Virtual Gourmet

  March 29,  2015                                                                                             NEWSLETTER


Welcome Back, Mad Men!


By John Mariani


By John Mariani

By Brian Freedman


By John Mariani

Gérard Depardieu in "Vatel" (2000) 

    The package landed with a considerable thud on my desk, a two-volume, 18.2-pound, 932-page production entitled Notes from a Kitchen: A Journey Inside Culinary Obsession by photographer Jeff Scott and chef Blake Beshore.  It is a collection of photos, with little text, showing the work of cooks on the line, focusing on 10  American chefs--mostly Sean Brock, along with  George Mendes, Johnny Iuzzini, Emma Hearst, Zak Pelaccio, Michael Laiskonis, Jason Neroni, Matt Gaudet, Joel Harrington and Neal Fraser.
    There are shots of order tickets, menu notes, 23 photos of one chef working out with a punching bag, and nine pages of the inside of a flour mill. But mostly there are hundreds of photos of cooks’ hands putting the final touches on a dish--a periwinkle on tapioca,  a pin dot of sauce on octopus, a blow torch to cactus pads. There are no recipes.
    It is an odd production, to be sure, but you can hardly fault the exuberance of Scott and Beshore in trying to view “chefs as artists who alter our emotional state by psychologically affecting our sense memories,” citing Sean Brock on the reaction of an unidentified food writer who broke down eating his food  [italics his]: “This food writer ate a dish and cried. She came back to the kitchen in tears. It’s crazy when food affects people like that. They get into it so much that it’s too much for them, it’s emotional for them. When grown people start crying that’s insane.” True.
The book is an extravagance of both scale and scope, especially since a two-volume Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci weighs in at just 294 pages and 1.6 pounds.  More important, Notes from a Kitchen’s publication poses the question, is cooking an art?  
    The new Fifth Edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language gives a reasonably cogent definition of art: “The conscious use of the imagination in the production of objects to be contemplated or appreciated as beautiful, as in the arrangement of forms, sounds, or words.”  It   also gives a fourth definition of an art as “A skill that is attained by study, practice, or observation [e.g.]: the art of negotiation." The fifth definition is “Artful contrivance; cunning.”
        When it comes to cooking, I’d be happy to apply these last two, but not the first, but I might also argue that art, as noted in the first definition, surely doesn’t have to be “beautiful.” There is ugly art (Hieronymus Bosch, right) and troubling art  (Goya’s  “Disasters of War”) and art that is deliberately in your face (Kerouac’s On the Road), disorienting (Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”), even repulsive (the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen”).  Cooking, on the other hand, should be none of these things except, perhaps, beautiful to look at on the plate and delicious on the tongue. 
Creative cooking might well enlighten a person to new possibilities or ways of thinking about a pea shoot, and that is a good thing in a world of fast, frozen, chemically enhanced foods. Cooking can be provocative, but only a fool makes food that is deliberately distasteful or that seeks to outrage people. Cooking is actually much closer to science than art, as the six-volume, 2,438-page, 48-pound book called Modernist Cuisine shows at enormous cost in recipes that come more from a chem lab than an art studio.  As any pastry chef will tell you, there is no less chemistry involved in the making of a croissant than in the glazing of fine china or making pewter.
    Cooking, like the art of negotiation, the art of politics, even the art of war, is clearly a skill attained by study, practice and observation, that is, a craft.  That is what the great 19th century master chef Carème (below), who codified French haute cuisine, meant when he titled his five-volume encyclopedia L’Art de la Cuisine Française.  Of course, imagination and creativity go into cooking, often at a very high level, at which point it is called “haute” cuisine.  But there is nothing that rises to the level of true art in a craft whose very existence depends on the constant replication of a dish, night after night, week after week.  The replication of stenciled friezes, even if originally designed by Raphael, does not constitute art, and I’m sure Andy Warhol was mumbling all the way to the bank when his work went from replicating Brillo boxes to having assistants replicate his own work.
        “If chefs ate their own food,” said Paul Bocuse, “we’d have a better cuisine,” and the first duty of any cook is to make delicious food, to make his guests happy, sometimes surprising them with a novel idea, sometimes keeping them guessing with a bit of trompe l’oeuil. The French have always recognized this distinction, emphasizing again and again simplicity in cooking, just as did Leonardo da Vinci--who designed both a convection rotisserie oven and a cooling distillation machine--when he said of art and craft, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” whether in a painting, battlements or the kitchen. When a chef goes to deliberate extremes to create dazzle on the plate, he or she is violating the cardinal principle French gastronome Curnonsky insisted on:  “Cuisine is when things taste like themselves.”  In cooking, form follows function, not vice-versa, in the same way the designer of a beautiful airplane has, by necessity, to make sure the wings stay on.
    Line cooks are obsessive about their work simply to keep up when 25 orders come in at once. They try very hard to make the food as good as they have been taught, but too many chefs with their heads in the stars obsess more on their own image, causing fawning media to toss around terms like “artist” and “genius” as if the chef were Cézanne painting apples and pears.  Ever humble Cézanne (right), whose favorite food was potatoes cooked in oil, insisted that, 
"When I judge art, I take my painting and put it next to a God-made object like a tree or flower. If it clashes, it is not art."
    Surely, using tweezers to place
micro-greens just so on top of layers of foie gras and puff pastry does not constitute art at any level.   There is a craft to making good pizza  or a juicy roast chicken but it is not an art form. Extravagance in cuisine, whether it’s the mounting of a 200-course dinner at Versailles, or a chicken stuffed into a duck stuffed into a turkey, is mere cunning artifice, to be applauded for what it is--fun, enticing, beautiful, but it isn’t art.


By John Mariani


1278 3RD Avenue (near  73rd Street)

    As the Willie Nelson song goes, “Ain’t it funny how time slips away?”  I’ve known restaurateur Tony Fortuna for many years as one of the true gentlemen of the profession, so it was with surprise that upon hearing he owned TBar I realized it’s been seven years since I’d see him.
    TBar has actually been a fixture on the Upper East Side (it used to be The Lenox Room) and is easily one of the handsomest of restaurants in a neighborhood where the creaky old J.G. Melon is the only other stand-out among storefront ethnic eateries. Melon, of course, is a hang-out for burgers and chili, whereas TBar is a full-fledged restaurant, also with burgers on the menu, with an equal number of steaks and chops, apps, salads, pastas, and a good pizza margherita ($19) for the table to share.
     Executive chef Ben Zwicker has spent time in notable kitchens that include Four Seasons, Aureole, and Petrossian, and his aim at TBar is to provide consistency to a clientele that assume their favorite items on the menu to be the same every time they order them.
    The premises are bright with primary colors and soft lighting, emanating from white tablecloths and from overhead lights that bounce off a delightfully whimsical mural. Comfortable banquets and chairs and votive candles on the tables lend the dining room a civilized ambiance without a whit of pretension, and newcomers will feel welcomed warmly at the front, where there is an active bar stocked with all the best labels of booze.
    Our party of four began by sharing one of those crisp, delicious pizzas ($19) as well as nicely peppery “angel” chicken wings with a tangy-sweet tamarind glaze ($18).  Guacamole with vegetable crudités ($27) was good, though it could have used a bit more spiking.
    In a city now wall-to-wall with seared octopus dishes, the variation at TBar, with potatoes, celery and olives ($18), is a real standout, just lightly seared and smoky, very tender and mild in flavor.  Yellowfin tartare with soy, ginger and sesame seeds ($22) was cool and finely seasoned to bring out the freshness of the coarsely chopped fish.
    For our entrees we went with an excellent 40-ounce Black Angus porterhouse (right) for two ($105)--though two people will undoubtedly take some home--with its complimentary choice of Béarnaise, steak or poivre sauce, and a 24-ounce bone-in ribeye ($56) that could just as easily feed two.  A “crispy Long Island Duck” (left) with sweet potato and orange glaze ($38) hearkened back to the days when this dish was on every French and continental menu in NYC but now is rarely to be found on any. TBar’s, though not as crispy as I'd hoped, reminded me how wonderful roast duck with orange sauce can be as an alternative to the endless sliced duck breast dishes now found elsewhere. The orange sauce was not too sweet, the meat was perfectly juicy, the remainder of fattiness in balance with it all.
    Freshly cut French fries were terrific, as were nicely seared and roasted Brussels sprouts.
   The desserts at TBar are gooey wonders, not least a fudge brownie sundae ($18) that made the child in me sigh the way I once would at a Rexall soda fountain--only at TBar the chocolate and the ice cream were of higher quality (right).   There’s also a strawberry sundae and a homage to Master French Chef André Soltner in a reproduction of his chocolate mousse   laced with rum and coffee ($18).  True, these are expensive desserts, but no one person is likely to polish one off, so ask for two or three spoons.
    The wine list at TBar has been carefully built up over the past decade, so there are some fine bargains among older bottlings.
    Tony Fortuna must be very happy that his clientele is so faithful, but he’s happier still when a new face comes to TBar to be cosseted and well fed in a pretty room where people can actually talk with one another.

Open for lunch Monday through Friday, brunch Saturday and Sunday, and every night for dinner.   Email:  or






By Brian Freedman

    As I walked into the Swann Lounge at the Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia, I saw in the distance several tables spread with what looked to be nearly two dozen bottles of wine from Hammeken Cellars. Founder, managing director and president Nicholas Hammeken and COO and head winemaker David Tofterup had brought them to town so that I could experience the range of wines they are expertly crafting right now. And here they were, 22 bottles, ranging from Cava to Garnacha to stunning Tempranillo, all waiting to be sampled before lunch.
    For all the talk of how much potential the entire country of Spain possesses, you rarely meet two people who are taking such successful advantage of it in its seeming entirety. But that’s exactly what is happening with Hammeken Cellars, which, since 1996, has become an important producer of excellent Spanish wines from 20 different regions around the country.
    Their model is straightforward but far from easy to achieve: searching Spain for intriguing terroirs, high quality fruit with the potential to produce high quality wines crafted in a more modern style but that also remain expressive of the un-grafted vines from which they originate. The resulting wines possess a polish that has allowed them to appeal to the range of consumers in the 30 countries to which they are exported, and remain true to their literal and figurative roots.
    In less adept hands, and without a team with the fastidiousness of the 21 people that comprise Hammeken Cellars (among them five winemakers), an endeavor like this could easily have fallen into the trap of cranking out adequate if not middling wine that failed to inspire much more than a shrug. But over the course of the morning we tasted, it became clear that that was just not the case. These were very good wines across the range, all of them, regardless of style, an honest evocation of its place of origin.
    Picos de Montgo Cava Brut 2011 was scaffolded with excellent mineral bones and fleshed out with a creamy texture that carried lemon, lime, and a nice hint of toasted bread. Viña Altamar 2013, on the other hand, was both elegant and full of tension: aromas of mineral, lime and tarragon and a creamier palette with yellow apple and plum. At $15, it’s a steal.

Nicholas Hammeken, David Tofterup and Daniel Gimenez. 

    I thoroughly enjoyed the other wines in the Viña Altamar line, too. The Ribera del Duero Tempranillo 2013, from 80-year-old vines on average, was amazingly concentrated, with sarsaparilla, purple fruit, and a bit of oak providing a bass note; and the Mencia 2013 was a bottling that embodied so much of what I love about Bierzo with its aromatically complex touches of leather, venison, blackcurrant, tea, Amarena cherry, and well-balanced acidity. One rung above is the Barrel Select Mencia 2012. We tasted a cask sample one week before it was scheduled to be bottled, and it was a vivid success. Sixty-to-eighty-year-old bush vines, hand picked into 15-kilogram cases, and then, post fermentation, aged for 9-10 months in French oak, resulted in a wine of amplified but beautifully calibrated acidity slicing through a mineral-rich red with loads of purple berry fruit and notably sweet tannins. A $26 wine that can age for a decade, like this one, is well worth stocking up on.
    Hammeken Cellars is making successful wines throughout Spain, and at a range of price points--though, aside from two that we tasted in the $40-$50 range, all were under $25, and most well below that. This, of course, is one of the great virtues of Spanish viticulture right now--fantastic wines are being produced across the full price spectrum. And an organization like Hammeken Cellars, which relies on growers around the country, has the infrastructure to take full advantage of that.
    Radio Boca is their entry-level label and, at $9, it is a very good introduction to the wines of Spain. The 2014 Verdejo, for example, was fresh and crisp and expressive of candied lemon peel, with just a bit of residual sugar--enough to make it a perfect summertime pour while enjoying the sunshine, but not so much that it dominated the wine as a whole. The fruit for this one is sourced from a co-op, which Hammeken and Tofterup explained to me tends to have the oldest vineyards and the most tank space and infrastructure for the Hammeken team to come in and make their wines. The Tempranillo 2014 also found its footing on the slightly sweeter-fruited end of the spectrum, but those notes were joined by flowers, cherries, and cafe mocha.
    They are having great success with Garnacha, famously one of the most important varieties in the country. The 2013 Flor del Montgo Organic Garnacha, from the mountainous Bajo Aragon, was savory and powerful, its 15% alcohol carrying notes of orange peel and melted black licorice with ease. Picos del Mongto Old Vines Garnacha from Cariñena was a $10 steal, its sappy raspberry and red cherry spiced with Garrigue and lifted with excellent acidity. It’s a food wine that makes you hungrier the more you drink.
    Montgo Monastrell 2012 from Alicante was sweetly fruited on the nose, with plum pudding and cherry pastry turning to concentrated, acid-zipped flavors of ripe plum and clove, with dusty tannins and a very long finish. La Nymphina Monastrell 2012 from Yecla, on the other hand, was far more modern on the nose. Aromas of blackberries, meat and black pepper turned to a nicely extracted palate of sarsaparilla, black licorice, and cherry liqueur. And the Pasas Gran Pasas Monastrell 2012 was a rare example of a passito Monastrell. Crème de cassis, kirsch, and chocolate ganache were concentrated and balanced, and the sweetness was subtle enough to make this appropriate for dishes before dessert and cheese: I found myself craving BBQ ribs while sipping this.
    Tosalet Vinyes Velles 2013 was an excellent value--$24 for a high quality Priorat is something worth savoring, especially with its distinct mineral and slate character framing the blue berry fruits and licorice. With its sweet tannins and balance between power and elegance, this is a wine to enjoy over the next decade and a half.
    Aventino “200 Barrels” Tempranillo 2011, from Ribera del Duero, was pricier at $40, but complex enough to justify it. Black cherries, spun sugar, purple berry fruit, toasted Indian spices, and cocoa powder kept on evolving and changing in the glass with air. Rizado 2010 from D.O. Yecla, called out for a steak. The 70% new oak didn’t overwhelm, but the wine would definitely benefit from the fat and protein of a good rib eye. And while it promises to continue evolving for another decade-plus, the cherries, tar, meat, and remarkable concentration make it approachable now, especially, perhaps, with a stint in the decanter.
    And while we tasted less than half of the entire Hammeken Cellars line-up--they produce more than 50 wines in total, with some being made in South America and Chile--the success they are having was abundantly clear. They’re more than worth seeking out. All the promise of the spread of bottles that greeted me that morning was more than borne out, and deliciously so.





MOS Burger, the biggest fast-food chain in Japan after McDonald's, is commemorating the opening of a location in the 1,093-foot Tokyo Tower's food court with the Tokyo Tower Burger, consisting of 14 layers ($7) that includes  Lettuce,  Hot chili sauce,  Chopped onion,  Mayo,  Patty, tomato slice,  Hot chili sauce,  Onion ring,  Ketchup,  chopped onion,  Pastrami bacon, another patty plus bun.




Actress and model Suki Waterhouse (right) contends her hair owes its volume to actually rinsing with Coca-Cola. "I rinse my hair with Coca-Cola sometimes," said the 23-year-old model and Insurgent actress. "I don't like my hair when it's washed — it's fine and limp — but Coca-Cola makes it tousled, like I've gone through the Amazon or something.”


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

   I'm proud and happy to announce that my new book, The Hound in Heaven (21st Century Lion Books), has just been published through Amazon and Kindle. 
     It is a  novella, and for anyone who loves dogs, Christmas, romance, inspiration, even the supernatural, I hope you'll find this to be a treasured  favorite. The  story concerns how, after a New England teacher, his wife and their two daughters adopt a stray puppy found in their barn in northern Maine, their lives seem full of promise. But when tragedy strikes, their wonderful dog Lazarus and the spirit of Christmas are the only things that may bring back his master back from the edge of despair. 


“What a huge surprise turn this story took! I was completely stunned! I truly enjoyed this book and its message.” – Actress Ali MacGraw

“He had me at Page One. The amount of heart, human insight, soul searching, and deft literary strength that John Mariani pours into this airtight novella is vertigo-inducing. Perhaps ‘wow’ would be the best comment.” – James Dalessandro, author of Bohemian Heart and 1906.

“John Mariani’s Hound in Heaven starts with a well-painted portrayal of an American family, along with the requisite dog. A surprise event flips the action of the novel and captures us for a voyage leading to a hopeful and heart-warming message. A page turning, one sitting read, it’s the perfect antidote for the winter and promotion of holiday celebration.” – Ann Pearlman, author of The Christmas Cookie Club and A Gift for my Sister.

“John Mariani’s concise, achingly beautiful novella pulls a literary rabbit out of a hat – a mash-up of the cosmic and the intimate, the tragic and the heart-warming – a Christmas tale for all ages, and all faiths. Read it to your children, read it to yourself… but read it. Early and often. Highly recommended.” – Jay Bonansinga, New York Times bestselling author of Pinkerton’s War, The Sinking of The Eastland, and The Walking Dead: The Road To Woodbury.

“Amazing things happen when you open your heart to an animal. The Hound in Heaven delivers a powerful story of healing that is forged in the spiritual relationship between a man and his best friend. The book brings a message of hope that can enrich our images of family, love, and loss.” – Dr. Barbara Royal, author of The Royal Treatment.


The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink by John F. Mariani (Bloomsbury USA, $35)

Modesty forbids me to praise my own new book, but let me proudly say that it is an extensive revision of the 4th edition that appeared more than a decade ago, before locavores, molecular cuisine, modernist cuisine, the Food Network and so much more, now included. Word origins have been completely updated, as have per capita consumption and production stats. Most important, for the first time since publication in the 1980s, the book includes more than 100 biographies of Americans who have changed the way we cook, eat and drink -- from Fannie Farmer and Julia Child to Robert Mondavi and Thomas Keller.

"This book is amazing! It has entries for everything from `abalone' to `zwieback,' plus more than 500 recipes for classic American dishes and drinks."--Devra First, The Boston Globe.

"Much needed in any kitchen library."--Bon Appetit.

Now in Paperback, too--How Italian Food Conquered the World (Palgrave Macmillan)  has won top prize  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,  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." 

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. Editor: Walter Bagley. Contributing Writers: Christopher Mariani, Robert Mariani,  Misha Mariani, John A. Curtas, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Andrew Chalk,  Dotty Griffith and Brian Freedman. Contributing Photographers: Galina Dargery,  Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.

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