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  August 12, 2012                                                                                                NEWSLETTER

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Jean-Baptiste Chardin (1699-1779)



by John Mariani

Bull & Bear
by John Mariani

Good Bordeaux Doesn’t Have to Cost a Fortune
 by John Mariani


 Part One

by John Mariani

    Reno, Nevada,  with a population of 225,000 residents, has not yet ditched its promotional mantra as "The Biggest Little City in the World," but the new ad campaign's slogan is "What's your passion?"--a reasonable enough query because Reno, while living in the p.r. shadow of Vegas, is obviously a far less razzle-dazzle city and one that offers a whole raft of cultural activities that Vegas either has or lacks entirely, including a National Automobile Museum, an Opera, the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts, the Reno Philharmonic, and the Reno Theater Coalition.
    In addition, the city's outdoor parks and riverside show a more habitable, neighborly side of the city, which is added to by opportunities for golf, skiing and snowboarding, with 18 ski resorts in nearby Lake Tahoe, kayaking (right) and white water rafting--there's an annual Reno River Fest--even, since 2005, its own ice skating rink.
The city has become the home of the National Bowling Stadium, called the "Taj Mahal of tenpins."
    Reno has by far a more low-key atmosphere than Vegas, at least outside of the casinos, which have long been a tourist attraction and money  maker, although in recent years nearby Indian casinos in California have siphoned off a good part of that business.
    So now the city, which enjoyed an earlier, highly profitable run upon the discovery in 1859 of the Comstock Lode, is now putting its silver into changing its image from a second-tier gambling town to a modern metropolis of enormous diversity,  not least by upgrading the international airport (with very easy, sensible access to a rental car right by the gate).    And then there's one of those attractions that has a regional, all-American appeal all its own--Reno Aces Baseball Stadium, where you can drop in on a summer's day, buy an inexpensive ticket, and watch players not yet ready for prime time play their hearts out before a crowd that knows them like nephews and neighbors.

    It was a beautiful blue-sky day with scudding clouds over the stadium when I attended a game--the Aces, a Triple A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks were in a four-game series with the fearsome-sounding Sacramento River Cats--sitting smack up behind the protective chain link fence, where I could watch players in their livery, many of whom were just big kids, go intently through all the motions American boys have for more than a century--the pulls, the tugs, the nervous hat touches, the signals that look like tics, the practice swings and pitches,  eyeballing  the catcher's fingers, the nod of the pitcher's head, then the slider or fast ball and and either the exultant crack the wooden bat or the solid thunk into the mitt. All up close.  There as more purity to enterprise, more a game than a business, far less commercial,  but dead serious to these players just aching to move up to the majors.  More than any overproduced Major League game could ever be, the Aces game in Reno seemed more like a scene out of "Fields of Dreams," in which James Earl Jones's character says, "The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and what could be again."

    On my recent visit to Reno I found that, while you could easily spend several days there taking in its indoor and outdoor attractions, it is also a city where you can stay put and easily  visit the surrounding area, the desert and mountains of Nevada and the extraordinary beauty of the Lake Tahoe region, with its magnificent depths--more than 1,600 feet--of crystalline sky blue water.  Mark Twain, who on a hike had difficulty just finding the lake, finally came upon it and exclaimed, "I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole world affords."

   When I got to Reno, I had in my head a favorite folk song of the 1960s, written by Steve Gillett and Tom Campbell, recorded many times over the years, most famously by Ian and Sylvia and John Denver.  It's the lilting, sad story of a beautiful girl named Darcy Farrow--"the sweetest flower that bloomed o'er the range"--who lived in the Carson Valley, where the Truckee River runs through, and of how, just before her wedding day, she was killed in a fall from her horse, causing her lover, Vandy, to "put a bullet through his brain" out of grief, and how they buried them together before the snow began to fall and how the locals still sing of the beautiful Darcy Farrow.
    The story wasn't true, but Darcy Farrow is a local legend, and the song is full of geographical references to the territory--the Walker River, the Carson Valley Plain, the Truckee, and Virgina City, and I was determined to visit them all, each part of a folk legend that evoked Sierra Nevada in a romantic, tragic way.  No location in the song was more than an hour and a half drive out of Reno, swerving over curving hills and into the pine mountains, looking down on the Plain and the silver, winding Truckee.
    Truckee itself is located just across the California border at 6,000 feet, and the scenery is breathtaking in a way only the West can be at those mid-elevations, where the air itself seems freshly churned from the mountain clouds. The town is small: I walked its length and back in about 20 minutes, and there are some small museums, an old jail, and the Donner Summit Historical Society. Various old homes, some in better repair than others, line the streets along with boutiques and eateries, the inevitable fudge and candy shop, a streamlined diner (above), and a vintage Mobil Flying Horse gas station.  The railroad runs through Truckee making that old moaning sound that is part animal yell, part mechanical drone.  There's a Capitol Building that once housed a local opera house, and a Chinese Herb Shop built in 1878 when the town had the second largest Chinatown on the west coast. And there are plenty of B&Bs and restaurants, with wonderful names like the Blue Coyote Bar and Grill and the Drunken Monkey.    I had a terrific lunch at Burger Me! (left), which has outdoor tables. Inside it's a small room usually filled with people who have known for a while now that this is one of the best burgers--in all varieties--anywhere, a recognition I made upon biting into the well-fatted beef patty mounted with add-ons of caramelized onions, pepperjack cheese, even sauerkraut, avocado, a fried egg and bacon (right). The Truckee Trainwreck variation included onion ring and turkey chili, while the BBQ bison burger gets a layer of smoked Cheddar, jalapeño peppers and BBQ sauce.  Even the unorthodox ahi tuna burger works well here, and you won't easily find better sweet potato fries or onion rings in the West.  Oh, and they make a stellar milkshake too. 

    I also visited Virginia City (below), whose long history is full of amazing characters, including who gave his nickname,  "Old Virginny" to the town--James Finney, who is said to have discovered the Comstock Lode, a streak of silver that for a time earned the city the title of richest in America. Today, surrounded by Nevada ghost towns, Virginia City is a National Historic Landmark,  drawing many people to it by old railroad trains. Mark Twain started out as a newspaper man here for Daily Territorial Enterprise, which paid him a whopping $25 a week in 1862, this at a time when the Comstock Lode "stretched straight through the town," which even then had a swollen population of almost 20,000 people and a "whiskey mill every fifteen steps." Another famous American, bon vivant, Lucius Beebe, bought the same newspaper in 1950 and wrote the long-running "That Was the West" series.  Today, Virginia City is a quaint relic of those mining-mad days of the mid-19th century, retaining the look it must have acquired by the turn of the century, but now with a population of less than 900 residents. 
    The streets are lined, if not every fifteen feet, with saloons, very old ones like the Bucket of Blood and Red Dog Saloon, along with the usual t-shirt and souvenir shops. The millionaires of that earlier era would assemble to toast themselves at the still extant Washoe Club.  A contemporary attraction is Barrels O Candy, which is just that, a big room with scores of barrels brimming with every candy you have ever heard of; every one I remember from my own childhood has found a home here, from Turkish taffy to Nik-L-Nips in little wax bottles.  Red Hots, Caramello, Walnettos, Dots, HeatH bars, even candy cigarettes.
    Then, if you haven't been dazzled enough by all that packaged candy,  there's the charming Grandma's Fudge, where the aroma of chocolate, vanilla and butter cream can put the receptive visitor in a stupor.  We drove back to Reno, and that night, I had sweet dreams.

PART TWO of this article, on where to eat in Reno, will appear next week.


by John Mariani

Bull &Bear
Waldorf-Astoria Hotel
301 Park Avenue


    The Waldorf-Astoria opened in 1931, and through thick and thin, war and peace, good and bad ownership, the art deco has always been part of NYC's soul, with so many, many stories played out here, several depicted in the somewhat creaky 1945  romance "Weekend at the Waldorf."  Peacock Alley, its fine dining restaurant in the lobby, has itself had some extraordinary chef occupants and some duds, and of course this is where the Waldorf salad was created. 
    The Bull & Bear has been around since the beginning (right), and it still wears its historic posh well, with acres of mahogany and fine game paintings, well-draped tables and very comfortable chairs, its bi-level arrangement from  a day when the idea of Siberia seating ruled, as overseen by the notorious maître d' Oscar Tschirky, who ruled over NYC Society with a flick of his chin.
    Today service is far more egalitarian, and getting a table overlooking Lexington Avenue is not as hard as it might once have been.  The menu has long been geared to steaks and chops,  but there's a good deal more on the menu to choose from, done with a more refinement than at some of the brusque independent steakhouses in the neighborhood.   
    The Bull & Bear seems entirely right for the kind of dinner that 19th century Gotham tycoons would tuck into night after night, and many of those same items  they would have gorged on are still here for your delectation.  That means appetizers of fat shrimp cocktail and, of course, the Waldorf salad, with candied walnuts, sweet and sour apples, celeriac and truffle. There is a first-rate onion soup gratinée here, thick, not too much bread, gobs of Gruyère, and the right steaming temperature. Yellowfin tuna tartare is a stand-out dish here, but the Maine peekytoe crabcake with fines herbes aïoli has disappointingly too much filler rather than large lump crab. 
    My favorite appetizer was an old favorite indeed--the Bull & Bear Wedge, a large slice of really crisp, cold Iceberg lettuce with that wonderful loud crunch, served with ripe tomatoes, tangy red onion, Maytag blue cheese, bacon and egg--almost a meal in itself.
    Beef is obviously the draw here, but I'm sorry to say that while of good Prime quality, the dry-aged NY strip did not have the marbling so desirable in this cut of beef. A Black Angus filet mignon (left) was thick and good. There is a choice of various sauces to go with the beef, but they will cost you extra, and at these prices, you'd think they'd throw in a spoonful or two of Béarnaise.
    I do applaud the caliber of B&B's Colorado rack of lamb, succulent, nicely trimmed yet retaining all the right fat in the right places on a generous rack.  Dover sole meunière was also of top quality in terms of the fish's fattiness and the lemon brown butter used.
    Two side dishes missed, especially not-cooked-through au gratin potatoes we sent back in favor of fine buttery mashed potatoes;  creamed baby spinach could have used a good shot more of cream and butter.
    Desserts are not out of the ordinary but, like the crème brûlée and cheesecake, well rendered. 
The wine list is hefty with high-end items, and needs a lot more bottles under $50. 

Open for dinner nightly. Appetizers $14-$24, main courses $46-$95.




Good Bordeaux Doesn’t Have to Cost a Fortune
 by John Mariani

     As the market and auction prices for First Growth Bordeaux soar to levels only one-percenters can afford, one would think that such inflation would lift the prices for all Bordeaux wines. Yet, while the First Growths get all the hype and stratospheric prices—twelve bottles of 2008 Lafite-Rothschild recently sold at auction for $11,000—the prices for Second- through Fifth Growths have shown little in the way of inflation.
    But the real story—the bargain bin, if you will—for Bordeaux is in the unheralded estates and appellations that fall into categories as Bordeaux Supérieur and local names like Fronsac, Côtes de Bourg, Cadillac, Côtes de Castillon and others that make up 95 percent of the region’s wines, which is, after all, what the French drink on an everyday basis.     
    Owing to a summer sale at New York’s Sherry-Lehmann wine store, I stocked up on Bordeaux from such unheralded appellations and have been drinking them with pleasure, sometimes with real surprise.  It hardly needs noting that none rises to the levels of complexity that one finds in First and Second Growths, but I would be hard put to discern many from an array of Third, Fourth and Fifth Growths. And the prices range from just $13 to $20.
            The vintages went from 2006 to 2010, and all of them were ready to drink right now, although a year or two more on some of the more recent vintages  will prove interesting. All were typical Bordeaux blends of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec, and cabernet franc. None had an alcohol level above 14.5 percent by volume. (The prices below are those I paid on sale, but they may be higher or lower elsewhere.)

Château de Maison Neuve 2009 ($16)—This wine is from Montagne-Saint Emilion, where merlot dominates, so this had a bold body whose tannins are softened for balance. If you close your eyes and don’t look at the label, you may taste a hint of the illustrious Cheval Blanc and Ausone from the same region of Saint Émilion.  

Chateâu Jouanin 2009 ($14)—From Castillon, on the right bank of the Dordogne River, where the wines are known for their structure, this is a blend of 70 percent merlot, the rest cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc that shows a fine equilibrium between its fruits and acids and robust tannins buoyed it. It was a terrific match with charcoal-broiled porterhouse steak and corn on the cob.  

Château Labatut-Bouchard 2009 ($13)—Made in a region called Cadillac better known for its sweet wines, this remarkably priced red is a juicy glory, full flavored, deep in color and bouquet, and certainly worth its label proclamation as a “Grand Vin de Bordeaux.” 

Château Le Bonnat 2008 ($17)—Made from wines that average 30-40 years old and owned since 1997 by the Lesgourgues family, Le Bonnat is a good example of modern French winemaking that brings out the best from a clay and limestone soil in the Graves region, known for the silkiness of its wines. It’s not Haut-Brion but it has complex density and a lovely smoky quality. 

Château Mayne-Vieil 2009 ($16)—This big blend of mostly merlot and cabernet franc from the Fronsac region in eastern Bordeaux may take a few years to show all its virtues, for its tannins are still firm and its character hearty. Although modern winemaking has softened up Fronsac reds in recent years, one can still taste its traditional rustic charm, which makes it a good choice for a lamb stew or cassoulet this fall.                                                                                                The city of Bordeaux

Château Thébot 2009 ($14)—Though it has a simple Bordeaux appellation, the wine is made from 75 percent merlot, and the first sip is impressive for its fist of fruit and tannins—it’s 14.5 percent alcohol—but the wine keeps revealing more fruit character as you drink it with food. 

Château Haut Maginet 2009 ($11)—For eleven bucks, this is a real winner and has the true taste of Bordeaux—brick, dark cherries and spices, with a delicious peppery component and an admirable 13.5 percent alcohol. Slog it back with anything from a hamburger to roast chicken and French fries. 

Château Tour Léognan (left) 2008 ($20)—This is the second-tier wine from Grave’s Château Carbonnieux, better known for its white wine. Cabernet sauvignon makes up 55 percent of the blend, but it’s mellowed out now and shows the kind of breeding such a respected estate can bring.  It’s the kind of wine I’d bring to a friend’s house to surprise him with its high quality.

 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.



René Redzepi, chef-owner of Copenhagen's Noma, 
is reportedly testing dishes with live ants and yogurt,
saying, "I like the acidity that comes from the ant,
almost citrus-like, especially in combination with
fresh, natural yogurt." 


"I’m face to face with a magnificent, giant slab of rosy prime rib. At 28 ounces,
and standing at least 3 inches tall, it has to be the biggest one I’ve ever met."
--Leslie Brenner, "Al Biernat's," Dallas Morning News


 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: LETTER FROM PARIS' SANTA CRUZ

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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