Virtual Gourmet

January 13, 2008                                                        NEWSLETTER

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In This Issue

EATING HONG KONG, Part One by John A. Curtas

NEW YORK CORNER: Tocqueville by John Mariani

Obituary: Jean-Claude Vrinat of Taillevent Dies at 71 by John Mariani




By John A. Curtas

     I f traveling is living intensified, then eating in strange places ought to be mastication brought to new heights of deepened sensation.  The stranger the locale and its cuisine, the more you should be riveted by it, unless you are the type who equates gastronomic exotica with whatever a Michelin-starred chef is whipping up that day.  More timid and pretentious gourmands will always content themselves with the safety of guidebook-and-food-magazine approved choices, while truly inquisitive food-focused folks know that the world is their oyster.  Happily for everyone, there is Hong Kong.
   Thoughts such as these bubbled in my brain as I endured the flight from LAX to HKG.  After fifteen hours spent avoiding repeated attempts by the airline flight crew to poison me, as I parried their thrusts of plastic-wrapped food with the deftness of an Olympian fencing champion, I was famished and hungry for sustenance and knowledge.  Throughout the past twenty-five years, I had eaten in Chinese restaurants throughout America, all the while feeling I was getting but a semblance of the real thing.
  Upon landing in Hong Kong I quickly found it doesn’t get much more real than Sunday morning at Maxim’s Palace City Hall (Low Block, City Hall; 2521 1303). They open the doors at nine AM on Sunday only, and by ten you will have trouble getting a table.  Knowing this, I hit the ground running from my digs at the Island Shangri-La Hotel (, allowing plenty of time to be there when the first carts of dim sum came rolling out.
    What I didn’t factor in was the obscurity of the location (the address does you absolutely no good), and 40 minutes spent walking around the block trying to find it.  I finally approached a nice young Asian couple pushing a stroller, who appeared both inquisitive about their surroundings and hungry enough to possibly be looking for the same place.  They were, turning out to be a doctor and his family from Trenton, NJ, and as lost as I was.  Somehow we determined that Maxim’s is on the third floor of the old convention center, across from City Hall, but only accessible by entering the backside of this nondescript building and working your way to the upper floor, without so much as a sign or smell to guide you.
   I never did figure out the protocol at the hostess station, but it seemed to be every man for himself in finding a free table, until all 400 seats fill up, at which time you take a number and wait to be waved over by a hostess.  Woe to the non-Chinese speaker who misses their cue, so it’s best to be there when the doors open.  Barely beating the rush, I wandered over to a hostess standing next to an empty four-top and was quickly seated with a smile.  Just as speedily, Maxim’s proved the maxim that dim sum is the ideal meal for those who think immediate gratification takes too long.
     In less time than it takes to read this paragraph, the following were spread before me: plates of shu mai (vegetarian and shrimp dumplings), three kinds of cha sui bao (sweetish barbecued pork in steamed, baked and deep fried buns), shrimp wrapped in thick rings of bitter melon, pillowy shrimp paste “quenelles” floating on custardy tofu, fresh spinach glass noodle dumplings, a plate of poached and bony chicken meat not for the faint of heart, and a few others lost to the memory of erasing my starvation. When there were at least nine plates at my table, one of the chefs approached me with a big grin on his face and some unordered cha sui goh-pork inside a sweet-sticky, millefeuille-like pastry that tasted like chopped shoulder inside a Krispy Kreme.  No doubt he was amused by the gai jin who was polishing off dishes faster than the pushcart ladies could deliver them.  It may not have been the best dim sum I’ve ever had, but it was certainly the most satisfying.
    The late R.W. Apple once called Hong Kong “dim sum heaven” and he was right.  Dim sum means “to touch the heart,” and restaurants here, from the tiny and non-descript to famous gastro-destinations, devote themselves to dumplings from morning till mid-afternoon.  Wang Fu (65 Wellington Street; 852 2121 8089) is all about the dumpling, the whole dumpling, and nothing but the dumpling.  It’s also a dump, but don’t let that deter you.  There are only eight types of dumplings listed on the flimsy plastic-coated menu; you have to fight for one of the nine tables; and the little gems come ten to a plate.  Of the three types tried--pea-shoot and pork, shredded pork with cabbage, and vegetarian-spinach--all were ethereal-with none of the heaviness or gumminess one might expect from small pouches of pure starch.   The mustard-tuber soup, containing even more shredded pork in a sturdy chicken broth, was beside the point, but not half bad either.
    A little more than a ten-minute Star Ferry ride away to Kowloon is the oddly named MiddleRow Restaurant (19-21 Nathan Road; Tsim Sha Tsui; 852 2734 3808), located on the second floor of the Kowloon Hotel, directly behind the Peninsula Hotel.  The  business-lunch crowd here takes their dim sum at elegantly appointed tables dressed with silk tablecloths (left), and look out over busy Nathan Road, which reminded me of lower Broadway in Manhattan.  Waitresses take your order after you peruse a nicely translated menu containing pictures that are remarkably accurate. Those photos barely give a hint to the amazing food that winds up before you.  Simply put,  this is dim sum on a whole different level (literally and figuratively).  All rice flour noodles (cheung fun) are made in house, and whether these broad flat beauties are encasing spinach and corn, shrimp and chives, or barbecued pork, their whiteness and lightness is something to behold.  Even the usually mundane lo bok goh (cubes of mashed white radishes that the Chinese call turnip) revealed new levels of richness, as did vegetarian dumplings with pine nuts, steamed squid with XO sauce, and a double-boiled snow fungus (dessert) soup that tasted a lot better than it sounds.

     A few words about prices and etiquette.  Compared to Western Europe and Japan, prices are a relative bargain.  Dim sum breakfasts and lunches will run no more than $40 for two, unless you go hog wild.  A four- course dinner at Yung Kee for two, with a modest wine was around $120, and the six course, hairy crab “Special Set” came in at about a hundred dollars a person at an exchange rate of $1.00 US = 8 HKD.  All restaurants add 10% service charge to the check, and adding to that is appreciated, but not expected by the waitstaff.
     Three things you don’t see usually on tables in the modest restaurants of Hong Kong are soy sauce, napkins and water.  In one hole-in-the-wall, I asked for a napkin and was brought a roll of toilet paper for me to tear off a piece.  Soy sauce is not a given on most Chinese tables, so you may have to ask for it. Linens and shui,  pronounced “schway” (water) are easier to find at more upscale places, although it was explained to me that potable water was only available on certain days of the week well into the twentieth century, so the locals just aren’t familiar with our custom of quaffing large amounts of the stuff.  That’s why hot tea is so ubiquitous.
Part Two of this three-part article will appear soon.

Since 1995, John A. Curtas 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


by John Mariani


1 East 15th Street

    After more than six years in its original location, Tocqueville has moved a few doors down to a 1906 Beaux Art building to become larger, far more elegant, roomier, and more sophisticated restaurant, without taking on a whit of pretension. Chef  Marco Moreira and his wife Jo-Ann Makovitzky had opened Tocqueville at a time when modern French-American fine dining meant first-class tablesettings, glassware, and silverware, a bonhomie achieved not through loud music but  by the voices of people having good conversations, and a service that was as respectful as it was amiable and knowledgeable about all points of food and wine.

      Now,  with Chef de Cuisine David Coleman  and Master Sommelier Scott Carney, Tocqueville is better than ever, the refinements subtle but evidence  of the sort of evolution that takes place when the chef and staff truly care about maintaining that particular attention to detail that true gourmets understand, from the soft, flattering lighting to the presentation and temperature of the butter.
      The 65-seat main dining room (above), with nicely separated tables, textured chairs, leading from a small soigné bar (below) of white-and-rust onyx and wenge wood, is hung with a
  nickel chandelier from 16-foot ceilings, smoked mirrors, and large abstract paintings. on opposite walls. On a mezzanine there is a delightfully intimate private dining room for up to 25.  The winelist is a collection of 300 labels carefully selected for Tocqueville's kind of cuisine, hefty in Bordeaux, ample in wines from the Pacific Northwest, with about 20 offered by the glass.
      Moreira was born in Brazil but has wide training in sushi preparation, arriving in NYC in 1982 and launching Marco Polo Sushi Catering, followed by setting up a sushi program at dean & Deluca, here he met NYC native Jo-Ann, who'd previously cooked at La Caravelle; Marco went on to learn classic cuisine at Bouley, The Quilted Giraffe, and as chef de cuisine at The Mark.  They opened Tocqueville at 15 East 15th Street in 2000, now a Japanese restaurant they run named 15 East, and moved to Tocqueville's current premises a year ago.
      Moreira has always be a chef of finesse, now translated by Coleman, to reflect the seasonality of New York's bounty, especially with seafood, but I found on a recent visit an equal facility with all kinds of meats and poultry.  In summer there will be a perfect heirloom tomato salad with hearts of palm and Sherry vinaigrette, along with a golden yellow corn soup with smoked Yukon potatoes and tangy green tomato marmalade.  Refreshingly lemon-scented chicken will come with a confit of cippolini, pancetta bacon, and a fava bean puree,  while a confit of red snapper arrives with corn pudding "breakfast radish," and sweet Black Mission figs.
     In fall the soup might be a sweet potato velouté with tiny lobster ravioli, Fuji apple slices, and a juniper cream, and a hearty, crispy suckling pig comes with with pork sausage and violet mustard. The chicken may now come with  crispy Brussels sprouts, butternut squash pudding, and chestnuts. Pan-roasted skate wing comes with a confit of onion and wild mushrooms, and truffled Parmesan grits with a sunny side up country egg and house-cured veal bacon--which I wouldn't mind having for brunch.                      Tocqueville upstairs private dining room
       For dessert definitely go with the chocolate tasting, or, simpler, the polenta cake with almonds, corn ice cream and gooseberries.
      N ote well that there is not an extraneous, quirky note or idea on any of these dishes. Harmony rules, the thought process of combining sweet-salty-bitter-sour flavors makes perfect senses, and the whole meal is remarkably balanced.
      So few restaurants improve so consistently over the years that simply being as good as ever is a sufficient draw for people of good taste.  But when a restaurant like Tocqueville evolves in a very natural trajectory towards better and better expressions of personality and intensifying of flavors, you have something very special indeed.
Tocqueville is open for lunch Mon.-Sat., for dinner nightly, and for Sunday brunch. Dinner appetizers run $16-$22, main courses $28-$34.


Jean-Claude Vrinat, Master Restaurateur of Paris’s Taillevent, Dies at 71
by John Mariani

       Jean-Claude Vrinat, who maintained the eminence of Paris’s great Taillevent restaurant for 35 years died Monday at the age of 71 of lung cancer, according to his daughter Valerie. Vrinat took over running the restaurant in 1973 from his father André, who opened it in 1946.
      A bastion of haute cuisine, Taillevent was the epitome of French classicism and refinement, and Vrinat was the epitome of Taillevent.  Slender, always impeccably dressed in a dark suit and conservative necktie, Vrinat was the polar opposite of the stereotype of the fat, mustachioed, haughty Parisian maître d’ who treated his clientele according to their social status or wealth.
      The first time I ever dined at Taillevent, in 1985, I certainly had neither, yet Vrinat greeted me with a smile and a subtle nod that suggested, “We are so happy that you have come to dine with us.”  The next time I dined there, two years later, he welcomed me back saying, “It is good to see you again. It’s been a long time.”
      Never a regular customer, I have always approached the prospect of dining at Taillevent as both an event and as a reminder of what is truly meant by the words fine dining. From the moment you enter the well-lighted, spacious dining room with its polished wood, soft linens, silver carving cart, and exquisite tablesettings, Taillevent is as expressive of the grand luxe traditions of Paris gastronomy as it is of the city’s most civilized notions of itself.
       The winelist is one of the greatest in the world, with more than 1,500 labels and 550,000 bottles, yet every table is offered the more user friendly wine card of about 300 selections, many under 35 euros.
     The cuisine at Taillevent has always evolved, under six chefs since 1946, but its has never followed fashion, and the meal I had back in 1985 I might well have had there yesterday: Little cheese-rich puff pastries, a terrine of wild mushrooms, a tender silver mackerel with fresh diced tomato, rosy pink squab with tender buttered cabbage and bacon, lotte in a bath of bouillabaisse, an array of perfectly ripe cheeses, and a chocolate mousse terrine with pistachio sauce.
      And whenever I’ve returned, Monsieur Vrinat has always been there, every lunch, every dinner, every day that Taillevent is open. Indeed, when he’d dine out at colleagues’ restaurants it was only on days Taillevent was closed.  And on those rare instances when he was asked to attend a event, as when he celebrated Taillevent’s 60th birthday two years ago at New York’s Gramercy Tavern, he closed his restaurant and brought his brigade of chefs with him.
      In speaking with Vrinat over the years—and he was always very softspoken—I never saw him drop his professional demeanor, always replying to praise by saying “We shall try to do even better,” always complimenting but never criticizing other restaurateurs or chefs. Commenting on the fads and fancies of movements like la nouvelle cuisine and molecular cuisine, he’d shrug and say, “Taillevent is Taillevent, and we will try to do what we know how to do best.”
      He had certainly seen it all, from the days when gourmets had no idea who was cooking in the kitchen to a time when chefs have become TV stars.  He had also seen wild swings in the world economy and how modern business dining has changed. “For many years French businessmen would come to Taillevent three times on a deal,” he told me a few years ago. “Once, just to talk, the second time to make the deal, and the third to celebrate its completion. And they would drink Champagne, a fine Burgundy, a great Bordeaux, then Cognac.  Now, they come once and may have a glass of wine.”
      Yet Taillevent was always full, even since last year losing one of the three Michelin stars it has had since 1973. People would offer money for a table, and Vrinat would always refuse. Regulars were certainly well taken care of—generations of them--but if you were lucky enough to snag a table at Taillevent, the service would be the same, unless you came with a chip on your shoulder or behaved poorly.  A democracy Taillevent never was, but neither has it ever been less than an expression of a mannerly, genteel style Vrinat maintained for more than 30 years.
     Oddly enough Vrinat never intended to follow in his father’s footsteps, preferring instead a career in the auto industry. But once in the door at Taillevent to help out, in 1962, he became forever wed to the restaurant business, first as sommelier, then as manager, then as owner.
     He later opened a fine wine shop, Les Caves Taillevent, and another in Tokyo (2005), and, with his daughter Valerie, a more casual, second restaurant, L’Angle du Faubourg, in 2001. He is survived by his wife Sabine and his daughter.
     It is difficult to know how Taillevent will fare without Jean-Claude Vrinat, for he was not just the owner but the soul of an institution and a huge part of its allure. Without him there to greet old and new friends, many, like myself, will never feel quite the same old way as when the glass door of the 1852 townhouse swung open and Claude Vrinat was there to make sure everything was the same as it ever was.


According to an article in Newsweek, a California company called Wayne Enterprises is producing Holy Drinking Water, which is blessed in the warehouse by an Anglican or Roman Catholic priest and used as a “daily reminder to be kind to others.” The label warns, "If you are a sinner or evil in nature, this product may cause burning, intense heat, sweating, skin irritations, rashes, itchiness, vomiting bloodshot and watery eyes, pale skin color, and oral irritations." Another company makes Liquid OM that supposedly contains “vibrations that promote a positive outlook,” possessed of an energy field made by striking a giant gong and Tibetan bowls in its vicinity and at the “same frequency of the earth revolving around the sun.”


“You shouldn’t put garbage in your mouth any sooner than you’d go to church wearing crotchless panties.”—Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin, Skinny Bitch In the Kitch (Running Press).



To all public relations people: Owing to the amount of press releases regarding Valentine's Day dinners, I regret that it is impossible to list any but the very special events.

* From Jan/15-20 in NYC, Ralf Kuettel, Executive Chef and Owner of Chelsea’s Trestle on Tenth will be hosting his first annual Swiss Metzgete, which means “a butcher’s affair,” a traditional Swiss celebration of the pig customarily offered at country restaurants throughout Switzerland during the cold winter months. He will served dishes from braised pork belly to homemade bratwurst to liver and blood sausages, for  $24 pp. Call 212-645-5659.

* On Jan. 18 in NYC Dave Wondrich, cocktail expert and author, will share tales and recipes from his latest cocktail book Imbibe! at Astor Center, a new multipurpose wine, spirits and culinary facility in downtown Manhattan. Visit to purchase tickets.

* In Victoria, BC, the Westin Bear Mountain Victoria Golf Resort & Spa announced the first of its International Dining Series,  with Executive Chef Iain Rennie preparing a 4-course meal complemented by wines selection for CAD/USD $89pp. regions incl: Italy, Jan. 16 – 20; France, Jan.  23 – 27; Spain, Jan. 30 – Feb 3; Chile, Feb. 6 – 10;  Portugal, Feb. 13 – 17; USA, Feb. 20 – 24; New Zealand, Feb. 27 – Mar. 2; Canada, March 5 – 9.  Visit or call 1.888.533.BEAR.

* Having cooked dinner at the James Beard House in NYC last fall, Executive Chef Matthew Boland of Radisson Aruba Resort & Casino will now showcase the same 5-course menu items at Sunset Grille with wine pairings at $99 pp. Call (800) 333-3333 or visit or

* Sivory Punta Cana in Punta Cana announces the return of its series of culinary program "Art de Cuisine" through Dec. 19, 2008, geared gourmands and discerning guests at the resort's Tau Restaurant, incl. cooking demos and Chef's Table lunch for up to 10 guests, led by Chef Denis Jaricot, at $40 pp.  At the session's conclusion guests are invited to join Chef Jaricot to enjoy the cuisine paired with wines specially chosen for the meal by the Sommelier Juan Pierre.  For more information and or reservations, contact Sivory Punta Cana (809) 468-0005 or email

* On Feb. 16 The Monterey Wine Auction & Gala will feature over 15 winemakers who will host tables and present their wines at the "Denim & Diamonds" Gala at Carmel Valley Ranch.  Proceeds will benefit college scholarships for the children of local agricultural employees, the American Vineyard Foundation, viticulture research through the University of California's Monterey outreach office, and the non-profit work of the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Foundation. $165 pp. Call  (831) 375-9400 or visit

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 2008