Virtual Gourmet

November 1,  2009                                                                 NEWSLETTER

                                             Visualized Distance to the nearest McDonald's in the USA


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In This Issue


NEW YORK CORNER: Le Château by John Mariani

NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR: NY's Four Seasons Reprises Historic California Barrel Tasting
by John Mariani



by John Mariani

     Austin has had for a while now an edge on both Dallas and Houston for its music scene, thanks to the long-running TV show "Austin City Limits" and to a throbbing nightlife--this is a college town--along Sixth Street.  It's also the state capital and home to Dell Computers. So there's a lot of money around to spend on good food and entertainment.
    And it's now got a small burgeoning section known as Second Street District (though it lops over onto other streets) near City Hall with a slew of  new galleries and boutiques, including the Mercury Design StudioLigne Roset Boutique for modern furniture, and Eliza Page Jewelry and Accessories--all first rate in their style and pretty well priced as well.  There are also 18 places to eat in the District.
      But all over Austin a lot of good restaurants and eateries abound, giving the city bragging rights.  Here are some of the most interesting right now. (For my last Virtual Gourmet report on Austin dining, click here.)


1400 South Congress

Austin-born owner Lawrence McGuire, 26, set out to do nothing more or less than to open a good-sized, extremely amiable, brightly colored Gulf Coast-style seafood restaurant where everything on the menu is done with such care and panache that it seems a statement about the whole idea of what is simple, wholesome goodness in American cooking.  It couldn't be less pretentious or more colorful, and those colors are happy yellows and blues inside, with a big, gregarious patio outside.

      You expect a cold and raw bar here, and Perla's is set up within eye distance of the dining room just to make your appetite rise. The best item there is the spicy peel-and-eat shrimp and escabeche.  I also liked the New Orleans style BBQ with grilled ciabatta bread;  jumbo lump crab Louie, with cornmeal fried green tomatoes, and Russian dressing was the kind of throwback dish that needs a revival as good as Perla's.
     You can then move on to the grilled or roasted fish--halibut, loup de mer, Gulf grouper, and others, served with your choice of three sauces and an herb salad--none of them above $26 (except lobster tails). Deep and delicious is Perla's Texas-style bouillabaisse with a garlicky saffron rouille and grilled bread with which to sop it all up.  Griddle-seared striped bass had the sweetness of figs joined with caramelized endive and arugula.  The "starches" on the menu deserve attention, too, from the macaroni and cheese to the grits laced with lobster stock, cheddar cheese, and green onion grits.
     It's easy enough to see this is easy-to-love food, and that goes for the desserts like fried apple pies with sharp Cheddar cheese, caramel ice cream and a Calvados crème anglaise that would make any patîssiere proud, so you might want to go whole hog with the lavish sundae full of so many ingredients I haven't the stamina to list them all. Ask for extra spoons.
     So, Perla's hits just the right note and does it with finesse and a good-natured hospitality. Oh yeah, and McGuire's choice of music is terrific, too.
Perla's is open for lunch Mon.-Fri., Brunch Sat. & Sun., Dinner nightly. Dinner appetizers run $8-$14, main courses $22-$35.

AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center

1900 University Avenue

    True, this seems an odd place for a fine dining experience, not least because it isn't in the least fussy, but just plain handsome. But the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center has the good sense to work as an economical hotel and restaurant open to the public, along with the stellar talents of Chef Josh Watkins (right), formerly of the Driskill Grill in Austin, who has proven himself the most exciting young chef in the region, working a menu of tastes and textures in novel but well-balanced ways, always with a personal touch. He is also an advocate of the Sous-vide pre-cooking process that vacuum packs the food until ready to warm and serve--which sounds odd for a professional kitchen but which in fact can yield superlative, succulent results.
     Already one of the dishes he's become known for is pork belly with a hot diablo glaze, Asian pear, and fried mint--that last, a wonderful little touch that makes a very good dish great.  The simplicity of a baby iceberg lettuce salad with smoked bacon and Maytag bleu cheese gave evidence that those lowly greens can have wonderful flavor, and Watkins' way with braised beef short ribs with an apricot glaze, celery root puree, and black pepper gastrique, balances the classic with the downhome.  I can't say the same for his ides of poaching an 8-ounce filet of beef in olive oil, which did nothing for the main ingredient, helped only by the addition of a peppercorn demi-glace.
     The chicory chocolate crunch bar is the dessert you don't want to miss.
    There is also on premises a casual eatery and bar called Gabriel's Cafe that does very good small plates, including a first-rate flatbread -style pizza.
     So you can sleep at the Center, have three square a day at a good price, and bring your friends over for fine food of a kind not widely found elsewhere in the city.

Open daily for breakfast, Mon.-Fri. for lunch, and Wed.-Sat. for dinner. Dinner appetizers run $8-$10, entrees $22-$30.

400-A W. Second

La Condesa is named after a burgeoning section of Mexico City popular with young people who hang at the bars and new restaurants till late at night, and this Austin nightclub/resto is trying hard to be the same kind of place. Looks like it's working: the night I visited, the bar (stocking 80 tequilas) was jammed and the dining room thronged with people ordering colorful cocktails with odd names, and plates upon plates of modern Mexican food.
      The multi-level building allows for all that and more, with décor of concrete and glass throughout and a great-looking mural (below). There is also a subterranean room, once  a vault of the 19th century J.P. Schneider general store.      As you might expect, the music is blasting--actually all you can here is the bass and drums--making conversation tough in the main dining room. For all this, La Condesa needs to consider which crowd--drinking or eating--it most wants to appeal to, because Chef René Ortiz, a San Antonio guy with kitchen experience at db Bistro Moderne and  Mix in NYC, has a real touch with this kind of food, but turning so much of it out at such a pace works against the total enjoyment of it. Drinks and wine came out at one time, food another, some hot, some cold, we had to ask for plates and silverware, and so on, just because the success of the place is overwhelming for the staff.
     But dig in and order up a storm--crispy huaraches de hongos y huitlacoche full of mushrooms and Oaxaca cheese; an array of taquitos, like tapas, including, if you're up for it, fried grasshoppers with guacamole and salsa; a selection of ceviches.  If you are still game for more, there are some fine main courses here, including guava-glazed, seared pork riblets with fried plantains; lamb shoulder baked in a maguey leaf with cactus salad on the side.
     La Condesa is an attractive place, but its appeal seems to be more for the loud social vibe than for a nice dinner out. That considered, you'll eat well, but you might want to bring earplugs.

La Condesa is open daily for lunch and dinner.



by John Mariani

Le Château
Route 35 (near Route 123)
South Salem, NY

    Le Château just makes the cut as a "New York" restaurant, because if you miss it by a country mile on Route 35, you'll be in Connecticut.
    And Le Château is a place you don't want to miss if you are: 1) enamored of a style of grand French cuisine and service rare anywhere these days, 2) fascinated by grand old historic architecture in impeccable shape, or 3) simply meandering through the beautiful northeast territory of Westchester County this fall and get hungry. Like some auberge in Provence, Le Château is both a destination and a charming surprise for newcomers, as if Hansel and Gretel stumbled on an extravagant mansion in the woods instead of a cottage.
The mansion's pedigree is impressive: Built in 1907 by J. Pierpont Morgan by architects Atterbury & Atterbury as a home for the rector of Manhattan's St. George's Episcopal Church, the Tudor-style house was called Savin Rock. It sprawls over the 32 acres of rolling, landscaped hills, and within are majestic expanses of oak, cherry, and chestnut woods, a grand staircase, plenty of stone fireplaces, coffered ceilings, and beautifully designed windows looking out over thick green lawns that have seen thousands of weddings take place since the mansion became a restaurant in 1973, opened by Yves Lozach; it is now in the hands of the same family, Monique Jaffre Lozach, who has maintained (at great cost) this huge enterprise.  Perhaps the only compromise to the original architecture is the obtrusive soundproof ceiling in the main dining room, which look very much out of place. (As do many men who arrive in shirtsleeves, sitting with their wives and girlfriends who have happily dressed up so nicely or the evening.)
       The service, by veteran captains and sommeliers in tuxedos and a staff that reminds you what the word gentility means, moves deftly through the large public rooms, carving, filleting, saucing, dressing, decanting, and making pretty all that you eat and drink here.  Tablesettings, from linens to glassware, are first-rate. Chef André Molle has brought the once-dated menu into more modern focus without losing respect for the classic refinement that underpins all fine cuisine.  There is nothing on the menu that would raise the eyebrows of anyone who dined here 30 years ago, and there are still highly traditional dishes here like French onion soup, sails with garlic butter, and Grand Marnier soufflé.
      On a recent autumn evening, we sat down to "Les Préambles Froids et Chauds" like excellent duck foie gras terrine with a sprightly ginger-onion confit. Warm duck salad on mesclun greens with a mustard balsamic vinaigrette was perfectly rendered, the meat, acids, sweets, and hot flavors all sumptuously balanced.  A special of the night, a bland warm tomato bisque, reminded me that we're tomato season is sadly over. My favorite starter was  large, tender raviolo stuffed with vegetables, scented with thyme and splashed with a celery broth--a very very good and subtle dish.
       Roast rack of lamb, cooked medium-rare as ordered, was crusted with mustard and herbs in a thyme jus, as classic a dish as they come and not,
as so often happens, overpowered by the herb crust. A fat pork chop, succulent throughout, was a big hit at our table, and we thoroughly enjoyed a crisply roasted breast and braised leg of duck done, not as you might expect with the clichés of orange or cherry sauce, but with a honey-preserved lemon sauce. Our only disappointment was an overcooked striped bass of questionable freshness, in a light Champagne sauce.
      Desserts, by patîssier Remy Deyglun, stay within the traditional forms, including those multi-flavored soufflés (left), and a fine crème brûlée.
      Le Château's winelist has been building for a long time, so there are some treasures in the cellar, including most of the Premier Crus, along with a judicious selection of California and international bottlings, most at reasonable mark-ups, including some selections at $35. The Château
Mouton Rothschild 
1998 here runs $550, which would be tough to find for under $350 in a winestore.  And the price for a three-course meal here--$42 and $46--is really quite amazing.
      That places like Le Château are great rarities these days is obvious, but to  find out that an  established retreat like this, whose beauty is attraction enough for banquets and weddings, also puts such sincere effort into its nightly menus and service is something uniquely satisfying.

Le Château is open for dinner Tues.-Sun., for brunch on Sun. Prix fixe dinner available at $42 or $46 on Fri. & Sat. À la carte, appetizers run $7.50-$17, main courses $29-$35.


by John Mariani

NYC’s Four Seasons Restaurant Brings Back Historic California Barrel Tasting Dinner

    Last week New York’s Four Seasons restaurant reprised a legendary dinner called the California Barrel Tasting in its stunning Pool Room (right). When the first one was held in 1976, California wines had scant presence in fine dining restaurants, especially in New York, where French wines dominated winelists. After that night, nothing would ever be the same.
     "We decided to bring back the Tasting dinners because everyone is still talking about them,” says Julian Niccolini, managing partner with Alex von Bidder of the restaurant. “Every time a young reporter begins to investigate the history of the American wine industry, I get a call. It just made sense that in 2009, when The Four Seasons is celebrating its own 50th anniversary, that we revisit one of its most important events and a watershed moment for American wine."
      The first California Barrel Tasting was conceived by the restaurant’s former owners Paul Kovi and Tom Margittai. Earlier that year in Paris, a few California wines beat out prestigious French bottlings at a famously eye-opening blind tasting. When Kovi and Margittai announced the idea, California winemakers were delirious at the prospect of showing how far their wines had developed from decades of jug wine plonk. As Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Vineyard in Napa Valley put it at the time, “It was the first time we were taken seriously outside of California. It was a gesture that gave us all enormous confidence, and I think sometimes that our maturity as wine makers grew out of that first acceptance in New York.”
      Margittai and Kovi (below) worried they could never fill 230 seats at $85 for such an odd event, but reservations piled up, including wineloving celebrities like Danny Kaye, Burgess Meredith, and a woozy David Susskind, who sloshed 8 wines together in one huge goblet and drank it all down.
      So successful was the first dinner that it became an annual tradition and grew in size and prestige, with 2,000 requests for seats. As a result, Kovi and Margittai “were making enemies” among those who couldn’t get a seat; worse, the dinner never made any money, and the dinners ceased in 1986.
      This year’s gala had 210 guests, starting off with a tasting of the barrel samples, followed by dinner prepared by The Four Seasons’ brand new chef, Fabio Trabocchi.
      The attending winemakers were Chuck Wagner of Caymus, Belle Glos, and Mer Soleil; Boots Brounstein of Diamond Creek; Larry Maguire of Far Niente, Dolce, and Nickel & Nickel; Lily Berlin of El Molino; Cheryl Emmolo of Emmolo; Bruce Mooers of EnRoute; and Comanche Weaver of Schramsberg, with 21 wines tasted.
        Von Bidder and Niccolini (below) sent first invitations to the restaurant's regulars, along with a few media, including myself (who co-authored with von Bidder The Four Seasons: A History of America's Premier Restaurant (1999). By the time I arrived at 7:10 PM, the upper room above the Pool was completely packed with people sipping Champagne and tasting the 2008 barrel samples, which were intense and wholly out of balance but promised it would be a bold vintage. We then proceeded downstairs for dinner, with many tables graced with the pleasure of having one of the California winemakers seated. At mine was Chuck Wagner of Caymus, who had been at the first dinner,  and other vineyards. I asked him about how wines sales were going in the face of the recession. Wagner said  he had to drop the price of his renowned Special Selection from $159 to $99 before business picked up again.
     "But I think the guilt feelings about spending a lot of money on a bottle of wine are fading," he said, "and people are going out and buying great California wines at Costco now." Larry Maguire, who had also been at the 1976 event and told the crowd, "Ironically it¹s become a lot more difficult dealing with the state liquor laws now than 30 years ago to allow barrel samples to be shipped to other states."
      Overall, it was a fairly sedate evening,  with a majority of women guests who seemed to keep the old rowdiness of the earlier dinners down to a minimum. And nobody fell or jumped into the pool, an occurrence not all that unusual at The Four Seasons.


Nova Scotia Lobster Salad, Red Pepper Coulis
2008 Sauvignon Blanc, Emmolo, Napa Valley

Risotto, Diver Scallops, Parsley Froth
2008 Chardonnay, Forman Vineyards, Napa Valley
2007 Chardonnay, El Molino, Rutherford, Napa Valley
2007 Chardonnay, Far Niente Estate Bottled, Napa Valley

Roasted Arctic Char, Porcini Mushrooms, Pinot Noir Sauce
2007 Pinot Noir Belle Glos, Las Alturas Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands
2007 Pinot Noir EnRoute, Russian River Valley, “Les Pommiers”
2006 Pinot Noir, El Molino, Rutherford, Napa Valley

Filet of Bison, Foie Gras, Black Truffle
2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Caymus Vineyards, Special Selection, Napa Valley
2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, Forman Vineyards, Napa Valley
2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Far Niente Estate Bottled, Napa Valley, Oakville
2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Nickel & Nickel Sullenger Vineyard, Napa Valley, Oakville
2004 Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Creek Vineyards, Volcanic Hill

Pear and Fig Tart Tatin
2005 Dolce, Far Niente,   Napa Valley

John Mariani's weekly wine column appears in Bloomberg Muse News, from which this story was adapted. Bloomberg News covers Culture from art, books, and theater to wine, travel, and food on a daily basis.



"New Yorkers’ water-cooler chitchat has changed. They used to talk about sex and politics and TV shows. Now they can’t stop yapping about what they’re shoving down their pie holes.We see it in the meticulous record-keeping of eating habits on personal blogs. The ubiquitous Facebook updates and tweets about subscribers’ most recent meals. (Surely you also have those five or so friends whose feeds are 90 percent food-consumption-related?) The requisite iPhone pic before a certain kind of diner—let’s call him a foodiot—ravages his plate."--Joe Pompeo, "The Foodiots," New York Observer (9/22/09).


In an interview in the October 2009 issue of Allure Magazine, Paula Deen revealed her beauty secrets, excerpts here:

Allure: I understand you're a big fan of false lashes.

Deen: Oh honey, you better bet. I wouldn't take out the trash without 'em.
Allure: Any mishaps with them?
Deen: I stuck my head in a hot oven once while cooking and they burned down to nothing. You have to be careful with the heat.
Allure:Your skin is gorgeous - how do you take care of it?

Deen: I've been so mean to my skin, going to bed with makeup on - you just don't want to wake yourself up splashing all that water in your face. But lately I've changed my evil ways. I'm using some wonderful creams. My favorite is the one with the two C's - Chanel. My makeup artist said, 'You know, Paula, that cream is $350.'
Allure: And what did you think of that?

Deen: I thought, Holy crap. But it just makes your skin feel so good. Still, the thing that has helped my skin more than anything is being in my kitchen, constantly looking down into deep, hot pots. The steam and heat keep my pores clean.



Guidelines for submissions:  QUICK BYTES publishes only events, special dinners, etc, open to the public, not restaurant openings or personnel changes.  When submitting please send the most pertinent info, incl. tel # and site, in one short paragraph as simple e-mail text, WITH DATE LISTED FIRST, as below.  Thanks.  John Mariani

IMPORTANT NOTE: Owing to the number or Thanksgiving announcements received, QUICK BYTES cannot publish any but a handful of the most unusual.

* In NYC, Chef Terrance Brennan introduced new menus at Bar Artisanal in Tribeca.  In addition to the a la carte menu, Bar Artisanal continues its  2 lunch prix fixes  (2-courses for $21, 3-courses for $25), a 3-course dinner for $35, and for brunch, a $25 menu.   Call 212-925-1600.

* On Nov. 6 SpringHouse  in Alexander City, AL, is hosting a wine dinner with winemaker Michael Honig of Honig Wines and guest chef Chris Hastings of the Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, with a menu from Chris and Idie Hastings’ cookbook, The Hot and Hot Fish Club Cookbook. $75 per person and autographed cookbooks are $35. Call Michelle at 256-215-7080 or visit

* On Nov. 9, California's Opus One, comes east to Trummer's On Main in Clifton, Virginia. Limited to 20 seats, this vertical wine tasting features Opus One vintagesand a 4-course dinner by Executive Chef Clayton Miller. Lead by Sommelier Tyler Packwood. $350 pp. Call 703-266-1623.

* On Nov. 11, two Michelin-starred chefs, Dominique Crenn of Luce restaurant at the InterContinental San Francisco and Donatella Zampoli from the wine estates of Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi will  create a 6-course dinner inspired by Tuscany in an evening to benefit  the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture.   $75 pp, with wine pairings  an additional $30.  Call 415-616-6566.

* On Nov 12-14, in Grand Rapids, MI, the 2nd Annual Grand Rapids International Wine & Food Festival returns to the Steelcase ballroom inside DeVos Place.  Over 100 wineries from around the world will provide samples of as many as 1,000 assorted wines.  Chefs from 10 of the area’s top restaurants will serve samples of their culinary specialties, along with four special Pairing menus. Gourmet specialty items and high-end accessories will also be available in the new Riverfront Marketplace. $15 pp., with 50 cent tasting tickets. Visit or 800-328-6550.

* On Nov. 13 in NYC, former Fiamma Pasta Chef de Partie Jessica Botta at The French Culinary Institute, will share techniques for mixing, kneading and rolling pasta dough. and round out their education by preparing seasonal fillings and sauces.  $195 pp.; visit

* On Nov.  13-15 in Monterey, CA, the Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association presents The Annual Great Wine Escape, celebrating Monterey County’s world-class wines and gastronomic delights crafted by nationally recognized chefs during a weekend of extraordinary events, with 50+ wineries showcase their wines.Ticket prices begin at $40. Packages, including accommodations, are available.  Call 831-375-9400;

* On Nov. 14 in NYC, Alto welcomes winemaker Raffaella Bologna of Braida in Piedmont.  Several Braida wines, including 3 vintages of  Bricco dell' Uccelone Barbera,  will be served during a 7-course tasting menu.  $185.  Email for information.

* On Nov. 15 in Dallas, Aurora  will offer their monthly Sunday brunchwith 3 courses for $65 pp. Call 214-528-9400 or e-mail


NEW FEATURE: I am happy to  report that the Virtual Gourmet is  linking up with five excellent travel and food 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: Smart Deals on The Sancturay Hotel, NYC; Europe's Best Bookshops; Interview with Jim Dossett of; Deals in Travel to Austria; Mandalas:Mirrors of the Cosmos; Drive to Your Cruise Ship.


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: NEW ENGLAND TENNIS HOLIDAYS OUT AT ESSEX.

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

nickonwine: An engaging, interactive wine column by Nick Passmore, Artisanal Editor, Four Seasons Magazine; Wine Columnist,;;


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