Saturday, March 14, 2009

Food Pairing for BYOB Bliss

The BYOB Basics class at Just Grapes on Thursday night was enlightening and great. Naturally, it was primarily a food pairing class, with five fantastic dishes prepared by some of the city's BYOB restaurants to each try with six different wines. Delish! It was incredibly fun to experiment with the chemistry happening in my mouth. Here's what I figured out:

1. By far the most versatile of the varietals we tried was a Riesling, in this case O'Reilly's from Yakima Valley, Washington. It was light and drinkable, with a just barely a touch of fruity sweetness, decent acid, and a very clean, almost watery finish. Nice - but I wasn't gaga for it solo. It was absolutely stunning with maki from Meiji, picking up the sweetness in the unagi sauce in particular. Surprisingly, it paired almost as well with guacamole, contrasting the spiciness while complementing the acidity of the lime and tomatoes. It also worked very nicely with pad Thai, although I preferred a Gruner Veltliner slightly more.

2. It's wise to check the BYOB's menu online to pair your meal in advance. If you're unsure about pairing a tricky place, like say, Schwa, where they'll be throwing all kinds of innovative flavors at you (mmm...barnacles), you can print out the menu and take it into your favorite wine store for advice. You'll become an instant darling of the staff.

3. Saving that, it's usually fine to take a few bottles with you to the BYO so you can have some options. Please fetch a decent carrier, so you're not rolling in there all ghetto with your brown paper sacks. The market abounds. Just beware, a few places like Coast Sushi have a limit on the per head amount of alcohol you can bring in.

4. The most versatile food pairing wines are those with low tannin and good acid. Many whites naturally excel at this: most sparklers, Riesling, Albarino, Gruner Veltliner, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and a lot of Chardonnay and Roses are great. Regionally, wines from Alsace and Austria often have that clean style with decent fruit to keep things interesting. For reds: Pinot Noir, Barbera, and Beaujolais are good bets. We stocked up on more of these to have on hand when BYO duty calls, and to play with pairings at home.

5. Stick with that profile especially for anything that's kick-you-in-the-arse spicy, like Mexican or authentic Thai. Tannin and high alcohol will just throw gasoline on your already en fuego situation, mi amor. More sweetness is a great idea to cool you down.

6. Don't fear the fruit. Even sushi tastes fantastic with wine that's showing some interesting fruit character.

7. More robust cuisine with earthy flavors, like a lot of Italian, Spanish, and other Latin food can obviously take bigger tannins. This where the Old World wines of my grandfather work: big, hairy, interesting reds with some Kung Fu acid. Go for it, Don Corleone.

8. If you're in a rush or just totally overwhelmed by wine performance anxiety, grab a bottle of something from the same country as your cuisine. It'll probably work.

9. A technical note: When you're playing with pairings, make sure you have some of the food in your mouth when you actually take a sip of wine. The chemistry happens when the food and wine come into direct contact. I can't think of a better place for such magic than right on my palate.

10. Don't sweat it too much. Open the bottle and enjoy.

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