Virtual Gourmet

  December 22, 2019                                                                                            NEWSLETTER

Founded in 1996 


"Christmas Hamper" by Robert Braithwaite Martineau (1862)




By John Mariani


By John Mariani

By John Mariani



By John Mariani


    The gastronomy of Costa Rica does not differ radically from other countries’ in Central America, with rice, beans, corn, pork and seafood always playing major parts. But the internationalism of its capital, San José, means you’ll find both typical and refined versions of favorite dishes, along with upscale restaurantes and places committed to the most ancient culinary traditions of the indigenous people, whose numbers continue to dwindle. Here is a range of places I ate at with pleasure on a recent trip. (And if you’re dying for Chinese food, there’s a four-block Chinatown in the city.)


Between Calle 8 y Avenida 1 Entrada Noroeste   

     The best way to get a crash course in Costa Rican food culture is to visit the vast Central Market, where you’ll find every kind of fruit, vegetable, seafood, meat and condiments for very little money. There are tiny stalls where women are making fresh tortillas, but the principal eateries —called sodas, dating back to when soda was the principal item sold—are just inside the entrance where scores of people jockey for a table, ordering their favorite dishes and watching the cooks do their magic from compact kitchens.  The menus at these sodas are all pretty much the same and very traditional. At Soda Cristal I stuffed myself at lunch with a rich soup of mixed meats and vegetables with a huge platter of rice; tender boiled chicken with French fries; and lengua (tongue) tortillas. A meal will cost about $10-$15, plus drinks. 
I then walked over to the bustling La Sorbetera de Lolo Mora, the city’s oldest ice cream shop (1901), for some wonderful vanilla-cinnamon ice cream—the only flavor they sell.

San José Province, Escazu

    This open air “place of the witch” is packed every day of the year, largely with locals who might happily wait an hour outside, sipping Pilsen beer and getting hungrier by the minute. The night I ate there a table of 20 Chinese tourists were trying to make sense of a menu in Spanish with 79 small bites and soups and 29 main courses.  My local friend ordered patacones (fried green plantains) stuffed with black beans, shredded beef, cheese and mayo (Costa Ricans eat a lot of mayo); a platter of huge barbecued ribs with cassava; very tender oxtail with tomato sauce; and a delicious tripe soup.  Nobody rushes you, but tables turn fast.
    A meal will costs about $15-$20, plus drinks.


Avenida 9, Calles 35/37

    Located in the East Side’s Barrio Escalante, one of the city’s nightlife neighborhoods with bocas tapas bars and restaurantes on every corner, Sikwa would be unique anywhere in Central America for its fervid commitment by owners Diego Hernandez and Pablo Bonilla to serve the food of the indigenous people of Costa Roca (the menu changes every three months), based on the sacred traditions of four strains of corn. It is a small, rustic place with a counter up front, wooden tables and a brighter room to the rear.
    My meal was truly like an expedition through an ancient food culture, beginning with an infusion of orange, lemon, wild cinnamon and guava intended to “balance mind, body and spirit.” Then came a wide swathe of fascinating dishes: a chica infusion of corn, ginger and sugar cane fermented for three days;  a posole with smoked pork, radish and tomato sauce (I noted that hogs were brought by the Spanish to the Americas); sweet corn tamale with pork and onions in vinegar, and an ice cream of smoked plantain with cacao truffles.

    Dinner will cost about $35.


Calle 4 y Avenida 2
Ciudad Colon
506 8836 7074

    I can’t imagine there are many places like Tony’s House in San José. The Tony in question is Antonio Aguillar Solis, who, along with his sister Melissa, operates this tiny eatery in the backyard of their house, where Tony also fashions extraordinary folk mannequins for parades and social events.
    The Solises are very sweet hosts, and Melissa makes everything from scratch right in front of you, measuring the ingredients by experienced eye, building textures and flavors and serving them straight from the stove. There was a picadillo of beef broth to which she added bananas, then onions, cilantro and bell peppers, and annatto paste. Then she cooked a perfect omelet using eggs from their own hens, with cilantro and onions, together with steaming rice and beans, homemade tortillas with queso blanco and a rich sour cream-like mayonnaise (right).  Tony’s is BYOB, but they offer a delicious sour guava drink that goes perfectly with this food.
  You may telephone at the number above, or better, have hotel concierge arrange a reservation, for two to 20 people.
        A meal will cost about $20.




Calle 30 Avenida

    Though 33 years old, a re-opening in 2013 of the Hotel Grano de Oro has made it one of the top places to stay in San Jose, very contemporary in its amenities but also with public and private rooms—some very grand indeed; mine had a little patio—done with a carefully refined traditional look. The pretty, leafy outdoor patio, where guests have breakfast under umbrellas, is as peaceful an oasis as any in this fast-paced city. The handsome, hacienda-like restaurante that surrounds the patio is elegantly set with white tablecloths, signature china and soft lighting, and the menu incorporates Costa Rican dishes with modern culinary techniques and presentations. The international wine list is the most extensive in the city.
    We began with the house cocktail, a tico sour white rum and lime, and a first course of sweet palm fruit soup ($6.50) and an extensive plate of housemade  charcuterie with rabbit rillettes, sausages, head cheese and smoked ham ($15.50). There are four pasta dishes, including delicious tender ravioli filled with mozzarella and ricotta (right), accompanied by ratatouille and verdant herb oil ($13). Costa Rican roasted pork tenderloin ($18.25) came with a yucca croquette, mango chutney and a  sweet-sour tamarind sauce. Sample an array of seafood on a plate that includes sautéed sea bass, jumbo prawn, wilted spinach and an aromatic cardomon essence ($22).  Desserts include a luscious signature pie of coffee cream and chocolate cookie crust ($6.69).
    By the way, a portion of the restaurant’s profits goes to support Casa Luz, a home for poor or abused adolescent women and their children.



Avenida 11 Calle 3A #955
Sylvestre, now two years old, purports to serve “cocina sotarecense contemporane,” and in its artful look and use of global ingredients along with traditional spices delivers on that idea, based on Chef Fernandez Benedetto’s experience cooking in Dubai, Australia and Spain.
    Downstairs is a cantina that plays movies against the wall; upstairs is a lovely, formal room with red brocade wallpaper, and a more casual one with some folkloric furniture and low lighting.
    To get a good sense of Benedetto’s range, go with the tasting menus (three courses $36, six courses $50), available with individual wine pairings (though the pours are stingy). I began with an amuse of pejibaye palm chips with mayonnaise, then two starters: an empanada of goat’s cheese and spinach with an egg yolk relish, daikon, grilled asparagus and watercress salad; and house-smoked bacon with noodles. The fish course was a fillet of snook baked in hoja santo leaves, with a hearts of palm puree, roasted green peppers, mussel blanquettes and cassava crisp. The meat course was a fine, slow-roasted shoulder of lamb scented with fennel and served with a mint salad, new potatoes and light mustard sauce.
    For dessert there was a superb osa  tart made from “primitivo” chocolate beans from Talamanca, guava, caramelized corn and cashew nut butter.  With this I thought it a capital idea to enjoy a 25-year-old Costa Rican Centenario rum.


By John Mariani


210 Avenue of the Americas


    At most Greek and Mediterranean restaurants in Manhattan there is a safe template for menus that most follow—the appetizer mezes, the lemon soup, meatballs, stuffed grape leaves, lamb chops, grilled seafood and moussaka. So it is good to see that Lola Taverna, which debuted last month in SoHo, is breaking the mold. While maintaining many favorite items found elsewhere, Lola stands out with innovative dishes on a menu intended to change often.
    With the partners involved, one could hardly expect anything else: Cobi Levy of Act II Hospitality has a solid history of opening successful restaurants like the French bistro Little Prince and the Indian spot Babu Ji, while partners Will Makris was behind the private club Socialista and health food eatery Broken Coconut, and Thanasis Panourgias was behind Nammos and Yves. Chef Dionisis Liakopoulos, previously involved with NOMA, Aska and Kuzina, brings an added Greek pedigree into play. The cocktail list was developed by the team behind The Clumsies bar in Athens and the wine list by Master Sommelier Laura Maniec Fiorvanti, who’s done a fine job of choosing interesting modern Greek wines (and others) with plenty of bottles under $50.
    That’s a lot of talent for a small restaurant of just 64 seats within one room, low-lighted with little color aside from floral arrangements and a wall hanging resembling a jellyfish’s poncho. It’s a very comfortable place, although when I visited the buoyant tone of conversation was smothered by very loud, pounding, not at all Greek music. When I asked Mr. Levy if the volume might be lowered, the request was cordially granted and the ambiance much improved. (No one asked for the music to be turned up again.)
    Kudos for the modest size of the menu, which begins with three big plate salads ($19-$24) and goes on to spreads (three for $18), all clearly very freshly made—the good-and-spicy kopanisti from Mykonos was terrific— and warm pita bread, oddly not replenished during the meal.
    There are six mezes that included a delightful take on saganaki,  which usually comes as a softening slab of quickly sautéed cheese like kasseri or halloumi, but here the idea gains measurably by turning feta, graviera and manouri cheeses into a rich, creamy fondue with a spicy red pepper jam ($19). Another novelty is what the kitchen does with the flaky savory pastry spanakopita, here rolled into spring rolls (above) full of spinach, Swiss chard, mint, parsley, scallions, leeks and feta  ($17). Grilled octopus with capers, olive oil and vinegar ($24) was safely commendable, and “meatless keftedes” made with sautéed spinach and feta foam ($18) were delicious with or without meat. What is called “chicken gyro bao buns” with pickled onions and tzatziki ($18) was out of the ordinary, if not particularly flavorful.
    One of the main courses at a Greek taverna must be lamb chops and Lola’s come from one of Australia’s better producers, Opal Valley Farms, with excellent flavor of their own enhanced by roasted lemon potatoes ($32). The very best dish I tasted that evening was a more-or-less traditional moussaka ($26) delicately incorporating sheets of sweet eggplant, zucchini, potatoes, lamb ragù and luscious graviera béchamel (there’s also a vegetarian version)—marvelously sumptuous, steaming hot, subtly seasoned and wholly satisfying. We took a lot home.
    A signature item at Lola is a lobster pasta, which at $52 a pound is not really all that expensive, because you do get a large amount of lobster meat in a rich bisque flavored with ouzo and set on what seemed like a pound of spaghetti. The flavors were good but the pasta was overcooked and clumped together.
    The one real disappointment was a juicy, large, splayed fagri (Mediterranean bream) that sells for a reasonable $37 per pound. I was perplexed, then, how this impeccably grilled fish came to the table at room temperature on a cold serving plate. Never would I suggest this is always the case at Lola, but it was a disconcerting faux pas in a Greek restaurant.
    I trust the desserts will increase in number from the single pudding available that night.
    If warm weather ever returns to New York, the glass doors of this hospitable Greek restaurant will be opened on three sides,  and, even far from the sea, Lola will seem  even more a happy facsimile of a true taverna.

Open daily for dinner




By John Mariani

  Among the many myths about wine service, which include sniffing the cork, using a particular glass for a particular wine and decanting this year’s vintage, the idea that there is a “correct” temperature at which a wine should be served is largely bogus. For outside of suggesting a white wine is preferably served cool and a red wine not too warm, the parameters for what is right and wrong meld somewhere around 65 degrees F.
    The perpetuation of ideal wine temperatures is on the one hand part nonsense and on the other part marketing intended to sell all manner or items no one really needs. Suffice it to say that if you have a collection of fairly old wines, say, from vintages of the 1990s and before, investment in a temperature-controlled wine refrigerator is a worthwhile idea in order to preserve those wines by keeping them from being exposed to too much heat, which is inevitable in most city apartments, where the temperatures can easily be in the upper seventies. (Wine refrigerators of modest sizes sell for about $500 and way up from there, but you could buy a small kitchen refrigerator for around $250; left.)
    By the same token, there is, too, an all-too-precious insistence that all wines are delicate and highly prone to swings in temperature change. Keeping one’s wine cellar at a fairly consistent temperature throughout the year seems like a capital idea, but unless one’s storage room gets to 95 degrees in summer over a period of weeks—and this used to be a big problem in huge commercial wine storehouses in Miami—wines hold up well.
    “Cellar temperature” presupposes that an underground room will be cooler than above, perhaps by ten or more degrees. My own cellar swings from about 65 degrees in winter, gradually warming to 72 in summer; and I’ve never had a problem with a “cooked” wine. I also recall how Guy Tesseron, owner of Château Lafon-Rochet in Bordeaux, told me he had inadvertently left a case of his wine on his boat over the winter, where it rocked on the waves and endured freezing temperatures until summer, when the wine endured high heat. “I thought the wines would be ruined and undrinkable,” he said, “but to my surprise they were all in perfect shape.” 

    The notion of serving red wines at “room temperature” is obviously outdated in the face of modern house and apartment temperatures. Years ago, especially in Europe, that was not the case, when keeping your home warm via wood or coal fires was a persistent problem. Just think of Scrooge (right) in A Christmas Carol: “Scrooge had a very small fire, but the clerk’s fire was so very much smaller that it looked like one coal. But he couldn’t replenish it, for Scrooge kept the coal-box in his own room; and so surely as the clerk came in with the shovel, the master predicted that it would be necessary for them to part. Wherefore the clerk put on his white comforter, and tried to warm himself at the candle; in which effort, not being a man of a strong imagination, he failed.”
    It’s also the reason you see even the rich aristocracy of “Downton Abbey” always dressed in heavy tweeds with vests or sweaters. Heating a mansion costs a bloody fortune and they were always drafty old buildings.

    The “room temperature” idea dates to a time before central heating when people were happy to heat their rooms to 60 to 65 degrees—an excellent range for any wine. Today most people—and far too many restaurants—flagrantly heat their premises to well above 75. At those temperatures red wines lose the virtue of refreshment and taste flabby.
    In contrast, white wines served too cold, below 42 degrees, simply lose flavor on the numbed palate. In his seminal book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, Harold McGee notes that “The colder the wine, the less tart, sweet, and aromatic it seems.  Intrinsically tart and mildly aromatic wines, usually white and rose wines, are best served cold, 42-55˚F/5-13˚C. Less tart, more aromatic red wines are more full-flavored at 60-68˚F/16-20˚C.  . . . Complex white wines may be served at higher temperatures than their light cousins; similarly, many light red wines are better at cooler temperatures.”
    I feel that 42 degrees is much too cold, but red wines above 70 degrees will indeed have a different, flabby taste. At New York’s haute cuisine restaurant Per Se, the vast wine storerooms have three temperatures: 48 degrees for Champagnes, 55 degrees for whites, and 55-60 for reds. The sommelier may take a red wine out upon its being ordered to warm it up a little before service. Sticking a white wine in an ice bucket will cool it down quickly and leaving  a bucket beside the dinner table is a good way to maintain its temperature as glasses are poured and replenished and then the bottle returned to the bucket.
    Of course, many wine lovers become ridiculously doctrinaire about the right temperature for a wine to be served; others simply indulge their own eccentricities, as with the late Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Château Mouton-Rothschild, who would stick his bottles of Château d’Yquem Sauternes in the freezer till ice crystals started to form. Then he drank it with his foie gras. “But,” he wagged his finger and said, “I do that only with Yquem, not other Sauternes.”
    There may be a lesson in that, and I’d rather drink a wine too cold than too warm.  I’m not in the least bothered by someone putting an ice cube in a glass of red wine to cool it down for a few seconds, then removing the ice, which will not have melted enough to dilute the wine. But overall, proclaiming there are correct temperatures for wines is like insisting one should never wear linen before Memorial Day or after Labor Day, which is more affectation and snobbery than good sense. So if I’m sitting on a verandah in Mumbai where the temperature in April is 100 degrees, I’m likely to be wearing linen as I sip my chilled-down red wine.



"The Whale is a clip-on tie. It’s a cubic zirconia peddled as a diamond. It’s a racing spoiler attached to a beat-up 2005 Honda Civic. And it’s also one of the most popular new restaurants in Chicago. "--Nick Kindelsperger, "The Whale Restaurant," Chicago Tribune (10/31/19).



According to Daily Meal, here are just a few vintage kitchen staples "you don’t see much of anymore, but should consider cooking with again."



-heavy cream





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

   The Hound in Heaven (21st Century Lion Books) 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 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."  THIS WEEK:

Eating Las Vegas JOHN CURTAS has been covering the Las Vegas food and restaurant scene since 1995. He is the co-author of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants (as well as the author of the Eating Las Vegas web site: www.eatinglasvegas. He can also be seen every Friday morning as the “resident foodie” for Wake Up With the Wagners on KSNV TV (NBC) Channel 3  in Las Vegas.


MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly.  Publisher: John Mariani. Editor: Walter Bagley. Contributing Writers: Christopher Mariani, Robert Mariani,  Misha Mariani, John A. Curtas, Gerry Dawes, Geoff Kalish, and Brian Freedman. Contributing Photographer: Galina Dargery. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.


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