Virtual Gourmet

  December 11,  2011                                                                                               NEWSLETTER

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Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds sing "White Christmas: in the movie "Holiday Inn" (1942)



by John Mariani

by John Mariani

by John Mariani


by John Mariani

Bette Davis and Director William Wyler (1938)

    The doldrums of dining out in L.A. have finally ended after a decade when no one could come up with the Next Big Thing. So instead chefs went back to cooking well and Los Angelenos seem to have sighed in relief, content to eat fine food in casual spaces and to spot a few celebs now and then. (The Michelin Guide ceased publication of its L.A. guide after one year because, its then-director sniffed, Los Angelenos don’t really care about the food, only the sightings.)

   The city is still heavy with sushi and Mexican, but, as it has for the past five years, Italian rules, especially after the success of Nancy Silverton and Mario Batali’s Mozza. French cuisine is on life support, modernist cuisine has made no headway, and Wolfgang Puck has opened yet another restaurant, this time in the $100 million rehab of the Hotel Bel-Air, with the name. . . .(drum roll). . . Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel-Air.  Here are some of new places that have put L.A. right again.




Mr. C Restaurant

Mr. C Hotel

1224 Beverwill Drive


         If you wander into Mr. C. Restaurant from the entry way to the chic new Mr. C Hotel (the first in what the Cipriani family hopes will be a worldwide deluxe chain), you may do a Hollywood double take—doing!—when you wonder if you’re on a set for a movie about Harry’s Bar in Venice, maybe with Helena Bonham Carter or Kate Blanchett.  

    Though larger than the original, which opened in the 1930s and was Hemingway’s favorite haunt in the 1950s, it looks almost exactly the same, right down to the wall clock, the polished mahogany bar, the tablesettings, the low tables, the color of the linens, glassware, waiters' jackets, and the menu.  The crowd is considerably more Tinseltown than Venice, but then the original Harry's Bar was never without a few show biz celebs.

         It’s really quite a trick of trompe l’oeil, and when you begin with a bellini and plate of carpaccio, you’ll know this is no mere facsimile. Mr. C.’s food comes pretty damn close to what you’ll get at Harry’s Bar (a name the Ciprianis have never replicated, though others, shamelessly have).  The prices are actually a bit less than in Venice.

    Here are the Cipriani classics: baked tagliolini with ham; ; scampi al curry; pasticcio di tagliardi verdi alla bolognese; and those wonderful, silly meringue desserts.  Prices are a tad lower than in Venice, with full portions of pasta around $26, easy enough to share with a friend.

       The hotel itself has a bright newness about it, its 138  spacious rooms done up with big black-and-white photos of Italian movie stars.  Downstairs there is a soigné bar and lounge, outside of which is a crew of parking attendants who, when I stayed there, were much in need of direction.  The fact that the hotel is off the beaten track, on a curiously named street--Beverwill--gives its rooms a welcome quietude, and coming down to breakfast at that splendid repro of Harry's Bar makes a stay here an almost nostalgic moment.  The fact that it offers the luxury of L.A. hotels like the Four Seasons and Hermitage at somewhat lower rates means it's in tune with the times.




7360 Beverly Boulevard



Esquire named John Sedlar “Chef of the Year 2011” for a body of work that goes back to the 1980s, when he introduced a refined style of Cal-Mexican cuisine in L.A. He was born in Santa Fe and always tried to marry Mexican and South American food with a Southern California swagger, first at Bikini in L.A. in 1991, then Abiquiu in 1994—both representing the early-on cutting edge of Neo-Latino cuisine.  After the devastating earthquake in the city, Sedlar left the restaurant business to open a food company, returning to the business two years ago with high-style Rivera downtown, because, he says, “My chef friends were having a lot more fun than I was.”

         Now, this year, he has opened the more casual Playa, where he works around “reflexiones”—windows into memories—thematic dishes that subtly reflect his favorite chefs or movies (“A Clockwork Orange” [right] was a theme this summer), all drawn from decades of visits to Mexico, South America and Spain, which gave him the taste and experience to write authoritative books like Modern Southwest Cuisine and to host a video named Tamale Madness.

         So, go to Playa with some friends and order a mess of tortillas he calls “maize cakes,” one made with wild mushrooms, black garlic, olives crushed to look like soil, L’Explorateur cheese, and a mushrooms foam; another is a wrap of burrata cheese with salsa verde, arugula, amaranth, and Sal de Colima sea salt.  Try to assess the delicacy of a dish like his fresh corn custard with Cotija cheese, black quinoa and squash blossom sauce, and learn how he builds such wonderful flavors into piquillos relleños with Gruyère, golden raisins, and chorizo. None of it will cost you very much either.



Roosevelt Hotel
7000 Hollywood Boulevard

323- 933-5300

    The restoration of the historic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel demanded a great deal of tact and respect for the place’s lineaments, and the owners did a bang-up job, retaining the shadowy Old Hollywood interiors—even adding a beautiful new bowling alley upstairs that looks very old—and making Public Kitchen & Bar into the kind of place those entertainers who have stars and footprints across the street at Grauman’s Chinese Theater would repair for drinks and food after a movie opening.

    Public K&C has some of the best-looking staff in the city, and Chef Tim Goodell wants to please everyone; portions are big, and the crowd comes for a good time.  The burger is as good as are the steaks and chops and the pork schnitzel, but the apps like squash blossom with three cheeses; chicken liver terrine with fruit marmalade; and the Neapolitan meatballs are going to hard to resist.  The motto here is “EVERYTHING TASTES BETTER WITH AN EGG ON IT.”


block tables, 1960's library chairs,




9575 West Pico Boulevard



Sotto” means “below” and you have to go down a few steps, across from the 20th Century Fox lot, and enter into a rustic trattoria whose hostess—Nicole—may look familiar: she was a winner on “America’s Top Model” a season or two ago.  Congenial G-M Gina Pepito is very easy on the eyes too.  

    The room is all rough wood and old caged light bulbs, with wine bottles hung from a ceiling rack, a communal table, and open kitchen. Back there work Steve Samson and Zach Pollack, the latter turning out bubbling, char-crusted pizzas (right) that are perhaps the best in Los Angeles right now, not least a calzone called “Homage to Caiazzo” (a town in Campania), packed with escarole, capers, Gaeta olives, and creamy burrata.

    They're nice kids doing what they love and it shows in every dish. Their repertoire is culled from regions like Puglia, Abruzzo, Campania, and Calabria, which becomes obvious on the first bite of the roast griarelli peppers with capers and oregano.  Sicilian sardines with citrus salsa and olive-pistachio vinaigrette tingles on the tongue, and rich al dente pastas like bucatini with tomato and Fiore Sardo cheese and casarecce with braised lamb ragù, egg and pecorino have just the right bite.  This is not a place to bring an attitude.



Ray’s & Stark Bar

Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art,

5905 Wilshire Boulevard


    The Patina Group that gave L.A. the elegant Patina restaurant at the Walt Disney Music Center downtown has now provided another great L.A. institution, the Museum of Contemporary Art, with a more winsome but no less delectable place to dine and, next to it, a swank bar that is usually packed by six with an arts and entertainment crowd—who book a lot of parties here. The Ray Stark in question is the producer of films like “Funny Girl” and “Steel Magnolias,” and the restaurant is a gift of his foundation.

    The restaurant on the plaza is a glass rectangular box, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, with the feeling of a de Chirico painting bathed in Southern California sunshine. Inside are lipstick red seats, Eames chairs, and gleaming polished metal, and Ellen Palevsky’s collection of more than 150 designer cups from 1850-1950 in neat little white shelves.

    Chef Chris Morningstar, who worked at Patina, cooks with an artistic flair that fits impeccably into the Museum’s tenor, with wholly modern ideas like wood-roasted chile, chorizo, dates and goat’s cheese with almond sauce; yellowtail with an avocado cream, smoked tomato jelly, and crispy potatoes; and a coffee pudding with smoked caramel, espresso granité, and a chocolate cigarette. It’s food with a frisky panache, clean tastes in splashes of color, as sensuously sunny as a David Hockney pool painting.




10 Columbus Circle

    Despite naysayers who contended no New Yorker would ever go up three or four  flights of escalator to eat at a restaurant, the resounding success of Per Se, A Voce, Masa, Landmarc, and Porter House NY is nothing short of a phenomenon after seven years. Within its large dining room and bar area of 140 seats, Porter House rarely has an empty table any evening of the year, recession re-schmession.  There are big roomy, round booths, no tables crammed in, no lousy tables for out-of-towners, no bad lighting.  Broad tables with soft tablecloths, good stemware, and a view of Central Park that makes you swoon, the Jeffrey Beers-designed room is a testament to New York swank without being "swanky."

     Chef-managing partner Michael Lomonaco, manager Tim Brown, and a fast-moving staff keep Porter House hopping without the slightest lag in service, not least from sommelier Roger Dagorn, who is always on hand to make the choice of wine perfect for your taste, your dinner choices, and your budget.
    While L
omonaco (left), with chef de cuisine Michael Ammirati,  is not trying to re-invent the wheel of a genre menu that has proven amazingly durable, he refines every detail day to day. Unlike steakhouses that, by never changing, have become complacent, everything here from the bread service to desserts are thoroughly thought through to be the best. Who ever mentions the quality of the bread or desserts at Luger's or Spark's? Who has ever praised the congeniality of the service staff at Smith & Wollensky or BLT Steak? Porter House decided from the beginning that its guests were just that, not numbers, not interlopers into a club where you had to palm a maître d' to get a decent table.

         Where to begin on the menu? There are several salads, including a classic Caesar, clams Casino, and smoked salmon. I usually go straight for either the pan-seared sea scallops with capers, brown butter, and celeriac or the roasted beef marrows bones with an herb salad and toasted country bread. The jumbo lump crabcake lives up to its billing—it is all jumbo crab morsels, lightly bound and served with a tangy horseradish cream.  I highly recommend the rigatoni alla bolognese, a wonderfully rich dish correctly made without too much tomato, and the truffled risotto with pine nuts and black truffle butter.  A guy named Lomonaco is not going to screw these up.

         I suppose there are some who might opt for non-meat main dishes at a place called Porter House, though it strikes me the same as if a person went to a dim sum restaurant and ordered General Tso’s chicken.  (The lobster offering here, oddly enough, is a pretty puny two-pounder.)  So I can’t vouch for items like herb-roasted chicken or grilled swordfish.  But I will go into high praise about the massive, juicy veal chop with roasted garlic and arugula, and the equally gargantuan Colorado lamb t-bone chops dashed with a little rosemary. There are four sauces to accompany these cuts, and they are worthwhile in small dabs.

             The signature item, porterhouse (right), served for two but hefty enough for three or even four  is everything I hope for in beefiness and age, surface resilience, and crusty char.  If I order it for two, I always end up taking a good portion home.  The strip steak is excellent, as is the big cowboy ribeye, which also comes chili rubbed, if you like. I am always tempted to have the burger, described as “private stock,” with Cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, and onion rings.  Otherwise, as at other steakhouses, the sides—all of them first rate, including nonpareil onion rings, crisp potato chips,  and very rich creamed spinach—are a la carte.

         Desserts may not be in the cards after a heavy meal like this, but share at least one—maybe the South Carolina coconut cake (left), all seven layers of it, or, for winter, the pumpkin pie with sherried nutmeg whipped cream and candied walnuts.  For the kid in you, the chocolate sundae and root beer float will be nostalgic pleasures, even at twelve bucks a pop.

         Prices have risen a bit at Porter House, but no one is likely to leave hungry—you can easily consider the leftovers from a main course here as tomorrow’s lunch—and the whole experience is one of sumptuous revelry.

         As noted, some men seem to thrive on the masochism of those old line steakhouses where the maître d’s couldn’t care less what time you say your rez in for and the waiters have no patience for describing anything on the menu.  Porter House is the antithesis of that experience, a steakhouse where the  greeting and the service are as genuine as the quality of the beef, and every bit as generously portioned out.



      Porter House New York is open daily for lunch and dinner, with dinner appetizers ranging from $9-$22, and entrees $26-$56.






Sweets for the Sweet Ignore Dessert Wine Pairings

 by John Mariani

    The idea that sweet wines go best with dessert is a no brainer, but producers of those wines would have you believe they go with anything and everything.

     A century ago that was pretty much the case, when sweet Hungarian Tokaji, Portuguese Madeira and Port, Spanish sherries, Italian Marsalas, and French Sauternes were enjoyed as much with savory dishes as with sweet. Champagnes, now preferred bone dry, were once much sweeter, from demi-sec (half dry) to doux (sweet).

    The best sweet wines are made from grapes whose sugars have been concentrated by drying, partial freezing, late harvesting or infection by the so-called “Noble Rot.” Some, like Port and Sherry, are fortified with spirits to stabilize them. The worst are made like fruit punch, with sugar and fruit infusions added.  So in a world where Thunderbird still outsells chardonnay and cabernet, people still associate sweet wines with cheap plonk and deemed them “dessert wines.”

    “The term dessert wine is a taboo today; `dry’ is where it’s at,” Daniel Johnnes, wine director for the Dinex Group in New York, told me by phone. “I direct my sommeliers not to list sweet wines as `dessert wines,’ and to discuss with the guest the varying degrees of sweetness between, say, a Sauternes and a lighter bodied Barsac. I think they go very well with certain braised meats with caramelized flavors.”

    But such wines are a tough sell. Among Sauternes, only the illustrious Cru Château d’Yquem, sells really well, often served with foie gras or Roquefort cheese.

    “The contemporary attitude is that anything sweet is bad for you and will put on weight, which is absolute rubbish,” David Levin, owner of The Capital Hotel and Restaurant in London told me. “It’s a mental block, so we really have to promote our sweet wines. We carry six vintages of Yquem half-bottles, which are far easier to sell than a whole bottle.”

    Levin’s wife Lynne, who is manages their wine estate in the Loire Valley, has just released half bottles of Levin Noble 2010, a botrytis-affected sauvignon blanc for sale in the UK, Australia, and Sweden. “It’s got 60 grams residual sugar,” she says, “but the balance of acids allows it to go well with many different dishes, like a goat’s cheese salad.”  

    American sweet wine producers are struggling too. According to Ken Young, executive director of the Sweet and Fortified Wine Association in Appelgate, CA, sweet wines now account for 7.5 percent of all U.S. wine shipments. “Before 2008 we had sale increases around 6.2 percent annually, but since then it’s only around two percent; sales are pretty flat for fortified wines, though Late harvest wines are doing pretty well.”

     Sweet wine makers are, therefore, trying hard to prove their wines go with all sorts of savory dishes. At a dinner at Restaurant Daniel in New York, vigneron Aline Bal (above) of Château Coutet, served her Barsacs with soft-shell crabs and pressed duck. French actress Carole Bouquet (right), who owns a winery on the Italian island of Pantelleria, last month served her Sangue d’Oro passito at New York’s Boulud Sud with first courses like octopus à la plancha with almonds, arugula, and sherry vinegar; and sheep’s milk ricotta with tomato confit, and tapenade.

     Even the great Hungarian Tokaji wines, whose sweetness is graded by star-like symbols called puttonyos, have their place before and after dessert. Director of Hungary’s Royal Tokaji Wines, Ben Hawkins, author of the just-released Real Men Drink Port . . . and Ladies Do Too,  told me by phone that, “the very sweet six puttonyos Tokajis should be drunk after dessert, like a Cognac or Port. We blend the three- and four-puttonyos wines to make an aged late harvest wine, which has more acidity, so they can be enjoyed with more savory dishes, like a three-year-old Gouda, which is considered as classic a match in Hungary as Roquefort and Sauternes is in France.”

       I, too, would insist that sweet wines go better with cheeses than dry red wine.  Whether it’s Port with Stilton, a late harvest riesling with goat’s cheese, or a vin santo with Parmigiano, the flavors assimilate much better than with cabernet sauvignon or pinot noir, which may take on a metallic taste.

         I also like sweet Chinese poultry dishes like with sweet wines. Try a sweet rice or lychee wine with Peking duck or General Tso’s chicken. The French classic duck à l’orange is well served with a Lustau Sherry, and when feasting on sweet North African dishes like tagine and bisteeya, dry wines just don’t work.  I’d go with a glass of ruby Port.

     After dessert, curl up with a magnificent Silvano Garcia Dulce Monastrell 2001 ($30), a powerful argument for the individuality of Spain’s viticultural soul and perfect with sweet-fleshed roast chestnuts and a dish of figs before the fireplace.

         And for something truly remarkable, make some scrambled eggs in butter with shavings of black truffles. Pour a glass of iced Pacific Rim Vin de Glaciere Riesling 2010 ($16 half bottle), made in Washington’s Yakima Valley. Now, that is a decadent revelation indeed.

John Mariani's 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.



According to the NY Daily News, gold-rimmed china plates from Saddam Hussein's many dining rooms have ended up at Park Avenue Autumn restaurant  as part of a participatory art installation. To enhance the "complicated" experience, Chef Kevin Lasko created an Iraqi-inspired dish of venison chop covered in tahini and date syrup, with pomegranates, pine nuts, and scallions. Lasko compares the tahini to Saddam Hussein himself: “It's very good to eat and it tastes good, but, at the same time, there are bitter memories because of Saddam.  It's actually kind of very similar to how the tahini and the date syrup are — the tahini is very bitter and the syrup is very sweet.”


"Since moving from New York to the Bay Area, I've looked back on winter with the sweet sorrow of a complicated relationship. Sure, it often hurt, but the pain was interspersed with threads of warmth and relief. In this land without well-defined seasons (don't kid yourselves), I miss sharp contrasts. Thus when Oakland's balmy October weather developed an abrupt chill, I headed to Kitchen 388. I may have missed this year's Halloween snowstorm in the Northeast, but at least I could throw on a sweater and duck into a warm nook for breakfast."--Jesse Hirsch, "Hot and Cold at Kitchen 388," SF Weekly.


 Any of John Mariani's books below may be ordered from

My latest book, written with Jim Heimann and Steven Heller,  Menu Design in America,  1850-1985 (Taschen Books), has just appeared, with nearly 1,000 beautiful, historic, hilarious, sometimes shocking menus dating back to before the Civil War and going through the Gilded Age, the Jazz Age, the Depression, the nightclub era of the 1930s and 1940s, the Space Age era, and the age when menus were a form of advertising in innovative explosions of color and modern design.  The book is a chronicle of changing tastes and mores and says as much about America as about its food and drink.


“Luxuriating vicariously in the pleasures of this book. . . you can’t help but become hungry. . .for the food of course, but also for something more: the bygone days of our country’s splendidly rich and complex past.  Epicureans of both good food and artful design will do well to make it their cofee table’s main course.”—Chip Kidd, Wall Street Journal.


“[The menus] reflect the amazing craftsmanship that many restaurants applied to their bills of fare, and suggest that today’s restaurateurs could learn a lot from their predecessors.”—Rebecca Marx, The Village Voice.

My new book, How Italian Food Conquered the World (Palgrave Macmillan) is a rollicking history of the food culture of Italy and its ravenous embrace in the 21st century by the entire world. From ancient Rome to la dolce vita of post-war Italy, from Italian immigrant cooks to celebrity chefs, from pizzerias to high-class ristoranti, this chronicle of a culinary diaspora is as much about the world's changing tastes, prejudices,  and dietary fads as about our obsessions with culinary fashion and style.--John Mariani

"Eating Italian will never be the same after reading John Mariani's entertaining and savory gastronomical history of the cuisine of Italy and how it won over appetites worldwide. . . . This book is such a tasteful narrative that it will literally make you hungry for Italian food and arouse your appetite for gastronomical history."--Don Oldenburg, USA Today. 

"Italian restaurants--some good, some glitzy--far outnumber their French rivals.  Many of these establishments are zestfully described in How Italian Food Conquered the World, an entertaining and fact-filled chronicle by food-and-wine correspondent John F. Mariani."--Aram Bakshian Jr., Wall Street Journal.

"Mariani admirably dishes out the story of Italy’s remarkable global ascent to virtual culinary hegemony....Like a chef gladly divulging a cherished family recipe, Mariani’s book reveals the secret sauce about how Italy’s cuisine put gusto in gusto!"--David Lincoln Ross,

"Equal parts history, sociology, gastronomy, and just plain fun, How Italian Food Conquered the World tells the captivating and delicious story of the (let's face it) everybody's favorite cuisine with clarity, verve and more than one surprise."--Colman Andrews, editorial director of The Daily

"A fantastic and fascinating read, covering everything from the influence of Venice's spice trade to the impact of Italian immigrants in America and the evolution of alta cucina. This book will serve as a terrific resource to anyone interested in the real story of Italian food."--Mary Ann Esposito, host of PBS-TV's Ciao Italia.

"John Mariani has written the definitive history of how Italians won their way into our hearts, minds, and stomachs.  It's a story of pleasure over pomp and taste over technique."--Danny Meyer, owner of NYC restaurants Union Square Cafe, Gotham Bar & Grill, The Modern, and Maialino.



FEATURED LINKS: I am happy to  report that the Virtual Gourmet is  linked to 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:

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).

The Family Travel Forum
 - A community for those who "Have Kids, Still Travel" and want to make family vacations more fun, less work and better value. FTF's travel and parenting features, including reviews of tropical and ski resorts, reunion destinations, attractions, holiday weekends, family festivals, cruises, and all kinds of vacation ideas should be the first port of call for family vacation planners.

Family Travel Forum

                                                                    ALL YOU NEED 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: Christopher Mariani, 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.

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© copyright John Mariani 2011