Story by Manos Angelakis
Bottle images courtesy of the producers
Food & Wine Pairings
I get invited to numerous vintner lunches and dinners so that I can experience a producer’s wines the way they should be had, i.e. as part of a meal.
In New York City, many restaurant chefs and sommeliers are very good at creating dishes that highlight the qualities of the wines served.
As an example I will mention the dinner a few days ago at Almond, a Flatiron District restaurant, where executive chef Jason Weiner paired his dishes with Austerity wines, sourced from the best vineyards in California’s Central Coast. Adam Popp, the Austerity winemaker, was at hand to talk about the showcased 3 wines: a Chardonnay, a Pinot Noir and a Cabernet Sauvignon.
The dinner started with the Chardonnay accompanying a salad of “citrus cured sardines” -- in reality sardine filets preserved in sea-salt but bathed in a citric marinade -- that included thin slices of radish, sliced and mashed avocado, and thin slices of hearts of palm sprinkled with guajillo oil and lemon juice. The second starter was Lynn’s goats’ milk ricotta toast with fresh, green fava beans and cured pancetta. The Chardonnay worked well with the salad and sardines and cut some of the ricotta fattiness.
The main course was a Duck Breast that had heat from sriracha mayo and was accompanied by grilled vegetables that included caramelized baby carrots, smashed potatoes and broccoli rabe; all ingredients grown on Long Island, less than 40 miles from mid-town Manhattan. The duck breast was tender and paired beautifully with Austerity’s Pinot Noir. The wine had a medium body and was colored a brilliant ruby red. Nice plumy, cedar and pencil shavings nose with considerable minerality in the palate at the finish.
The final wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon, was served with the dessert; sticky toffee date cake with crème fraîche ice cream. That was one pairing that I thought it might be questionable until I tasted the dessert and wine together… Surprise… Surprise… The combination was interesting, though not exactly traditional!
One of the fundamental paradigms one considers when pairing food and wine is based on local cuisine with local wines. Most ethnic cooking as well as winemaking, was developed through the years based on cooks using seasonally available local vegetables, fruits, herbs and meats. And that is true today even though, because of international trade, there are seasonal vegetables, herbs and fruit available to the market imported from other parts of the world throughout the year.
It is very unusual to have a kitchen in this city that can not pair well food and wines. But, it happens. I participated at another vintner’s dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant in mid-town Manhattan, where the kitchen fully missed many of the pairings. The wines were Champagne from Aÿ, France. The Champagne house, Collet, is an excellent producer of vintage and non-vintage champagne bur is a small producer and not that well known in most of the US.
I should mention that usually Champagne and other sparkling wines are very forgiving in food pairings. I have successfully paired very spicy Hunan and Sichuan dishes, Fujianese dishes, as well as Southern US dishes with Champagne, Cava, Franciacorta, Prosecco and other sparklers. Strong flavored cuisines like those might usually overpower delicate wines, but the sparklers can take some abuse and still taste good with the food. But, I digress.
We started with Collet’s Art Deco Brut, a non-vintage soft sparkler; fruity, with white stone fruit flavors, great acidity and a long rather yeasty finish. It was paired with passed canapés and I thought that the Italian style food would have been better paired with a sweeter sparkler than the very dry Champagne.
Then they passed a fluke crudo, with cultured American sturgeon caviar and Meyer lemon. The crudo paired much better with the Art Deco, and also the Collet Blanc de Blanc NV that was also poured at the same time. The acidity of both Champagnes worked in concert with the sweet, cubed, rather briny fluke.
The primo piatto, Trofie Nero, black pasta colored with cuttlefish ink ragoût, topped with cubes of cuttlefish, scallops and other crustaceans, was paired with Collet’s vintage libation, Collet Collection Privée 2006. Unfortunately, the delicate Champagne was overpowered by the strong seafood taste and considerable saltiness of the dish. Actually, after the first forkful, I just sipped and enjoyed the Champagne and gave up on the food.
The main course was Australian lamb chops. The kitchen could have redeemed itself from the previous blunder when pairing the lamb chops with the Champagne. Instead it was another missed opportunity. The heavy-handed herb mixture coating the chops completely overpowered the Esprit Couture NV Champagne which was very delicate with vanilla overtones, made from both Premium and Grand Cru vineyards.
It is very unfortunate to see what is considered a very good restaurant mishandle these pairings. Normally, a knowledgeable chef will ask for samples of the wines well in advance of the meal to create the appropriate dishes. Either it did not happen in this case or the task was delegated to a sous-chef. Or, the chef did not care whether the pairings were successful or not, since a Michelin star usually guarantees full dinning rooms.
Whatever the reason was, I loved the Champagnes but disliked that restaurant’s food.
And so it goes!
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