Virtual Gourmet

  August 26, 2012                                                                                                NEWSLETTER

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Javier Bardem and Scarlett Johansson in "Vicki Cristina Barcelona" (2008)



by Carey Sweet

by John Mariani

Artisanal Spanish Wines
by John Mariani



          OLD is NEW in MODERN LAS VEGAS

                                                                            by Carey Sweet

      At the Neon Museum in Las Vegas, a skull the size of an RV lies on its back on the ground, like a wickedly grinning ivory sunbather. It’s surrounded by assorted five-foot tall random alphabet letters studded with burned-out light bulbs and a faded, chipped metal sign that reads: “Cocktails – 24 Hours.” Nearby, a 20-foot tall metal man aims a pool cue at an imaginary table. He’s standing next to a sign in the shape of a dancing button-up shirt and behind an eight-foot tall burnt-orange chess piece that was probably a knight before its equine ears snapped off.          I’m wandering the grounds of the “boneyard,"  (left) part of a non-profit museum dedicated to preserving the rich history of Las Vegas’ iconic art form, the neon sign. The entity’s organizers have been saving neon since 1996, and more than 150 donated and rescued signs sprawl in various states of disrepair across the two-acre park. Over there is a sign from the late 1930s, and over there is another from the early 90s, charting the glittery, blinking heritage of motels, lounges, and casinos. The skull is a more recent addition, coming from the Treasure Island casino that opened in 1993 and is unique in that it bears no neon (but certainly fits the boneyard theme).
    It’s rather an ironic start to my trip to Las Vegas, since I’ve come here to get caught up on what’s new in this glitzy desert city. Vegas is one of those blink-and-you-miss-it kind of places, with constant development and unending one-upmanship in glamorous casinos and restaurants. And it’s been nearly two years since I’ve visited. Yet what has me fascinated right now is the antique sign for The Moulin Rouge, designed in a sexy, elegant script that would make modern font designers drool.
    My tour guide (for safety and security reasons, no visitors are allowed in the boneyard without a guide) explains that the club opened in 1955, and was the first integrated hotel casino in America. Until that time almost all of the casinos on the Strip were off limits to blacks unless they were the entertainment or labor force. And then, my next stop is the Smith Center for the Performing Arts nearby. Just opened in May, it’s a gleaming, art déco masterpiece of architecture, centered around a 2,000-plus seat theater, a 1.7-acre park for outdoor concerts, and a 170-foot tower hung with 47 carillon bells. This is also home to the Cabaret Jazz lounge, a two-story salute of stage and sound to the musical style that originated at the beginning of the 20th century in black communities in the South. Juxtaposition, indeed. This is a modern Las Vegas I haven’t seen before:
showcasing  cutting edge style, while embracing seen before--its deeply layered past.

    You’ve probably all seen the commercials for The Cosmopolitan hotel, which opened in December of 2010 for a cool price tag of $3.9 billion. Thankfully there aren’t really any rabbits in the elevators, or kittens or chicks wandering about (a bit creepy, yes?), but this a property that wants to be the trendiest destination in town, while saluting a retro "Mad Men"-esque kind of glam.
    The cocktails at Chandelier Bar (right) may nod to the classics, but the experience is more like a science experiment. Designed as a three-story tall chandelier in the hotel lobby, the bar features three floors of themed lounges that you access by walking through luminous curtains of two million beaded crystals. With a menu of more than 250 specialty drinks, theater is key for signatures like the Fire Breathing Dragon, a sweet, fiery, pink concoction that gets its name because the bartender freeze dries a raspberry in liquid nitrogen, the customer pops the fruit in her mouth, and breathes a plume of icy smoke before sipping the libation of Bacardi Dragonberry, muddled raspberry, lemongrass and Thai chile syrup from a glass rimmed in pink peppercorns.
    Savvy clientele order from the secret menu, for whimsies like a Piña Colada Spaghetti drink topped with strawberry Daiquiri geleé, or a Verbena Sipper of lemon verbena, ginger and lemongrass syrups, yuzu sour and Milagro Silver tequila topped with a Sichwan bud that numbs, then tingles the taste buds. Cleary, it’s what the public wants - the spectacular lounge earned $100 million in revenues last year, the highest receipts for cocktail-only sales in the world, says lead mixologist Mariena Mercer.

    At the Cosmo, you can dine at Scarpetta, a branch of the NYC original, where chef Scott Conant takes a contemporary approach to classic Italian cuisine. The crudi are sublime, such as silky raw tuna layered with marinated vegetables and preserved truffles, while prawns come wrapped in buttery lardo on a bed of chile-kissed rosemary lentils. There are fancy plates, like thick pici noodles wound with succulent red wine braised duck and earthy truffles. Yet probably the best pasta I’ve ever had outside of Italy is the simple spaghetti, dressed purely in tomato, basil and olive oil,  with ingredients so fresh and pristine they practically sparkle.
    Still, for the true staying power of old school Italian, it’s impossible to forget Spago (left) in The Forum Shops at Caesars, half a mile up the boulevard. It’s celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and shows why chef Wolfgang Puck remains so relevant, offering casual dining in the front and fine dining in the back, all overseen by executive chef Eric Klein.
    I love the approachable favorites of grilled loup de mer, served skin-on atop a swath of sunchoke mousseline, a puddle of deep purple saba and velvety mascarpone emulsion, or red wine-braised beef short ribs with leeks, hand-made ricotta gnocchi, and rich braising jus. Yet the highlight is a show stopping ahi sashimi served atop crunchy wakame on spoons nestled inside a handmade ice igloo.
    For more Asian flair, Japonais (right) opened in 2006 at The Mirage, though it remains entirely current, from the luxe minimalist space to the parade of small plates that are served continuously and in whatever order the busy kitchen gets them done. The sashimi is excellent, and clearly this is no place to drown the delicate fish in soy sauce, since the condiment is served only on request. A chorus line of fried prawn heads is strong flavored with the creamy “mustard” (the fatty goo inside the shell), while “Le Quack Japonais” is a playful take on duck, the meat maple leaf smoked and moistened in hoisin sauce and sweet mango chutney, to be wrapped in lacy moo shoo crêpes. For a crowd-pleaser, “The Rock” is an interactive treat of paper-thin sliced raw New York steak that cooks in its sweet marinade as you lay strips across a sizzling hot rock.
    Gastropubs continue to be a popular trend, and so it is with Public House in Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian that opened last December. We browsed among more than 200 selections, including 24 beers on tap and three seasonal cask beers from artisanal cask brewers, while corporate chef Anthony Meidenbauer offered a menu focusing on dishes incorporating beer.
    My server proudly noted that the dark wood and leather-clad pub has two out of the three certified cicerones in Las Vegas (a cicerone is the equivalent of a wine sommelier for beer) and thus is well equipped to handle challenging pairings like grilled octopus with pepperonata and fingerlings (recommended: Uinta Organic Monkshine); or Irish Coffee cheesecake with a dollop of Jameson whiskey-laced chantilly cream and scattered hazelnut crumble (Uinta Labyrinth, a 13.5% very dark and bitter like espresso). And it’s all good. I visited for lunch but had no trouble polishing off hearty plates such as ribs braised with Black Butte Porter, briny bouchot mussels in a broth of Hoegaarden beer, and retro-chic Welsh rarebit sauced in Tenaya Creek IPA and Cheddar.

    Regardless of the era,
I’ve now decided that afternoon tea is something we should all do, every day of our lives. Especially if it is at the Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas’ Tea Lounge (left), served from 2 to 5 p.m. daily. The posh salon in the Sky Lobby overlooking Las Vegas Boulevard brims with freshly brewed loose leaf teas and divine pastries, served from multi-tiered hors d’oeuvres caddies as we relax on elegant couches and sip Veuve Clicquot. For my $36 feast, I savored delicately perfumed organic lychee green tea, a jade-colored Imperial Spring Dragonwell tea of leaves that are pan-fired for a sweet, toasty flavor, and Jasmine Pearl white tea, featuring fragrant leaves hand-rolled into a tight pearl--when submerged in hot water, the pearls unfurl, releasing an enchanting floral perfume.
    It could easily have been a light dinner as well, in trays of tiny sandwiches stuffed with smoked salmon and cucumber finished in watercress spread, chive egg salad on brioche, curried chicken salad, and Black Forest ham, plus warm scones slathered in  Devonshire clotted cream and house made marmalades and jams, rounded out by an array of pastries and chocolates.

    Doubtless, the finest salute to the “new old” Las Vegas is the Mob Museum, debuted in February under the umbrella of the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement. Al Capone. Bugsy Siegel. Eliot Ness. Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover, and all those heroes from the origins of the FBI. The opportunity to sit in a real electric chair or "fire" an actual Tommy Gun. Does it get more fun anywhere?
    The centerpiece of the $50 million Mob Museum is the second floor courtroom, once the location of one of fourteen national Kefauver Committee hearings to expose organized crime held in 1950 and 1951. Visitors can see the actual blood-stained wall where the St. Valentine's Day massacre took place and learn about the true dirty secrets of Mob violence and clever wiretapping by law enforcement. I spent more than two hours scouring every nook and cranny of the three-story building, fascinated by the gory soap opera stories of Charlie “Lucky” Luciano, George "Bugsy" Moran, Meyer Lansky, Sam Giancana, and so many more villains who ruled the city in the 1920s through the 1950s. Through high-tech interactive presentations, I got the skinny on casino money skimming operations, too. Good information to have, I figured, since you just never know what adventures a Sin City vacation will bring.
    How delightful, from boneyards to crazy cocktails to mayhem, all packed into one electric city. It’s proof that as much as Las Vegas has evolved, it’s wonderful to know that some things never change.




77 Worth Street (near Church St.)

    Atera is something of a conundrum. On the one hand Chef Robert Lightner proves that the more sensible concepts of molecular cuisine  and foraging can produce small wonders of innovative, quite beautiful dishes. His service staff also demonstrates that courtesy and calm description can make an evening here an education, with none of the longwinded pretensions that you find at restaurants like Alinea and Moto in Chicago or Catbird Seat in Nashville.
         On the other hand, Atera is one of those new restaurants where guests have no choice in the matter of what they will eat—here seven main courses that can balloon to twice that number and more when canapés and pre-desserts are added in.  Also, although the prix fixe is $150 + $90 for beverages (chosen by Alex LaPratt), it’s hard to know how a restaurant with 13 seats (not always filled every night and only open for five) can possibly survive, but I’ll leave to that problem, if it is a problem, to well-heeled owner Jodi Richard.
         You will be cordially greeted at the sign-less door by manager Eamon Rockey and shown to a single room with a U-shaped counter built around the open kitchen, where a hushed crew of cooks, including Mr. Lightner, most recently at Castagna in Portland, OR, work away, with tweezers seemingly their principal utensil, with which they place tiny ingredients, micro-greens,  and preparations on all manner of serviceware.  There is also a five-seat table off to the side.  It’s a minimalist décor, with lots of terra firma colors and accents, gray barn siding, and a vertical wall of herbs and flowers to be used by the kitchen. There are flowers in the room to give more color and a touch of vibrance.  I don’t quite understand why the windows are frosted, thereby keeping out the city light.
         The critics have raved, but with reservations. Adam Platt of New York Magazine wrote that, “
Like lots of artsy, cutting-edge cooks, however, Lightner isn’t necessarily concerned with making his food delicious in the standard, accessible ways.”  The New Yorker asserted, "Lightner isn’t just playing with his food; there is a method to his modernism.” And Pete Welles of the Times, who gave Atera three stars, noted of some canapé dishes, “After a few more such mouthfuls, I decided that, if I were ever invited to a Super Bowl party at Mr. Lightner’s house, I’d bring the guacamole.”
         Atera seems a place you may love or hate, but it will give you something to think and talk about.  I haven’t the space to describe every one of the 14+ dishes I was served, but, especially at the beginning,  when you are served fantastic house-baked bread. I was fascinated by items like lumpfish roe, peas, amaranth, and sourdough, and a little serving of green almonds with cucumber and fresh almond milk. (You eat most of the canapés with your fingers).  Morel mushroom with veal sausage and pine nut gravy was a delight, but a very complex riff on the humble  lobster roll with yeast neglected to taste much like lobster.  A shell of dry bread painted with squid ink masqueraded as a razor clam.
         For something heartier there was a well-fatted beef strip with a marrow ragù and smoked onion, and then came several sweets, including a peach with sunflower toffee and a fairly simple strawberry shortcake with wild strawberries and raw milk ice cream. I was not in love with the smoky “bourbon cask” ice cream sandwich that concluded the meal.
         Lightner is a forager, and he worked at Copenhagen’s now famous Noma, and gets a tad twee in giving you toe Latin taxinomic names for ingredients like purslane and magenta spree, but one can hardly fault him for his intensity.
         Atera is not for everyone; indeed, it’s for people who are willing to spend, with tax and tip, $620 for two and sit out a counter for three hours. But there’s no blasting music here,  no one dressed as if he’d just gotten out of bed, and no in-your-face attitude that they know best and you know nothing.  When you leave Atera, you will know a great deal more than when you left, right down to the Latin for oxeye daisy, which is leucanthemum vulgare.

Atera is open five days a week, Tues.-Sat.



The Best Spanish Wines Are Now
Coming from the Artisanal Wineries
By John Mariani

    Wine writer and importer Gerry Dawes is nothing if not highly opinionated about Spanish wines.  As well he should be when novelist James A. Michener says, “His adventures [in Spain]far exceeded mine in both width and depth.” In 2003 Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Prémio Naçional de Gastronomía, and Spanish super-star chef Ferran Adria said of him, “Spain wouldn’t be as known to Americans without the stories Gerry tells and writes.”
     So, when Dawes (on the right, with winemaker
Francisco Dovalo, founder of the Assoc. of Bodegas Artesanas),   summoned me to New York’s Le Cirque restaurant for tastings of his Spanish Artisan Wine Group Gerry Dawes Selections, I expected to be as delighted by the wines as by Dawes’s opinions. True to form, he began by lashing into how so many contemporary Spanish wineries are making wines in an international style. “These big wineries are losing their souls,” he said. “Their wines are deliberately made in that overripe, high alcohol style that the wine media like Bob Parker applaud.  The wines are all starting to taste the same and they give you no sense of their terroir at all.  The wines might as well come from anywhere in Spain.  Don’t get me started on what’s happened to most of Ribera del Duero, Rioja, and Navarra!”
         The wines—20 of them—Dawes was pouring came from small growers, some of whom just began bottling their wines, grown from their own clones of unfamiliar grapes like espadeiro, tinta hembra, hoja redonda, and godello.  There was a remarkable array of whites, and an extraordinary rosado from the region of Cigales--Hermanos Merino Viña Catajarros ‘Elite’ 2011 ($14), with its dark rose color and a blend of 80 percent tempranillo, 5 percent garnacha, 10 percent verdejo, and 5 percent albillo that really turned heads at our table of wine media and sommeliers.
         “Absolutely delicious” was what I wrote next to a rich 100 percent albarino, 2010 ($25) made by Antonio Gondar of Adegas Avo Roxo (right) on just 1.5 hectares of land in O Salnes. Its Burgundy-like power was achieved with no oak aging. Another white wine—actually golden with a hint of pink—lush with fruit and dense with minerality was a 2010 Cabaleiro do Val Albariño ($25). The wine is made by Francisco “Paco” Dovalo, founder and president of the Association of Bodegas Artesanas, who makes his vino de autor (signature wine) in an old granite farmhouse dating to 1834.
         Were I enjoying a shellfish lunch on the harbor on Mallorca, I could find no better match than O Barreiro ‘A Silveira 2010 ($20), made from 100 percent godello, from 30-year-old vines grown in a high altitude vineyard in a mountain village named Seadur above the Sil River Valley.
         We tasted five wines made from the mencia grape, which, said Dawes, “
“The mencia grape is to ribeira sacra as gamay is to Morgon or syrah is to Côte Rôtie–-a grape perfectly matched to its terroir. A few years back mencia showed a lot of promise, but too many vintners went the high alcohol, in-your-face route, which is unnecessary because mencia is a big wine with a lot of character on its own and a distinct aroma.”
    Indeed, some of the mencia bottlings had a little funkiness on first whiff and taste, but they showed varietal distinctions: the Bodegas Adria Viña Barroca 2010 is very well priced at $15; the Adegas D. Berna 2011 ($20) had a pleasing minty flavor; and Don Bernardino Tinto Joven 2011 ($17) reminded me of syrah, with rich fruit and a slate-like minerality, yet it has only 12.5 percent alcohol. Most impressive of the mencias, Viña Cazoga Tinto 2010 ($27), was a blend with other varietals, whose bouquet was really quite beautiful, followed by layers and layers of flavors and a strong, long finish—the best wine of the day for me--made by Jorgé Carnero (left).
         I also loved the 2007 Aliaga Garnacha Vieja ($20)made from old vines garnacha whose grapes undergo a 20-day maceration that gives it a gorgeous nose, color and depth, without depending on any oak or high alcohol (the percentage is under 14). Similar, but with more complexity, was a 2009 Terra Remota Camino ($29) made from 40 percent garnacha, 30 percent syrah, 20 percent cabernet sauvignon, and 10 percent tempranillo.

         The irony of these artisanal wines is that few ever reach Madrid, Barcelona or the rest of Spain, available only to local people and restaurants in their respective regions. But Dawes has edged them into the U.S., now found at notable New York City restaurants like Picholine, Porter House, and Tertulia in Manhattan,  Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, NY, and Crabtree’s Kittle House in Chappaqua, NY, as well as at several wine stores in the TriState area.
         “There aren’t a whole lot of these wines being made,” said Dawes over a closing glass of Aliaga Moscatel. “Many of these guys are farmers who only made wines for the locals.  But if you want to taste the Spanish terroir and the handiwork of the artisans, they are well worth seeking out.

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.



"Ten years ago, it was most likely one of those `temples of gastronomy,' a restaurant with 800-thread-count white tablecloths, entrées hovering around $40, and an exclusive atmosphere. Five years ago, things started to relax, and it wasn't just the food: The Clash played on the speakers, the chairs were backless, and customers balked at the long lines rather than the high prices."--Andrew Knowlton, "America's Best New Restaurants," Bon Appetit (Sept. 2012).



NYC'S Big Gay Ice Cream and Robicelli's Cupcakes is now
selling the Salty Pimp,  made of vanilla cake around dulce
 de leche pudding, topping it with dulce de leche
buttercream frosting in fudge .



 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.

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© copyright John Mariani 2012