Virtual Gourmet

  January 15,   2012                                                                                               NEWSLETTER

HOME    |    BOOKS    |    ABOUT US    |    CONTACT



by John Mariani

New York's Most New York Restaurants
by John Mariani


by John Mariani


    Going outside the historic city center of Brussels, a traveler will soon come to realize what a large European city it is.  When I first visited many years ago, I never did go outside the center of this capital city of now one million inhabitants, which is also the capital for NATO and the European Union.  Like NATO and the EU, Belgium is much put upon economically these days, which came as a surprise to me on my most recent visit this fall when getting a hotel or restaurant reservation was far from easy.  So international is the city that running across anyone who does not speak both French and English, along with their native Dutch, would be unusual. The strong euro also makes it an expensive city on an American budget.
    Brussels, whose name in Old Dutch meant "home in the marsh," was founded as something more than a village around 979, quickly growing into a critical location for trade with other northern European countries and becoming a strong walled city by the end of the 14th century. Flanders nobility intermarried with other European bloodlines, and Charles V became the archduke of the Hapsburg and Holy Roman Empires. For hundreds of years afterwards Brussels would be fought over by varying factions, including King Louis XIV of France, who nearly bombarded the city out of existence. In the 19th century, revolutionary movements led to more liberal government control, with Leopold I ascending the throne in 1831 and adding measurably to the city's size and scope. Independence followed, and in the 20th century, through two world wars, Brussels emerged as a city that became a stasis point in which  concepts of international cooperation could flourish within vast bureaucracies.
    You get a certain sense of that in Brussels' post-war architecture, which is stolid, gray, and imposing, but in the historic architecture built up over centuries you see the diversity of a true Dutch culture, medieval in its origins but always open to change, especially after successive wars took their tolls on the city center and its beautiful Grand Place,  since 1988 a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Here you'll see the great Gothic town hall, where the many guilds of craftsmen met and, by virtue of their shared interests and wealth, ruled the city's destiny with economy foremost in their minds. Nevertheless, great art was part and parcel of their self image, and so over time Brussels has become home to more than 80 museums, not least the 
Museum of Modern Art, which is part of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium (above)
    The former's "modern" art begins in the 19th century, with an impressive collection of Belgian and other artists ranging from Jacques-Louis David and Ingres to Courbet and the Impressionists, then onward to Fauvism, Symbolism, and the avant-garde in Belgium. The  oddly named Museum of Ancient Art is impossibly rich in van Dycks, Jordaens, Breughel, van der Weyden, Campin, Rubens (right, "The Martyrdom of St. Livinius") and other masters, from  the 15th to 19th century.
    Everyone makes a pilgrimage to the city's beloved Mannekin Pis (left), the bronze sculpture of a boy pissing into a fountain, about which you may read extensively in any guide book.  Crafted in 1619 by sculptor Hieronimus Duquesnoy, the figure's symbolic meaning has never been determined, although legend has a little boy heroically pissing on the heads of invading foreign troops. The thing has been stolen on several occasions, and now it must suffer the indignities of being dressed up in different outfits throughout the year, like a Ken doll, to the sound of a brass band. Good for tourism, I suppose, like the statue of Rocky atop the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Arts.
    Higher cultural attractions in the city flourish in institutions like the Brussels Theatre, the La Monnaie Theatre and opera house.


    Probably the first thing that comes to mind when people think of Brussels are its eponymous sprouts, a small cabbage developed in the city as of the 14th century.  Next would come Belgian waffles, which are of a far more recent invention. Next would be the Belgian way of eating French fried potatoes (which, by the way, the French did not invent: in the 19th century the English word "french" meant to cut up a vegetable into thin slices). In Belgium they are served throughout the day with myriad toppings, from mayonnaise to vinegar and salt.  Moules (mussels) are rampant. Chocolate stores, including many of the world's most famous, like Neuhaus and Godiva are native to the city and displayed in exquisite storefronts. 
    Brussels beers are also a proud product of the city, and
no beer aficionado visiting Belgium can afford to miss the city’s museum of the Geuze, run by the Van Roy-Cantillon family since 1900, where the living microorganisms in the air cause the spontaneous fermentation of the traditional so-called Geuze lambic process, which begins with raw wheat, malted barley, and dried, three-year-old hops.  The beer is pumped into chestnut barrels, where the fermentation begins, during which carbon dioxide seeps out through the wood; thus, the beer is not oversaturated with the gas. The company claims its Greuze can age and improve for more than 20 years.
    Brussels teems with pubs and beer brasseries, including one called Delirium Café (right)—on the appropriately named Impasse de la Fidelité--that lists more than 2,000 beers from all over the globe, every one described in text, including the Belgian Pink Killer, made from grapefruit.
    As everywhere in Europe now, there is not a cuisine you cannot find among Brussels' 3,000 restaurant options, along with scores of bars and coffee houses, and brasseries serving those local beers. The most recognizable Belgian dishes would include waterzooi, a rich stew usually made with chicken or seafood, cream and eggs; Boterhammen, slabs of bread spread with a variety of toppings and eaten with a knife and fork; and the hearty beef stew called carbonnade.
    Such dishes are the kind found in many of the narrow streets around the cramped, bustling Rue des Bouchers, which is touristy but not untypical in its menus.  A quick peek down an alley called Impasse St. Nicholas, is requisite  for barflies to visit, for it is said to be the city's oldest eatery or tavern,  Au Bon Vieux Temps (left), whose look and looming façade does put you in mind of what such places were like back in the 16th century.  A better choice for restaurants is the Rue des Dominicains near the Cathedral, also frequented by tourists but more popular with the locals.  Here you'll find Bifanas (Portuguese); Steak Frit' (beef); Scheltema (Belgian); and the classic old Restaurant Vincent (below) founded in 1905 at Number 8, which would be hard for anyone with a good appetite not to love, if just for its old tiled walls alone, picturing game and seafood, mariners and cooks, its beautiful ceiling, and its Movado clock in the shape of a life preserver. It is well lighted, there is bustle, all the guests seem quite like old-timers, as do the waiters in white shirts and black aprons; and the menu hasn't changed very much in decades, aiming more for perfection and consistency than novelty.  The wine list of about 50 bottlings is exactly what it should be, geared to the food and the clientele. Prices are moderate. (As everywhere in Belgium, service and tax are included in the price of your meal, so tipping is not necessary.)
    You might begin with some Landes goose liver, or cold lobster with mayonnaise.  There are always oysters of many varieties, and the shrimp croquettes are seriously addictive.  There are six mussels dishes, from classic white wine to Provençale, all  with a side of  French fries. For seafood, whatever was freshest in the market that day will be your choice, perhaps cod or sole meunière--and Belgian butter is superb--or a special like eels in green sauce.
    The meat section features a flambéed rump steak with a creamy peppercorn sauce (I forgot how wonderful this dish is!) and beef carbonnade, which is dished out and replenished as you wish. Juicy, caramelized, and cooked for hours, it is everything a stew should be. And then there is the to-be-expected waterzooi of chicken, gently cooked with egg yolks in broth, vegetables and its own juices, as satisfying and comforting as food can ever be. A dozen grilled items follow, from tournedos Henry IV to steak tartare.
    The desserts will not astonish anyone for novelty but their dependability is assured in plates of house-made ice creams, crème caramel, and a selection of crêpes.  A glass of Sauternes is suggested.
    If you go to Vincent for lunch, plan on a good walk for the afternoon.    That's what my friends and I did, for another few hours, hardly tiring of the sights of the city, yet lured to taste just one more chocolate bonbon in that cute spot over there, maybe that shop's frites, or a shot of "half-and-half"--a glass of spumante and white wine, the specialty of Le Cirio, opened in 1886--and maybe if we just shared a single waffle. . . .  We arrived sated and weary back at our hotel, the modern and very well run  Dominican (below), right behind the Theater Monnaie and and  conveniently located near the Grand Place and all the sights of city center. Off the lobby, it has a Grand Lounge restaurant where we enjoyed a generous breakfast buffet.  The rooms are spacious, the bathrooms very well equipped, and everywhere are amenities of media and Wi-Fi.  Our friends stayed right around the corner at the newly refurbished  Sandton Hotel Brussels Centre, with 70 rooms, which, aside from interior construction noise, they found to be a good hotel with the promise of being a very fine one. Its underground parking lot is a boon.

    That night I had occasion to return to an old favorite in town, Royal Brasserie Brussels (left), which years ago was a high-end, handsome seafood restaurant much frequented by a business crowd. A couple of years back, the restaurant was bought and changed into a far more casual all-purpose restaurant, where seafood still forms a good part of the menu, while the rest gets more continental in its scope. I suppose it does meet the outer limits description of a Belgian brasserie, though the in-your-face promotion of Pommery Champagne makes it more a Champagne bar and restaurant.  To eat well here, eat simply: platters of fresh shellfish will do the trick--oysters, prawns, langoustines, whelks, periwinkles--and the shrimp croquettes here are very good. From there on, it depends on what you are in the mood for, which can range from sushi to Iberian ham, from rabbit rillettes  to roast pigeon.
    It's a very affable place and the Italian-born owner keeps it that way by bouncing from table to table of regulars he knows well (often neglecting those he does not).  If you do choose to eat outside, as is the case everywhere in Brussels, smoking is allowed, and anyone and everyone who smokes in the city will be out there, making the enjoyment of anyone else's meal difficult.
    So you walk, slowly, through the city at night, its old buildings lighted, its trams and taxis humming by, and watch the waiters at the cafés piling up their chairs.  Brussels becomes quite quiet, sleepy, and its charms even more apparent when you take the time to look for them.






by John Mariani

    It is as obvious that NYC is the world's restaurant capital as it is to say that Chicago is the "Windy City" or Gilroy, California, is the "Garlic Capital" of America.  It doesn't hurt the city's restaurant business that 50 million people visit it annually, eating out three times a day.  The city is rich in every type of cuisine and eatery, from dim sum in Chinatown to Venezuelan arepas storefronts in Astoria.  There are great French and Italian restaurants, and just about every type of innovative cuisine.  But there are some restaurants--not every one necessarily the very best but all very, very good--that reek NYC, either in a historic sense or in epitomizing a New York totem, each with its own distinct personality unreproducible anywhere else--especially at the branches some have opened in other cities.  Here are places that I think all those 50 million visitors, as well as New Yorkers themselves, should eat in order to get the real taste of NYC in their mouths.

'21' Club (1929)--Never an actual club but begun as a speakeasy (complete with a secret wine cellar you can still visit), `21' evolved into an exclusive haunt of New York society. Today it is still a raffish place to dine and the food has never been better. The bar and lounge have been expanded recently and the beautiful upstairs rooms are full of Remington paintings and great graphic art. For lunch have the famous `21' burger, at dinner the Dover sole, beef tartare, and pommes soufflé.

Barbetta (1906)--The oldest continually operating Italian restaurant in family hands, now under the supervision of Laura Maioglio, the founder's daughter, Barbetta is set in a turn-of-the-century townhouse
(left) filled with exquisite antiques and a much sought-after garden patio in warmer weather.  The food is authentic Piedmontese, so go with the agnolotti del plin, the risotto with white truffles, and the great barolos and barbarescos on the list.

Peter Luger (1887)--Still almost impossible to get into on even weeks' notice, Luger in Brooklyn stakes its claim on having the best sliced porterhouse  (right) in the city (make that anywhere), sliced for two or three or more.  The place has never looked like much--the quasi-Teutonic décor is not particularly original, the wine list is weak, the service brusque, but it is a pilgrimage well worth taking if only for those steaks.

Patsy's (1944)--Oddly enough, Patsy's is one of the few real Neapolitan Italian-American restaurants left in Manhattan, and its location in the Theater District has made it a mecca for just about every star and celebrity who's ever made a movie or appeared on the stage. Their photos are arrayed on the walls, and the Scognamillo family makes everyone feel like a special guest. Just about everything on the menu has been perfected, from the eggplant parmigiana and gnocchi to the fried calamari and terrific cheesecake.

(1927)--No one has ever raved about the continental food at Sardi's but is a ritual for out-of-towners to go pre-theater or attend a Broadway show then repair here for dinner, perhaps with the cast members of an opening night show who wait here for the reviews to appear in the New York papers. The celebrity cartoons (right) are as famous as anything else about Sardi's. The shrimp scampi alla Sardi's is still pretty darn delicious.

The Leopard at des Artistes
(1933)--Recently taken over by the Sorrentino family (for my article on the restaurant, click here), this venerable Upper West Side series of rooms with naughty Howard Chandler Christy murals (left) has been a draw for decades of good, now Italian food. Begin with a glass of prosecco then order the eggplant and mozzarella timballo, move on to spaghetti alla ghitarra and Sicilian rigatoni alla Norma, and the wonderfully savory Italian meatloaf here.  Desserts are very good too.

Rao's (1896)--Not that you'll ever get in, because Rao's ten tables are taken every night by regulars going back 50 years, but if you do get invited by one of those regulars (who sometimes release their table), you'll find yourself in a time warp where nothing ever changes, where the food comes in platters, and Nicky the Vest still oversees the bar and never picks up the phone.

Russian Tea Room (1929)--Though changes of ownership over the past 20 years has managed to keep the basic lineaments of the red-and-green, gilded dining room downstairs (left), the food has never much improved. People still go to see celebs who come here out of nostalgia, and it's still a place for caviar, smoked salmon and vodka.

Delmonico's (1837)--The very first true restaurant opened in America, built on Parisian models, the current Delmonico's (right) is an offshoot of the first, much smaller original, and it has kept its downtown swagger and Wall Street clientele happy with excellent steaks and lobsters for 150 years. It was at "Del's" that guests had a menu to choose from; where the first Transatlantic cable was sent and received; where women first dined alone; and the place that set the standards for fine dining in the Gilded Age.

P.J. Clarke's (1884)--As evocative an Olde New York Bar as you'll find--scenes in the movie "Lost Weekend" (right) were filmed here--Clarke's (as everyone calls it) has much better food than McSorley's and a faithful clientele you will have seen in the entertainment pages. The hamburger is justifiably famous.

Mario's (1919)--It began as a pizzeria under the Miglucci family whose third and fourth generation still runs it, and it's an Italian-American reverie that typifies the Arthur Avenue section of the Bronx that is the real Little Italy in NYC.  One of the greatest pizzas in NYC,  sumptuous red sauce dishes, impeccably fried seafood, a juicy veal chop, and nice people all around. Go food shopping in the area, then have lunch or dinner here (left).

Palm One (1926)--Back in Prohibition days, Palm was a speakeasy that served some steaks to the local newspapermen, many of whom got their caricature on the walls here (right). The addition of a few Italian items made Palm the crucible for the New Yawk-style steakhouse, with many competitors over the years now long gone. The menu never changes--tomato salad, big steamed lobsters, massive veal chops, cheesecake. There are plenty of Palm branches around the U.S. now, but I guarantee that the original on Second Avenue still gets the best beef possible and serves the finest sirloin anywhere.

La Grenouille (1952)--One of the few remaining old line French grand dame restaurants, La Grenouille, in all its effusive, flowery glory, is a bastion of good taste and classic French cuisine.  Once very haughty indeed, La Grenouille (left) now thrives on a more egalitarian approach to its guests and does so without gouging on the menu.  Charles Masson, son of the founders, is a master of gentility and hospitality.

The Four Seasons (1959)--Designed by Restaurant Associates who hired Philip Johnson to create a dining space like no other, The Four Seasons is still a dazzling and unique restaurant, with a babbling pool in its main dining room (right) and a Grill Room and bar whose tables are daily occupied by the powerbrokers of New York each day. It was a champion of New American Cuisine and California wines, and managing partners Alex von Bidder and Julian Niccolini run their fiefdom with enormous savvy.

Sylvia's (1962)--Long before Marcus Samuelsson brought his Red Rooster to Harlem, Sylvia's was the soul food haven for locals and every NYC pol who wanted the Harlem vote.  They still come, the Woods family (left) still turns out the same hearty dishes as ever, and no one ever leaves without a smile on his face.

Keen's (1885)--Still self-proclaimed a chop house and still hanging its historic clay pipes from the ceiling, Keen's is a very, very historic place with memorabilia of museum quality.  You step back in time here, order the mutton chop (right), and feel you are part of the Gilded Age.

The Hotel Carlyle Restaurant
1930)--The word soigné may well have been coined to describe the dining room (left) at The Carlyle Hotel, which also has the Bemelmans Bar where Woody Allen plays in a New Orleans jazz band each week, and the Cafe Carlyle that draws the top crooners of the day. Swank but not swanky, the dining room here is beautiful, well set with the finest amenities, and serves a good American meal.

Katz's Deli (1885)--What's not to love? The counter men carve the pastrami, brisket, corned beef and tongue by hand, the sandwiches are enormous, it's still got the sign from World War II reading "Send a Salami to Your Boy in the Army," the famous faked orgasm scene in "When Harry Met Sally" (right) was shot here, and the Jewish shtick between the staff and the customers could fill a Henny Youngman routine.


 Soylent Green sushi is . . . People!!!

Sixty chefs in Yekaterinburg, Russia constructed a sushi roll 2.521 meters, 74 centimeters long (over a mile and a half), beating the record of  2.033 meters set by the Council of Japanese Postal Workers’ Union in 2007. The Russians used 1.5 tons of rice, 23 kilograms of sesame seeds, and nearly 500 kilograms of cucumbers.

No, Wait! In Brooklyn, apparently stripey jerseys
 and aprons are  . . . People!!!

"The biscuits are one of the most moreishly flirty things a bread can aspire to.  I had mine stuffed with bacon, egg and cheese. . . . If you like the dish, you can buy the ingredients in a shop at the front, like Star Wars memorabilia.  They have taken it one step further; the leather from your burgers is made into handbags and belts. There are stripey jerseys and aprons, possible made out of old waitresses."--A.A. Gill, "Table Talk: Marlow & Sons; Diner, Brooklyn, NY," London Times Magazine.

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

My latest book, which just won the prize for best book from International Gourmand, 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 coffee 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) 
has just won top prize 2011 from the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.  It 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: NEVIS; SARDINIA.

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.

To un-subscribe from this newsletter,click here.

© copyright John Mariani 2012