Wine & Food Pairing…Maine-ly!

On Monday evening at New York City’s Beard House, we were treated to a spectacular “New England Springtime” menu, courtesy of my cousin Mark Gaier, and his partner Clark Frasier, co-owners and nationally acclaimed chefs of Arrows and MC Perkins Cove restaurants, both in Ogunquit, Maine (shown in photo below right). They were accompanied by Arrows’ executive chef Justin Walker, an accomplished chef and an expert in New England fish and farming.

Aside from bragging about Mark, Clark and Justin and the delicious food that they create daily, I want to make a simple point: This fabulous meal was made even more wonderful by pairing each course with a wine that complemented the food, garnishes and method of preparation, and actually accented the many and complex tastes rather than clashed with them. The wine and food pairing, by the way, was done by Danielle Johnson Walker.

Anyway, on to the food and wine. Our appetizers of miniature lobster Rolls, crab cakes with remoulade, and yam fries (yes, and amazing, with a wonderful dipping sauce) were accompanied by California Sparkling Wine from Domaine Carneros. The wine cut through but didn’t overpower the sauce binding the lobster filling, or the little dollop of sauce atop each crab cake, and its crisp acidity was refreshing on a humid NYC evening. I’ve visited Domaine Carneros several times, toured its bottling line and sat on the terrace behind its massive reprodiuction of a French Chateau. It’s a fun experience, especially with a glass in your hand!

Our first regular course was house-made agnolotti (cheese pasta) with sauteed foie gras, cherries, and Arrows arugula, paired with Crowney Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. I found that this wine went great with Fois Gras, even though many wine folks might have stayed with something “traditional” such as Sauternes unless we gave it some more thought and a little innovation. I think it worked well mainly because it wasn’t a typical NZ grapefruit bomb, which would have been over the top for such delicate food, but a bit mellower in the Graves style. And the sweet wines might have worked for the foie gras but not for the cherries – which were flavorful but not sugary – or the arugula.

The second course, Arrows Charcuterie, included vintage 2007 prosciutto, quail sausage, house-made beef jerky (yum!), pepperoni, and miniature smoked garlic sausage, served with Justin’s mustard and Arrows greens. The wine pairing was MAN Vintners Chenin Blanc from South Africa, where a quarter of all the vines are of this variety. This was an inspired if a bit counter-intuitive choice, given that you might naturally reach for a rustic red wine here. But these very rich meats, with their smoky, garlicky and spicy flavors could have gotten lost with a tannic, rough red. On the other hand, they were complimented nicely with this Chenin, which had the richness to stand up to the meats and yet was elegant.

The third course, Pan-Fried Halibut with Xiao Xing Wine (don’t ask, and I don’t know), Chinese Black Beans, and Summer Winter (Mark and Clark’s third restaurant, in Massachusetts) Herbs, was paired nicely with Heron California Chardonnay. The sauce didn’t try too hard to overpower the firm, delicious fish, and this somewhat crisp, Chablis-like Chard didn’t smother it, either. The grapes for this unpretentious and very affordable wine come variously from the Russian River Valley, Carneros and the Santa Maria Valley regions.

Our absolutely amazing fourth course, smoked eye of rib-eye with herb butter, was the single most delicious piece of meat I’ve ever tasted – kudos Justin, up all night smoking them. Along with Mark’s Mom’s (my aunt Delores) Corn Custard, carrots, lovage (I had to look it up so you can, too), and farmers’ cheese salad, the steak was paired with a Chateau de Caix Les Terrasses Malbec. If you’re thinking Argentina but this doesn’t sound Spanish, that’s because it’s a French Malbec from Cahors. Known in other areas of France as Cot and also in Cahors as Auxerrois, Malbec is one of the grapes that go into classic Bordeaux. By itself it’s not as complex and perfumed as many other reds, but it was excellent for this tender piece of beef that was drizzled in a savory meat stock sauce with just a hint of black peppercorn at the end. Being somewhat soft and fruity, but not flabby (lacking in acid) the Malbec didn’t overpower the corn custard, either.

Finally, I hope you’ll take away three things here:

#1: Wine and food pairing isn’t a science, it’s an art, but there is some “flavor science” behind it. Really. It ain’t just hooey.

#2: It’s worth your while, especially in a restaurant or when preparing a dinner party, to think about how to pair your food choices with wine(s) that work to bridge that space between both. There are some fun online tools to help you, lots of books that you can read such as What to Drink with What You Eat, and my Wine and Food Pairing Chart is a good place to start.

#3: Arrows and MC Perkins Cove are outstanding restaurants, with the best chefs in the land. Try them if you’re in Maine. And if you’re not, you
should go!