Virtual Gourmet

  May 8, 2005                                                        NEWSLETTER


                                   Dave, Ricky and Harriet Nelson from the TV show "The Adventures of Ozzie and  Harriet" (1952)

                                                  Happy Mother's Day


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MY FAVORITE MANSIONSThe Woodlands Inn by John Mariani

NEW YORK CORNER: Sapa by John Mariani

GOODBYE TO ALL THAT: Howard Johnson's and the Munson Diner to Close in NYC  by John Mariani




125 Parsons Road
Summerville, SC

     32Charleston, SC, is difficult not to love as America's best preserved ante-bellum city, whose every street evokes a Southern heritage of architecture and manners you simply don't find in cities that suffered devastation during the Civil War.  But twenty miles outside of town there is a very special place that evokes a later time, at the beginning of the 20th century, when Robert Parsons, a Pennsylvania railroad baron, built Woodlands  on 100 acres of land considered far healthier than the mosquito-swarmed air of Charleston.
       Ten years ago the mansion and 42 acres were bought and restored with all modern amenities while maintaining the extraordinary Georgian beauty of the place, from the mansion itself to the landscaped gardens, now added to with guest suites, a tennis cottage, and, of course, the requisite 21st century spa.  Dotted with pines, palmettos, and oaks, the resort is  as splendid as any I've seen in the South, and the mansion itself, 4444with its impeccably, individually decorated guest rooms, (right) most with fireplaces, king- and queen-sized beds, and marble bathrooms with Jacuzzis are as relaxing as they are beautiful. Yellow roses are house signatures, and your room will have a complimentary split of Alfred Gratien Champagne iced and waiting for you.   I found myself wanting to do little but lounge and nothing but nap in my room before and after meals.  And so I did.
      And they were very good meals indeed.  The Dining Room at the inn, with its 14-foot coffered ceilings, French doors, and a ceiling of painted clouds (below) , is sedate but sumptuous, and your reception will be as cordial as it is possible to achieve in the South, where such things count very heavily.  It's the kind of place where you'd better pack a blue blazer.
      New chef Scott Crawford (right) has large clogs to fill. 
--The last kitchen tenant was Ken Vedrinksi, whose work at Woodlands catapulted him to national recognition as one of the country's best young chefs.  He moved outside of Charleston to open his own delightful restaurant, Siena (which I picked as one of the 20 best new restaurants of 2004 for my annual Esquire round-up).  I am happy to report, therefore, that Crawford has easily slipped into Woodlands and not only maintained the eminence of being a Relais & Chateaux Gourmand restaurant but, I think, taken the cuisine to an even higher level.  Aided by a fine service staff and a 900-selection wine list of solid excellence compiled by sommelier Stephane Peltier (formerly at England's Manoir aux Quat'saisons), Crawford has everything at his disposal to keep Woodlands among the very top ranks of Southern fine dining.
     My recent dinner at Woodlands was revelatory of the way resorts of this kind have made cuisine every bit as important as the amenities and activities of the place--something which all too rarely coalesces as it does here.  I began with potato-crusted bay scallops, sweet as Jujubies, accompanied by red corn polenta and roasted celery jus.  Seared foie gras came with a lovely, smooth butternut squash crème brûlée, candied ginger, raisins, and pistachios, which added up to a somewhat cloying sweetness.  For something far simpler there is sashimi of Hawaiian kampachi with pickled mushrooms and a kanzuri mignonette sauce. Best of all was crab and pineapple cannelloni with yuzum white soy, and vanilla oil.
     09These may make it sound like Crawford's is an Asian kitchen, and many of the appetizers reflect his penchant, which can be a little overwhelming in exotic flavors.  But he resorts to American form with main courses like his first-rate duck in three preparations, with braised lentils and a wonderful tangy-sweet maple-balsamic reduction.  Coddled Maine lobster with an almond milk and sunchoke mousseline and a nectar of white grapes was a superb concept, as was a poached tenderloin of veal with parsnip risotto, melting foie gras and a hazelnut sauce.  Pistachio-roasted venison with blue cheese and yam purée with a caramelized onion sauce was a ringing testament to game cookery, all its elements buoying the finely grained, rich meat. 2222
      We enjoyed a cheese course, though too much was made of the fussy presentation, when cheese should be left pretty much on its own at this point in the meal. Desserts could not be better, however, from a chocolate cake with amarula truffle ice cream and passion fruit mousse to a white carrot cake with citrus beurre noisette and ginger ice cream, and my favorite--hazelnut griddle cakes with baked Gala apples and caraway cream (right).
       A four-course dinner at Woodlands is  a very reasonable $69, with options for tasting menus at $76, with wine pairings, $35 extra. Note that cell phones--allelujah!--are banned from the dining room, a decision that befits such a marvelously genteel atmosphere as Woodlands sets from the moment you arrive.


666Back in Charleston, I made a return visit to one of my favorite restaurants, McCrady's (
2 Unity Alley; 843-577-0028;, also my choice among the best new restaurants of the year it opened (1999), and now going stronger and better than ever. Named after an eighteenth-century gentleman who built this grand brick tavern and house (listed on the National Register of Historic Places and Landmarks), McCrady's dark wood, antique brick, hardwood floors, and fireplaces retains a distinct antique air, strikingly counterpointed with tall skylights, bluestone tiles, leather banquettes and a big, sexy bar lounge with copper ceiling tiles. The wine bar (left) is stunning.
     Chef Michael Kramer is at the top of his game, having trained with Roland Passot at La Folie in San Francisco, Wolfgang Puck at various venues, and Dean Fearing at the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas.  He has picked up from all of them an appreciation for big, deep, vivid flavors, presented with flair but no pretensions. My most recent meal here began with yellowfin tuna tartare with spicy mango, wakamae salad, jalapeño oil and sesame seeds. I loved his rock shrimp crêpes with roasted tomato, artichoke, black olive and truffle sauce, and although butter-poached lobster has become rather trendy, it's still a damn good idea, here served with sunchoke purée, leeks, asparagus, and a porcini emulsion.
     I then passed on to entrees like impeccably cooked black sea bass marinated in miso, with bok choy, scallion and a white soy broth, and honey-glazed duck breast with pasta pearls, black trumpets, truffle purée, caramelized onion-foie gras sauce, and ending off with a lava cake, carrot cake, apple tart, and chocolate bread pudding.   Appetizers run $8-$15, main courses $25-$34, with a tasting menu of 8 courses at a very modest $65.

   I also had a chance to have a fine, lusty lunch at Blossom2222 (171 East Bay Street; 843-722-9200;, the third of Exec Chef David Barickman and partners' restaurants in town--Magnolia Grill, Cypress, now Blossom. It is a casual seafood place with serious food, via exec chef Aaron Siegal,  a modestly priced place with rich flavors, a pot of steaming Low Country cioppino with clams, fish, and andouille sausage and mussels in lobster broth with benne seed flatbread to BBQ jumbo shrimp with smoked tomato grits and lemon-basil vinaigrette.  The priciest thing on the menu is only $21 , for seared yellowfin tuna with addictive parmesan-crusted French fries and a spinach-green peppercorn mustard.  You might also go for a fried fish platter--ubiquitous around Charleston, but here made with care and skill.  And consider a side of fried green tomatoes and collards just to keep the mood going.


by John Mariani

43 West 24th Street

       So far in 2005 I have yet to come across a restaurant so conceptualized, so derivative, and so disappointing in every respect as Sapa.  Not because the food is awful, which it isn't, but because from the moment you face the front door, which is sorely in need of a logo to tell you you've found the place, everything is so calculated to be so of the moment.  If you took an idea like Spice Market, threw in some of Ono, amalgamated a menu that is somewhat Vietnamese and somewhat steak-and-potatoes, you'd start to get the idea.  The music, played so loud amidst a decor without any soft surfaces, makes conversation impossible unless screaming at your guest is your idea of conversation.  Believe me, when Miles Davis recorded the music they play here, he never played it this loud.                                                                                                                            Photo: Michael Kleinbergrr
      The decor is not without its pleasures--a huge space with leather sofas, a semi-open kitchen, and a gauzy curtain, along with the original brick and concrete ceiling beams.  Votive candles provide some light, but generally the front room is on the dark and gloomy side, the back room even darker, and they play with the lights throughout the night.  Downstairs is a rest room area that struck me as a series of confessional booths made from Chinese screens, with a central bubbling pool in the center of a space that must have cost a pretty penny to no other use except to confuse men and women as to which stall is theirs.
        I arrived for an early 7:30 reservation for two, and I asked if we might sit side by side, which meant we would be taking up the space of a four-top table.  The place was nearly empty of diners, yet a hostess, who had to ask a manager if we could move from out two-top, reported, "We have a lot of four-tops coming in later, but maybe I can put you in the back." The back, at that point, was as dark and dreary and vacant as a room can be, so we sheepishly went back to our two-top. Why, we wondered, wouldn't she seat the incoming four-tops in the back room, since we were already in evidence?
       We sat down to a bare table--no tablecloth, which is referred to as a "design statement" when in reality it's a cheap way to save on linens.  A waiter who proffered his first name and insisted on putting his hand on my shoulder throughout the evening came by now and then, never pouring our wine but agreeing with us that everything we chose was "an excellent choice" and one of his favorites, as if we could care less.  The food came out lickety split, and the busboys have been told to clear tables as fast as possible for maximum turn-over, so we were asked more than once if we were finished dishes we obviously had not.
      About chef Patricia Yeo's food, I can't get too excited.  I was not a big fan of her cooking at AZ, a similar place with trendy Pan-Asian food where her culinary talents were wedged between parties and lounge operations.  She then showed up at Pazo on East 57th Street (now the premises of BLT Steak), where she did something resembling Mediterranean food, until it closed a few months later. Her résumé includes stints in disparate places like China Moon in San Francisco and Mesa Grill and Bolo in NYC.  The problem is that Yeo never seems to focus for very long on a specific cuisine--today it's Asian, next it's Spanish, next it's Mediterranean, and now, at Sapa, it's kind-of-Vietnamese, with a rib-eye steak with Stilton aïoli and salmon with brandade tossed in here and there.
      Nothing I tasted convinced me that she has a grasp of this cuisine; indeed, some dishes seemed cloyed by hoisin sauce that tasted as if it came right from the bottle, the wrappings for the "imperial roll" was flaccid and the insides insipid; a batch of onion rings was so greasy as to be inedible. (I can't recall the last time a serving of onion rings was left uneaten at a table; almost all of these were.)   Duck breast was full of fat globules and the breast meat undercooked.
        Desserts, on the other hand, were kind of yummy.  But by that time, having been touched on my shoulder once too often and had my eardrums assaulted beyond what I could bear, I was happy to get outside into the cool spring air of a New York night.
      Appetizers at Sapa run $8-$15, main courses $22-$32.

Goodbye to All That: Howard Johnson's and the Munson Diner to Close in NYC
by John Mariani

    555Two minor NYC landmarks--the Howard Johnson's in Times Square and the Munson Diner in Hell's Kitchen--are going to close. Well, in the case of the Munson, it's moving out of NYC, lock, stock, and bar.  Both will be missed not because there was anything great about them or their food, but because they were a part of the landscape and the nostalgia of the city.
    Howard Johnson's opened 50 years ago at a time when Times Square before it was cleaned up by the Giuliani administration (which some say turned the tawdry into the Disney).  Matter of fact, the eatery is one of the last hapless-looking things in the Square. and had lost since passed its HoJo prime.
     Not that the restaurant had anything indigenous to do with a chain that began in 1925 in Wollaston, Massachusetts, when Howard Dearing Johnson  borrowed $500 and opened what was to become one of the most successful franchise operations in American history, based on the idea that cleanliness and dependability would be manifest to an emerging, mobile, automobile-driven America whose people merely had to look for the orange roof on the Cape Cod-style structure to find good, wholesome food and the best ice cream in the country, in glorious profusion and 28 flavors.

     The irony was that no one could drive up to the Times Square HoJo's unless you wanted to stash your car in an expensive Times Square area parking lot.  But it was at this Howard Johnson's that out-of-towners felt comfortable and comforted, offered a menu of food they understood and loved, served up with soda fountain snap. Children loved to see neon Simple Simon and the Pieman. There were cocktails and Happy Hours for their parents. Servicemen and women came here, often lonely, sometimes scared, but always buoyed by the familiar interior with its windows looking out at the astonishing caterwauling crossroads of the Great White Way.  Of course, the relatively low prices and open attitude of HoJo's brought in those who's life was otherwise confined to the streets, and I assume a very long book could be written about the denizens of the night who called HoJo's a second home.
     So HoJo's will vanish by summer's end, unless some wave of public nostalgia causes a wealthy entrepreneur to save it.  The company, which only has about a dozen eateries left,  became a hotel company years ago, now with 400 units around the world.  The food operations were left to wither.   Yet people will remember with wonder is the sound of the squeaky booths, the whirr of the stools at the counter, the maps of the USA as paper mats, the great split-open hot dogs, the crisp French fries and nonpareil fried clams, the mixed-to-order sodas, and the 28 flavors, of which my absolute favorite was chocolate chip, with hundreds of tiny pieces of chocolate swirled throughout the cone-shaped scoop of ice cream set in a sugar cone.  Maybe it's not as important as the closing of a  venerable old Broadway theater, but then again, you can always build another theater. No one's going to build another Howard Johnson's.
      I have no nostalgia whatsoever for the Munson Diner, for I never broke a Saltine into a soup there or lavished ketchup on a burger.  I've passed it a thousand times, set on the corner of 49th Street and 11th Avenue, near the tunnels and highways that bring people in and out of the city.  What will be missed is its streamlined beauty, its beacon-like light, rain or shine, day or night, the headlights of cars shimmering over its rippled metal surface, while inside all glowed warm and safe.  In fact, it wasn't very pretty during the day; it seemed slammed up against another building.  But at night, it was a small wonder of streamlined diner architecture, not the prettiest of the genre, but a good, solid Kullman design from the 1950s. And in the background, further lighting up the sky, was the Empire State Building.o
      Any actual fame the Munson has derives from the occasional appearances of Andy Warhol's entourage and, more recently, as Reggie's, the place Seinfeld and friends went to downtown when they weren't schmoozing and kvelling up at Monk's Diner, whose exterior was actually that of Tom's Restaurant, which is still going strong at Broadway and 112th Street.
     Now the Munson is being dismantled and will be shipped to Liberty, NY, whose new owner, Jeremy Gorelick insisted "it is wonderful to rescue and revitalize a piece of American history" and a way to promote downtown Liberty (wherevre that is) as a visitor destination.  Maybe so; otherwise the Munson might have vanished entirely like so many other NYC landmark restaurants, like Trader Vic's, Maxwell's Plum, the Russian Tea Room, and, soon, Howard Johnson's.   But many people will miss Munson's and HoJo's, for a good restaurant is never just a place to eat.  It is a place full of memories you thought would always be there.


"With her blond-streaked ponytail bobbing, the 34-year-old executive chef with the model good looks engages her cooking class students with the enthusiasm of  a cheerleader, non-stop conversation and self-deprecating humor.  She rolls her eyes, looks away and whistles while she pours white truffle oil into tuna tartare, as though with abandon.  Then, with flair, she tastes it. `My daddy always said, `make sure it's fittin,'" she jokes in a slight southern drawl."--Claudia Carbone, "Chef Profiles," Colorado Expressions (2005).


According to the
Boston Herald, waiter Bill DiPasquale drank himself into a coma after being fired from his job by Charles Sarkis, owner of Abe & Louie's steakhouse in Boston.  After several weeks of waiting, his family decided to pull the plug on DiPasquale, at which point Sarkis relayed a message to the hospital, saying "You tell him to wake up, get out of bed and get his ass back to work!" Upon hearing the message, DiPasquale woke up and said he had to get up and go to work.


Owing to the robotic insistence of SPELLCHECK, last week's newsletter misspelled the family name of the owners of Osteria del Circo once and correctly in the rest of the article. The owners are the Maccioni family.


*  On Fri. &  Sat. nights throughout May, Cézanne in Santa Monica will offer unlimited complimentary wine tasting with the purchase of an entrée by Chef Desi Szonntagh. Sommelier George Skorka will be on hand to discuss wine pairings and the featured vintners from Italy. Call 310-395-9700.

* On May 12 & 13  Chef Shawn McClain of
Chicago's Spring restaurant will hold a 6-course dinner at the Rancho Bernardo Inn's El Bizcocho restaurant.  The Inn is offering a package to Chicago's food and wine lovers at  $598 per couple, incl.  deluxe accommodations for 2 nights, dinner for two, and  breakfast at the Veranda Bar & Grille. $110 pp for dinner only.  Call  877-517-9342.

* On May 17 Atlanta’s ONE has invited Food Network host and author Tyler Florence to join the culinary team of ONE. midtown kitchen and  TWO. urban licks including Richard Blaiss, Scott Serpas and Jennifer Etchison.  In additional local guest chef Michael Tuohy from Woodfire Grill will also be dishing up a course during the 4-course dinner with wine pairings. $195 pp. A portion of the proceeds will benefit Common Threads. Call 404-892-4111.

* On May 17  Woodlands Resort & Inn in Summerville, SC (see review above) will host its monthly “Wines of the World” wine tasting and 4-course dinner featuring the wines of Burgundy, incl. Aloxe-Corton, Gevrey Chambertin, Chassagne-Montrachet, and Meursault.  $74 pp. Call 843-308-2115.

* On May 18  Left Bank brasserie in Pleasant Hill, CA, will host a “Chef’s Table” 4-course dinner with chef Roland Passot, along with Chef de Cuisine Erik Romme.  Chef Roland will visit and chat with diners between courses. $69 pp. Call 925-288-1222.

* From May 18-21 Louisville’s Oak Room will hold a “Bring Your AAA Game!”Seelbach Billiards & Bourbon Celebration, with a 5-course dinner at $50 pp.  Billiards tables will be set-up in the Anteroom, with a Four Roses cocktail reception, featuring jazz from The Dick Sisto Trio. and a 1932-inspired dinner. Call800-333-3399 or visit

* On May 19 New York’s Waldorf-Astoria restaurant Oscar's will host beer aficionado’s reverie for a taste of  a  9,000 year-old beer, followed by a 4-course dinner with Sam Calagione of Delaware’s Dogfish Head Craft Brew, who will give away copies of his new book. Chateau Jiahu, a modern interpretation of the world’s oldest fermented beverage, unearthed from a 9,000 year-old tomb in China, will be served  with a meal prepared by chef Michael Bourquin. $70 pp. Call 212- 872-1275 or visit .
* On May 19 Wine For All will hold a “Desperate House Wines” event  in NYC at the Bartlett Mansion  on Gramercy Park, with 12  blends, called “Whites Next Door,” “Teaser Reds,” and “Bodacious Bombshells.” $50 pp. before May 12; $60 pp after. E-mail Click here: Wine For All - Wine+Fun).

* On May 22 Tocqueville in NYC continues its series of boutique winemaker dinners with  “Not-Just-Riesling," with Savio Soares, Tocqueville’s consulting sommelier,  to introduce 8 wines from small, family-owned German vineyards, most  never before available in the US.   Inge von Geldern from Weingut Kirsten in Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, will speak about her family’s wines.  $150 pp.  Call 212-647-1515.

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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