in NYC why he never opened a seafood restaurant of a kind that dots Italy’s coastlines.  His answer: “To buy the quality they get over there I would have to pay and charge a fortune that customers would never pay here.”
    Thus, I find few places in NYC that can guarantee the highest quality seafood. And the irony is that, because NYC restaurants pay the highest price for the best product, restaurants in other sea-bound cities, including Seattle, Miami, New Orleans, and San Francisco often get offered second-best seafood, while the best goes to New York.     
    Only a rare few restaurants like Le Bernardin in NYC, Bartolotta in Las Vegas, and certain sushi restaurants on the west coast serve a consistently high quality of seasonal seafood you can always bank on. Another that most certainly does is the venerable Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant, which has resided in the lower level of the great Terminal since opening in 1913.  For decades it was the city’s pre-eminent seafood house, as famous for its glorious tile work by Rafael Guastavino (who also tiled the Great Hall at Ellis Island) as for it array of oysters.  By 1972, its columns painted aquamarine and its walls covered with a yellow laminate, the restaurant was in such bad condition that it was forced to close for two years.
    Fortunately, the landmark space was then leased by veteran restaurateur Jerry Brody, who had worked on projects like The Forum of the Twelve Caesars, The Rainbow Room and The Four Seasons.  Brody scraped off all the bad decisions in décor and management that had ruined the place and restored it to a glory it had not enjoyed since the 1930s.  He also brought the menu into the  late 20th century, fashioning a huge menu of scores of dishes, including at least a dozen oyster species daily.
    The oyster counter (below) became jammed again, the unstinting quality of the seafood was heralded by all, and the Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant achieved a totemic stature it had not previously enjoyed, even in its heyday. Brody also built up one of the great seafood wine lists in the country, now with 70 wines by the glass, along with more than 30 beers.  Turn the menu over and peruse the vast selection of spirits and cocktails, including two dozen Single Malt Scotches.
    Now there are more than 400 seats, with a winding counter and a service window for hungry commuters on the run. And there is a banquet room--where I was ecstatic to hold my first book party, thanks to a publisher who blew the whole marketing budget on the event.

At 11:45 each weekday morning, a crowd pushes through the doors of the restaurant (in sight of a line at the new Shake Shack just yards away) and by 12:30 every seat is taken; things calm down by 3 o'clock, but start again at 5 and it goes on for at least another turn. Executive Chef Sandy Ingber makes it all go, well, swimmingly.

The oysters are an enormous draw, of course, but there is so much to choose from on a menu with 14 categories, from Appetizers and Soups to Stews & Pan-Roasts and Shellfish Platters.  There is even a section of “Today’s Catch” along with another called “Today’s Specials.”   In each, there are numerous options--ten for the “Cold Buffet” alone, four smoked items, seven fried platters.  And because of this extraordinary, nonpareil volume--in terms of customers and the amount of seafood purchased--that GCOB excels over all other restaurants of its kind anywhere.  There’s nothing like it in Seattle, New Orleans or San Francisco, nor in Marseilles, Tokyo or Singapore.  No place has the access and the market pull of GCOB, so "fresh" is not a word you’ll find anywhere on its menu; it goes without saying.
    And I could spend a great deal of time recommending this or that dish--the Ipswich clam pan-roast, the impeccably fried Bedford sea scallops, the soft-shell crabs, the Maine steamers, grilled shrimp with garlic butter, or any of the simply grilled fish, from sockeye salmon to shad roe in season. 
    Ironically, the more complex the preparation the less I find it of the same allure as the other dishes.  A recent odd concoction of New Bedford sole with Stilton cheese butter and candied almonds tasted like a dish that had no business being on GCOB’s menu.
    But such mistakes are easily avoided. Desserts are not a priority here, but they can be delicious, not least the Key lime pie and the New York cheesecake.
    Add everything up and the GCOB is unique, not only for its architecture and grandeur but for the human bustle in the belly of the cavernous Terminal that seems as natural as the rumblings of the incoming and departing trains.  Upgrades to the food service throughout Grand Central have been ongoing for a long time now, offering everything from Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse and Café Centro to Cipriani Dolce and Junior’s Bakery.  It’s hard to think of any ethnic food you can’t find in the Terminal, but you won’t find anything anywhere like the Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant.

Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant, (212-490-6650) is open Mon.-Sat. from 11:30 AM to 9:30 PM.  Prices run a long gamut, from oysters at $1.95-$3.65 and appetizers from $3.95-$21.95, fried seafood platters $21.95-$27.95 and daily specials $28.95-$35.95.

On Sept. 27 the restaurant will hold its “12th Annual Oyster Frenzy," presented by Blue Island Oyster Co., featuring a pro shucking championship; chef demos; a “slurp off” open to the public, and the Beer Shucking Championship, with $3,750 in prizes. Noon-4 PM.  Admission is free. 





By John Mariani

You don’t have to spend very long with Joseph Carr before you learn who inspired him to found Josh Cellars, his winery in California's Napa Valley.  “Every bottle of Josh Cellars is a tribute to my dad,” he told me over dinner at a New York steakhouse last month. “Everything he did was about following the American dream. He was one of those multi-talented guys who could re-build a stock car--which he drove in races--then go fight a fire as a volunteer.  I had such great memories of him, but I never knew his nickname among certain friends was `Josh’ till my mother told me years later. She also confided that guys who called him Josh never came to our house.”

         Not only has Carr named his winery after his father, he also continues to pay homage to him through charity. Last month the winery joined with The Gary Sinese Foundation to award $10,000 grants ($50,000 total) to First Responder groups nominated for their service by local communities.

         Carr himself has had a checkered career, for a long while as a wine merchant working with European producers like Louis Jadot, Joseph Drouhin and Georges DuBoeuf, as well as with small estate wineries.  Carr was also a world-class sommelier and industry executive when, in 2005, he decided what he really wanted to do was form his own small, family-owned winery company with his wife, Deirdre, and daughter, Cailen (“And don’t forget our dog Max,” he says).  Today the winery is co-owned by Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits, headquartered in White Plains, NY.

         The varietals he produces, mostly in a Bordeaux or Burgundian style, are from Napa, with limited production from Carneros and the Sonoma Coast.  The Josh Cellars label--“our vin de garage,” he calls it--came from working with Tom Larson, owner of the Larson Family Winery in Sonoma, and veteran winemaker Wayne Donaldson, who’d worked for Domain Chandon and E&J Gallo.  The result is a range of six organically grown varietals made through sustainable agriculture, which Carr intends to be “expressive, but unassuming and approachable, just like my Dad.”

         In tasting Josh Cellars wines I found those adjectives wholly reasonable, for Carr makes wines that do not simply toe the line of so many bottlings deliberately made to a certain Pan-California style that owes more to current trends and media hype than to good winemaking.

         Josh Cellars’ Chardonnay 2012 ($12), sourced from cool climates, spent time on the lees in 30% French oak, eventually spending 8 months in the barrel, and comes in at an admirable 13.4% alcohol. It has all the fruit you’d want from a California chardonnay but it does not possess that cloying undertone of overripe fruit so many others do. It’s fine to drink right now, but will gain stature in a year or two.

          The estate’s Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($12) has a good deal of complexity and good, peppery spices.  Made from 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot, gathered from Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, for rounding and mellowing, the wine spent 7 to 10 days in extended maceration. Again, the 13.5% alcohol level is that sweet spot that allows fruit to show through the tannins that give it backbone.

         Josh Cellars Legacy Red Wine 2012  ($14.99), is a proprietary blend of Merlot, which gives it a velvety fruitiness, Zinfandel for body and richness, and both Syrah and Petite Syrah for its racy spice. It spends 10 months in French oak and emerges as 13.9%, which just goes to show that big, bright red wine from California need not be a blockbuster whose enjoyment fades after one glass. You can store this wine for the next few years and it will develop beautifully.

Legacy is well named, not only as a homage to Carr’s father but also to what he and his family are establishing as their enduring style in which balance, not sheer power, makes it exemplary.  And at these prices, it’s easy to buy a few, drink some now and wait on the rest.




“Chef/owner Bernard Ros knoweth what he maketh, having worked in his family’s Parisian restaurant. And what he maketh is authentic indeed, from appetizers that include a pâté of the house to escargots with red potatoes.” -- Lois Levine,  InnNy  (6/30/14)





“Taking pet-friendly to another level, The Living Room at c/o The Maidstone in East Hampton (207 Main St., 324-5006) believes pets should be treated to the same delicious bar bites as their owners. During happy hour—or Yappy Hour to your pooch—from 4:30-6:30 p.m. on Sunday-Thursday, humans get exclusive prices on the cocktail and bar menus while furry patrons get the Woof Menu for dogs of all sizes and dietary preferences. Canine treats include the Chihuahua, a mini chef’s selection of cold cuts, and the Beagle, a hunk of spiced meat, both of which can be prepared vegetarian. Staying the night? Pets get their own amenities and doggie concierge.”–Vanessa Pinto, Hamptons Magazine 7/23/14


 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,  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. Editor: Walter Bagley. Contributing Writers: Christopher Mariani, Robert Mariani,  Misha Mariani, John A. Curtas, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Andrew Chalk,  Dotty Griffith and Brian Freedman. Contributing Photographers: Galina Dargery,  Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.

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