Virtual Gourmet

March 29,  2009                                                                  NEWSLETTER

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In This Issue


NEW YORK CORNER: Nisi Estiatorio by John Mariani

NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR Peck Has It All in Milan By John Mariani



by John Mariani

As winter slips slowly into spring in most of the U.S., the ski slopes of Colorado are still up and running till the snow finally disappears several weeks from now. In the area around Vail (left), including Avon, Beaver Creek, and Edwards, this is, in fact,  high season, and the resorts are catering, more and more, to an international clientele that has come to expect a good deal more than the usual burgers-and-chili-Caesar salad fare that has so often dominated the restaurant menus out there.
     So, on a trip last month to the area, I was delighted to find that a number of new restaurants have opened whose menus are as well adapted to modern American cuisine as anywhere else, from a range of thin-crusted pizzas and truffled French fires to more game dishes that are appropriate to Rocky Mountain kitchens.

Restaurant Avondale
Westin Riverfront Resort
126 Riverfront Lane, Avon

  Veteran chef/owner Tom
Salamunovich has given the area a singularly modern restaurant with none of the pseudo-Alpine clichés of so many décors around Vail.  You might start at the wide bar or cushy lounge (right) and just stay there for some delicious small plates of good food, like veal meatballs with polenta and beef broth. But the expansive, 140-seat  dining room overlooking the Rockies offers an array of dishes that express modern American gastro-ideology, including a good deal of slow roasting and braising techniques.
      As has become happily commonplace in American restaurants, charcuterie is featured at Avondale, all hand-crafted, and those veal meatballs are terrific too. They use the word "crafted" (what else would it be?) to describe their good, thin-crusted pizza with pepperoni, pancetta, and fennel sausage, and the veal and pork ragù on the strozzapreti pasta is lusty and rich, with grated jack cheese adding a western touch.  Some of the best swordfish I've had in months was the line-caught example at Avondale, with a lentil vinaigrette and caramelized Brussels sprouts.  English-cut pork spareribs, while tender and meaty, came to the table tepid and without much smokiness.  Don't miss the unsuual "blistered" chickpeas with piquillo peppers on the side--I'd like to have this dish again and again. For dessert I favor the butter pecan gelato from a good list of housemade ice creams and sorbets. They also make their own chocolates here, and at $17 they offer "shared desserts," which includes a a fancy s'mores fondue, birthday cake, and chocolates, among other delights. But the list of artisinal international cheeses may well convince you to go that route, with a glass of Port.
      Breakfasts are not only first-rate here but reasonably priced, not least the amazing and amazingly good buttermilk lemon pancakes for five bucks.
       Avondale's winelist is solid, with an admirable collection of half-bottles.  Prices on both wines and food are a bit below what you;ll find in many other area restaurants, which these days is a reason to go here rather than there.

Avondale is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. Appetizers run $9-$21, entrees $19-$47.

Golden Peak Lodge, Vail

Tom Salamunovich also owns Larkspur at the base of Vail Mountain's Golden Peak lift, which makes it a very popular skid-to-a-stop for skiers and snowboarders coming off the slopes, tromping through in their gear and settling down in this very comfortable, broad restaurant for the "Larkburger"--which is even trademarked!--to which may be added a decadent slab of foie gras.  Otherwise there are all sorts of good things to eat--hearty fare for the most part, like the beef and hominy chili, the roasted five-onion soup, and even a chicken pot pie for a starter, full of peas, carrots, onions, and celery.  A lobster-rocket sandwich with bacon and Saratoga chips is a fine alternative to a traditional club sandwich, and I love the idea of tomato soup with "three grilled cheese" sandwich and field greens, which just goes to show that the humblest of American dishes can be vaulted into the wonder zone.  Everything here just refines ski slope cooking so that it is special and more than you expect.
     At dinner chef Armando Navarro serves a luscious roasted pork belly with an apple-sylvetta puree, cipollini onions, and soy-honey glaze, along with items like Colorado lamb two ways, confit of duck leg, and sautéed grouper with pistachio and pesto sage.
     The menu yearns to be palatable for everyone, putting tags next to gluten-free dishes, those that contain nuts, and the pronouncement that their water is "quadruple filtered," with 25 percent of all bottled water sales donated to the foresight blind skier program. Nice touch.
      Larkspur is home to an award-winning 600 label, 7,500 bottle, glassed in wine cellar.

Larkspur is open for lunch and dinner daily. Dinner appetizers run $14.50-$17.50, main courses $27.50-$42.50, with a tasting menu at $85.

Kelly Liken
12 Vail Road, Vail

    Kelly Liken is not brand new (it opened five years ago), but it has developed into perhaps the best, most personalized restaurant in the Valley, whose namesake chef-owner has the exuberance and commitment all good chef-owners need both to survive and thrive, which is why Bon Appetit named her one of the "Next Generation" of leading female chefs in America. Together with
Dining Room Manager Rick Colomitz (right), previously at  Grouse Mountain Grill and Splendido, she is defining the non-corporate, not-resort singularity that is increasingly rare in the region.
     Kelly Liken does not do the "required dishes" of ski resorts,  although she ferrets out the very best seasonal and local ingredients, even if she has to go  as far as Petaluma, California, to obtain the quail that she grills to a pink perfection and adds herbed Israeli couscous and peach preserves with the kick of habanero peppers. The foie gras comes from the Hudson Valley (not much foie gras-raisin' going on in the Rockies), served with wild berries.  There is also e
lk carpaccio with bulgur tabbouleh salad and mustard aïoli, and pan-seared scallops with wild arugula and Champagne vinaigrette, though you can't much taste the truffled-vermouth reduction that sauces it. Very good indeed is the crispy pork belly with a sunchoke puree laced with brown butter and a preserved lemon-celery leaf salad.
       Not without good reason are her potato-crusted trout filets with caramelized B
russels sprout leaves, toasted pecans, and golden raisins listed as a "signature" dish--it is absolutely terrific, choosing a species that is too often flavorless and finding the best examples of them, then adding just enough spice and sweetness to make it all her own. There is also an excellent bison filet, and the Colorado honey-glazed duck breast with “high altitude turnips,” creamy farro barley, crushed grapes, and  a duck demiglace is masterfully done, as is pot-roasted baby chicken with white corn grits, pancetta, pearl onion-parsnip ragoût, and rich chicken reduction. For dessert beg her for the caramel-topped sticky buns she makes in the morning then serves for dinner with toasted pecans and vanilla ice cream.
       There is a very well-selected winelist here, sadly brimming with very expensive wines; there is not much under $50, but you can go with 50 labels by-the-glass, carafe options as a less pricey alternative.  Otherwise you'll find more wines well over $150 than you will under $100. A 2005 Château Lynch-Bages here runs $300, when the bottle in a wineshop goes for  about $50-$60.  Other mark-ups are not so bad, but this is an area Kelly Lichen should re-consider.
      But if you want distinctive cooking and the personal touch, this cheery restaurant, with a very faithful local clientele, would be my first choice in Vail.

Kelly Liken is open for dinner only. Starters range from $14-$18, main courses $35-$2. with a $100 tasting menu available.

8100 Mountainside Grill
Park Hyatt Beaver Creek
50 West Thomas Place, Avon

     Resort dining rooms tend to be large and breezy in Colorado and 8100, which opened in December,  certainly fits the style, especially because of the big long bar facing a big long open kitchen (left) that gives the place its Mountainside Grill name, and chef Reese Hay, takes full advantage of it. Fine, smoky flavors match the fine, smoky aromas from the grill and your appetite will race as soon as yoiu sir down.  He is also dedicated to listing the origins of his ingredients, so you are assured of the best available, from goat's cheese from Colorado to foie gras from Rougie, France, which he serves with apple and licorice root.
     This is true Rocky Mountain cooking, starting with
pan-seared sweetbreads with prosciutto, sage, capers and Delta Blue cheese. A rich-flavored filet mignon (a rare thing) comes with a classic Béarnaise and braised Leeks, while the Colorado lamb chop  takes on sweet caramelized flavors of a shallot confit and stewed beans.
     If not quite so Rocky Mountain in origin, the
seared scallops with butternut squash purée, oven-dried tomatoes, pinenuts, and preserved lemon, is a stellar seafood dish, and he manages to bring out the best in halibut, from the Pike Place seafood market,  by bringing aboard grapes, roasted pinenuts and quinoa risottoI also liked his butternut squash ravioli with sage and pinenuts.  All the side dishes here, from mashed potatoes made with Yukon Gold to sautéed cauliflower  have the fresh taste of ingredients that just arrived at the kitchen door.  The creamed corn with goat;s cheese is really, really addictive.
      I should note, that of all the Vail restaurants I visited, 8100 was easily the best priced for generous portions and largess. It would also rank with the friendliest.

8100 is open for breakfast, lunch , and dinner daily. Dinner appetizers run $11-$14, entrees $24-$38.

Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulf
130 Daybreak Ridge, Beaver Creek

     An offshoot of the original Beverly Hills Spago, this is a handsome, Tony Chi-designed dining space richly done in polished woods and rough stone, open kitchen, and walls hung with stunning black-and-white photos of the Rockies.
     Chef Mark Ferguson  toes the Wolfgang Puck corporate line--certainly the menu reminds me of the style of hearty, stylish cuisine Puck pioneered decades ago in L.A., along with Puck's favorite goulash--and the influences here are clearly Mediterranean, beginning with the well-regarded pizzas, including a good one made with sweet Italian sausage with tomato sauce, roasted eggplant, mushrooms and goat's ricotta.  Tagliatelle with wild mushrooms, garlic, and brown butter made for a fine pasta, though there is a tendency (especially in high altitudes) to overcook pasta. Gnocchi fared better, with tomato, basil, garlic, and Ligurian olive oil.
     For starters I recommend the Tuscan white bean soup with goat's cheese croutons and basil, and the pan-roasted Maryland crabcakes with basil aïoli and marinated tomatoes.
   The winelist has more than 400 selections and a very intensive wine program.  Prices are fair-minded.

Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily.



 NiSi estiatorio
90 Grand Avenue, Englewood, NJ

      Just six miles over the George Washington Bridge ,one of the NYC area's finest and most attractive Greek restaurants has debuted, with excellent food and fine wines, an extremely well-trained staff, and, most of all, the unmistakable and genuine feeling that a very caring, proud family is behind it.  In this case, that is the Mourkakos family, who have partnered with Michael Liristis and Chef John Pilouras to open the two-month old, restaurant Nisi Estiatorio, to immediate applause from the locals who pack it on weekends.  With Greek and Eastern Orthodox Easter coming up in a few weeks, this is an ideal place to celebrate it.
      As soon as you enter, the greeting from very attractive hostesses and Mr. Liristis put you at ease, and then you begin to notice the details of am exceptionally handsome décor spread over three floors and several rooms,
with  sapphire blue wall insets and white marble surfaces counterpointing polished wooden floors. Some tabletops  are inlaid with white stones beneath a glass, made to remind you of the water's edge in Greece (nisi--νησί--means island).  The other tables are admirably clothed in good linens, and the banquettes are very generously proportioned and comfortable.  Framed imprints of whole fish pressed into satin line the walls. The arched ceiling and chandeliers may remind you of  Grand Central Terminal's Great Hall. There is also a glass-walled wine cellar in the main dining room, with mahogany box shelving holding more than 1,200 wines bottles, overseen by former rock musician Sterling Roig, most recently sommelier at Nice Matin and Marseilles in NYC, who stocks about 130 labels, about forty percent of them Greek, all reasonably priced.
   The bar is sophisticated and well-lighted, and downstairs there are private dining rooms for up to 60 people.
   Chef Piliouras, who spent eleven years at the still excellent Molyvos in Manhattan, is an ebullient Greek-American who is never happier than when he obtains the very finest fish in the market that day, which he displays inside the dining room, covered in ice.  It also offers selections for the raw bar of shellfish, if you desire.
    On the other hand, you could make a meal of the mezes  at Nisi, starting off with taramasolata of carp roe with ground almonds, lemon, and olive oil or the roasted chopped eggplant melintzanosalata and some tzatziki of yogurt, cucumbers, and garlic, or have all three as a pikilia sampling.  One of the best appetizers here is ktenia kataifi, a sea scallop (below) wrapped in pastourma (a kind of Greek pastrami) and  (shredded phyllo), sautéed, and dashed with kalamata vinegar, a delectable mix of seafood, saline flavors and crispy texture.Also highly recommended is the manouri cheese crusted with sesame and served with raisins and a pine nut "spoon sweet." The keftedes meatballs (right) are hard to resist.
      The whole fish ("Allow 20 minutes per pound.") is an array of Mediterranean species, cooked in various ways and de-boned (unless otherwise requested). Dover sole (don't be confused by the "Dover" appellation, this is a Mediterranean sole) was slightly overcooked the night I visited, but there is also barbounia, royal dorado, lavraki and others to choose from. The meat dishes are also a good bet, from very juicy, pan-roasted chicken with simple lemon and garlic, accompanied by "three-cheese mashed potatoes."  Greek restaurants must--and proudly--serve lamb, here lamb chops with Greek fried potatoes, a frisée salad, and mint pesto. The side dishes ($8 each) include those Greek fires, and the wonderful greens called horta, dressed with lemon and olive oil. and the big white beans called gigantes.
     You will do well simply to order the rich yogurt here, with quince preserves and chopped walnuts, but they also do a fine baklava of almond and white chocolate, with vanilla ice cream, and a creme brulee scented with Hios mastics.
      Nisi is a restaurant that seems to be bucking the poor economy by doing what restaurants under real professional control have always done--provide a bright, convivial and unusual setting, a very warm welcome, and food that balances the traditional with the new, accompanied by a wine list chosen with care.  It's well worth a jaunt over the George Washington Bridge or from any point in New Jersey, and it would certainly be my first choice to dine at before or after a Giants game; trouble is, I might not want to leave the table, but then I could  sleep through the always boring second and third quarters.

Nisi is open for lunch Mon.-Sat., for dinner nightly. 
Mezes $7-16, Soups & Salads $8-13, Raw Bar priced per piece or pound, whole fish priced per pound from $25, Greek Specialties $21-39.



Peck Has It All in Milan

By John Mariani
Photo by Galina Stepanoff-Dargery

    Let’s say you’re in a taxi easing your way through Milan’s traffic maze and you’re suddenly gripped by a desire to have 50 bottles of Dom Pérignon that evening.
   No problema! You simply whip out your cell phone and call the wine store at Milan’s vast food emporium, Peck (9 Via Spadari).  And while you’re at it, how about 75 bottles of Sassicaia—one of the rarest, most expensive wines from Tuscany? Done!
    That’s exactly what happened not long ago when Peck heard from a Turkish businessman calling from a taxi. It’s the kind of order only somewhat out of the ordinary for Peck, which is used to being asked to deliver extraordinary wines on a moment’s notice and with dispatch. Since Peck is Italy’s largest wine store, such requests are not uncommon.
   With 5,000 selections and 14,000 bottles in the wine store and another 150,000 bottles stored elsewhere, Peck rarely disappoints customers.  There are hundreds of French labels, including every Grand Cru, and 80 different Champagnes, although there’s not much call for California wines.  “Italian wine is the core of Peck’s collection” Peck’s representative Stefano Garibaldi says matter-of-factly, then adds, “and a lot of Champagne.” Which includes 22 Nebuchadnezzars (that’s the equivalent of 20 regular 750 ml bottles in one big bottle) of Cristal. “We have every vintage of Sassicaia,” says Garibaldi, “dating back to the first, in 1968.”By comparison, the largest Italian wine store in the U.S., Italian Wine Merchants in NYC,
stocks about 1,000 selections.
“Peck is an institution and has set the standards of globalization for selling wine,” says Sergio Esposito, managing majority partner of Italian Wine Merchant. “They were the innovators in selling wine over the internet, and their clientele is very international and looking for the rarest of the rare.  Unfortunately for American connoisseurs, it’s illegal to ship wines from Europe to the U.S.”
      With Harrods Food Hall in London and Fauchon in Paris, it is one of Europe’s greatest gastro-extravaganzas. Opened as a grocery in 1883 by a Czech named Franz Peck, it started to grow to its current gargantuan size after the Stoppani brothers bought the place in 1970. In 1982 they opened the wine store, overseen by Mario Stoppani.
      Peck now covers three floors and 3,300 square feet in central Milan, not far from the Duomo On the ground floor is the food store displaying hundreds of cheeses in its “Casa del Formaggio,” scores of fresh and dried pastas, the finest veal and Val di Chiana beef, prepared gourmet foods, dozens of olive oils, a daunting array of prosciutto and salami, and a rotisserie section cooking up suckling pig, baby lamb, and pheasant, with 200 wines offered by the glass.  On the third floor is a charming skylighted tea room with myriad Italian pastries. The wine store is in the cellar, which you reach down a curving staircase lined with gigantic bottles of the world’s greatest vintages. The floor itself is a labyrinth of walkways between cases of wine, all kept in impeccable temperature and humidity conditions.
     Around the corner is the Cracco-Peck restaurant (4 Via Victor Hugo), one of only two in the city with two Michelin stars. The newest enterprise in the mini-empire is Peck Italian Bar (3 Via Cesare Cantù), which has become one of the chic spots in Milan for lunch or an early bite to eat before heading off to La Scala.  Peck also runs 15 food boutiques within the Takashimaya stores in Japan.
     Most of Peck’s wine holdings are listed on their website’s on-line shop, an innovation they started in 1999. Scrolling through, you’ll find just about any Italian wine you could wish for.  Still, in comparing Peck’s prices with retailers both in the U.S. and Italy, I found Peck’s often higher. (Prices in Italy always include tax, however.)
    “Some of Peck’s wines are very rare and priced by supply and demand,” explains Piero Selvaggio, owner of the Italian restaurant Valentino in Santa Monica, CA, which itself stocks 2,000 wine selections and 100,000 bottles. “They have wines even I can’t get—special batches sold only to Peck. Every producer wants to be at Peck.”  Selvaggio also insists that Peck’s uniqueness is not just in being a great wine store: “It is visually beautiful, it has the best conditions for maintaining the wines, and you have all this wonderful food and wine and restaurants under one roof. You go to Milan, you see the Duomo, the Galleria, the Last Supper, and Peck.”
    And if you’re stuck in traffic, you can always order a bottle of good wine while you wait.


Great New Ideas from the Sub-Continent

An Indian Hindu-nationalist group is promoting Hindutva (“Hinduness”) by making a soft drink made from sacred cow urine. The producer, Om Prakash, says he may export the “cow water,” insisting, “Don't worry, it won’t smell like urine and will be tasty too.”


“The Park room is hotel-boring. The nice Polish waitress had her name, Monika, on a badge. That’s in case she forgets it. She can look at her badge.”—Michael Winner, "Park ," Times of London.




* In San Francisco Luce offers a 3-course “power lunch” menu  in under and hour for $20.09, Mon.-Fri. by chef Dominique Crenn.  Call 415-616-6566 or visit

* In Charlotte, NC,  Southpark's Upstream  is now featuring a 3-course dinner for $30 pp. and 'recession-buster' deals  on both oysters and sushi from 4 pm-7pm daily. Call 704-556-7730.

* In Chicago, 
 Chef-Proprietor J. Joho of Everest is encouraging wine lovers to choose their one, most favorite prized bottle for "Cellar Celebration," and bring them to Everest for a perfectly paired course. As part of the dining experience, wine director David Johnston will present guests with the unique history surrounding their wine. All wines must be 21 years old or older. There is no wine service fee. Call 312-663-8920.

* From April 14-18 the St. Croix Food  Wine Experience will be held and Hotel Caravelle is offering a "Caribbean Spice  Everything Nice Package" incl. 2 tix to every event of the week incl. dinner at Government House prepared by Chef Kevin Rathbun, 4 wine seminars, tix to A Taste of St. Croix, and more, for $4,749 for 5 nights accommodations. Visit or call 800-524-0410.


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." 


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).  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