Virtual Gourmet

December 16,  2007                                                       NEWSLETTER

"Making Waffles" (1550-60) by Joachin de Beuckalaer

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In This Issue



NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR: A Dinner with Angelo Gaja by Brian Freedman


by John Mariani

      I suspect that Charlotte, North Carolina, does not come up in many foodie conversations, and that any such discussion might center, erroneously, on barbecue, for which Charlotte is not particularly known.  Ten years ago I would have had difficulty writing about many Charlotte restaurants of note, but the city's boom over the last decade, led largely by--what else?--banking, has given rise to a new restaurant sector.  Alas, most are just more chain units, including several of the curiously named Wolfman Pizza, but one local company, Harper's restaurant Group, led by Tom Sasser, has been in the vanguard of upscale dining for some time now, having already given the city Arpa Tapas-Wine Bar-Grill, Mimosa Grill, Zink American Kitchen, and Upstream.  Meanwhile, another contender, Rooster's,  run by Noble's Restaurants, has opened and is as clued into what Americans love to eat as any restaurant in the 50 states.

4310 Sharon Road

       The cryptic name refers not to a BMW model but instead to five owners who are all from Morgantown. The concept, from the Harper's Group, is spot on Mediterranean, and since opening last year it's been packed most night of the week--all 300 seats, inside and out--by people who like the casual chic of the place and the reasonable prices for food that is elsewhere merely trendy but here quite convincing.  Behind the stoves is exec chef Tom Condron, and he's obviously done his homework: The flavors are authentic. And there are more than 30 wines by the glass, and flights of three from various Mediterranean countries at $14.
     The two main dining rooms are nicely glowing, with tube lights on the ceiling, neither too dark nor too light, although the use of abundant and various shades of brown and beige lends a certain drabness to the walls and banquettes, and the bare brown tables lend the room a certain coffee shop ambiance.  The lounge features a swank 30-foot bar and suede walls. Outside, the patio (below) is prime real estate for people in good weather and seems to attract an unconscionable number of very pretty blond women. Service is professional and very cordial, and somehow, despite the crush of people most nights, the kitchen turns out its food in a timely pacing.
      What the menu calls "Conversation Starters" involves well-wrought items like hummus with hot pita bread, an antipasti of artisanal cured meats, and a plate of artisanal cheeses with fruit, nuts and grilled walnut bread.
        Then come the "Starters," and you could easily share and make a meal of them: A soft-centered burrata mozzarella comes with prosciutto, mushrooms, and a little truffle oil, and grilled figs also take on a robe of prosciutto, with mascarpone cheese and a lovely almond salad on the side.  Very good indeed was a generous plate of potato gnocchi with mushrooms, Parmigiano, charred pepper and sweet corn--perhaps a little too much going on here but delicious nonetheless.  A chopped Mediterranean salad with tomatoes, olives, cucumbers, and a phyllo bundle was, as these things go,  rather bland.
     Everyone who comes to M5 orders the flatbreads, like the one topped with prosciutto, pungent manchego and blue cabrales cheeses, figs and truffled arugula, or the one with Merguez sausage, caramelized onions, piquillo peppers, mushrooms, and Parmigiano.
     If you have restrained yourself from eating too many appetizers, go for the very fine whole fish, one of which is served in "acqua pazza"--Italian for crazy water--with red snapper, tomato confit, charred peppers, olives, and the scent of rosemary.  Among my favorite entrees were terrific, fat sea scallops "saltimbocca" with shell beans tagine style, with pork loin and arugula.  Crispy, pressed and honeyed duck--a generous half of the bird--comes with fragrant Israeli couscous, Medjool dates, a bite of citrus and watercress salad, while braised lamb shank also gets a couscous treatment, with charred peppers, sweet-sour gremolata, raisin-onion confit, and chermoula. Fair but undistinguished was the "Tuna Sketches of Spain," wrapped in paper thin chorizo slices, with saffron rice, Rioja syrup, and a gazpacho-style salsa.
      Flavors and ingredients overlap, but that is just as true of the cooking of southern Spain, Morocco, and the Mediterranean in general.  That they are handled so well is what makes them so delectable throughout a meal. That M5 is go genuinely enjoyable and true to form is testament to how things have developed in Charlotte.
M5 is open for lunch and dinner every day. Appetizers run from $5-$12, main courses $17-$26.

6601 Morrison Boulevard

   Yes, the name is unfortunate: it sounds like a fast food chicken eatery rather than the terrific, modern North Carolina  restaurant  with an Italian accent it really is.
    Opened just a year, it has become very popular for all the obvious reasons:  Chef
Ramon Taimanglo (below) is serving up one of the most guest-friendly menus in the South, with nothing over $18, without skimping on portions, even among those described as small plates, from cured meats and tartares to pizzas and sandwiches, with main courses from that wood-fired grill also available in small or large portions.  The food was so good, the place so friendly, and the fact that it's one of the rare restaurants above the fast food line that is open for lunch led me to dine here twice in two days in Charlotte.
       Owner Jim Noble, who also runs the posh Noble's Restaurant across the street and Noble's Grill in Winston-Salem, is himself a chef, and he stocks 150 wines from Spain, Southern France, Italy and California--the majority priced under $50, with plenty of marvelous wines in the $28-$40 range, all housed in a handsome wrought iron wall display in the 125-seat dining room, which was designed by The Johnson Studio that has done so many innovative restaurants in the South.  The motif is of antique farm wood from barns to give the place a slightly farmlike cast, complete with stuffed roosters, which explains the funky name.  The granite-topped bar is highly convivial, with comfortable bar stools,  and you can get lost in the comfort of dark chocolate leather booths. The  mahogany  tables are good looking, though they tend to darken the place.  How about some bright mats at least or paper table coverings? There is also a 40-seat patio.
     So you sit down and open the broadsheet of a menu and wag your head because you want to order everything. Should you begin with some chicken liver mousse, served in a sealed glass jar, with crispy country bread? Yes, you should, for it is one of the best I've ever tasted. Perhaps a cream of chanterelle soup, or an array of cured Serrano ham, coppa, Speck, and other meats (a generous sampler for the table runs $14), or a plate of cheeses.  The spinach gnocchi have plenty of flavor, though too soft the day I tried them, and the Speck and cheese pizza is a tad thin of crust but equally as flavorful.
The aromas off the grill are inebriating as soon as you walk in, and your appetite builds quickly. I was really pleased with a flounder in a maître d' butter--juicy, lightly sautéed--and the Carolina pork shoulder as good as any in Charlotte.  That woody oven also turns out mussels, chicken, Niman Ranch leg of lamb (at only $18!), and beef short ribs.  But I think what made me happiest was the marvelous array of Southern-style vegetables, from pan-fried corn as sweet as summer itself to crowder peas, white acorn peas, pink-eyed peas, and other neglected species, all cooked perfectly (Southern cooks too often overcook their vegetables). I was delighted too with the pommes frites, the crisply fried onion rings, and the stone-ground grits from Anson Mills, the organic producer in South Carolina that has revived the traditions of Southern farm goods.
     For dessert there is an excellent panna cotta, creamy and nicely scented with vanilla.
   Rooster's is a prime example of what regional American restaurants should be--devoted to American regional ingredients put to good use in making dishes that draw from global influences. Service is as friendly as you'd expect in North Carolina. This place has the look, and success, of a concept that could easily be rolled out, and it wouldn't be a bad thing for a lot of other American cities to embrace.  For now, it's Charlotte's alone, and the locals know just how good it really is.
Rooster’s serves lunch and dinner daily.  First courses run $11, sandwiches $9-$14, and main courses $10-$18.

by John Mariani

381 Park Avenue South (at 27th Street)
     Everybody's doing it, so why not Steve Hanson, one of NYC's premier restaurateurs?   Hanson's BR Guest company already runs Blue Water Grill, three units of Dos Caminos, two of Ruby Foo's, the newly revamped Fiamma, and restaurants outside NYC,  including Primehouse David Burke in Chicago, so a steakhouse was inevitable here too--Primehouse New York.
      Located in what had previously been the premises of the unmemorable Park Avenue Country Club, Primehouse  is trying to distinguish itself from the zillion other steakhouses claiming to use USDA Prime beef by promoting its own Black Angus bull, who apparently has his work cut out for him siring beef cattle for the Chicago and New York operations. The beef is then dry-aged on the premises in the restaurant's "custom-built Himalayan rock salt-tiled aging room." (Question: Why Himalayan rock salt?  Hands?  Anybody?)
     The restaurant is set in three rooms, a swanky, sexy bar upfront, where a very comely staff greets you and mixologist Eben Klemm creates nouvelle cocktails using herbs grown and snipped right there at the bar. The dining rooms beyond are oddly colorless, with cool beige stone columns that reminded one of my dinner companions of a 1970s bank.  The black upholstered chairs and booths, and dark, bare naked tables don't bring much light into the ambiance, though mirrors help reflect and expand the light a bit.  Noise levels, thank heavens, are not too bad.
     Jason Miller (below), who is both exec chef and a partner here, spent 15 years working with David Burke and has his mentor's same largess when it comes to how much is put on the plate.  The stack of very good onion rings alone is about a foot high, the truffled Asiago cheese-spiced fried potatoes are absolutely addictive, and, depending on how much you want to eat, there are a 22-ounce filet mignon and two 12-ounce options, a 14-ounce sirloin, several 20-ounce cuts, and a whopping 39-ounce porterhouse for two. Within these beef listings is a special category of "Reserve Cuts," that include 36-, 40-, and 65-day dry aged 20-ounce bone-in steak.  This last eclipses just about every age limit I've seen around the steakhouse circuit, and just matching Craftsteak's  65-day New York strip.
     Frankly I am not at all sure that such long-term aging, obviously within carefully maintained parameters of cold and humidity, really improves the flavor of beef, just as keeping whiskies in barrels beyond 12 years is regarded by many master blenders and connoisseurs as doing nothing more for the spirits. Indeed, my favorite steak at Primehouse New York was the 14-ounce sirloin, whose age is not listed on the menu.  Here was a near perfect, beautifully aged piece of beef, with all the beef-iness I remember from sirloins 20 years ago, before USDA Prime got dumbed down.  Impeccably charred on the outside and medium-rare within, it had juice, sweetness, saltiness, and a faint pungency you just don't find in beef today, and almost never outside the most established NYC steakhouses like Palm, Ben Benson's, Peter Luger, Spark's, and Smith & Wollensky.

                                                      Petite Bone-in Filet

     The 65-day old steak was very good but its age didn't seem to add much to it. A 12-ounce petite filet with a "Lite Age" was delicious, and an "Unrack of lamb" came as juicy chops off the bone (why oh why?--the gnawing the bones is half the fun!) and some fatty spareribs with spiced citrus jam.  As with those fabulous onion rings, other sides rang true, including very good creamed spinach. Optional a
ccompanying steak sauces--peppercorn, béarnaise, blue cheese, and horseradish are mere gilding for the lily.
     Most appetizers are bright and quite appealing, from a zesty combo of romaine lettuce, tomato, and Maytag blue cheese to surf-and-turf composed of a big fat scallop and succulent, melt-in-the-mouth braised shortrib. But a crabcake, full of lump crab, had some herb of seasoning that made it taste slightly medicinal.
     Desserts need work here, especially a chocolate soufflé that tasted starchy and undercooked.
     Whether NYC needs another steakhouse--and there are more coming--is open to question, even though even the least of them seems packed most nights of the week. If Primehouse New York does not add anything particularly novel to the mix, its strong suit is the meat of the matter itself, which puts it into the top ranks among competitors around the city.

Prime House New York is open for brunch, lunch and dinner. Starters run $10-$16 (with shellfish towers available up to $79), and main courses $21-$86 (for two), and lobsters priced at $26 per pound.


A Dinner with Angelo Gaja
by Brian Freedman

          The wines of Angelo Gaja (below), especially his single-vineyard bottlings from Barbaresco and Barolo, are among the most sought-after in the world. Their reputation for excellence is, happily, based on the fact that they are downright delicious and often capable of aging for decades or more. That’s the good news.
          The bad news is that because of this reputation and because of the high prices they command both on release and on the auction block too many people just don’t drink them. They buy them, sure, and show them off to their friends like trophies from a particularly high-priced (and tasty) hunt. But fewer and fewer of these bottles are finding their way to the dinner table, which is where they really belong.
          This was recently thrown into sharp relief during a tasting and dinner I had in Barbaresco with Angelo Gaja. In the beginning of the evening, he opened a number of his elegant 2004s, including the Barbaresco, the Sorì Tildin, the Costa Russi, and the Sorì San Lorenzo. These were rounded out by the 2003 Sperss and the 1988 vintage of the same bottling.
          On their own they were every bit as dramatic as I’d come to expect of Mr. Gaja’s wines. The 2004 Costa Russi was one of my two personal favorites, rich with aromas of warm hazelnuts and the perfume of fresh white truffles. The palate was pure silk, and the flavors ran the gamut from grilled rosemary and thyme to ripe dark berry fruit to mocha. The other stand-out (in an entire tasting of standouts) was the 1988 Sperss, which was like the concentrated essence of white truffle.
          But as stunning as these wines were in Mr. Gaja’s cellar, they reached their full potential, as I suppose they were always intended to, at the dinner table.
          In order to showcase the wines in their most flattering light, Mr. Gaja brought most of the bottles we had just tasted to dinner at La Contea (below, left), an elegant, thoroughly Piedmontese restaurant in neighboring Neive (Piazza Cocito, 8;  0039 0173 67126/677558). After starting off with pickled veal tongue topped with ground hard-boiled egg yolk, we moved on to the truffle courses, which is where the wines really came into their own.
          We had the truffles—in short supply this year because of the dry, hot summer—two ways: First as the kings used to enjoy them (shaved over tajarin, the local pasta that La Contea makes using the mind-boggling ratio of 30 red egg yolks to every 2 kilograms of flour), and second, as the less wealthy truffle hunters do (shaved over two eggs fried in an enamel skillet).
          And while the expectation is that truffles will make anything they interact with taste better than it already does (why else pay such a premium for them?), what they did to the wines was nothing short of revelatory.
          Even the youthful 2004s gained a sense of maturity when sipped alongside these dishes, with an earthiness that, while certainly present just beneath the surface when they were tasted on their own, was nowhere near as profound as it was next to the food. Sure, the wines will continue to age and develop for the next 10 or 20 years or more. And of course they will only get better and more complex as they rest in their bottles. But when enjoyed in the context of a meal like this, they gained a sense of gravitas that was only hinted at back in the cellar.
          What was most interesting, though, was the interaction between the 1988 Sperss and the truffle dishes. For while the 2004 Barbarescos gained a more up-front earthy component during the meal, that Sperss, which was so fabulously truffly in the cellar, regained the edge of sweet fruit I thought it had lost over the course of its bottle maturation. The truffle character of the wine and the perfume of the truffles themselves both paired perfectly with each other and canceled each other out to the extent that the flavor of both became less monolithic and far more complex. It was like seeing the wine in 360-degrees; had I just tasted it in the cellar and not at dinner, I never would have experienced that aspect of it.
          That, I think, was the point that Mr. Gaja was trying to illustrate: That no matter how expensive a wine is, no matter who produced it or in what seminal year the grapes were harvested, it will almost always show better when enjoyed alongside a well-paired meal.
     Staring at a particular bottle in your cellar is perfectly fine. And tasting that wine on its own is unarguably instructive. But enjoying it as it was meant to be—alongside a great meal and with people who are just as enthusiastic about that bottle as you are—is when the wine will best express itself. That’s where the real fun begins.

Brian Freedman is a food and wine writer and wine educator. You can read his previous work at


In NYC the restaurant Serendipity 3 was offering a $25,000 dessert made with cocoa, edible gold and shavings of a truffle, called "The Frrrozen Haute Chocolate" and declared the most expensive dessert in the world by Guinness World Records.  It was served in a goblet decorated with a band of gold and 1 karat diamonds, with a golden spoon diners can take home. A week later the NYC Board of Health closed down Serendipity 3 after it failed its second inspection in a month, during which the inspector found rodent droppings, fruit flies, house flies, and more than 100 live cockroaches.


Quotes  by TV's Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi,  touting her new cookbook, Tangy Tart Hot & Sweet, in Vanity Fair (December), as cited by New York Magazine (Nov. 14, 2007).
On the Top Chef Emmy nomination: "[It] was a big f---ing deal.”
On life without her ex-husband, Salman Rushdie: "I'm really f---ing sad."
On her new cookbook: "Finishing the f---ing book was like being in labor for two years!”
On hosting dinner party: "I pulled this out of my ass."


* On Dec. 24 in Santa Monica, CA,  Valentino  celebrates “La Vigilia di Natale,” with  Chef Giacomo  Pettinari doing a traditional  menu of seafood.  $90 pp,  with  wines +$60 per guest.  Visit; Call 310-829-4313.

* From Jan. 4-6  Chef Richard Sandoval's Modern Mexican  Restaurants are offering special menus as well as a new take on the  traditional King Cake celebration, offering King’s Cake and hot chocolate.  The first person to find the baby in his or her slice will win a tamale-party, gratis, for 6 people. Maya, New York1191 First Avenue – 212.585.1818; Tamayo, Denver – 1400 Larimer Street – 720.946.1433.

NEW FEATURE: I am happy to  report that the Virtual Gourmet is  linking up with two 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."  To go to his blog click on the logo below:


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). Click on the logo below to go to the site.



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

 John Mariani is a columnist for Esquire, Wine Spectator, Bloomberg News and Radio, and Diversion.  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 Italian-American Cookbook (Harvard Common Press).

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

6y6My newest book, written with my brother Robert Mariani, is a memoir of our years growing up in the North Bronx. It's called Almost Golden because it re-visits an idyllic place and time in our lives when so many wonderful things seemed possible.
    For those of you who don't think of the Bronx as “idyllic,” this book will be a revelation. It’s about a place called the Country Club area, on the shores of Pelham Bay. It was a beautiful neighborhood filled with great friends and wonderful adventures that helped shape our lives. It's about a culture, still vibrant, and a place that is still almost the same as when we grew up there.
Robert and I think you'll enjoy this very personal look at our
Bronx childhood. It is not yet available in bookstores, so to purchase a copy, go to or click on  Almost Golden.
--John Mariani

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copyright John Mariani 2007