Virtual Gourmet

May 17, 2009                                                                 NEWSLETTER

                                                     Arriverderci to Dom Luise



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In This Issue


NEW YORK CORNER: York Grill by John Mariani



                                                                        "Glen Canyon Dam" by Norman Rockwell

The Valley of the Sun, which is centered around Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona, has grown leaps and bounds over the last two decades, and now towns and incorporated sections of the desert northward have acquired not only their share of condos but resorts and excellent restaurants that cater to the locals and to visitors who come here during the cooler months.  Here are some of the best.


10455 E. Pinnacle Peak Parkway
Pinnacle Peak, AZ

     Up in Pinnacle Peak, Arizona, is one of the area's grandest restaurants, spread over 20,000 square feet and several rooms that include a main dining room, a bar, an open kitchen, a library, and wine cellar, not to mention the spacious patio in gracious view of the Sonoran desert and the McDowell Mountains.  The 30-seat Main Dining Room  has a beautiful freestanding limestone fireplace--which the night I visited was lighted, despite the 75 degree temperature outside--dark wood floors and big cozy chairs fit for a commodities baron.Owners Kevin and Sharon Walsh have not spared the expenses to make this a uniquely lovely and impressive desert retreat. Although they could add tablecloths!
     Chef Peter DeRuvo has strong credentials for the job, including stints at the trailblazing Al Forno in Providence, RI, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA, Oliveto in Oakland, and a year of living on a farm in Montecastelli, Italy, where he obviously picked up his love of authentic, homestyle Italian food. Working at a two-star Michelin ristorante, Casalta, in Tuscany, helped him refine his skills, followed by work in France.
     All this experience has resulted in generous, hearty Italian cuisine, which begins with a couple of well-made, crisp pizzas (the Abruzzese with spicy tomato, prosciutto, and mozzarella is terrific) and a platter of various salume, prosciutti, and salsicce, some a little salty.  My favorite pasta of the evening--all housemade--was manicotti with four cheeses, prosciutto, tomato and basil--a classic impeccably wrought--followed closely by spinach pappardelle with a pork ragù, ricotta and parmigiano, and tagliatelle with peas, mushrooms, black better and a dollop of mascarpone mixed in.
     The main courses might be a little simpler in the true Italian style, but I was perfectly delighted with the massive veal chop here with a citrus glaze, mixed greens and herb salad, and a grilled pork chop that is pounded thin like a scaloppine, served with beans and parmigiano.
     For dessert the chocolate cannoli is heavenly and the baba au rhum wonderfully light in texture and deep in flavor.
     The wine options here are to order from the quarter liter section ($12-$20) or from a well-selected list of full bottles with an admirable array of wines under $50; the rest are very fairly priced.
      Unless you live in the area, Sassi is a it of a romp out in Pinnacle Peak, but it is truly the region's best Italian restaurant and by far the most beautiful--even without tablecloths.

Sassi is open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday.each week with a special three-course menu for $35, an antipasti hour in the bar. Pastas run $15-$22 for full portions, main courses $24-$38.

6920 East Cave Creek Road
Cave Creek, AZ
(480) 437-1072

      Chef Kevin Binkley (below) and his wife Amy have carved out a tremendous reputation as one of the Valley of the Sun's finest dining rooms, despite its being way the out in Cave Creek, a good 45 minutes from downtown Phoenix and Scottsdale.  The only way you'll spot it is by the blaring fluorescent lights of a swimming pool store next door, for the five-year-old Binkley's is nothing if not discreet.  Inside it's a cheery place, warm and inviting, and the staff is extremely cordial, if a tad officious--you are not offered bread, you are offered "bread service."
     Indeed, there is much that is precious and sometimes excessive about Binkley's, but the proof of its excellence is in the cooking itself, and at this Mr. Binkley is a master among peers in the Southwest. Ordering à la carte can get very expensive, with entrees running $38-$44, but the tasting menus--four courses for $65, five for  $72 and six for $89--are amazing bargains, and whatever route you go, Binkley's always throws in a good deal of lagniappe in its amuses, intermezzos and finales. Among the amuses the evening I dined, a sip of curry pear soup with Speck powder sparked the appetite, along with black pepper breadsticks with Serrano cream.  Some were odder and so teeny-weeny I asked the waitress if she could spare more than the micro-chip-size taro chip with yogurt powder with an apple cider reduction.
     Once beyond these, there were some stunning dishes, including spring garlic soup with potato "coins," cardoons, and perfect bay scallops; Oregon truffle gnocchi with morels, egg yolk, spring onions, fava beans, and parmesan (I craved many more of these pillowy little gnocchi); and lavender-scented duck breast and rillette, with a crepe, mango, kiwi, snow peas, and mascarpone-rich couscous. Lamb came in an old-fashioned nouvelle cuisine style, with the leg, crispy tongue, pickled ramps, beans, and cauliflower gratin. 
      The dessert course ($12) was wonderfully varied but you sure don't get much more than  small sliver of your choices.  Desserts flourish with ideas like chocolate dipped caramel ice cream, with a pretzel, macadamias, marshmallow's, chocolate's mousse and white chocolate milk bubbles.
     If you've;ve read all this you might raise your eyebrows and say, "No mas!" for everything here is very, very complicated, and you can't always get the point of so many ingredients on one plate.  But Binkley's essential skill in serving dishes that burst with flavor outweigh the daintiness of his productions.  This is some of the most exciting food in the U.S., even if it's also some of the most overwrought.
     The winelist is extensive and very well selected in terms of more unusual labels.  Expensive bottles well above $50 tend to dominate.

     Binkley's is open for dinner Tues.-Sat.;  À la carte appetizers run $14-$19, main courses $38-$48, but see tasting menu options above.

J&G Steakhouse
The Phoenician Resort & Spa
6000 E. Camelback Rd.
480 214-8000

       Anyone who recalls the extravagant decor and tuxedo service of The Phoenician Resort's Mary Elaine's (named after disgraced entrepreneur Charles H. Keating's wife) may not even recognize the sleek, sexy glamorous restaurant that is now J&G Steakhouse, the J&G in question being Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
     The Phoenician is now owned by Starwood Hotels,  whose management realized that the days of effusive, flamboyantly romantic fine dining had been eclipsed by the more casual style now evidenced in the new 314-seat penthouse steakhouse, which opened last December. The colors of the desert have been used throughout,
red, gold, purple and violet, along with brown leather and dark wood, and a  wrap-around bar topped with tempesta onyx.
     I shall not attempt a full-scale assessment of the regular menu, for I was attending a gala dinner one evening, and I only had a chance to sample a few items off Chef Jacques Qualin's set menu that night.  The latter included a terrific tuna tartare--so often nothing but a cliche these days, but here, with spicy radish and ginger marinade, a triumph of fresh, clean flavors to start the meal. Grilled torchon of foie gras and country bread took on some nice southwestern punch via an apple-jalapeño compote, and I could have consumed a dozen of the sweet corn ravioli with basil butter and cherry tomatoes.
     As are most filet mignons, J&G's was bland, not much helped by the accompanying fava beans, garlic, and parmesan, and a ribeye, though flavorful, was cut too thin.  Dessert was a too sweet carrot cake. It is well worth taking a look at the entire menu here through the website to see what else is being offered on a nightly basis.

J&G is open for dinner only. Appetizers run $8-$18, entrees $16-$80 (for a 28-ounce ribeye).

Sushi Roku
W Scottsdale Hotel & Residences
7277 E. Camelback Road

     I don't often write about chain restaurants, especially those in hotels, but a recent visit to Sushi Roku in the W Hotel in Scottsdale impressed me with its sparkle and good food so much that if you are going to the Phoenix/Scottsdale area and feel like good sushi (the best of all is SeeSaw in Phoenix), Sushi Roku, opened last September,  is a good bet. It's owned and run by Innovative Dining Group, which operates 8 restaurants in L.A., including the original Sushi Roku, with yet another in Las Vegas.
     The Scottsdale Sushi Roku is a big place, with 140 seats and 60 more outside, and though pretty empty for lunch, ether weekends pack the locals in, either before or after heading for the bar lounge in the lobby. The dining room has some stunning design elements, not least a curved  ceiling with amber glass pendant lights,  a wall of suspended concrete core spindles, and an elliptical sushi bar. A steel staircase leads  to a second-floor patio next to the pool.
     Go for the sushi but stay for the other items of interest here, not least the popcorn rock shrimp tempura, which you just pop in your mouth and smile over. The yellowtail sashimi would be delicious on its own but the addition of diced chilies and a m miso glaze really adds a bang to the dish that makes me wonder if mere sashimi will ever impress me again. The spicy hamachi is also good on its own but even better with the crunch of crispy rice cakes.  Go for the tuna sampler, which includes toro with truffles and parmesan (very nice idea), bigeye tuna with a shot of wasabi (clean, fresh),  and tuna tataki with grated daikon.  Nothing much to say about a filet mignon wrapped in asparagus.
     The rest of the menu is divided into sections--too many--of tempura, rolls, entrees, soups and noodles, but what I had, on a lazy afternoon, was all done with aplomb,  spark, and not a little wit, too.

Sushi-Roku is open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Sushi combos run $4.40-$20 for 2 to 4 pieces, rolls $6-$16, main courses $16-$30.



YORK grill
1690 York Avenue (near 88th Street)

       New York is full of good restaurants that don't make the foodie gossip columns but exist and flourish very well within their neighborhoods, which is the case of York Grill is the upper east side, called Yorkville.  Once populated with German immigrants and restaurants, the area is now eclectic in its dining sector, and York Grill is one of the friendliest and most handsome dining rooms up there.
     The main dining area, with wooden floors,  curtains, tablecloths, and a wonderful Modigliani-esque mural of  New Yorkers who look somehow somber , opens out onto York Avenue. Lighting is good, tables spaced so conversation is easy, and the service staff couldn;t be friendlier.
       The menu is a straight-forward, lovable American affair, starting with good, gooey onion soup layered with Gruyere cheese. Sweet potato gnocchi, lavished with goat's cheese, "blistered" grape tomatoes and baby arugula, are as good as any I've had in the city, plump, tender, slightly sweet. Crispy spring rolls were nothing special but a nice way to crunch in at the start a meal. And in a city of very good crabcakes, York Grill's version is happily thick, generous, and served with cole slaw, preserved lemons and a whole grain mustard remoulds--very nicely priced at $10.95.
     Moving on to main courses, which are appended by nightly specials, the marinated, then grilled sliced New York sirloin cut was excellent, accompanied by a cremini mushrooms and caramelized onion ragout and served with roasted garlic whipped Yukon gold potatoes and a watercress salad--quite a mouthful to say and eat. The porterhouse of pork i an impressive slab of good pig, glazed with maple and served with acorn and bitternut squash, rutabaga and celery root. If you;'re more in the mood for seafood, I recommend the big sea scallops, nice an sweet with a sauté of oyster mushrooms, roasted cauliflower, braised shallots and diced Yukon gold potatoes drizzled with black truffle sauce.
     Desserts are fairly predictable, the best being a good crème brûlée and "XXXL" chocolate cake. 
The winelist is no great shakes, especially in NYC, but there are good bottlings throughout and the majority are under  $50.
     If York Grill isn't trying to be Yorkville's cutting edge scene, it is certainly a hit among the regulars and neighbors who count on it for solid cooking, generous portions, fair prices, and a hearty welcome by the management here.

York Grill is open nightly for dinner, and on Sunday from 11:30 on.



Having purchased twenty-one La Ciambali espresso machines for $7,500 each, the executive officers of the European Commission (above) in Brussels was criticized for extravagance. The EU defended buying the machines by telling the NY Times that they were “meant as a perk to keep top dignitaries from having to line up in cafés on other floors of the star-shaped Berlaymont Building.”


"The mental decision tree for an intimate evening out doesn't normally flow to a branch labeled Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. There wouldn't be a leaf named Popeye's dangling from it, no stem tagged Cousin's, no root twirled around any link of a chain restaurant in the international terminal." --By Michael Hiller, "Mister G's," Dallas Morning News.


On May 22 in
Charlotte, NC, Harper's Restaurant at Carolina Place Mall invites you to kick off Memorial Day Weekend with a dinner featuring the beers of Samuel Adams.Harper's Chef Dar Amidi will serve a 5-course menu fpr $30 pp. Call 704-541-5255; visit

* New one day walking and cooking tours in Sicily and the Dolomites are now offered by Italian Connection, incl. a Foraging Walk in the Sicilian countryside, a Baroque Walk in the city of Ragusa, Cooking at Home in Sicily, and seasonal Wildflower Walks in the Dolomites and Sicily.  Tours are for as few as two people and not more than eight participants. Starting at $225 pp. for a private two person tour, with discounts for children and larger groups, the tours include select meals; excellent wines; Call 1-800-462-7911 or visit

* From May 23-25 in Portland, Oregon, The 19th annual Memorial Weekend in Wine Country will host 125+ wineries with tasting rooms open to the public. visit at

* On May 28 in Chicago, N9NE Steakhouse and ghostbar is hosting a special after-work charity event to support the Infant Welfare Society’s Associate Board--"Sip, See and Be Seen," a sunset cocktail hour, creative hors d’oeuvres by N9NE Steakhouse Executive Chef Michael Shrader.  $35 in advance, or $40 at the door. Visit http://tinyurl/IWSN9NE. 

* From May 29-31 in Ashland, CA,  “The Science of Wine” will, be held, incl. a screening of “Bottle Shock,” at the historic Varsity theatre, a blind tasting of European and American wines and a buffet dinner on Fri.;   On Sat. a school bus tour with an on-board wine expert and gourmet box lunch; Gala at ScienceWorks Museum with wine tastings, food from some of Ashland’s best restaurants, live music and a wine auction; Sun.: 8 workshops focused on the basics of wine at ScienceWorks Museum. Tix range from $7.50 to $60. Visit

* On May 30 at Bambara in Camridge, MA, Chef Jay Silva celebrates summer with a 4-course burger tasting, paired with  local beers. $35 pp. Call 617-868-4444;

* On May 30, 2009, SAVOR: an American Craft Beer & Food Experience is celebrated by the Brewers Association in Washington DC. Attendees will enjoy craft beers from 65 small, independent and traditional craft brewers who will personally pair their offerings with sweet and savory appetizers.  Educational salons and workshops to interact with some of America's best craft brewers. Where:   National Building Museum. Visit

* On May 30 Appellation St. Helena holds its 5th Annual Ultimate Blind Tasting Event at Flora Springs Winery & Vineyard, featuring 60+ of St. Helena’s best wines and culinary creations from Chef Cindy Pawlcyn of Mustards Grill, Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen and Go Fish. Ticket holders can join in an optional blind tasting contest to win prizes, and every participant will be entered into a drawing to win an Instant Wine Cellar of St. Helena wines valued at over $2,000. Tix $60 pp. Visit; call 707-963-6045.

* On May 30 the 4th Annual Carneros Heritage Fest will be held. at The Donum Estate,  Sonoma County, CA, incl. BBQ and Picnic in the Pasture under the direction of Brandon Guenther, chef/owner, Rocker OysterFeller's Restaurant & Saloon, paired with Carneros Premium and Ultra Premium Wines;  A "ThrowDown" competition will pit Napa v. Sonoma emerging chefs in a lamb cookoff; family entertainment incl. sheepherders, their sheep and border collies, a falconer working three falcons above the vineyards, environmental, wildlife and ecology exhibits; Live Music by Joey Altman and the BackBurner Blues Band. Beneficiary is the Carneros Land Stewardship Foundation. $75 pp; children under 12 free.

* From June 1-15, Dine About Town San Francisco returns with 100+ restaurants offering prix-fixe lunches for $21.95 and/or dinners for $34.95. Call 415-391-2000. 
On May 28 meet Dine About Town featured chefs at a launch party in The Cellar at Macy's Union Square; with a $20 donation to Meals On Wheels, guests will receive 10 "tasting tickets" to sample offerings from select Dine About Town restaurants. Visit

* From June 4-7 in St Helena, CA, the Napa Valley Vintners representing nearly 350 Napa Valley wineries holds its annual fundraiser Auction Napa Valley. Visit to purchase "Classic" full auction packages, the "All American Day Package" or Friday-only tickets.

* On June 6 at  the 5th annual Arts in the Inns Festival in Kennebunkport, ME, a culinary challenge between Florida and Maine, Steve Corry of Portland, ME's Five Fifty-Five and Mark Militello of Florida's The Regent Bal Harbour, will take place. Visit or call 207-423-9387.


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."  To go to his blog click on the logo below: THIS WEEK:


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:

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, Bloomberg News, 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