Virtual Gourmet

  June 10, 2012                                                                                                NEWSLETTER

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There will be no issue of Mariani's Virtual Gourmet next week, June 17, because Mariani will be in Italy on assignment.
The next issue will appear June 24.



Punta Mita

by Carey Sweet

by John Mariani


              Punta Mita

                                                                                                  By Carey Sweet 

    Since I’ve visited Punta Mita four times over the past year, my friends are curious. What great excitement exists there to make the boutique enclave such a top pick in the more than 760,000-square-miles that is the country of Mexico? A better question would be, what diversions are not there? For me, a type A traveler who packs so much into most trips that I come home exhausted and needing a vacation, the quiet, relaxed Punta Mita has become my respite.
    As a 1,500-acre beachfront village nestled on the north end of Bahía de Banderas in the Mexican state of Nayarit, development is limited to several private estate and villa communities. At the heart St. Régis and Four Seasons resorts. Once a visitor gets past the guard-gated entry, there is little reason to leave, and so much enticement to unwind. Punta Mita is located just about 10 miles north of Puerto Vallarta but is worlds apart from that bustling town of all-inclusive hotels, nightclubs and tourist shopping.
    Indeed, the word "mita" has been traced back to ancient Aztec language as meaning "Gateway to Paradise." There is golf at two Jack Nicklaus courses, played directly along the Pacific Ocean and off the “Tail of the Whale,” a par-three hole on the largest natural island green in the world. I can kayak, sail and snorkel, and sunbathe on miles of quiet, white sand beaches year-round, since average summer temperatures are 85° (crashing to 75° during winter). For the deep-pocketed - and let’s be honest, most guests here are - there is private yacht rental, from either hotel. In the spring, the community hosts a Gourmet & Golf Classic (2011 was the inaugural year) for a lavish celebration of food, wine and tequila. Chefs from around the world converge on the Four Seasons and St. Régis for four days of over-the-top parties, lunches and dinners, showcasing foods as tantalizing as tripe tacos and as intriguing as Victorian kangaroo pie. The festivities include friendly golfing competition, and, when I visited for the 2012 Classic, more Veuve Clicquot poured than I’ve ever seen in my life.
    As soon as I arrived at the St. Régis for my check-in, a chilled flute of the champagne was placed in my hand. Another was offered as my private butler  led me to my garden suite. At the opening reception that evening at the resort’s ocean front Sea Breeze Beach Club, some 200 guests worked their way through 80 bottles of Veuve Clicquot, as well as the copious wines, martinis, margaritas and whiskies also being offered.
    While the Gourmet Classic takes place just once a year, a lavish lifestyle is a Punta Mita hallmark year-round. It’s evident from the very lobby of the St. Régis, where cocktails are offered from an open bar on the back patio that acts as theater overlooking gardens, fountain pools and a swath of azure ocean framed by palm trees. Opened in November, 2008, the property features 89 guest rooms, 30 suites and a three-bedroom presidential suite, with buildings cloistered in two-story casita arrangements that include bonuses like private patios and outdoor rain showers. Spread over 22 acres of private peninsula, recreation includes three restaurants, three infinity pools with private cabanas, a fitness center, private beach club, tennis courts, and a 10,000 square foot Remède spa. For the resort’s grand opening during this ongoing recession time, just one guest room was booked, I learned. For the Classic weekend, the property was at 99 percent occupancy.
    It’s clear this isn’t rustic Mexico. Actually, if there’s any drawback, the Punta Mita experience is so manicured it might be anywhere with a gorgeous beach – Hawaii, Fiji, or the like. As a cap, we can visit an expansive sales center that invites us to purchase Punta Mita property. And I love it all. The décor breathes comfortable opulence throughout, in lavish accents of Mexican galarza stone, river stone, marble, onyx, wood and clay, paired with Old World European furnishings. In the mornings, complementary coffees and pastries are delivered  to the rooms, and in the afternoon, an elaborate tea service is hosted in the lobby.
    “Please let me know how I can serve,” said my butler as he showed me how to work the complicated phone system that could be used to summon him 24 hours a day. A private butler is St. Régis signature, and while in reality the butler is no different from a bellman or concierge at any fine property, it’s certainly fun to say, as in “more Veuve Clicquot, please, private butler.”
    Fair warning: this resort is very popular with families tugging along herds of small children. Perhaps the kids like soccer games on the lawn next to the casual, al fresco Las Marietas Mexican restaurant, or the piñata parties that staff set up on the beach, or playing Bingo in the La Tortuga Children's Club.
    Yet there is plenty of adult-only escape, too, notably the resort’s signature restaurant Carolina. Ambitious adult tastes are fed very well here, with dishes like Caribbean lobster roasted with spices and served atop fennel mousseline with a hint of Papantla vanilla and coriander vinaigrette. Executive chef Sylvain Desbois emphasizes seafood, done in rich flavors and vibrant colors, such as a dramatic spider crab decorated with lemon confit and fennel atop melon-mint gazpacho, or the Canelón, bringing an artichoke stuffed with lobster, foie gras and earthy truffle.
    This is also where I savored some Mexican wines, as a welcome alternative to the mostly South American and Italian brands I so often see in Mexican restaurants. One of my favorites, Casa Madero of Valle de Parras in Coahuila, is renowned as the oldest winery not just in Mexico but in all the Americas, and makes a very good 2V Chenin Blanc-Chardonnay blend, plus a delightful 3V blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Tempranillo that drinks like silk.
    Much of a vacation can be made napping happily on cushy canopied day beds on the beach, cooled by caressing breezes and complementary popsicles offered by staff. So it was that well-fed and well-golfed through the Gourmet Classic, my biggest exertion on this most recent trip ended up being a visit to the spa. At this sanctuary, the relaxation lounge spans through open, draped walls to gardens set with a Jacuzzi and plunge pools. Yet the massage actually rejuvenated my lazy bones, with the therapist using firm, quick strokes and slow, deep kneading pressure to unlock stress points I now could not conceive how I had ever managed to acquire.

     The Four Seasons is a pleasant, picturesque walk up the beach from St. Régis, though most visitors between the two properties will take a chauffeured golf cart or car. From one dramatic entry to the next, both resorts compete for the luxury market, though the Four Seasons seems geared more toward adult recreation with its high-end boutiques for snapping up goodies like regionally crafted jewelry and art.
    In fact, kids are sequestered within their own resort-within-a-resort, in the Oasis complex, a family-oriented building that houses 23 rooms and suites and is encircled by a Lazy River meandering pool for inner tube rides on a gentle current.
    One must-do here is the market catch meal at Bahía, the new Richard Sandoval beachfront grill and bar. The “coastal Latina” eatery debuted in February, as a more casual follow-up to Four Seasons’ Ketsi, which Sandoval introduced in 2009. Three times a week, the chefs gather on the Las Cuevas beach to welcome in a local fishing boat, and work with Puerto Vallarta area fishermen to select the best daily catch. After a discussion with their guests about the colorful choices hauled in – red snapper, yellowfin tuna, dorado (mahi mahi), octopus, colorful Parrot Fish, and a flat-bodied beach flounder looking quizzically with both its eyes on one side of its head – they display the whole fish on ice in a canoe, sparkling against the sun and a backdrop of manzanillo trees.   I selected my fish, and the chefs prepared it to order. Chef Sandoval himself happened to be on site that day, conducting one of the optional cooking classes available with the market lunch, and he worked the open-air flames alongside his executive chef Philippe Piel.
    This experience truly spoke of seaside Mexico, in the appetizer of grilled octopus, the tender-chewy seafood tossed with nopales pico de gallo, tomatoes, queso fresco, mild panela cheese, and black olives in a vibrant preserved lemon-honey vinaigrette with plenty of gutsy Serrano chile kick. Fresh pink snapper was next, quickly marinated in citrus, tomato and an array of chiles, slathered in mayonnaise for a lovely moist, tangy crust, and grilled in a basket before being plated with crunchy chayote-cabbage-carrot slaw.
    Another irresistible indulgence is booking the Four Seasons’ 55-foot private yacht, complete with a Wave Runner tacked on the back of the boat. This is hardly an everyday voyage, spanning a six-hour tour up and down the Puerto Vallarta coastline and around the nearby Marietas Islands for bird watching. If the shaded relaxation area on the upper deck, or sunning areas on the bow, stern and rear upper deck prove too tiresome, we can retreat to the living room and kitchen, or the posh sleeping suites with private baths. Constantly, the ship butlers offer us more tequila, more sushi, and more Veuve Clicquot.


    Travelers seeking a more real taste of Mexico can drive to Sayulita, about a half-hour northeast of the resorts. You bump along sandy roads until around a bend, you discover a tiny village flanking a bohemian beach where visitors and surfers like to camp, or stay in casual B&B’s and no-frills bungalows.
    You can eat well here. Capitan Cook is a popular hangout, touristy with its palapa-topped beachfront structure and gringo dishes like a shrimp burger. But ask for the specialty, which is "sarandeado," meaning a whole fish grilled on wood fire so the skin crisps and the meat roasts moist and succulent. You can drink here, with cold beers and stiff, sweet cocktails the most popular choice. And you can shop here, with some worthwhile purchases, since development over the past few year has brought in a small array of art galleries and notable boutiques next to the curio stores selling Nacho Libre wresting masks.
    If you’ve planned your trip for spring, you may wrap up your vacation with Gourmet & Golf Classic farewell gala dinner (the upcoming event is scheduled for April 15 to 28, 2013). In 2012, the supper took over the deck of the infinity pool at the Four Seasons, the sparkling water appearing to flow seamlessly into the ocean, dancing with the sunset dipping in salute to the Sierra Madre mountains in the distance. Top chefs took the stage for applause after preparing their global feast, including Michael Mina, Richard Sandoval, Patricia Quintana, Kaz Okochi, Jose Salas, Claudia Fossa, Ramon Bramasco and Philippe Piel.
    Yet, no matter the time of year, and for pure do-nothing vacation bliss with or without fancy chefs, Punta Mita remains truly that  "Gateway to Paradise." 





NoMad Hotel
1170 Broadway (near 28th Street)

     While a tiny handful of modernist cuisiniers are busy levitating food in balloons and cooking a sous-vide omelet for 35 minutes, there is still an admirable number of young chefs’ whose creativity is to find ways simply to make their food taste better and more intense, even it’s a few carrots on a plate.
    This is the goal of Daniel Humm (below), who has already established his mastery as chef-partner at the deluxe Eleven Madison Park. Now, at NoMad, in the new hotel of the same name, he  is proving that exquisite food can be made almost rustic and wholly unpretentious, tasting like nothing you’ve quite tasted before. Back to those carrots: Humm uses three different heirloom types, dusts them with cumin then roasts them with crispy duck skin that infuses them with richness; lastly, he gives them further texture with a scoop of nutty wheat berries. The dish is a triumph that is clearly thought through to the point where enough is enough, and everything on the plate matters. No levitation, no gels, nothing sprayed or squeezed out a bottle. Yet it is a case of a simple vegetable transformed. Humm has indicated that he’s more and more fascinated by vegetable cooking, and it shines through some equally impressive meat, fish, and poultry dishes on NoMad’s menu.

    The premises within the hotel are comprised of several rooms, the main dining room (above) set beneath a skylight that would make this a fine place for an exhibit of ballet sculptures by Degas. Indeed, the space has the look of a sexy fin-de-siècle boutique museum, right down to the very comfortable tufted chairs. Tablecloths would be a most welcome amenity, if only to dampen the sound of the rock and roll music piped in.

    To the left is another dining room, without skylight and therefore considerably darker, and to the rear a very popular, well-lighted bar. To the right is a curtained-off private dining room, and very soon they will open the open rooftop air terrace as a separate restaurant, whose view of the NYC skyline is astounding, with the Empire State smack in front of you and the gleaming Chrysler Building in the background.
    There’s a lot of fleet-footed staff at NoMad and they are all very good at what they do, not least sommelier Thomas Pastuzak
, whose selection of unfamiliar small estates contains plenty of gems at very good prices, not least a crisp selection of international Rieslings.
    You begin here with a whole loaf of seriously additive onion bread, good with anything to follow, like the generous display of fruits de mer (left), including sea urchins and ceviches, all with a judicious jab of acidity that really sparks the appetite. In a little cup are served what look like thin spring rolls, which in a French kitchen go by the name croustillants, here stuffed with wonderfully juicy sweetbreads. There is a a summer-bright dish of sweet snow peas with pancetta, pecorino and mint, and I can’t imagine anyone not swooning over Humm’s light tagliatelle with King crab, a touch of Meyer lemon and black pepper. Humm has always done some of the best foie gras in NYC, and here it comes as a creamy round with the meat of tête de cochon, lovely radishes, and nasturtiums. He cooks lobster just to the point of tenderness then bathes it in a minestrone with fava beans, lemon verbena, and pasta.
    What does an inventive chef do that’s new with beef? Buy the finest, for starters, then crust it with bone marrow and add ramps and morels to make a dish as rich as any I’ve ever had and as good as any in recent memory.
    We were urged to try what’s already become NoMad’s signature dish, a whole roasted chicken for two (right), which I imagined would merely be impeccably cooked, crisp chicken of impeccable provenance. But Humm won’t let it go at that: the whole bird, burnished dark brown, is first presented to the table in a black iron dish, then taken back to be carved. What you get on the plate is succulent chicken under whose skin has been packed foie gras and black truffles with brioche crumbs--a mimicking of Veal Orloff done with poultry. I told my wife I thought the filling almost overpowered the chicken, to which she arched and eye and replied, “It’s so good, who cares?”
    By this point in a near-perfect meal, I assumed the desserts would have a lot to live up to, and they passed with flying colors, most of all “milk and honey,” which is composed of quenelle-like milk ice cream with shortbread and cereal flake-like brittle (left). Espresso affogato with vanilla ice cream, granita and espuma succeeded on sheer good taste, although a lemon custard with almond shortbread and ricotta had a somewhat metallic taste lemon can sometimes impart.
    NoMad is a restaurant based on Humm’s thorough mastery of classic techniques that he has applied to create new concepts without manipulating his ingredients into bizarre forms. There are restaurants as good as NoMad elsewhere in NYC and certainly in Paris, but there is none really quite like it anywhere.

NoMad is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. Snacks and appetizers at dinner run $8-$24, entrees $20-$37.




Zillionaire Facebook entrepreneur Mark Zuckerberg and bride Priscilla Chan (left) enjoyed a romantic honeymoon dinner in Rome at. . . . McDonald’s!!



"I’ve changed. I used to be so angry. I think back to my early days as a critic in the late 1990s, and I blush. I would go swaggering into restaurants in some ridiculous tramp disguise, challenging them to mistreat me, order the things I was least likely to enjoy, then hurl my plate aside in a fury and demand to see the manager. When I got home, I would sit down and slaughter the place, from the ‘demented holocaust of care-home pelmetry and Argos furniture they call a dining room’ to the ‘wall-eyed gargoyle of a waitress whose breath alone took three years off my life in the short time it  took her to say the word “soup”' to ‘the chef whose signature pigeon and chocolate dish I can only assume to have been some sort of elaborate suicide note’. I wasn’t happy unless jobs were lost, reputations were ruined and ‘closed’ notices were up in the window by the end of the week. I remember reading an interview in the Financial Times with the owner of a restaurant I’d just panned, in which he declared that ‘Giles Coren’s review cost me £150,000,’ and thinking, ‘Is that all?’"--Giles Coren (right), The Guardian (5/24/12)


 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:

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).

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 2012