Virtual Gourmet

January 25, 2009                                                                  NEWSLETTER

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In This Issue

The Glory That Is Still French Haute Cuisine by John Mariani


Notes from the Wine Cellar: Santa Barbara Wines by Brian Freedman


The Glory That Is Still French Haute Cuisine
by John Mariani

     There are probably a lot of people right now who would agree with Errol Flynn when he said, "My main problem is reconciling my gross habits with my net income."
  Luxury, as recently as six months ago considered a goal to be worked for, is now considered something of a greedy vice. And there are a lot more people than Bernie Madoff who should be behind bars taking their meals through a slot rather than staying at posh suites in Paris and dining on haute cuisine.
     But for the rest of us who have nothing to feel guilty about and still want to experience the glory that is still very much a factor of luxury in Paris, there are ample ways to achieve it.  Needless to say, the grand châteaux-style hotels have been losing large chunks of business, especially Americans, so they are working on deals both for rooms and for their restaurants, making them all the more attractive. Don't ever accept the posted rate or the first rate you get from the booking agent!
     Last month I dined at three superlative, Michelin-starred hotel restaurants in Paris, and the results were tremendously impressive.  For as much as I adore the smaller, lesser lights of Parisian gastronomy (click here to see last week's newsletter on bistro dining), to put yourself in the hands of a service staff and kitchen designed in every way to make you feel special is still among the great gifts of civilized living.

Restaurant D'Hiver
Le Bristol Hôtel
112 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré

Classic in the Beaux Arts style with flourishes in every square inch, D'Hiver (winter) dining room at  Le Bristol Hôtel is certainly one of the most romantic of venues if you fancy yourself a Louis Jourdan type out of "Gigi."  In the warmer weather you may dine overlooking or  in the hotel gardens at the Restaurant d'Eté (below). D'Hiver is a marvel of polished oak paneling, gilt, crystal, tapestries, and marble; merely entering the room through  tall French doors brings  you into a world where all seems to be brought to a state of evergreen gentility.
     The Bristol property itself dates to 1757 and as a hotel to 1925, and its recent renovation and enlargement has brought an even finer degree of comfort than before, its public rooms gleaming, its interior swimming pool glowing with rising steam. The bar lounge here is one of the most sophisticated in town, as delightful for tea as it is soigné for cocktails.  The welcome is as cordial as any in Paris, by a young staff, from the reception desk to the dining room.
     Chef Eric Fréchon has now been here for nearly a decade, and his cuisine is never less than precise, classic in tone but not in style, which is entirely his own.  I wanted to sample as many things as possible, so, with two friends in tow, and a glass of Dom Pérignon 2000 in hand, I dove in, starting with a wild hare soup with shredded chestnuts and a confit of the meat en civet. A red onion was served carbonara style with a royale of smoked pork fat, black truffles and girolle mushrooms, while macaroni came with more black truffles, artichoke and foie gras and gratin of parmesan--the best mac-and-cheese in Paris. A bottle of Antoine Foucault Saumur Domaine du Collier 2002 accompanied these beginnings.
      If it sounds somehow like I stepped into a restaurant italienne, it is only indicative of how French master chefs have over the last decade embraced Italian pasta as yet another ingredient for their palettes.  Adding foie gras and black truffles makes it immediately French in their eyes.
     We were back on more Gallic terroir with main courses like rouget with roasted eggplant with bright yellow zucchini flowers and the juice of yellow peppers and a touch of argan oil.  Venison, nice and gamy, was scented with juniper and accompanied by cannelloni with black truffles, dried fruits, and sweet potatoes with foie gras in a classic sauce Grand Veneur--a helluva a hefty dish full of complementary flavors and textures.  Rack and crown of lamb came with a puree of cumin-laced chickpeas and candied shoulder confit. With all these countervailing tastes a simple red from the Hautes Côtes de Nuits was wholly appropriate.
     For dessert we enjoyed lichee in a meringue "snow" with rosewater, pepper and citron, and a splendid ending of oozy chocolate cake and crispy tuiles cookies.
he restaurant has a cache of more than 30,000 bottles and a thousand selections. Menus are printed in various languages, and, of course, taxes and service are included in the price of the food. At lunch there is a seasonal 95€ menu, appetizers run 77€ - 80€ and main courses 77€-94€. A  6-course tasting menu runs 210€, tax and service included, not to mention to number of little extras, baskets of breads, and mignardises thrown in at front and end of the meal.

Les Ambassadeurs
Hôtel de Crillon
10 Place de la Concorde

    The lighting at Les Ambassadeurs at the Crillon is some of the best in the City of Lights, for this is a room that, without it, could be funereal in its décor.  But the softness of the lighting, and the way its reflects on the mirrors and surfaces of marble make everyone in the room look their best, and there is plenty of light to allow you to see who is being seated and served.
     I don't often  put myself wholly in the hands of the chef even at haute cuisine venues like Les Ambassadeurs, but since I believe that Chef Jean-François Piège is one of the very finest chefs in Paris, two friends and I just threw up our hands and said, "Serve on." The meal we enjoyed over the next three hours was as creative and wonderful as any I've had--at least since my last meal at Les Ambassadeurs last year.  The beautifully set tables are the same, including the little flag-like presentations of the menus, the Champagne and cheese carts are as welcome to behold as ever, and the service staff, in impeccable English, minister to everyone's preferences, whether it's for a bottle of Romanée-Conti or a Diet Coke.  The pretensions of the past in three-star Parisian restaurants vanished years ago: I was once told back in the 1980s by an owner of a long-gone two-star restaurant, "Monsieur, a restaurant of our stature does not descend to serving. . . chicken!" (What a fool!)
     Piège (who has authored At the Crillon and at Home, now available in English) sent out several amuses that included a shredded carrot salad in lemonade (this was one terrific lemonade); a little cake of chicken livers with a lobster jus; crispy fried bread with cod brandade; and a bonbon of truffle butter in a toasted baguette. Not a bad way to start a meal.
These appetizers were accompanied by a superb François Cotat La Grande Côte Sancerre 2005.
     Next came langoustines done in a croustillantes style and as a Japanese maki roll with golden Iranian caviar, and then blue lobster with crisp slices of  pommes de mer (Irish potatoes grown near the sea) with smoked salt. In contrast to that fellow who refused to serve chicken in his restaurant, Piège (below) happily serves chicken breast from Bresse in a rich cream sauce, with the leg of the chicken, and crispy rice lavished with a benediction of white truffles.  Accompanying the main courses was a Philippe Charlopin Parizot Gevrey Chambertin Bel Air 2003.
     These wonders were followed by various cheese of the moment and then a vacherin with wild strawberries, rose and lichee--not to mention a fantasy array of chocolates, bons bons, candies, and cookies to finish.
      What distinguishes such food from simpler genres of French cuisine is the immaculate care taken with it by a kitchen staff that numbers twenty or more, devoted to serving only about 50 guests per night. You could look for an imperfection in the edge of a macaroon or pause to see if the rice was overcooked by only a second or the brandade was a tad salty, but you won't find such tiny errors in this kind of cooking.  Piège, like Fréchon above and Légendre below, is one of those chefs who stays put in his kitchen night after night, not just as a check on perfection but out of pride for his profession--a dedication many other of their globally-invested colleagues shrug at. I, for one, believe such dedication shows in every dish.                              Le Crillon from the Place de la Concorde
      One off note: Les Ambassadeurs has thrown in the towel on requesting gentlemen to wear even a jacket for dinner.  For while most men in the dining room that night wore jackets and ties, one table of six people, including members of the aging R&B group Kool & the Gang, wore brightly colored sweat suits and sports jerseys.  It was nothing less than a shock seeing them in such a gorgeous room, where most men still are wary enough to dress in a way that pleases their women and fits into the ambiance.
       The average cost of a 4-course à la carte dinner (with cheese and dessert) at Les Ambassadeurs is about 250€; the dinner I described above cost 320€. That's without wine, but with service and tax. It's a great deal of money for a great deal of exquisite food, unique in Paris or anywhere else.

Le Cinq
Four Seasons Georges V
31 Avenue George V
011- 33 (0)- 1 49 52 70 00

     The rehabilitation several years ago of this dowager of a hotel resulted in its becoming the most contemporary of the grand hotels in Paris. Though the neo-classic and 19th century lineaments are all of museum quality, lighting, again, makes all the difference, and the George V positively emanates light in every room, from the sunny (when there's sun in Paris) wide lobby (below) through the hallways and into the dining room Le Cinq. There are flowers everywhere.
    Le Cinq's wine cellar is not only vast but among the best collections of both new and older vintages, in excess of 1,500 selections and 50,000 bottles.  Ask to visit (by elevator) the cellar, once part of an old stone quarry used to build the Arc de Triomphe. In World War II the cellar was walled up to protect its bottles from falling into German hands.
      Last year Chef Eric Briffard, previously at Les Elysees du Vernet and before that at Jamin, replaced Le Cinq's original chef, Philippe Légendre, and has shown a more forward-looking style but one that is still in the very juch in themode of the Hotel's haute cuisine standard.   You taste it--and see it--in beautiful presentations like his langoustines browned with hazelnut and rosemary and served with apples sautéed in salt butter.  Crab is dressed with a cream of "jaune" (yellow wine) and daikon turnips marinated in spiced honey, while
abalone from the Brittany sea takes on Pacific overtures in a hen broth with kabocha-flavored ginger meuniere style.
    There is some ginger also in the main course of suckling pig done teriyaki style with bok choy, and I applaud Briffard's use of lamb shoulder--a lesser cut once unthinkable in an haute cuisine restaurant!--with aromatic spices, the peppery North African  harissa, and dried fruits, all done tagine style.  If you prefer fish, the fillet of wild turbot with wasabi sauce, shellfish, and potatoes with seaweed shows just how daringly spicy he is willing to go. It is this openness to international ingredients and techniques, always based on obtaining the best from the market, is what has transformed Parisian dining in this century without in any way compromising the structure of classic French precision and refined taste.
      Desserts at Le Cinq revert to more traditional French style, for nothing done at the end of a meal in Asia, Africa, or the Middle East can match what the French perfected decades ago.
      Now the bill: Le Cinq is very expensive: Appetizers run 62€-$128€ and main courses 75€-115€.  The simplest way to assess those figures is that you get what you pay for here in sheer elegance, service, and exquisite food.



by John Mariani

     Only a decade ago the look and ambiance of the New York steakhouse--which set the standard for all those now proliferating around the U.S.A.--was almost embarrassingly the same: Yellowed walls with dark wood wainscoting, manly artifacts and caricatures on the walls, and waiters who all wore the same beige jackets, black trousers, white shirts, and black ties. Today, only a few of the oldtimers hold to that look, while newcomers, who usually work without the same menu format as their competitors, have tried hard to distinguish themselves from the New York clones across the street. One of the first to break the old mold is now eight years old, Strip House; a newcomer, Union Prime, takes décor to a colorful new level that is a riot of flowered wallpaper.  Both serve damn good American food.

13 E 12th Street (near Fifth Avenue)

     Penny and Peter Glazier now have seven branches of this very popular steakhouse, but, of course, New York's was the first, the template, the proving grounds.  The racy name Strip House is backed up with a décor of lipstick red walls and show biz photos focused on black-and-white burlesque queens of the '30s, '40s, and '50s. When Strip House opened, no one was sure how such risqué wall hangings would be accepted, unless all the patrons were male.  But the décor that once proved to be a hoot has now acquired a wonderfully nostalgic sense of a vanished era in NYC show biz history. It's really fun to be part of it.
     Any consideration of a NYC steakhouse  begins with the quality of the beef, because over the
years of steakhouse proliferation, USDA Prime--the quality only the best NYC steakhouses once used--has been degraded to the point where what used to be called Top Choice (still a very good grade) is now allowed to be marked Prime.  The rich marbling that once defined Prime is no longer what it was, unless you go to the best NYC steakhouses like Palm, Peter Luger, Smith & Wollensky, and Ben Benson's. I certainly include Strip House in this firmament, for its beef has all the intra-muscular fat and aged mineral flavor that you could want. You won't find that in a lot of the steak chains' lockers, not even in many of the NYC originals' branches.
       That said, I haven't had a better bone-in ribeye in NYC than the one I was served at Strip House--a massive 22-ounce cut for two and a steal at $44--oozing succulence, al dente (if you will) in texture, and as good close to the bone as on the outer rind of trimmed fat. One of the distinguishing marks of Strip House's cooking--and only a few steakhouses take the time to do it--is that they let all their steaks rest for 5-10 minutes before serving, allowing the juices to stabilize.  The technique is in every cookbook, but with volume cooking in steakhouse kitchens, this step is often forgotten. It makes a big difference.
       Strip House also serves New York strip (below), filet mignon, chateaubriand and a 40-ounce porterhouse, along with veal t-bone, Colorado rack of lamb, and lobsters that top out around three pounds.
        Another distinguishing mark of Strip House upon opening was a wider range of appetizers than the three or four most competitors always offer. So, in addition to jumbo shrimp, good meaty crabcake, and Caesar salad, they feature sea scallops with a succotash of edamame beans, black truffle butter and sweet corn broth.  Don't miss the warm garlic bread lavished with a Gorgonzola fondue, one of the Glaziers' signature items in all its restaurants, or the foie gras torchon. Their great addition to side order menus was the potatoes slices fried in goose fat, and the fried onions are addictive and sweet.  Creamed corn with pancetta is another item you won't find easily elsewhere.
       For dessert go with the house cheesecake, not the chocolate cake or brownie, which need work, starting with better chocolate and more butter.
        Strip House has over the years built up a considerable and apt winelist, heavy in reds and chardonnays, though I hope, in this economy, they will bring in more bottles under $50.
         So, you get great beef here.  Then add in the rest of a diverse menu, responsive service, and the sideshow of the décor, and you've got something just enough out of the ordinary to make you want to adopt Strip House as the place you want to take your out-of-town friends to show them what they just can't get out of town, unless there's a branch in that town they came from.
Appetizers run $8-$19, main courses $29-$44. Open for dinner nightly.

9 East 16th Street (near Fifth Avenue)

     These premises used to be Steak Frites (since moved to West Green Village), then an unlamented place called Café Society.  Now, as Union Prime, the interior has taken on a unique look for a steakhouse, via designer Carleton Varney, whose flamboyant use of color and flowery fabrics has decked out everything from Ashford Castle in Ireland and the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan, to The Breakers in Palm Beach and the Greenbrier in West Virginia. He is the president of NYC's Dorothy Draper & Co. Inc., the oldest established interior design firm in the United States, and author of a book entitled Kiss the Hibiscus Good Night.
      None of which seems to have much at all to do with the traditional masculine atmosphere of a New York steakhouse, but Varney has been very careful to modulate his floral posh with the solid panache  of a good shiny steel bar, and sturdy, comfortable banquettes.  Maybe the girlie red bows on the hanging lampshades should go?

       Chef Brady Duhame (below) is a big guy with a generous hand, and he selects the best ingredients he can find, having worked at demanding kitchens like Bouley, Picholine, and Park Avenue Café.  The beef is USDA Prime from good sources, though the "21 Day Dry-Aged Porterhouse for Two" (40-ounces at $66.95) is actually shipped in wet aged, then dry aged further on premises. In any case, it's very good beef and Duhame knows how to cook it right, with a good char on the outside and medium-rare (as ordered) inside. I have been assured that the Australian lamb recently on the menu has now been replaced by first-rate Colorado lamb.
      Here the appetizers roam beyond the predictable, with a yellowfin tuna tartare, a fine fat Maryland crabcake, impeccably fried calamari and artichokes
drizzled with a lemon-fennel aïoli (terrific dish!), and seared beef carpaccio artfully laid on a platter and drizzled with a truffle emulsion. Then there are several offerings of sushi rolls--not unique in steakhouses these days but a pleasing addition. Union Prime's are good in flavor--try the "fire dragon roll"--if a bit mushy in texture the night I tried them. If you like sauces with your steak Union Prime offers Béarnaise, diablo, horseradish (excellent), and green peppercorn at a fair two bucks a shot.
      If you're not in a mood for a good steak, by all means try the swordfish--a species that is so often less than fresh and too often mealy in texture; Union Prime's version is first-rate--a very thick slab impeccably cooked to the juiciest point, the flavor of the sea still there in all its pristine glory, basted with herbs.
Side orders are very good--buttery whipped potatoes, bourbon glazed yams, mashed potatoes studded with lobster meat, and sensationally rich creamed spinach.  The signature item here is "house-made tater tots," but frankly I found them gimmicky, oily, and way too salty.
       I liked most of the desserts, like mascarpone  cheesecake with quince and a moist   devil's food cake with ganache and raspberry fillings, but although it is early in the year, I'm betting the ice cream sandwiches with cinnamon ice cream, whipped cream and raspberry, chocolate, and caramel dipping sauces--like the best Mallomars you've ever had--will be among my five best desserts of 2009.
      The 200-selection winelist is solid, though it, too, tends towards the more expensive bottlings, and the bar prides itself on its unusual cocktails, while making the classics with true acumen.
      Now for the big news at Union Prime: The steaks here are amazingly moderately priced: Most steakhouses in NYC charge $40 and up for their beef, but here the center-cut strip steak is $29.95, the 20-ounce ribeye $34.95, and the 40-ounce porterhouse for two $66.95--prices that barely pay for the meat at wholesale.  I asked Duhame how they could do this, and he explained that, at least for the time being, the owners are willing to make just a dollar or two over cost in these early days of trying to win clientele. Not a bad idea, but clientele gets very ornery when prices get hiked.

Appetizers run $9.50-$14.50, other entrees $17.95-$23.95. Open for lunch Mon.-Fri., Dinner, nightly, Brunch Sat. & Sun.



by Brian Freedman

    It’s tempting to think of the wine world as a firmly codified place. Perhaps no other agricultural industry is as rigidly regulated, in terms of geographical boundaries, planting, and production, as wine. French AOC (Appellation d’Originé Côntrolée) and Italian DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) law, with varying degrees of specificity and restrictiveness, deal with everything from the grapes that may be grown in a specifically demarcated area, to how much fruit can be harvested, minimum alcohol levels, and more.
    But on this side of the pond, for better or worse, there are fewer such nationwide regulations governing the growth of grapes or the production of wine, aside from a few cursory rules. And while this occasionally acts as a detriment to the American wine industry—the meaning of “reserve,” for example, is fuzzy at best—it is also beneficial in terms of discovering new or unexpected areas for the production of certain types of wine.
    Nowhere, perhaps, is this benefit of our dearth of national wine laws more apparent than in California’s Santa Barbara, from which I have recently tasted a number of remarkable, and, in the case of some of them, remarkably unexpected, bottles.  For most California wine lovers, Santa Barbara, and, specifically, Santa Maria, Santa Rita Hills, and Santa Ynez, are havens of chardonnay and pinot noir production. Producers like Au Bon Climat and Bonaccorsi have made their mark on the wine world with stunning bottlings that express these Burgundian grape varieties brilliantly. The film "Sideways," (below) in fact, was essentially a two-hour love letter to Santa Barbara pinot noir—and, I’d argue, justifiably so.
    But to only focus on these grapes, or on the Rhône Valley varieties that also do so well in Santa Barbara, would be to miss out on one of the most exciting revolutions underway in the world of American wine.   For these days, Santa Barbara is finding its inner Bordelais alongside its more Rhône-y and Burgundian tendencies. That’s right: Some of the most exciting cabernet-based wines coming out of California are being produced there. And while the Napa Valley is arguably still the beating heart of American cab production, the quality and relative value of Santa Barbara’s red Bordeaux-varietal wines is remarkable.
    One of the shining stars of this brave new world of Santa Barbara cabernet production is Nick de Luca, winemaker for Star Lane and Dierberg Vineyards. He is the man  responsible for one of the most exciting California reds I’ve tasted in the past year, and the one that opened my eyes to the potential of that grape in that part of the state: The Star Lane Vineyard “Astral” Cabernet Sauvignon 2005.
    The first vintage of this standout wine, the 2005, was released in August 2007 for $51.89 and embodies what de Luca told me was “almost a religious faith type of thing” in the potential of Santa Ynez cab. A barrel sample I tasted was an ink-colored blockbuster with a rich, perfumed nose of wild flowers, sweet berries, and chocolate. It tasted of super-ripe red and black berry fruit, coffee, and cocoa. A bottle of the Astral that I tasted at the winery showed similar characteristics, though with the time it had to settle down a bit, there were added notes of chocolate-coated green bell pepper, testament not only to good work in the winery, but also to smart, judicious vineyard practices, too. You could certainly enjoy it now—though I'd decant it for an hour or so—but it also has the stuffing to last for years in the cellar.
    Star Lane also crafted a winner with their 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, another $50 bottle whose deep well of ripe, sweet fruit embodies everything that wine lovers associate with top-quality modern California cab: Lovely currants, yes, but also freshness, minerality, and cedar added to the mix for both complexity and detail.
    And, as perhaps should be expected from this Santa Barbara producer, their Rhône varieties fared well, too. Dierberg’s 2005 Syrah reminded me of some sort of perfumed beef jerky in its juxtaposition of aromas both primal and pretty, the smoke and mesquite mingling with grilled rosemary and licorice. That same masculinity is reflected in the Dierberg 2005 Pinot Noir, a dense, dark berry-rich wine with beguiling hints of thyme and mushrooms on the palate and a long finish redolent of leather and moist underbrush.
    These days, Santa Barbara is chock-full of great producers who are excelling with a far wider range of grape varieties and styles than the area typically gets credit for. Indeed, as the wine world expands and shifts, smart collectors will remain open-minded when it comes to deciding where their wines come from. Because the old assumptions are not only being challenged, but turned on their heads with every cork that’s popped. Santa Barbara is a great example of this, and a delicious one at that.

Ah, the Koreans were eatin' tasty little pups when
you Scots was still paintin' yer damn faces blue

"Wouldn’t you just know that the world centre of excellence for dog cloning is South Korea. Of course it is. Where else would it be, in a world that patently works as a manga version of Grimm’s fairy tales? Naturally, the Koreans clone dogs. They have two laboratories competing to corner the market in copycat dogs. One is led by Hwang Woo-suk (the h is silent), a disgraced scientist who’s been tried for fraud, the other by his protegé, Lee Byeong-chun, who has, surprise, surprise, also been accused of fraud. It’s plainly obvious that clones breed clones and that fraud breeds fraud and, anyway, what else would cloners be guilty of except duplicity. Apparently, the Roslin Institute in Scotland is pissed off at the Koreans for cloning their patented cloning technology. No. You do sheep. We do dog. Scot person eat disgusting haggis from sheep arse. Korean eat yummy dog. You sod off back to fat-battered Gorbals and take your sporran with you.”—A.A. Gill, “Tendido” Times of London.


A San Diego man named Binh Quang Chau allegedly poaching lobsters was caught with six of them stuffed down his pants.  He allegedly took the lobsters from the La Jolla State Marine Conservation Area, and Department of Fish and Game warden Daryl Simmons says wardens arrested Chau when they noticed "odd bulges" in his pants.


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 very special events.

* On  Jan. 27 Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House in Houston will pair with Paul Hobbs Winery for a wine dinner. Sommelier Jaffer Kovic and Hobbs will introduce guests to 5 wines with Chef Steve Haug’s cuisine.  Call 713-355-2600.  $165 pp. Call  713-355-2600;

* On Jan. 28 in Venice, CA, Piccolo presents its “8a Cena al Contrario Black Truffle Edition” (8th reversal wine dinner). because instead of you choosing first the food and then   the wine, you’ll choose the wine first, and Picciol chef Riberto Ivan will pair it with the food.  For one night a month, guests may  choose and taste three or five glasses of wines, among 30, chosen by sommelier Pietro Biondi. $70 pp for 3 courses; $110 for 5. Call 310-314-3222;

*  From Jan. 28-31 in Beaver Creek, CO, Beaver Creek Resort and Bon Appétit magazine, hold the Bon Appétit Culinary & Wine Focus, incl. “Supreme” Entertainment Live Concert with Mary Wilson of the Supremes; Cooking Classes, Wine and Spirits Seminars; Subaru Snowshoe Excursion and Luncheon; Celebrity Chef Ski Race and Awards Luncheon; Culinary Showcases;  Grand Tasting. Visit or call 888-920-2787.

* From Jan. 30-Feb. 1, The Oregon Truffle Festival features a  Cultivation Seminar, Truffle Growers’ Forum, a Truffle Marketplace, and truffle cooking classes, and  a Grand Truffle Dinner at the Valley River Inn on  Jan. 31,  with 5  of Oregon’s most  celebrated chefs. Visit

* The Grand Del Mar in San Diego has announced its 2009 Culinary Series calendar, which kicks off in February with a “Strickly Stag” Valentine’s Day cooking class for guys. The series features monthly 2-hour sessions led by the team at The Grand Del Mar, incl. Chef William Bradley of Addison and Wine Director Jesse Rodriguez.  Call  858-314-2000. The complete Culinary Series calendar is available at

* Beginning in February in San Francisco, Chez Papa Resto will be offering a monthly changing themed 4-course menu at $50 pp by Chef  David Bazirgan.   Visit or email to

* In NYC Bar Boulud will be holding informal Saturday wine events with a themed selection of 8-10 wines and charcuterie. Feb. 7:  Wines of Maison Remoissenet Pere et Fils  with Pierre Antoine Rovani; Feb. 21: Wines from the Loire Valley with Kurt Eckert; $75 pp. Call 212-595-1313 x152.

* On Feb. 7 Rodney Strong Vineyards presents its 20th Annual Wine & Chocolate Fantasy in Healdsburg, CA, for $40 pp. Radio personality Ziggy the Wine Gal will emcee and Earl Thomas will provide rhythm and blues. Visit

* On Feb. 7, Silver Oak Cellars is holding simultaneous "Release Day" events at its Oakville and Geyserville, CA,  wineries to celebrate both the Grand Opening of its new Oakville winery and the release of the 2004 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, with foods prepared by wine country chefs (incl. Silver Oak chef Dominic Orsini at Oakville), live music, bottle signings, library tastings and plenty of wine.   $30 pp.  Call 800-273-8809 or visit

* In Feb. 9 in New Orleans,  Galatoire’s will hold The 2009 Mardi Gras Auction with a reception featuring Champagne Mandois, sponsored by Partners Wine, and hors d’oeuvres by Chef Brian Landry. Bids at $150 per seat for dining, with proceeds to the Animal Rescue of New Orleans and the International Shrine of St. Jude, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. Call 504-525-2021 or visit

* On Feb. 9 in NYC, in celebration of its 10th Anniversary, Tabla and Executive Chef Floyd Cardoz will host the Third New Indian Dinner to benefit Pratham USA, with a  6-course dinner and reception prepared by a some of NYC’s leading chefs:  Dan Barber, Blue Hill & Blue Hill at Stone Barns;  David Chang, Momofuku ;  Michael Romano, Union Square Cafe ;  Marcus Samuelsson, Aquavit ; Melissa Walnock, Pastry Chef, Tabla . $300 pp and sponsorship packages of up to $15,000 are available for presenters. Call  Caterina Stabile: 646-747-6616;

* On Feb. 13 Waterman Gril in Providence, RI, holds a “French Connection Wine Dinner” with selections from 3 French vineyards paired with Chef Michael Conetta’s 4-course menu.  On hand to lead the tour will be Nicolas Potel of Burgundy, Stéphane Aviron of Potel-Aviron in Beaujolais, and Antoine Vincent from Chateau Fuissé and JJ Vincent in Burgundy. $89 pp. Call 401-521-9229 or visit

* The Willamette Valley Wineries Association (WVWA) joins the Oregon 150 celebration as an official partner to promote 150 Days of Wine in the Willamette Valley, a series of wine events and activities taking place between Feb. 14 and Labor Day weekend in all Agricultural Viticulture Areas (AVA’s). For a listing of the wine events, please visit

* Spruce in San Francisco announces its yearlong winemaker dinner series, one weeknight per month throughout 2009, each to feature a 5-course tasting menu prepared by Chef Mark Sullivan alongside wine pairings selected by that evening’s guest winemaker.  All dinners will range from $100 - $200.   For schedule call 415-931-5100.

* On Feb. 14 & 15, the family wineries of the Madera Wine Trail in California will host “Wine & Chocolate Weekend.” Wine lovers may purchase a $20 Passport Wine Glass at any of the participating wineries both days of the event.  Guests will sample current and newly released vintages and chocolate creations, special food pairings, local art and live music. Call 800-613-0709.

* Winter weeknights at the Inn at Perry Cabin in St. Michael’s, Maryland now feature limited time offers: Guests booking the “Three for Two” package  receive luxury accommodations for 3 nights at the price of 2. Amenities incl. board games delivered to guests’ rooms,  DVD movie and candlelit turndown service with cordials in room and a drawn bubble bath. Fresh cookies each night. Package rates from $630 thru April 2.  Also,  “Dinner & Demo Nights” every Wed. thru March 25, with guests  enjoying a tasting of wine while helping Chef Mark Salter prepare the first course and second and third courses prepared by Chef and served with wine pairings chosen by the Sommelier. $75 pp  or $100 with wine. Overnight accommodations from $190 per night may be added. Call  1-800-957-6127;

NEW FEATURE: I am happy to  report that the Virtual Gourmet is  linking up with four excellent travel sites:

Everett Potter's Travel  Report

I consider this the best and savviest blog of its kind on the  web. Potter is a columnist for USA Weekend, Diversion, Laptop and Luxury  Spa Finder, a contributing editor for Ski and  a frequent contributor to National  Geographic Traveler,  and Elle Decor. "I’ve designed this site is for people who take their  travel seriously," says Potter. "For travelers who want to learn about special  places but don’t necessarily want to pay through the nose for the privilege of  staying there. Because at the end of the day, it’s not so much about five-star  places as five-star experiences."   THIS WEEK:Obama's Kind of Town (No, Not D.C.)

; 10 Resorts for Savvy Skiers

; America's Most Underrated Ski Resort

; The Best Road Trip Books


Eating Las Vegas is the new on-line site for Virtual Gourmet contributor John A. Curtas., who since 1995 has been commenting on the Las Vegas food scene and reviewing restaurants for Nevada Public Radio.  He is also the restaurant critic for KLAS TV, Channel 8 in Las Vegas, and his past reviews can be accessed at Click on the logo below to go directly to his site.


Tennis Resorts OnlineA Critical Guide to the World's Best Tennis Resorts and Tennis Camps, published by ROGER COX, who has spent more than two decades writing about tennis travel, including a 17-year stretch for Tennis magazine. He has also written for Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel, New York Magazine, Travel & Leisure, Esquire, Money, USTA Magazine, Men's Journal, and The Robb Report. He has authored  two books-The World's Best Tennis Vacations (Stephen Greene Press/Viking Penguin, 1990) and The Best Places to  Stay in the Rockies (Houghton Mifflin, 1992 & 1994), and the Melbourne (Australia) chapter to the Wall Street Journal Business Guide to Cities of the Pacific Rim (Fodor's Travel Guides, 1991). THIS WEEK: A Report on The Four Seasons Jackson Hole. Click on the logo below to go to the site.

Family Travel Forum: The Family Travel Forum (FTF), whose motto is "Have Kids, Still Travel!", is dedicated to the ideals, promotion and support of travel with children. Founded by business professionals John Manton and Kyle McCarthy with first class travel industry credentials and global family travel experience, the independent, family-supported FTF will provide its members with honest, unbiased information, informed advice and practical tips; all designed to make traveling a rewarding, healthy, safe, better value and hassle-free experience for adults and children who journey together. Membership in FTF will lead you to new worlds of adventure, fun and learning. Join the movement.

Family Travel Forum

All You Need to Know Before You Go


MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly.  Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani,   John A. Curtas, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Suzanne Wright, and Brian Freedman. 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.

My 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

© copyright John Mariani 2009