Virtual Gourmet

  July 1, 2012                                                                                                NEWSLETTER

HOME    |    BOOKS    |    ABOUT US    |    CONTACT

Rita Hayworth, 1947





by John Mariani


by John Mariani

The Wines of Morocco
by John Mariani




by John Mariani


Hotel Atlas Kasbah


    Before heading to Marrakech, we left Agadir and drove into the Atlas Mountains, where, this being February, the temperature dropped in the evening to one requiring sweaters and coats.  Winding our way up through through the area called Tighanimine Elbaz, we arrived at a unique hilltop inn, run by Hassan and Helene Aboutayeb, a Berber and his French wife, both of whom hold a Master's degree in Sustainable Development. This was Hotel Atlas Kasbah (right), a nine-room Ecolodge that opened in 2009, located in the Unesco World Heritage Site called the Argan Biosphere, an area readily visited for its flora and fauna, with the lodge as a home base. Helene is one of the most enchanting guides and authorities to everything in the region, and she will happily arrange for tours and reservations, make recommendations and explain the cooking at her inn. They also have a quiet lounging room (actually, everything here is blissfully quiet) where you sit on pillows, read, have tea or watch a movie, including "Casablanca."  This is a very special place.
    There is a pool here on the rooftop, overlooking the mountains and valley, and everything at the lodge is designed with ecology in mind, including 80 percent of the electrical energy derived from the sun.  In winter this arrangement with nature can make the rooms pretty cold, even with space heaters in place, and I slept under several blankets that night, awakening to a world warming up minute by minute in the brilliant desert sunshine.  We went down for a splendid breakfast of irresistible breads (below), eggs,  barley broth, argan oil, and little tagine ceramics of condiments, and herbal teas. Dinner that night at the lodge consisted of a delicious tabooleh with mint, a chicken tagine with caramelized onions galore, and fresh strawberries to finish. The menu changes almost every night, and cooking lessons are offered here. One advisory: the lodge does not have a wine or liquor license, so you might want to buy some wine or beer before arriving.

    The road out of the Valley to Marrakech winds through the desert, gray at dawn, the color of a roan horse at midday, and then the land gets hilly, spotted with shrubs and desert flowers, with mountains in the distance that might make you think of Arizona. And as the miles roll by the farms appear, the land greener. Mile by mile the villages get larger, more people are on the side of the roads, vegetable stands appear, and you can see the road widen and shimmer with mirages of water. 

    Far off, then closer and closer, are squat houses and minarets, and planted palm trees appear, and then, not suddenly, you start to see broad, new avenues, white apartment buildings, and ancient walls. Your arrival in Marrakech, called the Ocher City for its color, is signaled by milling masses of people in the outer squares festooned with goods for sale, and the broad Avenue Mohammed VI  winds into the city center, where the traffic picks up, the mosques come into view, and the eyes of the people on the road regard your passage.  You drive through the Jardin des Jeunes, and then the vast city of a million people engages your attention for its historic cast and its low stature, for no building may be built higher than a mosque,

    It needs to said right away of the Moroccans, and especially those in Marrakech, that they are extremely friendly and welcoming to foreigners, and despite a minority of Muslims bent on changing their country to Fundamentalism, Morocco has been one of the most peaceful countries throughout the Arab world. Morocco is a country of commerce, and profitable commerce effectively blunts unprofitable antagonisms that have elsewhere come to a boiling point. The government is a constitutional monarchy, and King Mohammud VI has been viewed by most as a tolerant liberal in a country with 50 years of independence behind it.

    We drove up to our hotel, the storied La Mamounia, opened in 1923, the greatest of all caravansaries and one of the grandest hotels in the world. Indeed, three hotels this year have stood out in my travels as among the very finest I’ve ever stayed at: one is Glenmere Mansion in New York’s Hudson Valley, the other I will tell you about in a few weeks. La Mamounia is of a caliber of fineness you find at the George V in Paris, the Hassler in Rome, the Dorchester in London. (Incidentally, no NYC, Chicago, Los Angeles, or San Francisco hotel would rank as high in my estimation.) A truly great hotel, for me, is not just one of unique design, impeccable service, and modern amenities, but one that is expressive of the spirit and vitality of a city, without a chain mentality driven by management.  
        The hotel was a favorite of Winston Churchill, after whom the bar here is named, and the entire property underwent a complete update by designer Jacques Garcia in 2009 that has resulted in public and private spaces of gorgeously lighted beauty, shadowy, flickering, shimmering with gold leaf, shiny with marble, and draped with silks and satins. There are 136 guest rooms, 71 suites, and three riads of three bedrooms, salons, private terrace and ozone swimming pool.   There is also a
27,000 square-foot Mamounia Spa, where I had my first cleansing and relaxing hamman experience, a state-of-the-art fitness center, and tennis courts, even a  ‘Boulodrome’ for games of la pétanque.

    You are cordially greeted at the doorman by name and given dates to eat (there are 30 varieties in Morocco)  and rosewater milk as a refreshment before being shown around the hotel by lovely young women dressed in white, past sunlit atriums with designer boutiques,  and into the landscaped green gardens past the glowing pool, beside which you may take your extensive buffet breakfast.  

    My suite, which looked out on the gardens and city, was sumptuously decorated, the fabrics and linens of the finest quality, pillows overstuffed, with as much artistry in the wall finishings and moldings as in the carpets and furniture. Sweet pastries and fruit were set on the table and replenished during my stay.
    There are five bars and three restaurants, headed by Executive Chef Fabrice Lasnon, and chefs Alfonso Iaccarino and Jean-Pierre Vigato,
all with Gallic-sounding names--Le Marocain, Le Français, L’Italien, and, by the pool, Le Pavillon de la Piscine. Attached to the Italian restaurant is a swank bar and lounge that is full each night with people having cocktails as they might have in 1930s British movies, and a French restaurant as luxurious as any in Paris but lighter in its color and ambiance. We dined at Le Français and were impressed with the quality of the ingredients, as many as possible local, but, since Europe is just across the Mediterranean, whatever needs to be brought in will be the best available, along with an excellent wine list with several Moroccan wines (see my article below.   Service throughout is as attentive as you'd wish.

    There is a great deal to see in Marrakech,  a city that developed from Berber encampments in the 11th century, though museums are not among its more intriguing attractions. This is an imperial city,  and an important stop is the Bahia Palace and Saadian tombs, where the former rulers of the Saad dynasty are buried in subdued splendor. There is also a large, rambling Garden called the Jardins Majorelle, which has been restored by Pierre Bergé and the late Yves Saint Laurent, where you'll also find Majorelle's Berber Museum of more than 600 art objects of jewelry, leather, weapons, and woven textiles.  

    The most vibrant and fascinating of all places in Marrakech is the Djemaa El Fina, the Main Square (right), where all of the city’s street life swirls around you, including fruit merchants, souvenir vendors, food tents and a few snake charmers who are always happy to drape one over your shoulder (try to avoid the cobras). From the square you enter the Berber souk market, which itself winds like a serpent through corridors crammed with every imaginable item, from silks and shoes to food and medicines. What I found most interesting about the experience of walking through this market is the low level of hustling, owing to a royal dictate that merchants tone their appeals down with tourists who don’t like be hassled step by step. This makes the route far more appealing than you would find in a bazaar in, say, Istanbul, where you are assaulted by merchants calling out to you in whatever language you speak. You can spend hours here, and it’s a good idea to leave at twilight when the gas lamps come on and the pace of everything slows and people leave work just to walk and buy in the Square. 

    Having eaten so much seafood in the restaurants in the coastal cities leading up to our arrival in Marrakech, I was ravenous to try the specialties for which Moroccan cuisine is known--the tagines, couscous, and pastillas that are native here. For our first lunch in town, we went to a well-known place run entirely by women, called Al Fassia Gueliez (left), at 55 Boulevard Zerktouni,  considered by many local gastronomes to serve some of the best traditional Moroccan food in the city, set within a sunny enclosed terrace that is charming at lunchtime. The breads are addictive, and we ordered a pastilla of squab, with wonderfully crisp pastry; a tagine of chicken with abundant sweet onions and tangy preserved lemon; and a lamb couscous that also included chicken on a base of steamy millet, laced with hot harissa.  For dessert there was a delightful couscous called seffa, made with milk, cinnamon, and honey, and a pastilla of crushed almonds and honey served with a ladle of warm milk.  (Incidentally, there is another restaurant in the city, attached to a hotel, named Al Fassia,  but they are not connected.)

    Le Tobsil (right) is a must-go place (it gets a big tourist crowd, but then so do all the better known restaurants in Marrakech), not only for its food but for the bewildering route you must take within the medina to reach it, hidden down a labyrinth of shadowy streets. Fortunately a restaurant guide in a fez will bring you to it, a door on a narrow street that opens to a two-story restaurant run by a Frenchwoman named Christine Rio and Moroccan chef Fatima Mountassarim. In its décor and architecture, beautiful rugs and tablesettings this is very evocative of old Marrakech, low lighted, with a duo of musicians whose droning plays continuously throughout the night. (Obviously these are not union musicians.) You half expect Sidney Greenstreet in a white suit and fez to be sitting across from you negotiating exit visas.
   In he candlelit room, you begin here with an array of mezes, nearly a dozen salads and condiments--tomatoes, sausages, purees--followed by a lavish couscous and tagine, then dessert. The fixed price dinner includes Moroccan wines.

    After a week in Morocco I had not tired of its cuisine, but I found myself dying for some pasta. Fortunately, the handsome, new, very modern Four Seasons Resort (left) in Marrakech features a splendid and very beautiful 80-seat restaurant (with outdoor patio) called Solano--Brasserie Sud, where Chef Francesco Montano presents a wide range of classic Italian dishes. We gorged on excellent pastas including a gnocchetti with calamari ragoût and also enjoyed a creamy vitello tonnato. Head to the rooftop lounge for cocktails and take in a gorgeous view of the Atlas Mountains. The other restaurant at the resort is Bleu d'Orange, serving Provencal cuisine.
    We had toured Morocco's western coast, along the Mediterranean and down the Atlantic, which gave us only one side of the country's character and history. The other lay in far into the desert, in tented accommodations, with different food and different culture. And that will be my next visit to a land that evokes all the images western art has itself tried to evoke crafted in pages and picture frames, but that also reveals a deeper, exotic spirit within its cities, in its deserts, and all along its seaside. Morocco, ancient and modern, is a country that others in northern Africa might well emulate.



by John Mariani

1828 Central Park Avenue
Yonkers, NY


    More than 30 years ago Paul Chou opened a restaurant in Yonkers, NY (40 minutes from midtown Manhattan, 15 from the George Washington Bridge) called Hunan Village, which at the time was exemplary for serving the kind of hot, spicy Chinese regional food that had become so popular, and ubiquitous, in the 1970s. It was certainly the best of its kind in Westchester County, and key to its success was Mr. Chou himself, whose presence made every guest a friend after one visit and whose suggestions on what was special to eat on any given evening were taken by all who became regulars--many of whom call him by the honorific Uncle Paul--interested in true Chinese cuisine.

    Over the next 20 years Hunan Village did well, changed décor, introduced a wider range of dishes, and then, after a bit of a health scare, Mr. Chou retired and leased the restaurant to someone else, who pretty much squandered all the good will he had worked so hard to build. Back to peak health, Mr. Chou decided, almost on a whim last year, to give the business another try, but not simply to update Hunan Village. He had been traveling extensively in China for years and collected ideas and recipes that would find their way onto his new menus at his new restaurant, Gem--as appropriate a name as I can think of for a Chinese restaurant of this caliber. In fact, after years when Chinese restaurants dotted the long stretch of Central Avenue from Yonkers to White Plains, Gem is one of very few left, really a gem in a wilderness of mediocre chain restaurants. 

    Decorously, Gem could not be more different from the red-and gold interior of old Hunan Village. Now the rooms are done in a clean, modern style you’d find in an upscale restaurant in Taipei or Hong Kong, with cool colors of white, gray, celadon, and dark wood.  A rippling wall of white resembles snow or sand trails. You immediately sense this is not a place you drop into for moo shu pork and beef with orange sauce.  Still, many of the true classics of Chinese cuisine, with a stronger nod to the more delicate cooking on Canton and the  seafood of Shanghai, are here, all artfully presented in the modern style rather than just ladled onto an oval dish. 

    The sharpened menu reveals the intent here, but the specials of the evening are the key to understanding what Mr. Chou and his chef Pu are seeking to do, which is to educate the American palate.  Better yet, choose among those items listed as "Paul's Recommendations"; best of all, just put yourself in his hands, and you will be treated to dishes of great taste and beauty.  By all means order the Beijing crispy lamb (above) with sesame seeds, set atop asparagus, and glistening in its marinade.  For starters have the gargantuan Sichuan piquant shrimp, which indeed they are, their tails in the air, on sliced cucumbers and chile peppers. Or try the rice cake with dried seaweed, the winter melon pickled in tangerine juice, or the white mountain yam with blueberry puree.
    It would be easy to go vegetarian here and be enchanted with a dish like
the cylinders of pressed spinach (below),  with curlicues of pepper and saluting chilies, set on a glaze of tangy mustard sauce. Gem's beautifully presented black stone wood ear mushrooms and grey sole, looking like a fluffed handkerchief, with green peppercorns (right) is a tour de force of delicacy.    Chicken is served with pretty green garlic stems, and eggplants are seasoned with cumin and sprinkled with scallions.
    Just about anywhere on the menu you'll find dazzling displays--French-cut rack of lamb marinated and grilled with steamed sausage; "Tingling pepper chicken" that will lead to a tingling pepper palate; baby ginger duck sliced thin and irresistibly flavored with ginger, green cabbage and white radish;
crispy fish of the day comes with garlic-infused tofu. And the delicate Shanghai soup dumplings here are among the best I've had this side of the Pacific.     You can also order Beijing duck any night of the week, and an old favorite, Sichuan dried shredded beef, has never been better.
    One of the big problems with restaurants in America's Chinatowns is that non-Chinese diners usually get  very different food, even wholly different menus, than do their Chinese customers. I know, because I've dined in Chinatown with Paul Chou, who completely discarded the printed menus because he knew what the chef's signature dishes really were.  So, too, while the American guests who want some of the old-fashioned Chinese dishes they've always loved, Gem will happily serve them.  But for a true aficionado of exquisite Chinese cuisine, Gem will reward you with a rich array of dishes you won't find anywhere else, making this a worthwhile trip from anywhere in the Tristate area.
    You need not ask for Paul: He will be there at the front door to greet you and then to guide you once you sit down. Paul Chou is Gem. 

Gem's appetizers run $3-$14, main courses $14-$32. Open for lunch and daily daily. 





by John Mariani

Moroccan Wines Survive Desert Winds, Heat and Religious Prohibition

Edmund J. Sullivan, "Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam"

     It’s easy enough to say “When in Rome drink as the Romans do,” but what’s a wine lover to do in Marrakech? 
For starters, Morocco is predominantly Islamic, a religion that forbids drinking alcohol (oddly enough, the word “alcohol” derives from the Pre-Islamic Arabic word “al-kohl”) but not its production, historically overseen by Christians and Jews. When Morocco became a protectorate of France in 1912, the French found fertile soil, especially in the Meknes region of the Middle Atlas Mountains, in which to build a formidable wine industry. By the time of Morocco’s independence in 1956, 55,000 hectares (135,850 acres) were under cultivation.
    But with France’s departure from Morocco, vineyards grew fallow; in 1967 the EEC (now the EU) froze most Moroccan wines out of the global market. What vineyards remained were under strict government control. But at the urging of King Hassan II and Mohammed VI in the 1990s, French wine companies returned to lease vineyards and replant with European varietals.  By the beginning of this century, 50,000 hectares were again under cultivation. This, and the influx of tourism, has made the sale of alcohol and wine widespread in Morocco’s major cities, although in many areas it is still forbidden, especially during Muslim holy days. 
So, on a recent trip to Morocco, I found little problem ordering beer, wine, or martinis at hotels and restaurants, including those run by Muslims.    Frankly, I didn’t expect any of it to be all that good, and my first few bottles of merely pleasant white wines were much enhanced by drinking them with gloriously fresh seafood at open-air French brasseries along the Mediterranean coast in cities like Casablanca, Safi, and Essaouira.  It wasn’t till I got to Marrakech, where well-spiced meat-based dishes like couscous and tagines demanded a hearty red wine, that I began to be impressed, especially after a tasting with Manuel Schott (below), the Alsatian-born sommelier in the wine cellar at La Mamounia Hotel, which stocks more than two dozen Moroccan wines, out of 400 labels on the list. “One of the problems in Morocco is that, after April, it is so hot,” said Schott, “so that just shipping the wines can compromise them. I ask for the wines to be delivered either in early morning or after 7 PM.  In August and September the desert winds are so harsh that they can destroy 30 to 40 percent of the harvest.”
    Most of the new wineries are French owned, including a delicious wine, El Mogador Gris, made in Provence Essaouira by a vigneron from the Rhone Valley named Charles Melia. El Mogador is Morocco’s first organic winery. It is called “Gris” (gray, in French) because it is a color between white and rose, and it was very fresh and well made, at 12.5 percent alcohol, with a lingering flavor and aroma of raspberries. Even more enticing was a blend of 80 percent chardonnay and 20 percent viognier, at 13 percent alcohol, called Odyssee La Ferme Rouge. This was a very lush wine whose rich chardonnay flavor took on the spicy scent of the viognier in impressive balance.
    S de Siroua by Domaine des Ouled Thaleb in the Rommani region, is 100 percent chardonnay, with a bold 14 percent alcohol and a full body from aging in new barriques that give it a vanilla caramel undertone.
    Volubilia 2008 was 100 percent cabernet sauvignon, a varietal that can take some heat, and it showed well at a moderate 13.5 percent alcohol, with good tannins and acid. Its relative lightness derived from its spending no time in oak barrel at all.
    Schott says that at least 60 percent of La Mamounia’s guests order Moroccan wines, which would have been a rare thing even a decade ago.  Wise investment and a more progressive attitude towards alcohol have quickly improved the wines, which, if difficult to find abroad, are well worth drinking when in Marrakech.

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.



As he does everywhere, at the launch of his exhibition “The Little Black Jacket” at the Swiss Institute, designer Karl Lagerfeld (right) required a butler from the  catering company Olivier Cheng   to 
follow him around at parties with a goblet of Pepsi Max on a silver tray. . . . Meanwhile designer Phillipe Starck  (left) and scientist David Edwards have come out with an alcohol spray called Wahh Quantum Sensations--.075 milliliters of alcohol per dose, said to get you momentarily drunk with  no side effects. It is  currently only available in Europe where a 21-shot cans costs 20 euro (US$26).


"`What are these called again?' I asked, scooping up a second mouthful of gravy-, chili paste-, and mayonnaise-drenched fries. `Gamja fries,' said our server. `It's like ganja but with an M.' We shoveled another forkful. `They were a big hit on 4/20,' she deadpanned, referring to the recent marijuana legalization activities."
--Jay Barmann,
"Namu Gaji: Reincarnation Fits Nicely into New Mission Home," SF WEEKLY .



 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--Now in Paperback, too-- 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.

To un-subscribe from this newsletter,click here.

© copyright John Mariani 2012