Virtual Gourmet

  April 24, 2005                                                        NEWSLETTER


                                            Russian Easter Eggs (2005)                         Photo: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery

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Eating Around Valencia by John Mariani

NEW YORK CORNER: The Harrison by John Mariani


by John Mariani
Photos by Galina Stepanoff-Dargery


       I suspect that the dish most associated with Spain's region of Valencia in most Americans' minds would be paella, an open-air meal in one big platter, cooked over a wood fire till the rice sticks to the bottom and gets crispy, which is considered one of the best parts of a paella.    Gastronomic purists say the original paella was made only with eels from Albufera, Valencia's saltwater lagoon, but today a wide variety of ingredients, from seafood to chicken and rabbit, find their way into a wide variety of paellas.
     A good paella, made with the short-grained rice of the kind grown in vast paddies just outside of the city of Valencia should be moist and tender, with every grain suffused with flavor, neither mushy nor dry, though somewhat drier than an Italian risotto.  Depending on the Valencian you are speaking to, only red or only white wine should be drunk while eating paella. Another will say, wrong! You drink sangria with paella.
       Once paella was a poor man's dish, then became popular in the city on Thursdays and Sundays, though the locals usually eat some form of  rice dish almost every day.  Sunday continues to be a traditional time to go out for paella, and the neighborhood to go is along the seaside, palm-lined Avenue Neptune, where perhaps a dozen restaurants feature the dish.  They all look more or less alike, and the menus don't differ by much.  Families seem to have their favorites, or else skip from one to another from week to week.
     La Pepica (6 Avenue Neptuno; 96-371-0366) was Ernest Hemingway's favorite, ywhich he wrote of in The Dangerous Summer:  "Dinner at Pepica's (right) was wonderful.  It was a big, clean, open-air place and everything was cooked in plain sight.  You could pick out what you wanted to have grilled or broiled and the seafood and the Valencian rice dishes were the best on the beach. . . . You could hear the sea breaking on the beach and the lights shone on the wet sand."  Hemingway ate heartily and was very fond of the Balleguer family that still owns the restaurant and remembers Papa's good appetite for food and drink.
     My wife and I chose the highly recommended La Rosa (70 Avenue de Neptuno; 96-371-2076), down a few doors from La Pepica. It was flocked at lunch with the locals who came to feast, possibly after Mass, though no proper lunch begins much before two in the afternoon in Valencia.  The interior dining room (below) filled up after the patio area did, and we were lucky, by virtue of a prior reservation at a relatively early hour of 1:30, to get an outdoor table, looking over the beach and sea.  La Rosa has a vast menu and a fairly good wine list, with a number of excellent Valencian wines priced $10-$18, while Riojas and Priorats cost far more.  We were very happy with a bottle of bright, very young, dry Muscat from San Terra vineyards.
     333We nibbled hungrily on fried pork skins called chicarones but had little taste for a banal salad of pink tomatoes, shredded carrots,  and mediocre ham. Then came the paella, steaming in the big, concave pan that gives the dish its name.  We ordered one with rabbit and chicken and found green beans and snails in the mix, the rice having absorbed the flavors while cooking down to the proper consistency.  I would have liked more seasoning in the dish, but it was hearty and good, and everyone around us seemed to be eating more or less the same thing with enormous relish.  Bottles of red and white wine seemed equally divided among the guests. The meal, with wine, water, service, and tax, came to less than $50.

     Valencians do not stroll from tapas bar to tapas bar, as they do in San Sebastián, but they do snack on tapas during the day or eat them as an array for dinner.  So throughout the city small restaurants and cafés always have a counter full of them for nibbling with a cold Mahou beer, a glass of wine, or a dry fino Sherry.  You should also try to sample the local thin spaghetti called fideua (fee-day-wah), which comes with a variety of sauces not unlike those in paella. And don't leave without slurping down a tall glass of cold horchada, made from chufas (tiger nuts) and tasting like a cross between coconut milk and wheatberries.  Traditionally a summer drink, it is now available most of the year.
     For a good introduction to Valencian cuisine, Raco del Turia (10 Carrier Ciscar; 96-395-1525) -poiwill put you at ease immediately, for the place is bright, cheery with both locals and foreigners, and hospitable to all.  The moderately-sized dining room (right) has wood beams, white moulding, painted tile wainscoting, peach walls, and brass chandeliers. Food-related paintings festoon the walls, including one showing paella being cooked in the countryside outdoors.
      The food here is seriously traditional, beginning with a very pleasing arrangement of grilled zucchini, asparagus, tomatoes, eggplant, onions, and mushrooms dressed with a well-rendered romescu sauce of almonds, peppers, onions, tomato, garlic and olive oil. Fat fresh shrimp came to the table very hot and gilded with garlic and oil; monkfish on the other hand would have been better without its gummy white sauce.
    A marked evolution of the local cuisine with modern flair in presentation can be found at  Tasca Josue (19 Carrier Calixto III; 96-384-1873), in a youthful neighborhood where every other storefront seems to be a taberna, bodega, restaurante, or pizzeria, and the neighborhood is thronged with young people who go out and stay out very late.   Tasca Jose (below) is a very friendly place, and while 8888olEnglish is not spoken by anyone on the staff,  chef-owner, Jesus Ribes, standing in his open kitchen,  will happily try to explain what's good that night.  Just nod and say O.K. to whatever he suggests.
     We went with all his suggestions, beginning with very thinly sliced octopus, zucchini, red onion, tomato, and a gloss of olive oil, which made for a bright beginning.  We were then offered a kind of shooter with puréed red pepper and garlic and a single shrimp on the side, then a lovely plate of octopus with macadamias, asparagus, carrots, zucchini and a slick of squid ink sauce.  Tagliarine of calamari--clearly inspired by Ferran Adrià--was tossed with string beans and zucchini, with a mayonnaise colored with peppery paprika.  For our main courses we had snowy sea bass with assorted sautéed mushrooms and pine nuts, and a filet mignon with haystack potatoes and delicious shreds of Spanish ham.  For dessert melon soup with yogurt sorbet was a perfect  way to end what was a fairly light meal, but I could not help polishing off what I thought was the perfect brownie with chocolate ice cream, white chocolate sauce, and passion fruit.  Dinner came to about $70, with wine, service, and tax.
      One of the trendier spots of the moment, drawing a hip young crowd, is L'Ambigù (Carrier Felip Maria Garin; 96-337-4005), which alternates canned contemporary pop with absolutely enchanting classical music played by a string quarter (right).  Here the menu changes often and seasonally, and chef Mariano Fernandez, with three women cooks in the kitchen, shares some of the experimentalism of  Ferran Adrià (what young chefs do not these days?).  245u7They favor tasting menus here, and if you are adventurous and not tied to tradition, L'Ambigù should fit the bill. 
    I admit to being dazzled by the presentations, like the "Mediterranean salad" in a star pattern, made from a purée of yellow tomato and olive oil with a little scoop of avocado ice cream, which was actually a striking way to start off the meal.  An amazingly good, if horrible sounding, raspberry vinegar-anchovy soup was like a cold gazpacho, bracing and tart. "Mar  y Montagna" (sea and mountain) was a dish of pork, squid, and octopus formed into a kind of torta with a curried green salad  and shrimp sauce, not something I think I'd order ever  again. 
       To give you an idea of Valencians' way with rice, Fernandez provides you with four versions, containing squid, octopus and asparagus,  chicken and rabbit, and cauliflower and cod.  Next came succulent pork cheeks with raisins, chorizo, and a potato pancake, which paled only by comparison with the rest of the meal.  We ended off with a superb and fascinating orange mousse with a crispy orange slice and little jellied orange squares.  A tasting menu here will run about $50.

        Two friends took us for a very special afternoon to the Cavanel neighborhood, full of gypsies and plenty of small tabernas, most hidden behind faded, painted facades.   One of them  turned out to be an extraordinary wine bar and restaurant named Bodega Montaña (969 Carrier Jose Benlliure; 96-367-2314;, owned by Emiliano Garcia. The building dates back to 1836 and the bodega  is celebrating its centennial as an eatery that now stocks 1,100 wines on its list and sells 15,000 bottles a year, most f3f3f3from a front room (left) no bigger than a one-car garage.  To the rear is a smaller room with one well-used, large round table, which  staff rush through constantly to bring food and wine to a slightly larger room further back.  I felt rather privileged to have the big table, and I knew I was in for something special as platters of buttery sliced ham were set down with a bottle of sparkling cava.  More platters followed with anchovies and sardines, little sausages and fried potatoes and mushrooms and a good deal more wine and much else I simply do not remember, having put my notebook away after the fifth course and second bottle of Monastrell red wine.  Suffice it to say that no one leaves this bodega hungry and no one goes away without a smile on his face and a strong intention to take a nap before a late, late dinner.

     Certainly the most charming restaurant we visited was well outside of  a little hill town in Estenas near Utiel.  Only a few months old, and set on a winding street seemingly in the middle of nowhere, Hotel Rural "El Enverno" (6 Plaza del Omo; 96-217-6000; might be missed in the blink of an eye. There are only three rooms here, tiny but cozy, rustic with stone walls; the dining room (below) is just as minuscule, with a small fireplace where they cook many of the meat dishes, and only about half a dozen well-set tables.  Pure sunlight pours through the window and casts a golden glow on the stone walls.  There is a menu of seven appetizers, three meats, and five desserts, and the food is simply done and absolutely delicious.  We began with a carpaccio of beef, and bacalao (salt cod) with dried peppers that gave it just the right tingle. There is also a delightful dish of sweetbreads with trumpet mushrooms.4
      The real strength of the cooking, however, is the array of meats cooked over a wood fire--something I've found the Spanish do as well or better than any people on earth.  We had pork that had been fed only on acorns, and cochinillo (suckling pig) of impeccable, velvety texture. Baby lamb was perfect too, juicy, fatted, and richly flavorful with faint smokiness imparted from the slow cooking. There is also a tenderloin of beef with liver.  These entrees range from $15-$19, and I haven't had better examples anywhere.   With a bottle of Valencian bobal red wine from a producer like Dominio de la Vega, I could be coaxed to stay on for days in this small corner of Spain.

      Valencia's situation on the sea makes the bounty of the Mediterranean both readily available and seasonal.  Some of the best of the region's seafood restaurants are in the vacation city of Alicante, which sprawls around the deep water harbor dotted with some of the largest yachts in European waters.  One of the best places to watch them ply those waters is at the 45-year-old restaurant Dársena (Marina Deportiva; 96-520-7589;, a huge place with indoor and outdoor seating (below), upstairs and downstairs seating, and an ebullient host-owner, Don Antonio Agustin Pérez, who seems to regard everyone as an old friend, deferential to all the women, with a firm handshake for all the men. He bounds about his restaurant with obvious glee; he should: he's very successful.
     0000000000There is a long, very tempting tapas bar here where you might eat your fill for the day or night.  There are also dozens of crustaceans and mollusks glistening on ice, and whole fish are admirably displayed for you to see in all their pristine freshness.  The menu is vast beyond all that, and their rice dishes and paellas teem with ingredients straight  off the docks that morning--so the best thing to do is to go with several friends and order several rice dishes, with shrimp or anchovies or langoustines or squid or any of a score of other ingredients.  You drink the wines of Alicante, which are very good and amazingly cheap, and you look out on the water and feel you that this is truly one of the most beautiful parts of Spain with some of the best food too. How much you order will determine what you pay.

by John Mariani

The Harrison
355 Greenwich Street

      My wife and I had just returned from a week of eating Turkish food in Istanbul, so we were very much in the mood for New York comfort food, by which I don't mean steak and potatoes, but the kind that is wholesome, very tasty, deeply flavorful, and expressive of a chef's best instincts.  The Harrison leapt to mind.qqqqqqqqq
      The Harrison's owners, Jimmy Bradley and Danny Abrams, garnered early praise  for their gumption in opening just weeks after 9/11, since it is located just blocks from the horror. While other restaurants remained shuttered--or went out of business entirely--The Harrison opened to very good reviews for its food and as a new beginning. Its immediate success was testament to the resilience of New York's  dining scene so that a trip down there became almost a bold requisite.  Three and a half years later, its TriBeCa neighborhood is once again thriving, with Chanterelle, TriBeCa Grill, Montrachet, Nobu, Odeon, and other restaurants packed most nights of the week.
      So, on a beautiful, clear, twilighted Tuesday evening this week, my wife and I returned to The Harrison after a long absence.  The windows were open to the street, where people were happily enjoying cuisine alfresco, and the crowd inside radiated a downtown sophistication it was marvelous to feel after a week away from New York.  Business people flock the place during the week, then locals and bridge-and-tunnelers come over the weekend (the restaurant is open seven days a week.)
     The dining room (below) looked as unassuming and charming as ever, maintained to a neighborly polish with creamy walls, dark wood and slender pillars, with a convivial but not loud walnut bar, and superbly flattering lighting. If I owned a restaurant, I'd want it to look just about like this.  The decibel level, by the way, at least on a weeknight, is moderate and lends itself to conversation.  Soft music plays but does not intrude, nor does the staff, a very cordial, friendly, helpful bunch of young people.  You will be well received, your table will be impeccably set, the wine list has something for everyone, and the bread is irresistible.

      888888888888Bradley and Abrams have become very good at what they do, with three other winners to their credit--the Red Cat in Chelsea, Pace in TriBeCa (reviewed here at, and the Mermaid Inn (the least of their efforts) on the Lower East Side.  Last fall they hired chef Brian Bistrong at The Harrison, and what was consistently good before is now very good indeed, and the new spring menu bears this out in dishes that have the  flavor and dash of the season.  Bistrong has strong credentials, having worked at Lespinasse and Bouley before becoming chef at Citarella (now Joseph's).  He cooks in the modern American style, taking full advantage of the best fish now in the market, the spring peas that go into his pea sprout salad with butter lettuce and toasted peas, and his schnitzel of baby lamb.
       There are happy little ideas like "biscuits and gravy," studded with scallions and mounted with three species of clams and bits of chorizo.  Peeky toe crab did not have much flavor on its own, but the accompanying avocado, grapefruit, and tangy mustard oil brought it alive.  Ricotta cavatelli came with braised rabbit, escarole, and mint in a "natural jus," which was delicious if a tad soupy for the pasta.
      Bistrong's say boat scallops with hominy, black olives, pecans, and an aji amarillo sauce was a masterpiece of sweet seafood flavors and crispy textures.  The scallops were among the best I've had in a long while, and I really loved the way the pecans and hominy gave such an unexpected boost to eating them.  He has wisely kept The Harrison's signature crispy fried clams with lemon-coriander aïoli  on the menu.  One platter will go very fast.
      My wife chose perfectly sautéed, buttery skate wing fanned out against cucumber, pineapple, capers and a balsamic vinegar that gave the fish equal sweet, sour, and vegetal notes.  Pork tenderloin, cooked pink as ordered, was good quality, and the black-eyed peas, collards, and barbecue gravy was just the thing I wanted to eat on a warm spring evening back in the USA.
      As was Meyer lemon meringue pie with candied kumquats and lemon-thyme sabayon, and a terrific, gooey coconut custard tart with a tropical fruit salad. A pool of passion fruit broth detracted from the homey American goodness, however.  Pastry chef Jeff Gerace more than redeemed himself, however, with a dish of beignets cuddled in a napkin.  Pop one in your mouth, bite down slowly, and chocolate spurts out over your palate in a wondrous ooze that is more than likely going to dribble down your chin.
      April's light had faded over the Hudson River, but the sky still had a downy blue edge against the New York skyline.  I was happy to be home, and I was happy to have chosen The Harrison for my homecoming.
       Appetizers run $8-$15, entrees $20-$32.


"There are two kinds of people in America:  those who like Florence and those who like Venice.  No hard feelings, but if you're one of those Florence types, I wouldn't expect us to have much in common.  Take the Duomo, for example--the cathedral that impedes traffic in the center of Florence.  You probably love it, but green churches have never done much for me."--Alan Richman, "A Tale of Two Cities," Bon Appetit (May 2005).


A bar in Fort Collins, Colorado, canceled a gelatin wrestling event--with free shots of alcohol for women--intended to honor a Colorado State University student who drank herself to death after a night of heavy consumption. Part of the proceeds from what was to be called Wrestle-O was to go to a program to promote alcohol awareness.

A digit was left off the telephone number for Lisca restaurant in NYC in last week's newsletter. The number is
212-799-3987.  Also, the restaurant does not currently accept credit cards.


To all my friends in the public relations community: With regard to Mother's Day celebrations (as well as Father's Day, St. Valentine's Day, etc.), the volume of announcements I receive has made it impossible to list every one in the Virtual Gourmet.  Therefore, I shall endeavor to include as many of those that seem to have the most interesting, singular events, rather than those that offer merely a special price for the day, e.g., Mother's Day brunch.

* On April 29 Chef Chris Fernandez of Poggio in Sausalito, CA,  will join with Susan Pey, one of Marin County's only female winemakers, for a wine dinner.  Call 415-332-7771.

* On May 4 Rocco's in
Cleveland welcomes Sean Garvey from Flora Springs Vineyard for a 7-course dinner  paired with wines. $100 pp. Call 216-781-8858.

* On May 7 Corey Creek Vineyards on Long Island, NY,  presents  a dinner and discussion of “Niche Whites” with sommelier Darrin Siegfried at its tasting room. $100 pp, for general public, $75 for Wine Club Members. Call

* On May 15 chef Anne Quatrano of Atlanta’s Bacchanalia and Floataway Café, and her mother, Gulielma, are hosting their first mother-daughter event to benefit the scholarship and mentorship program of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs. The event will incl. cooking demos by women chefs from around the country, with  high tea to follow.  $150 pp, incl. In Mother’s Kitchen by Ann Cooper and Rick & Lanie’s Excellent Kitchen Adventures by Rick & Lanie Bayless.  Call 404-365-0410 x 22 or visit

* The 14th annual New Orleans Wine and Food Experience  will be held May 25-29. More than 800 vintages from around the world will be poured at a series of  events, incl. Vintner¹s Dinners at over 30 restaurants, hosted by winery representatives. The Grand Tastings, with dishes from more than 100 of New Orleans restaurants and wines from more than 200 producers, is on May 27 & 28.  “Bubbles and Brunch,” a  champagne jazz brunch will be held on May 29. Visit

* From May 27-29 the Second Annual "Best of the Wurst" Festival will be held at the Inn at Danbury, NH, incl.  Trachten Contests & Live Oompah  Bands.  Overnight packages are available. Call 603-768-3318 or 1 866-DANBURY ;


Dear Subscriber,

 555555555I will be hosting a very special and, I think unique, cruise event this summer from June 4-16 on the  S. S. Crystal Serenity.  I have chosen some of my favorite places in the whole world to visit and dine at, including Alain Ducasse’s illustrious three-star Louis XV restaurant in Monaco, and the enchanting Don Alfonso on the Amalfi Coast.  You will be treated to the finest these and other dedicated restaurateurs have to offer in their unique way.     I will be telling you everything worth knowing about the food and wines of the regions we visit—Dubrovnik, Barcelona, Monaco, Florence, St. Tropez, Sorrento, and Rome—including the best places to find haute cuisine to the most charming trattoria or the liveliest bistros and cafes. o   
     My wife Galina, co-author with me of The Italian American Cookbook (which we’ll sign copies of), will also be giving an exclusive cooking lesson onboard I know you will enjoy.
Between relaxing and enjoying yourselves onboard and coming with us to the loveliest sites and restaurants in the Mediterranean, you will have a unique and memorable trip and, I hope, become as familiar with these glorious places, cultures, and people as I am.
    Galina and I look forward to seeing you onboard in June!    For details, go to
-- John Mariani



MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly.  Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani,  Naomi  Kooker, Kirsten Skogerson,  Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Lucy Gordan, Suzanne Wright. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery,  Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.

 John Mariani is a columnist for Esquire, Wine Spectator, Diversion and the Harper Collection. He is author of The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink (Lebhar-Friedman), The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink (Broadway), and, with his wife Galina, the award-winning new Italian-American Cookbook (Harvard Common Press).  

 Any of John Mariani's books below may be ordered from by clicking on the cover image.

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copyright John Mariani 2005